Martin Amis (RIP) Explains Why American Populism Is a Con

In the lat­er decades of his 50-year-long career as a nov­el­ist, the late Mar­tin Amis had a rep­u­ta­tion as some­thing of a con­tro­ver­sial­ist. This made more sense in his native Eng­land than in the Amer­i­ca to which he lat­er relo­cat­ed, and whose large­ly non-lit­er­ary provo­ca­teurs tend to an aggres­sive plain­spo­ken­ness bor­der­ing on — and more recent­ly, dri­ving well into the ter­ri­to­ry of — vul­gar­i­ty. “Intel­lec­tu­al snob­bery has been much neglect­ed,” says Amis in the Big Think inter­view clip above. His plea is for “more care about how peo­ple express them­selves and more rev­er­ence, not for peo­ple of high social stand­ing, but for peo­ple of decent edu­ca­tion and train­ing.”

This against pop­ulism, which “relies on a sen­ti­men­tal and very old-fash­ioned view that the une­d­u­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion knows bet­ter, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, which is self-destruc­tive for every­one”: the lion­iza­tion, in oth­er words, of the kind of fig­ure giv­en to dec­la­ra­tions like “I go with my gut.”

In every oth­er land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in Amer­i­ca it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the vis­cera-trust­ing rab­ble-rousers actu­al­ly worked to fur­ther the inter­ests of the com­mon man, but in every real-world sce­nario it turns out to be quite anoth­er. “It’s an act, pop­ulism. It’s always an act.”

An admir­er of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, Amis acknowl­edged the right to free speech as a vital ele­ment of that sys­tem. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminu­tion of free­dom of speech dimin­ish­es every­one, and lessens the cur­ren­cy of free­dom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The con­tro­ver­sial state­ment has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes him­self as “a fan of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” — of not “the out­er fringe P.C., but rais­ing the stan­dards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own chal­lenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restric­tions demand, and reward, more skill­ful sub­tle­ty, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will sure­ly be a while before we see anoth­er writer quite as adept as Mar­tin Amis.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Mar­tin Amis Explains His Method for Writ­ing Great Sen­tences

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Mar­tin Amis Explains How to Use a The­saurus to Actu­al­ly Improve Your Writ­ing

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­tin Amis, No Strangers to Con­tro­ver­sy, Talk in 1991

P. J. O’Rourke (RIP) Explains Why You Can Nev­er Win Over Your Polit­i­cal Adver­saries by Mock­ing Them

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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