Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Regarding Sontag: Her Words and Your Words

Two of you wrote in to say that Susan Sontag was a "cheerleader" for the 9-11 terrorists. Sontag wrote a short essay (three paragraphs) on 9-11 and I'm reading it differently than you are.

If anyone missed that essay and instead formed that opinion based upon the right wing echo chamber, you can read it for yourself at The New Yorker -- if it's still posted at The New Yorker in the archives, it doesn't currently pull up. (A blank page loads.) (A section of the brief essay can also be found at Democracy Now! -- http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=03/04/07/0210250&mode=thread&tid=5). [The page now, Weds. morning, loads: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/?010924ta_talk_wtc but should the problem repeat and you wish to read more than the excerpt at Democracy Now! please go to http://groups.colgate.edu/aarislam/susan.htm to read the three paragraph essay.]

A number of you assume that those distortions (of her New Yorker piece) would start up all over again.

Elaine e-mailed a review from amazon.com (www.amazon.com) "which got it right" (the review is for Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media? entitled "What Did Feminism Ever Do to You? Part IV"):

Susan Sontag gets a few mentions in the book as well. The one that caught my attention was this: "While Susan Sontag wrote a short essay in the New Yorker that many people, including myself, found to be objectionable for its insensitivity to the victims of the attack, she never said she opposed the war." . . . I looked the essay up. It is indeed "short" -- it's a mere three paragraphs. And in it, Sontag doesn't comment on the victims (apparently her insensitivity). Her three paragraphs deal with the way the politicians and the media are speaking of 9-11 (her essay is dated September 24, 2001). She doesquestion the use of "cowardly" to describe the hijackers -- as would many who study political science (as opposed to journalism). In my own political science classes (I was a poli-sci major) taught by conservative Bush & Reagan supporters words like "cowardly" would have been deemed inappropriate. (Words like "crazy," "insane," "delusional," etc. would have been used readily by the professors.) Coward is defined by Websters as "one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity" which doesn't seem to linguistically be appropriate to describe the hijackers of those planes. Cowardice itself is defined by Webster's as "lack of courage or resolution." Again, linguistically, Sontag is correct. But no need for Alterman to set the record straight. (At three paragraphs, one wonders why he didn't seek permission to reprint the essay and let the reader decide on Sontag's statements. Instead he's willing to offer that he finds it objectionable . . .)(http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0465001769/ref=cm_rev_next/103-5101377-1583048?%5Fencoding=UTF8&customer-reviews.sort%5Fby=-SubmissionDate&n=283155&customer-reviews.start=221)

Elaine: "That's what we're talking about here. She was jumped on, as was Bill Maher, for refusing to toe the illogical line that the act was cowardly. Call it 'crazy' or 'insane' but we left the 'reality based community' when people were allowed to get away with slamming her as a supporter for the terrorists because she refused to go along with the mass delusion that the act was somehow 'cowardly.'"

You can also check out an essay in The Nation by Daniel Lazare (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030602&s=lazare):

Only one really stood out, however: an angry and eloquent blast by Susan Sontag at "a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall" and robotic politicians who "apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush." In the wake of the Twin Towers attack, Sontag wrote, Americans had much to ponder "about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense." Yet rather than thinking, politicians and the press were engaging in "confidence-building and grief management." Where Americans had once been contemptuous of Soviet yes-men, their own representatives were proving no less acquiescent in the crunch as the Bush Administration geared up for war. "The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days," she declared, "seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy."
The essay, less than 500 words long, unleashed a torrent of right-wing abuse, most of it zeroing in on Sontag's parenthetical point that, by themselves, courage and cowardice are morally neutral--their moral quality depends entirely on the ends they serve. Hence: "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." Andrew Sullivan called it "deranged" and Charles Krauthammer said Sontag was morally obtuse, while Rod Dreher, a columnist for the New York Post, expressed a desire "to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman's apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters."

Their echo chamber went into overdrive and very few voices rushed in to defend Sontag (or Maher for that matter). It wouldn't be 'appropriate' to do so. Or it wouldn't be 'prudent.' Or people might think you 'unpatriotic.' Look, words have definitions. You can pick up a dictionary and you can find what they mean, basic meanings.

When we allow the right to distort and then we rush to move away from someone that they're dubbing "controversial" we're not just being cowards, we're being fools. Does that sound harsh?

The rush to draw the line in the sand helps no one. "Oh, I'm left/liberal/progressive [whatever], but I'm not like Michael Moore [or whomever]!"

People who say that are probably correct. The majority of "leaders" from the center-left and left didn't appear to have the guts to take on the Bully Boy. Yes, those people are different from Michael Moore. Or from Jane Fonda. Or from Joan Baez or Medea Benjamin or MoveOn.org or Susan Sontag.

Think about the message that this sends over time: "We're happy to take your money, but the minute the right starts up the attacks, we don't want you to be seen publicly with us." That translates as, "We're wimps who will wimp out on you or anyone in any time of crisis or under attacks from the right. And if we'll wimp out on you, we will wimp out on your beliefs and your needs as well." That's not a message to proud of.

Who gets attacked? And why?

I have a distant memory of some movie where people plot a bank robbery. The plan is to go in, take out the person that looks the strongest (by shooting him in the knee caps) and everyone else will fall in line (out of fear).

That's who the right attacks. They dog pile onto the strongest voices and we end up not saying, "Hey, Sontag's right! Pick up a dictionary!!" Instead, we nod with a pasted on grin as we back away from the "controversial" person. Does that build confidence in any of us? Seeing how, when the dogs of the right start attacking a prominent person, our so-called leaders scatter instead of digging in and saying, "Oh, no, not this time."

Tom Hayden from "It's Empire Versus Democracy" (excerpt from It's a Free Country) (http://www.alternet.org/911oneyearlater/14082/):

The strike against domestic dissent was a preemptive one, since most progressives were too stunned, traumatized, and confused by the September 11 attacks to dissent anyway. But Susan Sontag was targeted for a right-wing stoning for an article in the New Yorker, and Bill Maher for not being politically correct. Vice President Cheney's wife helped monitor college classrooms for dissenting voices. Rapid articles appeared in the New Republic. Intimidating full-page ads by William Bennett announced plans to expose anyone who "blamed America first." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added an official warning when he crafted an "offhand" remark that Americans should "watch what they say." Chief Republican political strategist Karl Rove proposed that his party's candidates make the war on terrorism an election issue. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott accused Democratic Senator Tom Daschle of being soft on Saddam Hussein (because Daschle opposed Arctic oil drilling). The chairman of the Republican House Campaign Committee declared that all questioners were "giving aid and comfort to the enemy."

I'm not mad that the two e-mailed this site. (They've said they could be quoted even after I said that I thought they were misunderstanding what Sontag wrote. If they want to give feedback to this post, I'll quote them then but I don't want them to read this and then think, "You set me up!") I think they've hit upon the starting point in understanding why would note Susan Sontag's death on this site.

What was done to her is the perfect example of what we stand against. We are against letting the right tell us whom we can support and how we can support them. We are against letting them force us to abandon someone to their attacks so that we can come off "reasonable."That is self-defeating to the extreme. Alan Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl" begins: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . ."

Time and again, we on the left see our strongest voices destroyed by silence in the face of attacks from the right.

That has got to stop. We need to realize when these attacks from the right happen, there's a reason they happen: to silence strong voices and cause the rest of to remain mute. We don't need to "go along to get along" in times like that, instead, we need to raise our voices strongly and loudly to send a message of support.

Karl: "I studied Sontag in grad school. She was an important voice. When she was being attacked, I kept wondering 'Why?' I'm sure you've read What Liberal Media? and you might like it or you might not. I don't get why Eric Alterman felt the need to note that he found Susan Sontag 'objectionable' for her short article. I threw the book in the trash. He's supposed to be an academic but he's not smart enough to refuse to buy into the spin? What Liberal Media? What liberal author? Not one there. Not even an academic mind. Just one more person letting the right shift the center. Since then I've always seen Alterman as our current Norman Podhoretz. He's the most likely to flip and turn on the left. I give him ten years."

Trevor: "I met her once when I was doing an internship. I was struck by how she spoke as she wrote. I don't remember what was in the news that week that I had asked her about but I watched as she nodded several times before replying. Then she spoke and it was with such great deliberation and obvious thought to each word that I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of her at work. I met many writers that summer but I can think of few who so reflected in person their approach to writing."

New Reader: "I found it ironic that someone who makes as many typos as you do and is so steadfast in your indifference to them would choose to honor Susan Sontag who always wrote with such care."

Sontag labored over each sentence, true.

Sontag has described the hell she goes through when she writes criticism, stopping after every sentence to submit it to a thorough frisking before going on to the next one. ("I am perfectly prepared to spend an hour thinking is the word 'fast' or 'rapid'?")
[From Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael. Counterpoint: New York, New York. 2004. pp. 29-30.]

I admire the grace of her writing and it's precision. It's one of her many achievements. I'm glad New Reader noted it. (And no, my writing and my process is nothing like Sontag's.)

Annie: "I was in high school when Styles of Radical Will came out. I've followed her writing over the years and sometimes she's infuriated me and sometimes she's written something so true to my heart that it's as though she buried herself into what we are and what we feel."

Trina: "The Volcano Lover took me by complete surprise. I remember being shocked to come upon it. Just the idea that Susan Sontag would write it. Surprise was the word throughout. It was wonderfully moving and observant and I kept thinking 'Who is the real Sontag?'"

I write what I can: that is, what's given to me and what seems worth writing, by me. I care passionately about many things that don't get into my fiction and essays. They don't because what's in my head seems to me to lack originality. (I never thought I had anything compelling to say about Shakespeare), or because I haven't yet found the necessary freedom to write about them. My books aren't me -- all of me. And in some ways I am less than them. The better ones are more intelligent, more talented, than I am; anyway, different. The "I" who writes is a transformation -- a specializing and upgrading, according to certain literary goals and loyalties -- of the "I" who lives. It feels true only in a trivial sense to say I make my books. What I really feel is that they are made, through me, by literature; and I'm their (literature's) servant.
["Singleness." Where the Stress Falls. p. 259]

Beverley: "There was a moment near the close of the seventies, when I heard her speak, and I thought 'We've lost her.' This was followed by her own '[Bob] Dylan goes electric' moment in Manhattan at Town Hall. You could feel the hatred oozing off everyone. I don't even remember what she said but I remember the audience and that moment when it appeared that she'd committed some heresy. Later, I either read the speech published somewhere or a write up of the event that quoted from her speech. I disagreed with it but what struck me was that the words on the page didn't convey the need with which she was speaking. There was a quality about the speech given of 'Please listen' that couldn't be captured in printed versions of the speech. I wrote her off until Aids and Its Metaphors. My own relationship to her writing had been too close as though any difference of opinion with what was on the page (or what she spoke) was in some way of rejection of my own self-identity. I think I was too close, too tied into not just what she wrote but what she was supposed to represent. Looking back on that and my later return to enjoying her writing, I think that the break was healthiest thing. Too many of us had too much wrapped into who and what she was and said. We had turned her into Dylan. That speech was her metaphorical motor cycle wreck. Having been there in Town Hall, I don't doubt that she meant each and every word. But the delivery of them . . . It was as though she was compelled to say 'This is me!' I think on some level she anticipated the reaction and, even if she feared it, wanted it. She couldn't live as an icon and still be a writer with anything worth saying. We, Sontag and her readers, had imprisoned her to the point that her remarks had to now fall into a very narrow range. There was a moment at Town Hall, in the midst of this hugely negative reaction, where she looked not out at us, but upward and there seemed to be a degree a satisfaction on her face. Looking back now, it's as though she knew in that moment that she could soar again. She had defied our 'set in stone' expectations and she was once again to be free. I often been haunted by that brief moment. At the time, I saw it as a smug look. For the last decade, I've seen it as a look of liberation."

Their framework is chronological. Mine is both chronological and geographical. I am continually reaching toward cross-cultural comparisons, and these are the context of most of my questions. But because they don't share this context, they seem mildly puzzled by many things I ask.
["Trip to Hanoi." Styles of Radical Will. p. 222]

Ben: "What stands out to me is that her opinions, though informed, were never settled. There was a questioning in her writing. A lot of people feel she pulled the string on her earlier works as the years went by or that she recanted. But I always got the sense that while her writing was concrete the opinions themselves were quite fluid. I never read her novels but of her essays it seemed that they were pursuing answers to questions. She never struck me as rigid though I did feel she was firmly rooted."

Keesha: "Thank God someone of her stature was willing to use the word torture. Most recently with regard to Abu Ghraib. But I think that's in keeping with who she was. When she first addressed popular culture, her reason was that she was infuriated by the fact that it was being ignored as a topic for 'polite conversation.' I'd argue that infuriation at what was disallowed from 'polite conversation' is the thread that runs through all of her work including Aids and Its Metaphors and Regarding the Pain of Others."

Since then, censorship -- the most extensive kind, self-censorship, as well as censorship imposed by the military -- has found a large and influential number of apologists. At the start of the British campaign in the Falklands in April 1982, the government of Margaret Thatcher granted access to only two photojournalists -- among those refused was a master war photographer,
Don McCullin – and only three batches of film reached London before the islands were recaptured in May. No direct television transmission was permitted. There had not been such drastic restrictions on the reporting of a British military operation since the Crimean War. It proved harder for the American authorities to duplicate the Thatcher controls on the reporting of their own foreign adventures. What the American military promoted during the Gulf War in 1991 were images of the techno war: the sky above the dying, filled with light-traces of missiles and shells -- images that illustrated America's absolute military superiority over its enemy. American television viewers weren't allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what that superiority could wreck: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, on February 27, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north, in convoys and on foot, on the road to Basra, Iraq -- a slaughter notoriously described by one American officer as a "turkey shoot." And most American operations in Afghanistan in late 2001 were off-limits to news photographers.
[Regarding the Pain of Others. pp.65-66.]

Rodney: "I just felt that she was worth reading. She said things that others weren't saying. I could agree or disagree. Her essays struck me as starting points in a dialogue. To a degree, I'd argue that even about her fiction. It was as though she was a student of us: learning, sharing, still questioning."

We assume a world with a boundless appetite for images, in which people, women and men, are eager to surrender themselves to the camera. But it is worth recalling that there are many parts of the world where being photographed is off-limits to women. In a few countries, where men have been mobilized for a veritable war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera -- to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything -- are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women. And just as the granting of more and more rights and choices to women is a measure of a society's embrace of modernity, so the revolt against modernity initiates a rush to rescind the meager gains toward equal participation in society won by women, mostly urban, educated women, in previous decades. In many countries struggling with failed or discredited attempts to modernize, there are more and more covered women.
["A Photograph Is Not an Opinion. Or Is It?" Where the Stress Falls. pp. 241-242.]

Francisco: "I was looking up Sontag and her writing today on the net after reading the obituary you linked to. I found something that was written in 1975 regarding the end of the war in Vietnam. I thought it echoed where we are today."

Those of us who raged against this unjust war and its unbearable accretion of atrocities reached the limit of our influence when the Sullen Majority turned against the war for quite other reasons—because it was interminable, or wasteful, or bungled. When the warriors in Washington switched to fighting by proxy, Nixon won in 1972 by a huge majority. "We" in the "Movement" affected public opinion, but weren't able to affect the use of power or damage the spectacular electoral consensus for continuing a surrogate war without American deaths.(http://www.nybooks.com/articles/9160)
[This is a piece by various writers. Gore Vidal Is God should be pleased to know that Gore Vidal weighs in on "The Meaning of Vietnam." Sontag's section in this The New York Review of Books survey is about 1/4 down from the top of the page.]

Oregon: "I'm sure you've heard about Susan Sontag. I'm in shock. It was the first thing I saw when I got online. Yahoo came up and so did a pop up, so at first all I could see was the partial headline "Author and Activist Susan Sontag...." My stomach dropped and I clicked away the pop up and had my fears confirmed. :( This is such a blow. You and I have talked about this whole generation of thinkers that is getting older, but Sontag was only 71. I never honestly thought of her dying any time soon. I don't want any of these great thinkers to leave us, of course, but when I did think of it, my mind would run first to Terkle and Zinn and Mailer and even my Gore Vidal, though I tried not to think of that often. But never to Sontag first. We've lost her too soon. We need her now, more than ever. Her New Yorker piece after 9/11 shows how willing she was to say what was true and right, even in the face of overwhelming adversity. It scares me that we're embarking upon another Bush eterm without the likes of Sontag out there."

But the distinction between photograph and reality -- as between spin and policy -- can easily evaporate. And that is what the administration wishes to happen. ''There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist,'' Rumsfeld acknowledged in his testimony. ''If these are released to the public, obviously, it's going to make matters worse.'' Worse for the administration and its programs, presumably, not for those who are the actual -- and potential? -- victims of torture
. . . .
But the real push to limit the accessibility of the photographs will come from the continuing effort to protect the administration and cover up our misrule in Iraq -- to identify ''outrage'' over the photographs with a campaign to undermine American military might and the purposes it currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an implicit criticism of the war to show on television photographs of American soldiers who have been killed in the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the new photographs and further tarnish the image of America.
After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell, more so than any of the people who got us into this rotten war seem to have expected. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.
[From the New York Times Sunday Magazine essay "Regarding the Torture of Others" (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/23PRISONS.html?pagewanted=4&ei=5070&en=09f03ec0f76fb2e4&ex=1104382800).]


For more information on Susan Sontag please check out the official web site: http://www.susansontag.com/.

There is also a UK site that might be of interest (Press Room) http://www.susansontag.com/pressroom.htm.

Regarding the right's attacks on Sontag over the New Yorker essay, you can also see Richard Blow's "Sizing Up Sontag" at TomPaine.com: http://www.tompaine.com/articles/sizing_up_sontag.php.

Marcia referenced a mid-day Yahoo news article on Sontag's death that mentioned Annie Leibovitz as Sontag's "partner." I saw it too, Marcia. Like yourself, I can't find it now. I don't know if I'm not looking hard enough or if, as you suspect, it's been scrubbed.

From the obit in The Advocate:

"Sontag's own sexuality was a subject she rarely addressed, although Time magazine referred to her and photographer Annie Leibovitz as "companion[s]" in November 2001 when Leibovitz's daughter was born."

From Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael (p. 102):

Sontag, as most of her readers know by now, is gay. She rejects the label, with some justification (in "The Third World of Women," she saw good times coming for "a genuine bisexuality," arguing that "exclusive homosexuality . . ., like exclusive heterosexuality, is learned") -- so, if you prefer, Sontag is bisexual.

Seligman notes that she addressed this in a 2000 New Yorker profile.

Why the New York Times and others have remained silent is a mystery to me as well. This is not a secret but something that is public knowledge.

Marcia feels it's ironic that "the NYT now prints same-sex union announcements but portrays Sontag as an ex-wife and mother who is survived only by her son and a sister."

Kara takes exception to this line in the Times obit: "She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism."

Kara feels it should be "the people" and notes that this from "Trip to Hanoi":

But having stated my admiration for the Vietnamese (people, society) as bluntly and vulnerably as I can, I should emphasize that none of this amounts to a claim that North Vietnam is a model of a just state. One has only to recall the most notorious crimes committed by the present government: for example, the persecution of the Trotskyist faction and the execution of its leaders in 1946, and the forcible collectivization of agriculture in 1956, the brutalities and injustices of which high officials have recently admitted.
[Styles of Radical Will. pp. 259-260.]

To read the New York Times obit click http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/28/books/28cnd-sont.html?pagewanted=1.

To read The Chicago Tribune one click http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/la-122804sontag_lat,1,153178.story?coll=chi-news-hed.

To read The LA Times obit click http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-122804sontag_lat,0,2512373.story?coll=la-home-obituaries.

To read The Guardian's coverage of Sontag click http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/news/obituary/0,12723,1380529,00.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/news/story/0,11711,1380505,00.html.

The BBC's Sontag obiturary can be found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/4130985.stm.

If you're interested in reading speeches by Susan Sontag:

"Of Courage and Resistance" (The Nation) http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030505&s=sontag.

"Literature is Freedom" (AlterNet) click on http://www.alternet.org/story/17044.

To read interviews with her click on http://www.ivillage.com/books/intervu/fict/articles/0,11872,240794_76816,00.html?arrivalSA=1&cobrandRef=0&arrival_freqCap=1&pba=adid=13013067

and this interview from NOW with Bill Moyers http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_sontag.html.

A 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer article on Sontag (by Carlin Romano) can be found at http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/5685480.htm?1c.

Notable quotes from Sontag can be found at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/susan_sontag.html.

An essay by Sontag can be found at http://dwij.org/forum/statesperson/sontag.htm. (It's entitled "Real Battles & Empty Metaphors.")

[Note: An early version of this went up about forty minutes ago. It was labeled "Draft" in the title. That post is now deleted. "Note" was changed to "know." All other changes were spelling -- including "Don" which I typed "Donn." Note II: Two links to the New Yorker essay by Sontag have been added. Note III: Two of Karl's words were inverted by me when I typed them. Thanks Karl for catching this and e-mailing. My apologies for inverting. Note IV: Beverly's remarks have had a "s" added to them and word reduced to "often."]