Thursday, December 30, 2004

So Long, Susan Sontag

Back before I was born, Susan Sontag defined the American cultural concept of camp - "Something that's so bad, it's good." Maybe it was in that spirit that she spent the last thirty years peddling a world-view that looked like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

No need to revisit all of the tired sins. Sontag had typical left-pedestrian views of Israel, in which the noble (if tragically flawed) Palestinians got all the sympathy. Not all of the fake sympathy, though - respectable leftists like Sontag are always quick to point out that Israel is not just doing terrible things to the Palestinians, but Israel is doing terrible things to itself - itself! - by being so deaf to "world opinion" as expressed by that never-ending Nuremberg Rally known as the UN General Assembly. So they can pretend that they love Israel even as they kick Israel, and the more they love her the harder they kick, and so on. This, by the way, was pretty much Sontag's view of the United States, too.

So it was that Andrew Sullivan named a Moral Equivalence award after Sontag, and Ed Koch swore never to read another word she wrote, saying that she had earned a place in "the Ninth Circle of Hell". For those of you not up to speed on your Dante, the Ninth Circle (Cocytus) is the place of Judas, and Traitors to Kin and Country.

But Sontag was not just a knee-jerk peacenik. Here is what she wrote in The New York Times Magazine (May 1999):

War is not simply a mistake, a failure to communicate. There is radical evil in the world, which is why there are just wars. And this is a just war. Even if it has been bungled.

Stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes. Worthy goals. But how is any of this conceivably going to happen unless the Milosevic regime is overthrown? (And the truth is, it's not going to happen.)

Impossible to see how this war will play out. All the options seem improbable, as well as undesirable. Unthinkable to keep bombing indefinitely, if Milosevic is indeed willing to accept the destruction of the Serbian economy; unthinkable for NATO to stop bombing, if Milosevic remains intransigent.

The Milosevic Government has finally brought on Serbia a small portion of the suffering it has inflicted on neighboring peoples.

War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin of the entire region, including Serbia, for several generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon.
There you have it: Evil exists, and we must fight it. Stop genocide, stop the aggressions of petty tyrannies, and down with intransigent dictators even if they must be bombed into submission. Unthinkable to do otherwise, says she.

Without doing the slightest injustice to Sontag's logic, you could substitute Saddam for Milosevic and Iraq for Serbia, and you would have a much more hawkish view of the current war than most of its supporters would take. We do not wish, for example, that Iraqis should be punished for what Saddam did. Nor do we think that Iraqis need to be reminded that Saddam meant repression and ruin for Iraq - we believe that sensible and forward-looking Iraqis know that already. So we are less militant on the subject of Iraq than Sontag was on the subject of Serbia.

But what about the European opposition to Sontag's war?
But opposition to the war is hardly confined to Italy, and to one strand of the political spectrum. On the contrary: mobilized against this war are remnants of the left and the likes of Le Pen and Bossi and Heider on the right. The right is against immigrants. The left is against America. (Against the idea of America, that is. The hegemony of American popular culture in Europe could hardly be more total.)

On both the so-called left and the so-called right, identity-talk is on the rise. The anti-Americanism that is fueling the protest against the war has been growing in recent years in many of the nations of the New Europe, and is perhaps best understood as a displacement of the anxiety about this New Europe, which everyone has been told is a Good Thing and few dare question. Nations are communities that are always being imagined, reconceived, reasserted, against the pressure of a defining Other. The specter of a nation without borders, an infinitely porous nation, is bound to create anxiety. Europe needs its overbearing America.
That nicely fits our current situation. And the notion that Eurocratization Anxiety fuels the anti-Americanism and irrational contrarianism of European opinion is an excellent insight. Likewise the connection to Europe's wildly ambivalent attitudes towards its immigrant population. But whatever is causing it, Sontag clearly didn't think we ought to pay attention to a nervous Europe that's asking us to abdicate in the face of Evil, for fear of somehow making a hopeless situation worse.

Likewise, the unreliable and badly broken United Nations ought not to have a veto over our actions. The United States and NATO went to work in the Balkans without any UN resolutions to make it "legal".

These views on Kosovo, by the way, seem to classify Sontag once and for all. Not a radical or a leftist, but just another liberal who liked to talk big. Her view of the Balkan War conforms to the liberal exceptionalism of the mid-Nineties, when war was basically okay if Clinton did it. Or least, if any criticism of it might reflect poorly on Clinton, and associate one with the likes of Kenneth Starr. So it was that Hollywood liberals and insecure Clintonites quietly applauded when Tomahawk missiles smashed into dubious targets in Iraq and the Sudan. And no one accused Clinton of having murdered the Americans, Serbians, and Croatians that died in the course of that conflict.

Not that they should have opposed Clinton's actions in the Balkans. I supported them, for most of the same reasons that Sontag says she did. That in spite of my otherwise non-support for Clinton himself. It didn't work the same way for Sontag and her ilk; the day George Bush was elected, all their "just war" principles dried up and blew away until the day that Camelot returns again.

Still, loud-mouthed liberals are not all bad, if they're real liberals deep down underneath. Sontag spoke out against Castro's oppression, at a time when the left was so castrated by delusions of McCarthyism that they couldn't criticize any Communist short of Stalin himself. And she stood up for the Polish Solidarity Movement (throwing in all the Reagan-bashing she could, but never mind that) and blasted the leftist lack-hearts who couldn't:
I have asked myself many times in the past six years or so how it was possible that I could have been so suspicious of what Milosz and other exiles from Communist countries--and those in the West known bitterly as "premature anti- Communists"--were telling us. Why did we not have a place for, ears for, their truth? The answers are well known. We had identified the enemy as fascism. We heard the demonic language of fascism. We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism ...

We were so sure who our enemies were (among them, the professional anti-Communists), so sure who were the virtuous and who the benighted. But I am struck by the fact that, despite the rightness of many of our views and aspirations, in particular our sense of the madness of a nuclear war between the superpowers and our hopes for reforms of the many injustices of our own system, we were not responding to a large truth. And we were countenancing a great deal of untruth ...

We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough. Which is to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of the Communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among Communisms--for example, treating "Stalinism," which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character. [The Nation, January 1st, 1998]
Those words would still ring true today, in the present context. Requiat in pacem.