(1933 - 2004)

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December 29, 2004

Susan Sontag

Critic whose wide-ranging combative intellect and talent for self-promotion made her a star

SUSAN SONTAG was the most provocative and prolific of the new wave of New York intellectuals who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Her writing during those years of enormous cultural and political change earned her the sobriquet of “the evangelist of the new”, and her polymath expertise and vocal cultural comment made her in subsequent years one of the closest equivalents in her country to the French concept of a public intellectual.

Stylistically acute and sharply perspicacious, Sontag’s writing gained much of its currency from her talent for snappy epigrammatic formulations. “Interpretation is the revenge of the critic upon art”; “In America the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it”: such epithets were as engaging for the popular reader as they were debatable for academics. Almost as soon as her contentious essay Notes on Camp appeared in the Partisan Review in 1964, she became known for a theorist’s approach to popular affairs that had more in common with the philosophy and criticism of the continental thinkers she so admired than with the other American commentators of her day.

Susan Sontag was born in New York in 1933, but her mother returned to China, where Sontag’s father was a fur trader, soon after the birth. Susan and her younger sister Judith were left in the care of their grandparents until the death of their father when Susan was five. Her mother moved both daughters to Tucson, Arizona, and remarried when Susan was 12. She adopted the surname of her stepfather, Nathan Sontag.

For Sontag, childhood was “a terrible waste of time”. She was intellectually precocious, and from North Hollywood High School she moved to the University of California at 15, in 1948. After a year she transferred to the humanities programme at the University of Chicago, where she was taught by Kenneth Burke, graduating in 1951. There, aged 17, she met the sociologist Philip Rieff, whom she married ten days later.

She took two MA degrees at Harvard, in English literature and in philosophy in 1954 and 1955 respectively, before beginning a doctorate. In 1957 she won a scholarship to study at St Anne’s College, Oxford, but she soon transferred to the University of Paris, which she found more congenial. Later in life, she would spend half of each year there.

In 1959, having divorced, she moved to New York with her six-year-old son and $30. She swiftly found employment lecturing at the City College and Sarah Lawrence College, and also worked as contributing editor of Commentary, which fuelled her desire to work as a freelance writer. Between 1960 and 1964 she taught in the religious studies department at Columbia University. She also served as writer-in-residence at Rutgers after publishing her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), the heavily experimental tale of a man who, plagued by distressing dreams, resolves that they are the higher reality to which he must make his life conform and sets about doing so.

Her teenage dream of writing for Partisan Review soon came to fruition, and this brought her into close contact with the New York liberal literary scene, and Notes on Camp, the essay that established her almost instantly as a cultural commentator of stature, appeared in 1964. Couched in the aphoristic style for which Sontag would later become renowned, the essay postulated what were then such leftfield views as “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex”. Equally vilified and hailed for her championship of an emergent counterculture, Sontag later expressed surprise that an essay published in such a relatively minor journal could have excited so much popular debate: but her undeniable talent for self-promotion, coupled with her combative intellect, ensured that it did. Before long Vogue and Vanity Fair were touting the striking young woman as an American equivalent to those European stylists and commentators from whom she drew many of her principles.

In a hectic decade, Sontag published her groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation (1966), the novel Death Kit (1967), Trip to Hanoi (1969) and Styles of Radical Will (1969). She won the George Polk Memorial Award in 1965 and a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1965 (and 1974) and was made a Guggenheim Fellow in 1966 (and 1975).

Her growing reputation as a film critic had earned her a jury place at the 1967 Venice and New York film festivals, and her own film, Duet for Cannibals, was shown at the 1969 New York festival. She had a valuable impact upon experimental art in the 1960s and 1970s and few New York intellectuals can be said to have identified so acutely with the ideas of high European Modernism.

During the 1970s she began to distance herself from the radical avant-garde, but she remained much in the public eye. Stanley Aronowitz called her “the major American example of the critic as star”, but Sontag herself was properly ambivalent about this status. Part of her appeal lay in her intellectual range and her eschewing of any single party position. She lent gravitas to the imagination of popular culture and helped to bridge the chasm between the small highbrow journals and the mass media.

In 1979, for example, she told Rolling Stone that “rock’n’roll was the reason I got divorced”, and noted that her writing career had stemmed from the “total separation between the people who were tuned into popular culture and those who were involved in high culture . . . There was nobody I ever met who was interested in both, and I always was.”

She came closest to outlining an intellectual programme with her manifesto in 1964 “against interpretation”, a startling phenomenological thesis founded on existentialism. It called for an end to scholastic interpretation of art in favour of genuine sensory perception, arguing that “a work of art is a thing in the world, not just text or commentary on the world” and suggesting that criticism should judge the artistic experience itself, rather than attempting to “translate” it or extrapolate from it.

In 1977 On Photography won her the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. “I came to realise,” Sontag said of the book, “that I wasn’t writing about photography so much as I was writing about modernity, about the way we are now. The subject of photography is a form of access to contemporary ways of feeling and thinking.” Her later treatise on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), examined how pictures of warfare were both informed by, and influenced, contemporary political and artistic concerns of those who produce the photographs, and those who in turn view them.

Throughout the 1980s she was a regular speaker at international writers’ conferences, and as president of PEN, 1987-89, she was one of the chief supporters of Salman Rushdie when his life was threatened after the publication of The Satanic Verses. In 1993 she published her first play, Alice in Bed, and her fourth novel, In America, appeared in 1999.

Sontag’s political writings caused considerable public controversy. Impelled, she said, by grief, she wrote on America’s involvement in Vietnam, on Cuba, communism and the wars in Yugoslavia. She valued Hanoi and China, in particular, as sensibilities alternative to that of the West. At a 1982 rally for Polish Solidarity in New York, she famously declared communism to be “Fascism with a human face”, which was widely but erroneously read as a conversion to the Right. Her political activism and concern for human rights also took her to Yugoslavia in the early-1990s, where she called for international intervention to put an end to the erupting civil war there.

In one of her best works, Illness as Metaphor (1978; expanded into Aids and its Metaphors, 1989), Sontag warned against the tendency to regard illness metaphorically, and wrote that the healthiest way of being ill is the one most devoid of the figurative. Some of her best insights in the book perhaps stemmed from her own fight against cancer, which was first diagnosed in 1975.

Susan Sontag is survived by her son.

Susan Sontag, author and activist, was born on January 16, 1933. She died of cancer on December 28, 2004, aged 71.


Susan Sontag, writer, political activist and anti-Bush campaigner, dies at 71

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

29 December 2004

Susan Sontag, the writer and activist who loudly criticised US foreign policy and military action in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, died yesterday morning in New York. She was 71 and had been suffering for some time from leukaemia.

"I can confirm she passed away this morning," said a spokeswoman at the city's Sloan Kettering hospital, declining to give more details.

Sontag, the daughter of a fur trader, wrote 17 books, including the influential 1964 study on gay aesthetics called Notes on Camp . But in recent years it was her outspoken opposition to the Bush administration's so-called war on terror that drew most attention.

In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, Sontag set off a huge row with her suggestion - published in the New Yorker magazine just two days after the hijackings - that al-Qaida's action had not been an "act of cowardice".

"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 and depressing," she wrote. "The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilisation" 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?"

Sontag, who described herself as a "zealot of seriousness," was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933 and spent her early years in Tuscon, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father died when she was five. Her mother later married an Army officer, Captain Nathan Sontag.

Sontag described her childhood as "one long prison sentence". She skipped three grades and graduated from school at 15; the head teacher told her she was wasting her time there. Her mother warned if she did not stop reading she would never get married.

Although she wrote a number of novels, it was as an essayist that she had her greatest literary impact. Notes on Camp , which established her as a major new writer, popularised the "so bad it's good" attitude toward popular culture.

From the Sixties onwards, Sontag was constantly involved in politics. From 1987-89 she served as president of the American chapter of the writers' organisation PEN. When Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, it was Sontag who led protests in the literary community. During the Nineties she travelled to the former Yugoslavia, calling for international action to stop the civil war.

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, once said of her: "I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate. She is unique."

Susan Sontag

 (Filed: 29/12/2004)

 Susan Sontag, the American novelist and essayist who died yesterday aged 71, was a paragon of radical intelligence and austere beauty of whom it was said that, if she had not existed, the New York Review of Books would have had to invent her.

Called "the most intelligent woman in America" by Jonathan Miller, Susan Sontag was a slow, unprolific writer who agonised over her work. In 25 years of grind, she produced six slender volumes of crafted essays. Published intially in popular magazines and periodicals, her work made intelligent criticism of modern culture acceptable and had a profound effect on future generations of authors, critics and journalists.

Sontag's first essay, Notes on 'Camp' - an analysis of the preference of some people for tat rather than art - was published in the Partisan Review in 1964. Camp, she wrote, was a form of consumption that converted "bad" art such as comic strips into a source of refined pleasure, ignoring intention and relishing style.

This sounded like an attack on elite culture, delivered with the skill and authority of someone well-educated in that culture. Added to her defence of such modernist icons as John Cage, Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Godard, it earned Susan Sontag the titles "Queen Camp" and "the Natalie Wood of the avant garde".

In fact, Susan Sontag's favourite author was Shakespeare, and she was at pains to point out that she did not want to promote bleak modernism for its own sake. "All my work says be serious, be passionate; wake up," she said. "You have to be a member of a capitalist society in the late 20th century to understand that seriousness itself could be in question."

There were few strip cartoons in her own library. An avid reader from early childhood, she possessed a collection of 15,000 volumes and could talk fluently across the arts and humanities, on philosophy, literature, film, opera, neurology, psychology or church architecture. She always found time to read; she said that the memory of her drunken mother sleeping away her life provoked her to make do with four hours' sleep a night.

Critics who denigrated her as "pseudo-intellectual" overlooked the fact that Susan Sontag employed her seriousness to defend the senses against the intellect.

In Against Interpretation - the title of her first collection of essays published in 1966 - she damned Freudian and Marxist interpretation that "excavates; destroys; digs behind the text to find a subtext which is the true one". Interpretation destroyed energy and "sensual capability". It was the "revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world."

Despite her awesome abilities as a critic, Susan Sontag was at war with herself. In part, she wanted to be an unthinking, passionate artist. Early on she wrote two novels - The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) - but these were more intellectual than passionate. As she grew older, the need to express herself grew stronger.

It was not until 1992 that she felt she had done herself justice with her novel The Volcano Lover, a heady mixture of intellect and eroticism, about the love triangle between William Hamilton, his wife Emma and Lord Nelson.

The book was "released" in Susan Sontag after a conversation with her psychiatrist in which she discovered that her difficulty in writing a popular novel came from a fear that giving readers pleasure might seem trivial. "What worried me was that I would not be writing essays, because they have a powerful ethical impulse," she said. "But my psychiatrist said: 'What makes you think it isn't a contribution to give people pleasure?'"

Susan Sontag was born in Arizona on January 16 1933. Her father was a furrier with a business based in China, where he spent much of his time. Her mother, an alcoholic of great beauty, was so afraid of growing old that she forbade her daughters to call her "mother" in public. Susan and her sister lived most of their early childhood with an illiterate Irish nurse.

When she was five, Susan's father died in China. Afterwards, her mother took to travelling a great deal. "I don't know where she went or what she did," Susan said. "I guess she had boyfriends.".

The family became poor and moved to Los Angeles. Susan read books "to ward off the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the maddening bromides I heard at home". By the age of seven she had read a six-volume edition of Les Misérables and had become a socialist. At 14 she took a schoolfriend to tea with Thomas Mann, then living in exile in Los Angeles.

At Hollywood High, when Susan was 15, her principal told her that she had outstripped her teachers and sent her to Berkeley, from where she went to Chicago University. At 17 she married Philip Rieff, a lecturer in social theory 11 years her senior, after a 10-day courtship. She heard one student telling another that Rieff had married a "14-year old Indian".

Rieff provided her with intellectual companionship. At Boston University he wrote about Freud while she took masters degrees in English and Philosophy and added an MA from Harvard. They had a son, David, but in 1958 the couple separated for a year when Sontag took up a fellowship at Oxford. There she was influenced by the teaching of Iris Murdoch and AJ Ayer, but found student life equally engrossing. "It was being young in a way I had never allowed myself to be," she recalled.

On her return to America she divorced Rieff and set off for New York with her son, two suitcases and $70. Her lawyer told her she was the first woman in Californian history to have refused alimony. She taught at Columbia University while writing The Benefactor, and began working on the essays that would secure her reputation.

In addition to Against Interpretation, she published the collections Styles Of Radical Will (1969); On Photography (1977); Illness As Metaphor (1978); Under The Sign Of Saturn (1980) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1989). She also wrote four films and appeared as herself in Zelig, Woody Allen's mock-documentary.

The best of her essays conveyed dense thought in casual, almost thrown-away paragraphs and sentences. They were demanding in the same way that poetry is demanding; each learned reference was used as selectively as a poet might use images. Such pared-down elegance was the refined product of grim endeavour. An essay of a few thousand words took her six to nine months to write. "I've thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said, "30 or 40 drafts of each page."

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Sontag lived in Paris. In 1976 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and returned to America. Ignoring the advice of American oncologists, she had radically high doses of chemotherapy for two and a half years; the odds were against her living. "I was terrified," she said. "Horrible grief. Above all, to leave my son. And I loved life so much. I was never tempted to say `that's it'. I love it when people fight for their lives."

She never became rich from her writing, but was adept at securing grants and scholarships. In necessity, friends helped her out; the money for her cancer treatment was raised by Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. It was not until The Volcano Lover that she acquired an agent; and only in 1990, when she was awarded a handsome MacArthur fellowship, was she secure enough to buy her apartment in New York.

Susan Sontag had a high political profile. She visited Hanoi during the Vietnam war (after which she described the white race as "the cancer of human history") and in 1993 she directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo when that city was under siege. She was a vociferous critic of the Soviet Union - particularly in its treatment of writers - and was president of PEN in 1987. Days after the attacks of September 11 2001, she criticised American foreign policy, referring to the terrorists' behaviour as "an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions".

She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Though known for her hauteur and not indifferent to her public image, Sontag avoided the "celebrity" circuit. Her highbrow attitude made enemies, foremost among them the American academic Camille Paglia, best-known for her enthusiasm for the pop singer Madonna. Paglia never forgave Sontag for snubbing her at a party in 1973. By the late 1980s she was declaring that her intellect had eclipsed Sontag's. "I've been chasing that bitch for 25 years," said Paglia, "and at last I've caught her."

"We used to think Norman Mailer was bad," said Susan Sontag, "but she makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen."

In 2000 she published a novel, In America, about the 19th century Polish actress Helena Modjeska. Although she was criticised for unauthorised use of source material, it won her the National Book Award.

Susan Sontag never re-married, and her close relationships with several women provoked speculation; in 1999 she wrote an essay for Women, a compilation of portraits by her longtime friend, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. "I don't talk about my erotic life any more than I do my spiritual life," she said. "It is too complex and always ends up sounding so banal."

She is survived by her son, David, whom she described as her "best friend".


Susan Sontag

The Dark Lady of American intellectual life, an aesthete who reorientated its cultural horizons

Eric Homberger

Wednesday December 29, 2004

The Guardian

Susan Sontag, the "Dark Lady" of American intellectual life for over four decades, has died of cancer. She was 71.

Sontag was a tall, handsome, fluent and articulate woman. She settled in New York, where she lived, off and on, after separating from her husband, the social thinker Philip Rieff, in 1959, and her career went stellar there. Sontag belonged to the small number of women writers and intellectuals, led by Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick, who gave New York life its brilliance, without becoming a "New York Intellectual". She regarded all provincialisms, of Paris, Oxford or New York, as uninteresting. Even America failed to engage her. "I don't like America enough to want to live anywhere else except Manhattan. And what I like about Manhattan is that it's full of foreigners. The America I live in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through."

Her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published in 1966, was followed in 1969 by Styles Of Radical Will. Under The Sign Of Saturn appeared in 1980, and the long-awaited Where The Stress Falls in 2001. Her passions were for cinema (preferably European), photography, European writers and philosophers, and for aesthetic pronunciamentos of a particular pugnacity.

Despite a brimming and tartly phrased political sensibility, she was fundamentally an aesthete. She offered a reorientation of American cultural horizons. On Style, the title essay in her first collection, plus Notes On Camp, set out an economy of culture which was moral without being moralistic, and began a radical displacement of heterosexuality.

It was a gay sensibility that she interpreted, and that shaped her response to the visual arts. It was also the central focus of her emotional life. But she remained essentially private, and when she wrote about herself, there was always an element of self-distancing. In a culture expecting easy intimacies from its great figures, she was aloof, poised, posed: she was camera-friendly. But you never could claim to know Sontag, however much New York was alive with gossip about her loves, her ex-loves, her next book.

She moved readily from references to philosophers, poets, literary theoreticians and film auteurs. Reviewers were, rightly, dazzled. Though she changed her mind repeatedly, it was always done with style and conviction. If you wanted to argue with Sontag, you had to enter into her work in terms of the way a stance, a position, made sense as an intervention.

Sontag dismissed Leni Reifenstahl in 1975, after the photographer had put in decades of work on her rehabilitation - all of which were ruined by the cool brilliance of Sontag's analysis of the allure of fascism. "The color is black," she wrote in Fascinating Fascism, "the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."

Her astringent attack against interpretation ("the project of interpretation is largely reactionary") carried an aesthete's preference for readers, or consumers, to leave works of art alone, not to seek to replace them with something else. This was not a view that found favour among Deconstructionists, but Sontag was indifferent to the corporate earnestness of Yale or Harvard.

Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, she was the daughter of a fur trader. When he died in 1938, her mother Mildred, and sister Judith (who suffered from asthma) left New York in search of warmer weather. Settling in Miami, and then Tucson, Arizona, they arrived in Los Angeles in 1945 when Mildred married army captain Nathan Sontag. Susan was never formally adopted, though she took his name.

She had a deeply solitary and precocious childhood. Intimacy was not the Sontag family style, and she grew up without a gift for small talk, and little gaiety. There was little encouragement to the life of the mind. At North Hollywood high, she was remembered for her style and self-confidence.

Sontag attended the University of California, Berkeley, for a semester, before in 1949, at the age of 16, she was admitted to the University of Chicago, where she formed strong bonds with teachers including critic Kenneth Burke and political philosopher Leo Strauss, intellectual father of the current neoconservatives. Sontag had a gift for cultivating men of influence and intellectual power. Later, at Harvard, Paul Tillich became her mentor.

But it was a younger teacher at the University of Chicago, sociologist Philip Rieff, whom she married. As a 17-year-old sophomore she walked into his class on Kafka, late. He asked for her name when the class ended. Ten days they were married. Their son David, a writer, was born in 1952.

She moved with Rieff to Boston after graduating in 1951. Their marriage had intense conversations but little intimacy. Sontag took a master's degree in philosophy at Harvard, and in 1957 won a fellowship to study for a year at St Anne's College, Oxford. She hated Oxford's sexism, and by Christmas had relocated to Paris, falling in with the expatriate American community around the Paris Review. She met the writer Alfred Chester, who introduced her to Robert Silvers. He provided Sontag with an incomparable platform when the New York Review of Books was launched in 1963.

In Paris, Sontag made serious efforts to engage with French film-making, philosophy and writing. Returning to America in 1958, and met by Rieff at the airport, she told him before they got into the car that she wanted a divorce. Reclaiming her son, who had been living with Rieff's parents, she declined Rieff's offers of child support or alimony, moved into a small apartment, took an editorial job on Commentary, and wrote furiously. A self-conscious first novel, The Benefactor (1963) in the nouveau roman style, was accepted by Robert Giroux. Roger Straus, the senior partner of the publishers Farrar, Straus & Giroux, took her under his wing, kept her novels in print (The Death Kit appeared in 1967), and acted as literary impresario. She was invited to the important parties, and appeared regularly in leading literary journals.

In 1965 she remarked, in a Partisan Review symposium, that "the white race is the cancer of human history". The age of radical chic had arrived, and Sontag - serious, gorgeous, striding across New Yorkintellectual life, was its most striking adornment. In 1968, indignant at the US role in Vietnam, she visited Hanoi, and published an account of it, Trip To Hanoi.

In the early 1970s, Sontag began to write about photog raphy, in a series of essays in the New York Review of Books. She was gripped by the problems, principally aesthetic, of interpreting images. The further she explored, the stronger became her doubts about whether photographs gave what they seemed to be delivering: a slice of truth, a piece of reality. In a gesture of immense self-confidence, her book On Photography (1977) did not contain a single photograph as specimen or illustration.

She later returned to many of its themes in Regarding The Pain Of Others (2003), a thinner book, perhaps more directly shaped by her life as a public person, giving learned lectures to large audiences. Many of the most provocative arguments of On Photography were abandoned in the later book.

Her studies of languages of illness, Illness As Metaphor, (1978) and AIDS And Its Metaphors (1989) were writ ten under the shadow of her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, for which she sought experimental therapy in Paris. In 1998 she was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer, from which she has died.

In her studies of language and illness, she sought to remove the second punishment, of blame, that the metaphors of illness sustain.

Her career as a novelist came full circle in 1992, when she published Volcano Lover, and In America, winner of the National Book award in 2000. Drawing on historical sources, and written with little of the spirit of her earlier novels, they brought her to a wider readership, but did not have much of the provocative rigour of her essays.

Her son survives her.

· Susan Sontag, writer, born January 16 1933; died December 28 2004


From the Los Angeles Times

Sontag's Life Is Testament To Democratic Meritocracy

By Tim Rutten 

Times Staff Writer

December 28, 2004, 7:36 PM EST

Shortly after Susan Sontag died Tuesday in New York, an obituary on the BBC's World Service described her as "the high priestess of the American avant-garde."

So she was, in part.

But to take that topic sentence and its implications as the sum of her 71 years is to discount the example of an inspiring -- and uniquely American -- life.

Much that will be written about her in the weeks ahead will focus on her aesthetic and political legacy and, as the British Broadcasting Corporation's description suggests, on her status as an icon of what some would describe as the international intellectual elite. It also is worth considering, however, that she willed and worked herself into all that she achieved. She was not born to the life of the mind but to a consumptive fur trader, who died when she was 5, and his alcoholic wife, who once told her that if she didn't stop reading, she'd never find a husband. She received her secondary education at North Hollywood High School, from which she graduated at 15 before going on to Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Oxford.

The life Susan Sontag lived, in other words, was not one of an elitist icon, but of an ideal of democratic meritocracy.

In the interest of full disclosure, Susan was for many years a friend and, on occasion, a houseguest of this writer and his wife. Her only child, writer and commentator David Rieff, is a close friend and one of our son's godfathers. During a conversation not long after we met, we discovered that we both had been inspired at an early age by reading Jack London's "Martin Eden," the story of a rough seaman who sets out to win the affection of a middle-class girl through relentless self-education and, in the process, finds and tragically rejects success as a writer. It is a great, if sentimental, American story.

Susan's similarly ruthless pursuit of what she believed was truest and best inevitably conveyed a kind of elitism. Yet no matter how rarified the company, it was open to anybody willing to do the work to join. Her own drive for self-improvement -- and the conviction that knowledge and critical thinking were the tools to accomplish it -- never ceased.

Susan did not drive, and on many visits to Los Angeles this writer happily served as her chauffeur. The destinations always included any notable local museum exhibition and the restaurant Matsuhisa, where the meal inevitably began with two orders of one of the restaurant's signature dishes, toro tartare topped with beluga caviar. But usan's preferred method of filling time was bookstores. The personal library, meticulously cataloged by subject and language, that filled her Manhattan loft was something of a legend in literary circles and, in fact, has been acquired by the University of California, Los Angeles. Still, every visit to local bookshops would end with the purchase of another substantial box or two of books to be shipped home.

Wandering the stacks with her was a rare treat, because she paused not only over the new, but also the familiar and beloved.

"Do you know this?" she would ask, pulling a volume from the shelf.

If the answer was yes, a discussion of the book's merits and shortcomings had to ensue.

If you replied no, Susan's eyes would brighten and her voice climb half an octave: "Oh, but you must have this book. You must read it. It's fantassssstic. I'm going to buy it for you."

And so she did. In the bookcase around the corner from this desk are Stevie Smith's collected poems and W.S. Merwin's luminous translations of Chamfort's aphorisms, mementos of two such excursions and testimony to the capaciousness of her taste and enthusiasm.

Both qualities could make her a magnificently stimulating and utterly exhausting companion. No one this writer ever has known had taken so deeply to heart Albertus Magnus' famous admonition that "the greatest of all human pleasures is to seek the truth in conversation."

On one occasion we talked until after 2 a.m., then reluctantly went off to bed. A habitually early riser, her host rose before dawn and was surprised to find the light on in his study. There was Susan, sitting at the library table desk in a pool of lamp light, surrounded by books taken from the nearby shelves and scribbling into a notebook. "Where did you find these translations from the Philokalia (a collection of religious texts in Greek)?" she demanded. "I don't have them, and they're very interesting."

Over the years, Susan's single-minded confidence enabled her to revisit and reassess some of her own political and aesthetic positions, a process for which she received far too little credit. Sometimes, though, that single-mindedness made other lives and other choices somewhat opaque to her.

Leaving Los Angeles, for example, was so critical to her own embrace of the wider world that she regarded others' conscious decision to remain here as somewhat suspicious.

Once, after a long afternoon of work -- she over a set of galleys, and her host over a newspaper column -- there was conversation about life in Los Angeles and a walk around the yard and into the walled, gravel-pathed vegetable garden at the rear of the lot.

As her host bent over, as gardeners will, and absent-mindedly began to weed a bed of baby lettuces, Susan said, "Oh, now I get it. You live like a poet."

And that was that.

To the generations of Martin Edens to come, to all those Americans who believe that you can be born in Bakersfield or Boise and still aspire to live fully the life of the mind, Susan Sontag left an example -- and this advice:

"Be serious, be passionate, wake up!"


Indomitable critic silenced by cancer

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Writer and activist Susan Sontag, one of America's greatest public intellectuals, died Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 71.

Her grave and glamorous appearance made her a popular icon of the writer as a nation's conscience, on a par with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.

Sontag succumbed to complications from leukemia. She had endured repeated bouts of cancer and its treatment since the 1970s.

Among other distinctions, including a MacArthur Fellowship, she received the National Book Award in 2000 for her novel "In America" and the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for her second extended reflection on photography, "Regarding the Pain of Others." In all, she published 17 books.

"Susan Sontag was a great literary artist," author Salman Rushdie said in a statement Tuesday, "a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many struggles."

Her death deprives American culture of more than a nimble and irrepressible literary voice. Sontag, equally famous as critic and novelist, personified that increasingly rare public figure, the intellectual who lives by ideas and writing alone, unconnected with and uncompromised by academia.

"My idea of a writer: someone interested in 'everything,' " Sontag wrote in a 1996 preface to the Spanish edition of her celebrated 1966 book, "Against Interpretation."

That collection of essays set her critical pattern of looking with equal interest on high and low culture, on things both central and peripheral to mainstream preoccupations. The book argued broadly that interpretation submerges pleasure and engagement in the arts. "I looked around and saw importance to which no one was giving its due," she later wrote.

The book's core essay, "Notes on Camp," served as an opening volley in the long controversy over what came to be called "gay studies."

Arriving in New York in 1960, Sontag had thought it "reasonable to suppose," she wrote in the 1996 preface, "that [her] fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended." She got an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and master's degrees in English and philosophy at Harvard.

"The only surprise was that there weren't more people like me," she wrote of New York in the early '60s.

Born Susan Rosenblatt, the daughter of a New York furrier who did business in China and died there when she was 5, Sontag spent a lonely childhood in Arizona and Southern California, a time of her life she refused to recollect in detail.

She took and kept the name of her mother's second husband, Nathan Sontag.

A precocious reader and student, Sontag graduated from high school at 15 and entered the University of Chicago after a semester at UC Berkeley.

In Chicago, still only 17, she met and promptly married one of her university teachers, Philip Rieff, who was 9 years her senior.

Though they later divorced, Rieff and Sontag had one child together in 1952.

David Rieff became a journalist and the author of admired books on Cuba and on the failures of humanitarian aid in crisis zones.

In the charismatic Philip Rieff, a cultural historian widely noticed in the '60s for his writings on Freud, Sontag may have found an early model for the imperious manner and aphrodisiac air of learning that she would cultivate so successfully in her own career.

Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a close friend of Sontag, described her legacy to The Chronicle as "a lifetime of devotion to the eros of difficulty."

Everyone who met Sontag felt the magnetism and confidence verging on arrogance that every author's photograph on her books communicates.

"I met her 30 years ago in Berkeley," Wasserman said. "I was 21. She took me by the hand, walked me into Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue and began plucking one book after another off the shelves. I was about to graduate from UC and to my astonishment discovered I hadn't read anything. ... I remember especially her taking a book by Machado de Assis, whose book 'Epitaph of a Small Winner' she pronounced a masterpiece of wit and irony, and it proved to be a delight." She later wrote a foreword for the book.

Although identified as a New York writer, Sontag was a founding member of San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures, said program director Sydney Goldstein. "I'd had her speaking at the series in Marin, and when I decided to move to San Francisco, I asked her if she'd be a board member, and she said she would if she liked the two other board members. I said, 'What about me and Tom Luddy?' and she agreed. She gave the third presentation in the series when we moved it to San Francisco 25 years ago.

"She was inspirational, very demanding, extremely argumentative," Goldstein said. "She could be very difficult. But she was someone who you had to keep up with."

Never cowed by controversy, Sontag pronounced highly unpopular opinions, which she sometimes revised publicly later, on events ranging from the Vietnam War to the plight of Bosnia, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the scandal of sanctioned torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"She was indomitable," said her friend Michael Silverblatt, host of the "Bookworm" show syndicated nationally by KCRW radio in Santa Monica.

"She taught you how to be a person who refuses anything but the meaningful," Silverblatt said. "Her quest for meaning, for significance was endless. She described life more as a war than an adventure. Susan thrived best in the presence of an adversary. ... You learned that you were not her adversary if she'd chosen you as a friend. She taught me as a friend the strength of dealing with adversity. Her last adversary was the struggle with death itself."

Sontag is survived by her son, David Rieff, of New York, and a younger sister, Judith Cohen, of Maui, Hawaii.



The "traitor" fires back

Denounced as a fifth columnist by the right, Susan Sontag blasts America's cowlike media and scaremongering leaders -- and says she fears that another terror attack could turn the U.S. into a police state.

By David Talbot

October 16, 2001 | Writer Susan Sontag has produced many texts during her four-decade career, including historical novels and reflections on cancer, photography and the war in Bosnia. But it was a brief essay, less than 1,000 words long, in the Sept. 24 issue of the New Yorker that created the biggest uproar of her life. In the piece, which she wrote shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Sontag dissected the political and media blather that poured out of the television in the hours after the explosions of violence. After subjecting herself to what she calls "an overdose of CNN," Sontag reacted with a coldly furious burst of analysis, savaging political leaders and media mandarins for trying to convince the country that everything was OK, that our attackers were simply cowards, and that our childlike view of the world need not be disturbed.

As if to prove her point, a furious chorus of sharp-tongued pundits immediately descended on Sontag, outraged that she had broken from the ranks of the soothingly platitudinous. She was called an "America-hater," a "moral idiot," a "traitor" who deserved to be driven into "the wilderness," never more to be heard. The bellicose right predictably tried to lump her in with the usual left-wing peace crusaders, whose programmed pacifism has sidelined them during the current political debates. But this tarbrush doesn't stick. As a thinker, Sontag is rigorously, sometimes abrasively, independent. She has offended the left as often as the right (political terms, she points out, that have become increasingly useless), alienating some ideologues when she attacked communism as "fascism with a human face" during the uprising of the Polish shipyard workers in the 1980s and again during the U.S. bombing campaign against the Serbian dictatorship, which she strongly supported.

Sontag, 68, remains characteristically unrepentant in the face of the recent attacks. On Monday, she talked with Salon by phone from her home in Manhattan, reflecting on the controversy, the Bush war effort and the media's surrender to what she views as a national conformity campaign.

Did the storm of reaction to your brief essay in the New Yorker take you by surprise?

Absolutely. I mean, I am aware of what a radical point of view is; very occasionally I have espoused one. But I did not think for a moment my essay was radical or even particularly dissenting. It seemed very common sense. I have been amazed by the ferocity of how I've been attacked, and it goes on and on. One article in the New Republic, a magazine for which I have written, began: "What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Susan Sontag have in common?" I have to say my jaw dropped. Apparently we are all in favor of the dismantling of America. There's a kind of rhetorical overkill aimed at me that is astonishing. There has been a demonization which is ludicrous.

What has been constructed is this sort of grotesque trinity comprised of myself, Bill Maher and Noam Chomsky. In the Saturday New York Times, Frank Rich tried in his way to defend us by arguing for our complete lack of importance, by saying that any substitute weather forecaster on TV has more influence than any of us. We were identified as a writer, a late evening comic, and a linguistics professor. Sorry, but Noam Chomsky is a good bit more than a "professor of linguistics." Our critics are up in arms against us because we do have a degree of influence. But our own "defenders" are reduced to saying, "Well, leave the poor things alone, they're quite obscure anyway. "

Look, I have nothing in common with Bill Maher, whom I had never heard of before. And I don't agree with Noam Chomsky, whom I am very familiar with. My position is decidedly not the Chomsky position

How do you differ from Chomsky?

First of all, I'll take the American empire any day over the empire of what my pal Chris Hitchens calls "Islamic fascism." I'm not against fighting this enemy -- it is an enemy and I'm not a pacifist.

I think what happened on Sept. 11 was an appalling crime, and I'm astonished that I even have to say that, to reassure people that I feel that way. But I do feel that the Gulf War revisited is not the way to fight this enemy.

There was a very confident, orotund piece by Stanley Hoffman in the New York Review of Books -- he's a very senior wise man in the George Kennan mold, certainly no radical. And I felt I could agree with every word he was saying. He was saying bombing Afghanistan is not the solution. We have to understand what's going on in the Middle East, we have to rethink what's going on, our foreign policy. In fact, since Sept. 11, we're already seeing the most radical realignment of policies.

Bill Maher has abjectly apologized for his remarks --but you don't seem to be getting any more docile in the fact of this storm of criticism. Why not?

Well, I'm not an institution, and I don't have a job to lose. I just get lots of very nasty letters and read lots of very nasty things in the press.

What do the letters say?

That I'm a traitor. The New York Post, or so I've been told, has called for me to be drawn and quartered. And then there was this Ted Koppel show -- the producer invited me onto the show a week ago. It's not my thing, but I did it. And they got someone from the Heritage Foundation [Todd Gaziano], who practically foamed at the mouth, and said at one point, "Susan Sontag should not be permitted to speak in honorable intellectual circles ever again." And then Koppel said, "Whoa, you really mean she shouldn't be allowed to speak?" And he said, well maybe not silenced, but disgraced and "properly discounted for her crazy views."

So there's a serious attempt to stifle debate. But, of course, God bless the Net. I keep getting more articles of various dissenting opinions e-mailed to me; naturally, some of them are crazy and some I don't agree with at all. But you can't shut everyone up. The big media have been very intimidated, but not the Web.

I don't want to get defensive, but of course I am a little defensive because I'm still so stunned by the way my remarks were viewed. What I published in the New Yorker was written literally 48 hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. I was in Berlin at the time, and I was watching CNN for 48 hours straight. You might say that I had overdosed on CNN. And what I wrote was a howl of dismay at all the nonsense that I was hearing. That people were in a state of great pain and bewilderment and fear I certainly understood. But I thought, "Uh-oh, here comes a sort of revival of Cold War rhetoric and something utterly sanctimonious that is going to make it very hard for us to figure out how best to deal with this." And I have to say that my fears have been borne out.

What do you think of the Bush administration's efforts to control the media, in particular its requests that the TV networks not show bin Laden and al-Qaida's video statements?

Excuse me, but does anyone over the age of 6 really think that the way Osama bin Laden has to communicate with his agents abroad is by posing in that Flintstone set of his and pulling on his left earlobe instead of his right to send secret signals? Now, I don't believe that Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the administration really think that. At least I hope to hell they don't. I assume they have another reason for trying to stop the TV networks from showing bin Laden's videotapes, which is they just don't want people to see his message, whatever it is. They think, Why should we give him free publicity? Something very primitive like that. Which is ridiculous, because of course anyone can see these tapes for themselves online, via another TV news network abroad. Although I see the BBC, our British cousins who are of course ever servile, are discussing whether to broadcast the tapes. We can always count on the Brits to fall in line.

Why has the media been so willing to go along with the White House's censorship efforts?

Well, when people like me are being lambasted and excoriated for saying very mild things, no wonder the media is cowed. And self-censorship is much more widespread than one can imagine. Here's something no one has commented on that I continue to puzzle over: Who decided that no gruesome pictures of the World Trade Center site were to be published anywhere? Now I don't think there was single directive coming from anywhere. But I think there was an extraordinary consensus, a kind of self-censorship by media executives who concluded these images would be too demoralizing for the country. I think it's rather interesting that could happen. There apparently has been only one exception: one day the New York Daily News showed a severed hand. But the photo appeared in only one edition and it was immediately pulled. I think that degree of unanimity within the media is pretty extraordinary.

What is your position on the war against terrorism? How should the U.S. fight back?

My position is that I don't like throwing biscuits and peanut butter and jam and napkins, little snack packages produced in a small city in Texas, to Afghan citizens, so we can say, "Look, we're doing something humanitarian." These wretched packages of food that are grotesquely inadequate -- there's apparently enough food for a half-day's rations. And then the people run out to get them, into these minefields. Afghanistan has more land mines per capita than any country in the world. Neither is it anything less than dangerous to the recipients of our so-called generosity to drop packages of medicine on people who have no access to doctors and no knowledge of how to use these. That wonderful organization, Medicins sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders], has denounced this practice.

I'm sickened by the way that the delivery of so-called humanitarian aid is once again being used as a justification -- or cover -- for war.

As a secular person, and as a woman, I've always been appalled by the Taliban regime and would dearly like to see them toppled. I was a public critic of the regime long before the war started. But I've been told that the Northern Alliance is absolutely no better when it comes to the issue of women. The crimes against women in Afghanistan are just unthinkable; there's never been anything like it in the history of the world. So of course I would love to see that government overthrown and something less appalling put in its place.

Do I think bombing is the way to do it? Of course I don't. It's not for me to speculate on this, but there are all sorts of realpolitik outcomes that one can imagine. Afghanistan in the end could become a sort of dependency of Pakistan, which of course wouldn't please India and China. They'd probably like a little country to annex themselves. So how in the world you're going to dethrone the Taliban without causing further trouble in that part of the world is a very complicated question. And I'm sure bright and hard-nosed people in Washington are genuinely puzzled about how to do it.

Do you really think it could be done without bombing?

Absolutely. But this would be a complicated, long set of operations, some of them military and covert, and the United States is not very experienced in these matters. The point is, as I said in my New Yorker piece, there's a great disconnect between reality and what people in government and the media are saying of the reality. I have no doubt that there are real debates among military and political leaders going on both here and elsewhere. But what is being peddled to the public is a fairy tale. And the atmosphere of intimidation is quite extraordinary.

And I think our protectors have been incredibly inept. In any other country the top officials of the FBI would have resigned or been fired by now. I mean, [key hijacking suspect] Mohammad Atta was on the FBI surveillance list, but the list was never communicated to the airlines.

The authorities are now responding to the anthrax scare -- most probably domestic copycat crazies on their own warpath -- by spreading more fear. We have Vice President Cheney saying, "Well, these people could be part of the same terrorist network that produced Sept. 11." Well, excuse me, but we have no reason to think that.

As a result of these alarming statements from authorities, the public is terrified. I don't know what it was like in San Francisco this last weekend, but I live in New York and the streets were empty after the FBI announced that another terrorist attack was imminent. You have these idiots in the FBI saying they have "credible evidence" -- I love that phrase -- that an attack this weekend is "possible." Which means absolutely nothing. I mean it's possible there's a pink elephant in my living room right now, as I'm talking to you from my kitchen. I haven't checked recently, but it's not very likely. And meanwhile our ridiculous president is telling us to shop and go to the theater and lead normal lives. Normal? I could go 50 blocks, from one end of Manhattan to another, in five minutes because there was no one in the streets, no one in the restaurants, nobody in cars. You can't scare people and tell them to behave normally.

We also seem to be getting contradictory messages about Muslims in the U.S. We're told that not all Islamic people are our enemy, but at the same time there's a fairly wide dragnet, which some civil liberties defenders have criticized as indiscriminate, aimed at rounding up Islamic suspects.

Well, people are very scared and Americans are not used to being scared. There's an American exceptionalism; we're supposed to be exempt from the calamities and terrors and anxieties that beset other countries. But now people here are scared and it's interesting how fast they are moving in another direction. The feeling is, and I've heard this from people, about Islamic taxi drivers and shopkeepers and other people -- we really ought to deport all the Muslims. Sure they're not all terrorists and some of it will be unfair, but after all we have to protect ourselves. Racial and ethnic profiling is now seen as common sense itself. How, it's now felt, could you not want that? If you're going to take planes, you don't want to find yourself sitting next to a fellow in a turban and a beard.

What I live in fear of is there will be another terror attack -- not a sick joke like the powder in the envelope, but something real that takes more lives, that has the stamp of something more professional and thought out. The target could be another building with a resonant, symbolic-sounding name, this time in Chicago or some other heartland city. If that happens, we could have something like martial law. Most Americans, who as I say are so used to not being afraid, would willingly accede to great abridgements of freedom. Because they're afraid.

You called the president "robotic" in your New Yorker essay. But the New York Times, among other media observers, has editorialized that Bush has shown a new "gravitas" since Sept. 11. Do you think the president has grown more commanding since the terror attacks?

I saw that in the Times -- I love that, "gravitas." Has Bush grown into his role of president? No, I think he's acquired legitimacy since Sept. 11, that's all -- I don't call that "growing" at all. Let's not forget, the election was stolen for him. I think what we obviously have in Washington is some kind of regency, run presumably by Cheney and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and maybe [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, although Powell is much more of an organization man than a real leader. It's all very veiled. And Cheney has not been much seen lately -- is this because he is ill? It's all very mysterious. I hate to see governance become even more opaque.

It seems important to the Times and other major media to shore up the president's image these days.

Yes, I just don't understand why debate equals dissent, and dissent equals lack of patriotism now. Still, there are reasons to cherish the Times. I cry every morning real tears, I mean down-the-cheek tears, when I read those small obituaries that the Times publishes of the people who died in the World Trade Center. I read them faithfully, every last one of them, and I cry. I live near a firehouse that lost a lot of men, and I've brought them things. And I'm genuinely and profoundly, exactly like everyone else, really moved, really wounded and really in mourning. I didn't know anyone personally who died. But my son [journalist David Rieff] recently went to the funeral of a Princeton classmate who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald [in the World Trade Center]. A number of people I know lost friends or loved ones.

I want to make one thing very clear, because I've been accused of this by some critics. I do not feel that the Sept. 11 attacks were the pursuit of legitimate grievances by illegitimate means. I think that's the position of some people, but not me. It may even be the position of Chomsky, although it's not for me to say. But it's certainly not my position.

Speaking of your son, he seems to favor a tougher military response to Islamic terrorism than you do.

Well, I don't want to go deeply into it, but clearly we don't see it exactly the same way. Whatever David thinks is tremendously important to me, but we do start from a different point of view. I feel that it's just a difference of emphasis, but without speaking for him, he feels it's deeper than that. But he's still the love of my life, so I won't criticize him.

This is one thing I do completely agree with David on: If tomorrow Israel announced a unilateral withdrawal of its forces from the West Bank and the Gaza strip -- which I am absolutely in favor of --- followed by the proclamation of a Palestinian state, I don't believe it would make a dent in the forces that are supporting bin Laden's al-Qaida. I think Israel is a pretext for these people.

I do believe in the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territories, which is of course the radical view held by a minority of Israeli citizens, but certainly not by the Sharon government. And it's a view I expressed when I received the Jerusalem Prize there in May, which created quite a storm. But just because I am a critic of Israeli policy -- and in particular the occupation, simply because it is untenable, it creates a border that cannot be defended -- that does not mean I believe the U.S. has brought this terrorism on itself because it supports Israel. I believe bin Laden and his supporters are using this as a pretext. If we were to change our support for Israel overnight, we would not stop these attacks.

I don't think this is what it's really about. I think it truly is a jihad, I think there is such a thing. There are many levels to Islamic rage. But what we're dealing with here is a view of the U.S. as a secular, sinful society that must be humbled, and this has nothing to do with any particular aspect of American policy. In my view, there can be no compromise with such a vision. And, no, I don't think we have brought this upon ourselves, which is of course a view that has been attributed to me.

Let me ask you about another part of your essay that has riled your critics. You said the hijackers displayed more courage than those, presumably in the U.S. military, who bomb their enemies from a safe distance.

No, I did not use the word "courage" -- I did use my words carefully. I said they were not to be called cowards. I believe that courage is morally neutral. I can well imagine wicked people being brave and good people being timid or afraid. I don't consider it a moral virtue.

My feeling about this type of safe bombing goes back to the U.S. air campaign against the Serbs in Kosovo, which I strongly supported, though I was criticized by many of my friends on the left for being too bellicose. I did support the bombing of the Serb forces, because I had been in Sarajevo for three years during the siege and I wanted the Serbs checked and rebuked. I wanted them out of Kosovo as I had wanted them out of Bosnia.

When the U.S. campaign in Kosovo began, I happened to be staying with a close friend in Bari, a town on the tip of Italy, just across the Adriatic from Albania, and the Apache helicopters were literally passing over my head on their way to the airfield outside of Tirana. But, once landed in Tirana, they were never allowed to take off for Kosovo because of the risk that one or more might be shot down and the crew injured or killed. And the U.S. was unwilling to accept these casualties.

But in order to bomb precisely, without hitting hospitals and other civilian targets, you have to fly low to the ground with aircraft like these. And you have to risk being brought down by antiaircraft fire. So I was dismayed by the loss of civilian life in that U.S. bombing campaign, which I had hoped would be very precise.

And so thinking about this, as I was writing my essay for the New Yorker, I became very angry. And I was thinking about the dumping of napalm upon thousands of retreating Iraqi soldiers on the Basra Roa, at the end of the Gulf War -- a slaughter which one U.S. general described as "a turkey shoot." And I wrote, if you're going to use the word "cowardly," let's talk about the people who bomb from so high up that they're out of the range of any retaliation and therefore cause more civilian casualties than they otherwise would, in what has been announced as a limited, focused bombing of military targets only.

What about those in the antiwar camp who see a moral equivalence between the destruction of the World Trade Center and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan?

That's nonsense too. But, you know, I'm not keen on calling anything the moral equivalent of something else. The world is a slaughterhouse, that's for sure. I'm against mass murder -- not a hard position to take. And here there are two sides, and these are anything but equivalent, morally or in most other ways. But there are not very many strictly military targets in Afghanistan, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Northern Alliance, brought to power by American bombs and American money, will not be much of an improvement for the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is, has been, is likely to continue to be an ocean of suffering. Afghanistan is not the enemy.

About the writer

David Talbot is Salon's founder and editor in chief.





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 the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

—Susan Sontag



Photography’s view of devastation and death.

Issue of 2002-12-09

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