Ed Driscoll

The Doyenne Of Radical Chic

Susan Sontag died yesterday. Roger Kimball of The New Criterion has a brilliant essay on her long career as “The Dark Lady of American Letters”:

Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay “Trip to Hanoi” (1968) is another classic in the literature of political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially savor Sontag’s observation that the real problem for the North Vietnamese is that they “aren’t good enough haters.” Their fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way of the war effort.

They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, “because they’re bigger than we are,” as a Vietnamese army officer told me, “and they’re used to more meat than we are.” People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man . . . and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen.

It would be interesting to know what Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war who was brutally tortured by the North Vietnamese, had to say about this little fantasia.

Sontag acknowledges that her account tended somewhat to idealize North Vietnam; but that was only because she “found, through direct experience, North Vietnam to to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized.” Unlike any country in Western Europe, you understand, and above all unlike the United States. “The Vietnamese are `whole’ human beings, not `split’ as we are.” In 1967, shortly before her trip to Hanoi, Sontag had this to say about the United States:

A small nation of handsome people . . . is being brutally and self-righteously slaughtered . . . by the richest and most grotesquely overarmed, most powerful country in the world. America has become a criminal, sinister country–swollen with priggishness, numbed by affluence, bemused by the monstrous conceit that it has the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world.

In “What’s Happening in America (1966),” Sontag tells readers that what America “deserves” is to have its wealth “taken away” by the Third World. In one particularly notorious passage, she writes that “the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”

What can one say? Sontag excoriates American capitalism for its “runaway rate of productivity.” But she has had no scruples about enjoying the fruits of that productivity: a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1964, a Merrill Foundation grant in 1965, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1966, etc., etc., culminating in 1990 with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Sontag preserved her radical chic credentials to the end. In the 1960s in was Vietnam and Cuba; in the 1990s it was Sarajevo. The one constant was unremitting aniumus against the United States: its culture, its politics, its eocnomy, its very being. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Sontag took to the pages of The New Yorker to explain that the assault of September 11 was “not a `cowardly’ attack on `civilization’ or `liberty’ or `humanity’ or `the free world’ [note the scare quotes] but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards.” Does she say, then, that they were murderous fanatics? Hardly. Sontag is at once too ambivalent and too admiring for that: too ambivalent about the “world’s self-proclaimed superpower” and too admiring of the murderous Muslim fanatics.

Sontag enjoyed an extraordinary career. But, pace Salman Rushdie, her celebrity was not the gratifying product of intellectual distinction but the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic.

Reading the rest of Kimball’s text is well worth it: it would be simplifying things, but you could make a pretty good argument that the punitive liberalism of the 1970s began with Sontag, and it remains a dominant mindset on the left to this day.

Update: Tim Blair has a couple examples of more…gushing coverage of Sontag.

Another Update: One of Blair’s readers posted a brilliantly concise comment on Sontag, 9/11, and the definition of courage:

OK, I feel for her family. Doubtless they loved her, and I do feel for them as I feel for anyone who loses a loved one.

That said, Sontag was a moral vacuum, a fantasist, and a prime member of the echo chamber of what has become the garbage bin of history. The power of her delusions was staggering; no matter what happened, no matter how blatantly it was the act of some third-world despot, it was all the fault of the West.

Even over 11Sep01, she confused courage with fanaticism and fatalism. Do not get me wrong, I am in a profession that examines such things, I have an ice-cold professional admiration for the audacity and planning that went in to those airliner kamikaze missions. Their mission planners used our weaknesses against us in a very elegant manner. I can admire that – but I despise them.

But were they ‘courageous?’, no. Not at all. Courage is rooted in moral behaviour, it is a deeply moral thing. The most courageous people include those who deliberately choose greater risk for themselves in order to PRESERVE innocent lives. Look at the average US, UK, or even Australian military person in Iraq. Our people deliberately accept higher risks for themselves so as not to cause unnecessary civilian casualties.

THAT is courage, based on the moral imperative to protect the innocent.

A ‘man’ who chooses to expend his life to murder the innocent is a coward, a criminal, a terrorist, but he is not courageous, merely a fanatic. And fanatics are moral vacuums, amoral monsters.

And Sontag could not tell the difference.

That speaks volumes for the ‘intellectual heart’ of the left.