Jewish World Review May 25, 2004 / 5 Sivan, 5764

Michael Graham

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The Sontag remains the same: In Susan's World, America is always wrong | Two years after the fall of Saigon, American writer/philosopher/intellectual Susan Sontag was asked by the New York Times to reflect on the situation in Vietnam:

"One can only be glad about the victory of the DRV [North Vietnam] and the PRG [Viet Cong], but there seems little taste for rejoicing. It would have been disheartening beyond imagination if America had its way with Indochina, and yet nobody I know has managed to feel festive," Sontag wrote. "For while 'they' won, 'we' did not. The 'we' who wanted 'us' to lose had long since been disbanded. The domestic convulsion set off by the Vietnam War had subsided long before the peoples of Indochina were liberated from the American murder machine."

Less than a week after the September 11th attacks, Susan Sontag was asked by the New Yorker to reflect on America after the most deadly terrorist attack in history:

"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 "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? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word 'cowardly' 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 Susan Sontag's America, no bad deed goes unrewarded, or at least unappreciated.

So when the New York Times Magazine gave their cover to Sontag's take on the images from the Abu Ghraib prison, nobody who knows her work was surprised by the single line of black text on the magazine's stark, white cover: "The Photographs Are Us."

A woman who can celebrate Communism's conquest of Vietnam and the courage of the 9/11 terrorists can certainly be counted on to blame America for the abuse and torture at a single prison in Iraq. What was surprising was how lacking in intellectual heft this self-proclaimed intellectual's arguments are.

Why does Sontag believe that America's true self is revealed in the photos of naked Iraqis and leering soldiers? As she points out in the NYTimes Magazine "To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times 'unfair.'"

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But Sontag insists that such summary conclusions are fair because "The issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely. Considered in this light, the photographs are us."

In other words, it's all George W. Bush's fault.

It's all Bush's fault because, Sontag argues, he's declared this war a battle between good and evil, and if our enemies are inhuman, it must be OK to treat them inhumanly. Interestingly, she doesn't mention our struggles against the evils of communism or the evils of fascism — two armed conflicts in which the American propaganda machine declared our enemies fundamentally evil and immoral. But where was the Abu Ghraib-like abuse? Or the obsessed media coverage of same?

And did it ever occur to Sontag that fascism and communism are, in fact, evil? Or that the same can be said about Islamo-fascism and Ba'ath Party style Arab nationalism?

This is the kind of "miss-the-obvious" observation that makes Sontag, reputedly an intellectual, come across as obtuse. When she argues that the Abu Ghraib abuses arose from the Bush administration's decision to treat Al Qaeda operatives and terror suspects as "enemy combatants" without the same protections as legitimate soldiers, she never acknowledges that terrorists are, in fact, fundamentally different from battlefield soldiers. Whether a terrorist who disguises himself as a pregnant woman and tries to sneak explosives onto a commercial jet is entitled to the same treatment as a soldier carrying a rifle on a battlefield seems a legitimate, and obvious, question. Sontag skips it to jump straight to the conclusion that torture is rampant in the US military.

Of course, when your thesis statement is "America sucks," such conclusions aren't really much of a jump.

Obviously "America sucks" being Sontag's thesis is an exaggeration…but just barely. She's famous for her raging anti-Americanism, from her famous statement that "the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth," to her declaration that America is a "passionately racist country," to her infamous indictment of the Western, European culture:

"The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballet et al., don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history."

One wonders how she felt when the Western-style capitalism and technology she loathes helped Sontag recover from the ravages of cancer. Twice.

Sontag's attacks on America are made even more frustrating by her occasional, coherent observation. She notes, for example, that the abuses in Abu Ghraib largely centered around sexual humiliation, which Sontag — who has written extensively on photography — notes is relatively unusual. She attributes the willingness of our shameless American soldiers to appear, leering and smiling, in these photos to the widespread availability of pornography.

"[M]ost of the pictures seem part of a larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman leading a naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix imagery. And you wonder how much of the sexual torture inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was inspired by the vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the Internet — and which ordinary people, by sending out Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate."

Interestingly, it is Sontag and the Left that struggles hardest against any effort to restrict the flow of such pornography, taking to the streets to protest filters on computers in public libraries. Pornography may be subtly turning American teens into potential torturers, but the right to taxpayer-funded titillation must not be infringed.

Sontag's core "The Photographs Are Us" argument can be reduced to the simplest Logic 101 equation: What happened in Abu Ghraib was bad. America is bad. Therefore, Abu Ghraib is America.

Reading the Sontag canon, a similar argument can be made: Sontag was wrong about Vietnam. She was wrong about the Cold War. She was wrong about communism, free markets, the Reagan Doctrine, Nicaragua, the first Gulf War, Clintonism and 9/11.

Draw your own conclusions.

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.



© 2004, Michael Graham