On this day in 1933, the great writer Susan Sontag was born. She is pretty much the prototype for the conservative complaint that liberals are the “blame America first” crowd. What I’ve always found interesting is that people who make this complaint must be pretty insecure about exactly how much blame America deserves. They show that they are concerned that there is at least a little — and likely a whole lot of — truth in the claims of people like Sontag.
I’m of a more moderate inclination. I think America — and the west more generally — has acted the way empires throughout time have acted. We have been a force for good and a force for evil. Thus far, it is hard to say that one is especially worse than the other. But with the effects of global warming, the “evil” side of the equation is getting far more weight. And it isn’t just what we are doing to the global environment. It greatly bothers me that here in the United States, roughly half the population has decided to just ignore what is going on and turn to the people who have an enormous vested interest in doing nothing. That is a clear sign of an empire that is dying. But our dying empire could have far greater effects than just the loss of our own power.
In 1967, Partisan Review published a special issue where they asked 16 intellectuals, “What’s Happening to America?” Sontag wrote by far the longest and more powerful of the answers to this question. But it is the following paragraph that seems to have got everyone upset:
Neither do I dare deride the turn toward the East (or more generally, to the wisdom of the nonwhite world) on the part of a tiny group of young people — however uninformed and jejune the adherence usually is. (But then nothing could be more ignorant than [Leslie] Fiedler’s insinuation that Oriental modes of thought are “feminine” and “passive,” which is the reason the demasculinized kids are drawn to them.) Why shouldn’t they look for wisdom elsewhere? If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. It’s easier, much easier, to accuse the kids, to reproach them for being “non-participants in the past” and “drop-outs from history.” But it isn’t real history Fiedler is referring to with such solicitude. It’s just our history, which he claims is identical with “the tradition of the human,” the tradition of “reason” itself. Of course, it’s hard to assess life on this planet from a genuinely world-historical perspective; the effort induces vertigo and seems like an invitation to suicide. But from a world-historical perspective, that local history that some young people are repudiating (with their fondness for dirty words, their peyote, their macrobiotic rice, their Dadaist art, etc) looks a good deal less pleasing and less self-evidently worthy of perpetuation. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself. What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that western “Faustian” man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.
Like most of what Sontag wrote, I don’t fully agree with her. But it is so important to have people like her pushing at the myths of a society. And that’s especially true in modern America where we have such a sense of smug beneficence.
Happy birthday Susan Sontag!
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