Sizing Up Sontag
January 03, 2005
Editor's Note: America lost one of its great intellectuals when Susan Sontag died last week. In her memory, we republish this piece from May 2004 in which media critic Richard Bradley defends Sontag's understanding of the "war on terror" and how it clearly surpasses that of her critics.
Richard Bradley is the former executive editor of George magazine. He is author of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and is writing a book about Harvard University.
Immediately after 9/11, Andrew Sullivan created for his blog andrewsullivan.com a recurring entry called the “Sontag Award.” The mock award came in response to a New Yorker essay Susan Sontag wrote in which she criticized the conformity and manipulation of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11. “Where is the acknowledgment,” Sontag wrote, “that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world,’ but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
Sullivan deemed Sontag’s writing outrageously unpatriotic, almost treasonous. So, he gives the “Sontag Award” to other writers who question the “war against terrorism” and the war in Iraq in a way that he considers un-American. Others may decide how American it is to question the patriotism of social critics. This is Sullivan's way of rallying the troops, as it were.
Now Sontag has reappeared with a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, an essay about the torture photographs from Abu Graib. Sullivan (full disclosure—he's an old friend) will surely find a way to attack it. But on reading the essay, and reconsidering the events from 9/11 to Abu Graib, one has to wonder if Sontag hasn’t been closer to right (for no one gets it exactly right) all along?
The thrust of Sontag's essay, called “Regarding the Torture of Others,” is to ask whether what happened in Abu Graib is a gross exception, an isolated phenomenon, or whether in some fundamental way it's the surreal but logical result of an inherently corrupt war, a direct consequence of the policies of the Bush administration? Sontag argues that the photographs were taken to record events for future entertainment, and reflect a culture of shamelessness, “a pattern of criminal behavior in open contempt of international humanitarian conventions.” After all, we don’t even call these people “prisoners,” because that term implies a specific legal standing. They are “detainees”—and they can be imprisoned indefinitely, which means forever. They are interrogated not for specific information, but because they are suspicious, and that vague mandate has led to torture.
As Sontag points out, the debate over how many photographs from Abu Graib the world should see goes on. The side that wants to limit their distribution is winning. Already our outrage about the torture is diminishing, and without that outrage, there is no will to release photographs that are not easy to see. I don’t agree with all of Sontag’s essay, but she makes a serious argument that the photographs need to be shown—all of them—and that doing so is the responsibility of a mature democracy.
In the meantime, andrewsullivan.com is running excerpts from a 36-year-old Sontag essay about Vietnam. Sullivan’s conclusion—a far-fetched one, to my reading—is that Sontag is a communist. “Lenin, anyone?” Sullivan quips.
Andrew Sullivan is a very smart guy. He’s written books. He has a Ph.D from Harvard. I suspect he knows how morally reductive and intellectually sloppy it is to label people as un-patriotic just because they criticize the actions of the American government. Such language feels like the kind of polarizing argument that got us into this war. Perhaps Sullivan feels that writing a blog requires him to dumb down his ideas.
But still…let us just posit, for the sake of argument, that Susan Sontag is a communist. So? The country will survive. The question is not what label one can apply to her, but whether her words provide insight and provoke debate. The same goes for other Sontag Award “nominees”: New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, author Jonathan Schell, novelist Alice Walker.
The most un-American acts have never been committed by radicals, but by those anxious critics who have attempted to stigmatize and suppress them. And those people were always sure to call themselves patriots.