Susan Sontag

Susan SontagOn 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!

2 thoughts on “Susan Sontag

  1. I feel as though our left has fully embraced criticism from without and abandoned, for the reason that no-one reads it anymore, criticism from within.

    What do I mean? Well, I recently had to wait around in a venue that featured a cheery morning-show TV program. These programs are all about how “normal” yet how “awesome” celebrities are; why it would be lovely to become or encounter one; and suggestions how to make yourself skinnier, healthier, less stressed-out, more financially secure. The suggestions involve vastly unhelpful “tips” you can follow for a day or two until you desperately try some newer fad. (Nothing as nearly concrete as say, “threaten to call the Attorney General’s office when a company is screwing you over, it can’t hurt you and may help you,” advice I’d give to anyone!) The ads take this woeful sadness and magnify it, with promises of familial bliss and personal satisfaction awaiting savvy consumers of the most effective goods.

    It was enormously depressing.

    Our left has great stuff coming from Goodman/Greenwald et. al., Americans talking about how our empire is seen from the outside. We’ve lost the popular American writers like Sontag and Vidal criticizing it from the inside, how emotionally empty it is. It’s not like the culture has grown more fulfilling since their day.

    Inevitably the inside critics will be harder to agree with on many points than the outside critics. If you read the outside critics you’re not going to argue much with how harmful our empire is to others. (You may argue passionately on the best tactics to reduce that harm.) The inside critics are coming from a much more subjective place. Sontag and Vidal both loathed the empire, both felt that it was reducing American life to a shell of a sham of shit; the things causing them the most pain inside America naturally represented their differing experiences and emotions.

    Even the best criticisms of life inside America represent a kind of seen-from-a-distance perspective, maybe the only way such criticisms can be effective, now. The likes of Hedges write about horrors in our country with the awe and shame of outsiders astonished how Americans refuse, probably out of a desperate need to believe, that our country has gotten worse than many others in many ways. Maybe Americans have an easier time swallowing John Oliver on YouTube than Jon Stewart precisely because he’s English; if Americans make criticisms, it’s because they Failed To Win?

    More than I miss the angry feminists like Sontag (and they are sorely missed), I miss more an America that paid attention to them!

    • It’s weird. When an individual tries to look at themselves objectively and improve themselves, it is considered good. When one does the same for one’s country, it is considered bad. But we have a truly messed up public consciousness. To me it says that my fellow Americans secretly fear that we are far worse than even I think. They can’t face the truth. And with conservatives, they can’t even ignore the truth. They have to talk about how “awesome” America is. They’re like children.

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