Regarding Susan Sontag
by Louis D. Thorpe
May 13, 2020
Susan Sontag was an American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist who was born in New York City on January 16, 1933 and died December 28, 2004. I am very surprised I had never heard of her until yesterday and feel obligated to relate what I see as a permanent shame to ignore her forgotten life.
To Susan Sontag, who started writing at the age of five or six, writing was a lifelong mission. To quote her directly, "it was like enlisting in an army of saints or something foolish like that. I didn't think I was expressing myself. I thought I was taking part in a noble activity."
She described the tradition she followed in the following terms;
"For the last hundred years in our society the most interesting writers have been critics of the society. The writer has taken some kind of adversary position. I like the position of being able to express dissenting opinions."
In retrospect, the "dissenting opinions" Susan Sontag championed were in fact, stifled, majority views, and that appears to be as true today as it was when she struggled to amplify her muzzled voice.
Shortly after the 2001 World Trade Center 911 terrorist attack, Susan Sontag was one of the first prominent Americans to declare the unspoken, common sense view that there was more behind the attack than the simpleminded assertion that "our way of life" had to be defended because it was inappropriately challenged. Is that what had really happened?
Instead of playing the common blame-game, Susan Sontag asked penetrating qusetions like, "where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowadly' attack on 'civilization' or 'libety'... but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower...?"
A build-up of moralistic words to describe a horrendous atrocity is clearly not, as Susan Sontag insisted, an intelligent response to our political and military challenges. Indeed, history has proven her right and that makes her a "Majority Dissentor" (somebody who is motivated by common sense and reason rather than the knee-jerk reactions of the lunatic fringe).
Not surprisingly, Susan Sontag's views were predictably attacked and the following exchange on Ted Koppel's Nightline illustrates the point rather clearly:
Susan Sontag: There are so many opinions around and I am just a very straight, first amendment person.
Todd Gaziano: You are also a very offensive writer. You are a part of the 'blame America first' crowd. You said we were to blame for their foreign policy.
Susan Sontag: I never said anything of the kind, I am just as patriotic and as against the terrorists as you are.
Todd Gaziano: Your version of Patriotism is Blame America, Blame America...
Susan Sontag: Oh dear (she sighs) -we have a very long tradition of debate. I am interested in people having a historical understanding of where we are so that we can better defend ourselves and stop international terrrorism.
Todd Gaziano worked for the Heritage Foundation, a Conservative Think Tank that supported the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq and according to a 2004 study in the journal International Security, the Heritage Foundation confused public debate by challenging widespread opposition to the Iraq War by international relations scholars and experts by contradicting them "with experts of apparently equal authority".
Consequently, Todd Gaziano's confronational, hostile attacks were clearly, as Susan Sontag had publicly identified, a personal attack that sought to neutralize her influence, it was inappropriate then and equally destructive today, as practiced by the current, Republican Party.
It is therefore vitally essential to point out that Susan Sontag was controversial, not by nature, but by the design of Conservative Think Tanks like the Heritage Foundation, whose purpose was to undermmine the possibility that any criticisms about the wars that the Bush Administration waged, including the Bush administration's Guantanamo Bay practices, were ridiculous and deemed to be inappropriate.
In retrospect, selling war by denying peace majority status was the predictable con job that didn't escape the notice of Susan Sontag even when she wrote the following editorial in 1948 when she was merely 15 years old;
"It is difficult for the citizens of America, having never seen their country devasted by war to really understand and appreciate the full horror of war. The battle for peace will never be won by calling anybody whom we don't like a communist. If we do this, we will somehow realize that in our efforrt to preserve our democatic way of life we have somehow thrown away its noblest feature - the right of evey person to express his own opinion and vote as he pleases."
In retrospect, 15 year old Sontag was wiser than anybody in the Bush Administration and she was evidently ahead of her time when she said, "All writing is political. All acts are political." Indeed, at the height of the Vietnamm war, she wrote; "At this moment, firm bodied children are being charred by napalm bombs. Young men, Vietnamese and American, are falling like trees, to lie forever, their faces in the mud. As writers, guardians of language, we may perceive ourselves as having a vocational connection with the truth -that is of seriousness. Let's be serious."
If she were alive today, her admonition would be the same; let's be serious.
In the world of Susan Sontag, to interpret is to impoverish. To accept is to respect and anyone who fails in that endeavor is less than human and that is what Susan Sontag was -an endearing, human being who was stifled by misrepresenting the genuine nature of her dissent.
Frequently more provocative than literal, it is easy to be confused by Sontag's claim that "to interpret is to impoverish" and all she really meant is that it is appropriate to be judicious, not judgmental, and in that regard, she was absolutely right.
Next: Echoes of Susan Sontag defined this competent president.
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