Writer Susan Sontag, one of America’s most celebrated intellectuals, died a few days after Christmas of leukemia. She was 71.
??¢â???¬?????In my view,??¢â???¬ she once explained, ??¢â???¬?????the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.” And yet, in her rage against the West, she displayed no complexity in simplifying the white race as pure evil, concluding that “the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
When it was time to go, unsurprisingly, Sontag died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, not in some mud hut in some autonomous and untainted-by-the-West civilization where there??¢â???¬â???¢s no treatment for cancer.
In life too, unsurprisingly, it was straight New York for Ms. Sontag, not Somalia, with Joan Didion in the village two tables away at Da Silvano, and Fran Lebowitz across the aisle schmoozing with celebrities, and Elaine??¢â???¬â???¢s for late nightcaps on 88th Street and Second Avenue, with Sontag holding court at her regular table by the door, a table away from Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, and sometimes Rudolf Nureyev, and Woody Allen at his usual table in the back, next to Kurt Vonnegut and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and it??¢â???¬â???¢s doubtful that any of them ever wished, no matter how much Tuscan red had flowed, that the whole shebang should be turned back into the swamp that it once was, so as not to ??¢â???¬?????upset the ecological balance of the planet.??¢â???¬
“We live in a culture,” Sontag also contended, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression,??¢â???¬ and yet off she flew to Hanoi during the American bombing in 1968, and then to Cuba, in what appeared to be a globe-trotting mission in ??¢â???¬?????search for radical innocence,??¢â???¬ minus any application of intelligence that was ??¢â???¬?????critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.??¢â???¬
Subsequently, she wrote essays flattering to the resistance of the Vietnamese communists to American power and sympathetic to the communist regime in Cuba, fully unaware, it seems, of how her intelligence was being used as ??¢â???¬?????an instrument of authority and repression.??¢â???¬
More than three decades later, a week after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she had this to say in The New Yorker: ??¢â???¬?????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. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ??¢â???¬????cowardly??¢â???¬â???¢ attack on ??¢â???¬????civilization??¢â???¬â???¢ or ??¢â???¬????liberty??¢â???¬â???¢ or ??¢â???¬????humanity??¢â???¬â???¢ or ??¢â???¬????the free world??¢â???¬â???¢ 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 American bombing of Iraq? And if the word ??¢â???¬????cowardly??¢â???¬â???¢ 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.??¢â???¬
Again, it might be clever to put ??¢â???¬?????civilization??¢â???¬ in quotes, or ??¢â???¬?????liberty??¢â???¬ or ??¢â???¬?????free world,??¢â???¬ but it??¢â???¬â???¢s unlikely that Sontag could have found much to celebrate in the character, spirit and disposition of the people in the caves of Afghanistan who produced Mohamed Atta.
And the issue isn??¢â???¬â???¢t whether they??¢â???¬â???¢re ??¢â???¬?????not cowards.??¢â???¬ The issue is that we were attacked by a well-funded mob of rage-filled fanatics in hellholes and their determination to acquire nuclear weapons is clearly demonstrable.
On September 11, the bodies falling from the top of the World Trade Center didn??¢â???¬â???¢t fall far from the tables at Da Silvano. With a nuke in a shipping container, there won??¢â???¬â???¢t be a Da Silvano. That??¢â???¬â???¢s the issue.