Remember Susan Sontag? Back in the 1960s and 1970s the Heroine of Hip made something of a career of highbrow anti-Americanism. America, she complained, was a “mechanized, anxious, television-brainwashed” society, a country that was “founded on genocide” and that in its maturity indulged in a “lethal” barbarism. Sometimes she described America as “cancerous,” sometimes as “inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian.” After the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001, Sontag, writing in The New Yorker, demanded to know
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.
We’ll leave aside the question of whether courage is “a morally neutral virtue.” Aristotle thought otherwise, but then Aristotle was not the sneering connoisseur of contempt that Sontag is. What loathing she packs into the quotation marks around civilization, liberty, humanity, and the free world! Clearly she regards them as empty, hypocritical phrases, at least insofar as they are applied to the United States. And so it was only business as usual that this September 10, as the debate quickened over what to do about Iraq, Susan Sontag should deliver herself of an op-ed piece called “Real Battles and Empty Metaphors” in The New York Times. Real wars, she tells readers of the Times, have a beginning and an end, but the battle against terrorism is not a war but an open-ended “mandate for expanding the use of American power.”
Readers familiar with Sontag’s oeuvre know that she is addicted to the word “metaphor.” (Illness as Metaphor is the title of one of her books, AIDS and its Metaphors the title of another.) Again and again she has warned readers about cognitive and moral distortions wrought by mistaking metaphors for realities. Now she assures us that, although “real wars are not metaphors,” the war against terrorism is a metaphor and “one with powerful consequences.” It’s not that she likes the Taliban or Al Qaeda, you understand. She acknowledges that they oppose “most of what I cherish—including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun.” Well, it’s edifying to know that Susan Sontag approves of skimpy clothes and dancing (all kinds). And we suppose it is reassuring to know that she does not “question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens.” But the actual steps our government has taken to do just that—steps, we might add, which have lately yielded rich dividends in arrests of Al Qaeda members in this country and abroad—she describes as “lobotomizing.” Which is, of course, a metaphor. And mistaking metaphors for realities is a dangerous temptation, as Susan Sontag has been reminding us ad nauseam for the last few decades. Hasn’t she been listening?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 2, on page 3
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