Tuesday, December 28, 2004

An important voice lost . . .

Over four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, trendy, iconoclastic, captivating, hollow, rhapsodic, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, abrasive, aloof, attention-seeking, charming, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, mannered, formidable, brilliant, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, challenging, ambivalent, accessible, lofty, erudite, lucid, inscrutable, solipsistic, intellectual, visceral, reasoned, pretentious, portentous, maddening, lyrical, abstract, narrative, acerbic, opportunistic, chilly, effusive, careerist, sober, gimmicky, relevant, passé, facile, illogical, ambivalent, polemical, didactic, tenacious, slippery, celebratory, banal, untenable, doctrinaire, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, aloof, glib, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.

That's Margalit Fox writing on the death of Susan Sontag:

". . . the internationally renowned novelist, essayist and critic whose impassioned advocacy of the avant-garde and equally impassioned political pronouncements made her one of the most lionized presences - and one of the most polarizing - in 20th-century letters, died today in New York. She was 71 and lived in Manhattan."

Please check out Fox's obit (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/28/books/28cnd-sont.html?pagewanted=1).

I'd also recommend you read "Regarding the Torture of Others" if you haven't yet. This was an essay Sontag wrote for the New York Times' Sunday Magazine:

The Bush administration and its defenders have chiefly sought to limit a public-relations disaster -- the dissemination of the photographs -- rather than deal with the complex crimes of leadership and of policy revealed by the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of the reality onto the photographs themselves. The administration's initial response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs -- as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict. There was also the avoidance of the word ''torture.'' The prisoners had possibly been the objects of ''abuse,'' eventually of ''humiliation'' -- that was the most to be admitted. ''My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture,'' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference. ''And therefore I'm not going to address the 'torture' word.''

Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word ''genocide'' while some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few weeks' time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib -- and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay -- by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide. Here is one of the definitions of torture contained in a convention to which the United States is a signatory: ''any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.'' (The definition comes from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Similar definitions have existed for some time in customary law and in treaties, starting with Article 3 -- common to the four Geneva conventions of 1949 -- and many recent human rights conventions.) The 1984 convention declares, ''No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.'' And all covenants on torture specify that it includes treatment intended to humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors.


The Times is doing a service to their readers by making this essay from May of this year (as well as other pieces) available without charge on their web site.

[Note: This post has been corrected to get the double dots over the "i" and to get the accent over an "e." The obit is billed as being "By MARGALIT FOX." The three words in quotes are a copy and paste from the Times. Thanks to those who wrote in worried that I had typed Ms. Fox's name wrong. Good to ask but that's how it shows up online. And a search of the Times demonstrates that Ms. Fox has written many times on noted passings so it's not their typo either. It's a nice name and, though I have no idea of how or why she was named "Margalit," it does have a long history: as a Hebrew name it means "pearl." ]