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America haters redux

Susan Sontag is in a real snit again. In case her name may not be instantly familiar to you, she’s that intellectual lady who first made sort of a name for herself with an essay back in the ’60s defining “camp,” and went on to fall in love with Cuba and North Vietnam. Why bring up Susan Sontag now? Well, The New Yorker in its stark memorial issue commemorating September 11, 2001 – two black columns on a slightly less black background – ran brief commentaries from sundry New York folk on the harrowing event.

Most were properly shocked, mournful, distressed – but not Ms. Sontag. Get this:

The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public.

There is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing bombing of Iraq?

And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue) whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Enough. I think you get the general gist of her thinking. Need I quote her on George W. Bush? “We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall?”

To give you some fill on her background: After her whirl to mini-fame with “camp,” along came the Vietnam War – where she went off to spend a couple of weeks, coming away with the notion that North Vietnam was not only an “ethical society,” but also “a society tremendously over-extended ethically.”

Which led her to the conclusion that “incorporation into such a society [would] greatly improve the lives of most people in the world” and further – this will come as something of a surprise no doubt to Senator John McCain and some of his fellow veterans – “the North Vietnamese genuinely care about the welfare of hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets.” Not having the celebrity of a Jane Fonda, but just being a simple, lowly intellectual sort, Sontag’s admiration for our enemy didn’t get much further in the States than with those sharing her views.

And how about her feelings after a visit to Cuba, some 10 years after Castro came to power? “The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality, and freaking out. … The increase of energy comes because they have found a new focus for it: community.”

In the early ’80s, after hugging North Vietnam and Cuba to her bosom, she went through a curious period of ricocheting, knocking the communists, standing up for the communists, then knocking them again – which, amazingly, she managed to do all in five days in New York. Actually, back then, I did an article for The New Republic (April 14, 1982, which made the cover), tracking her twists and turns over those very few days, plus tracing her general thinking and appreciation of her native land. I turned up, I find, some dandy quotes from Ramparts, in 1969, when she wrote: “To us, it is self-evident that the Readers Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces’ napalming villages in Guatemala.”

I wound up stating: “Susan Sontag’s grasp on reality is weak.” And I went on to conclude (this was written during the Cold War and the enemy was a different one from now, of course, but the thought still holds up), “If we go down, it is the end – not only of Lawrence Welk and the Hilton Hotels, but of all that exhilarating leaping about, of ‘camp.’ Sontag thinks we’re all in a movie by Jean-Luc Godard and that when this wonderful, cruel, ontological film is over and the lights come up she will put on her coat and go home. But there will be no home. And there will be no coat.”