U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Susan Sontag and the 9/11 Haze

I want to build on an aside mentioned in Ben’s great post on remembering 9/11. He noted Susan Sontag’s dissent from the collective response to 9/11. While President Bush believed 9/11 had nearly revealed a union between heaven and earth; Sontag thought something less glorious had emerged—the kind of “soft despotism” theorized by Tocqueville. Below is an excerpt from Sontag’s devastating analysis:

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.

Sontag argued at this early date that the manipulation of national unity would define the period began by the events of 9/11. “Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one,” she wrote, “confidence-building and grief management.” Much to her utter chagrin, “Politics, the politics of a democracy–which entails disagreement, which promotes candor–has been replaced by psychotherapy.” She closed with a piece of advice that drifted over American history for the next decade: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”

Responses to Sontag’s essay were predictable. Conservative intellectual and blogger Andrew Sullivan named a special award after Sontag for writers who failed to honor America properly. Richard Brookhiser at the National Review dismissed Sontag as the dean of the “we deserved it” school of intellectuals that included other figures such as Noam Chomsky and Katha Pollitt. Charles Krauthammer at Time said Sontag was “morally obtuse.” Generally, many intellectuals and pundits thought Sontag stood as the exemplar of anti-Americanism at a moment of frenetic American patriotism.

The most common refrain became that 9/11 changed everything–the intellectual ground had shifted under the feet of people like Sontag. Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times the same week that Sontag’s essay appeared that the terrorist attacks challenged “the intellectual and ethical perspectives of two set of ideas: postmodernism…and postcolonialism.” He hoped that both would be summarily rejected. 9/11 seemed “to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective,” something that the relativism of post-everything ideologies were incapable of offering. Rothstein argued that because postmodernism complicated “objective notions of truth,” and postcolonialism sought to undermine the West’s ideological dominance, such “rejections of universal values and ideals have little room for unqualified condemnations of a terrorist attack, particularly one against the West.” On the other hand, the promise of a system that housed transcendent values lay in its ability to help people discern moral action in a time of crisis. The implication of Rothstein’s argument was fairly simple: Americans had the power to claim truth, and that truth would set them free from….the culture wars.

Perhaps, as Roger Rosenblatt thought, the “one good thing could come from this horror [was that] it could spell the end of the age of irony.” In an argument similar to Rothstein, Rosenblatt argued that the culture wars had diverted attention from serious issues for over thirty years, helping to create the impression that “nothing was real.” But the attack snapped Americans out of their self-satisfied, narrow-interest daze. The reality of the world had returned and “people may at last be ready to say what they wholeheartedly believe.” And among the revelations people awoke to was the reality of the “greatness of the country.” The collective grief, collective resolve, and collective action of the American people, in the first few weeks after the 9/11 convinced observers such as Rosenblatt that the nation was good–full stop.

Rosenblatt’s colleague at Time, Charles Krauthammer described this transformation in a more colorful way: “The fire at Ground Zero burned for exactly 100 days…But not before it forged a new America.” He observed that as smoke filled lower Manhattan, “Our holiday from history, from seriousness of thought and purpose was over.” Krauthammer had consistently been among the most significant popularizers of the neocon faith in American power. His thinking offered insight into the perpetuation of Reagan’s civil religious discourse about the need to see the United States as a moral entity. He had grown distraught, as had other neocons, by what he saw as the great distractions of the culture wars following the end of the cold war. The struggle against totalitarianism from World War II through 1991 had forged a moral clarity for Americans which was then allowed to dissipate in the 1990s. “Overnight, this land of ‘bowling alone,’ of Internet introversion, of fractious multiculturalism developed an extraordinary solidarity,” he declared. Krauthammer gushed with pride over the “vast outpouring of charity and volunteering; [the] suppression of partisanship and ethnic division; [and the] coalescing behind resolute national leadership anchored by a new, untested President who rose extraordinarily to the occasion.” Images of yellow ribbons (“emblems of America held hostage”) gave way to waving American flags at ceremonies all around the country. In a nation that often longs for and celebrates moments of moral certainty, Krauthammer was sure that for “this generation of Americans–post-Vietnam, post cold war, never challenged–has had no finer hour.”

Sontag’s skepticism sounded so anachronistic when attempts to sound Churchillian became the best game in town. However, history did not cooperate—the war on terror did not provide the cathartic and heroic experience of our imaginary World War II. In short, whatever the culture wars were about—and Andrew wrestles with the dimensions of that term—9/11 did not end them. Instead, we got Abu Gharib. And Sontag returned to center stage to deliver one her most memorable essays: “Regarding the Torture of Others.” Published on May 23, 2004 in the New York Times Magazine, Sontag fused outrage over the photos from the notorious prison with a searing critique of the odd confidence telegraphed in pronouncements about America as a moral nation. As with her critique of Bush’s initial response to 9/11, Sontag was once again tagged as anti-American. She was indeed anti-something, but she didn’t need to be simplistically anti-American to make a point about how dangerous Abu Ghraib was to the domestic health of the United States.

“The torture of prisoners is not an aberration,” Sontag observed. “It is a direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us doctrines of world struggle with which the Bush administration has sought to change, change radically, the international stance of the United States, and to recast many domestic institutions and prerogatives. The Bush administration,” she feared, “has committed the country to a pseudo-religious doctrine of war, endless war.” Abu Ghraib was a grotesque expression of a perverted national faith. “Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis. And shock and awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered.” What made Sontag’s essay an extension of her early view of 9/11 was the way in which American public culture didn’t just absorb Bush’s view but enabled it. “What is illustrated in by these photographs,” Sontag believed, “is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.” In this sense, the mourning of a nation was all of one piece with the Bush’s sacralizing of the nation; the torture of Iraqis was consonant with the general degrading of American culture. In short, Americans were apparently incapable of debating morality—they and their leaders were more than capable of affirming their particular versions of personal morality. “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.” The question was not how was it possible for American to commit such crimes, but whether people were surprised. “To acknowledge that Americans torture their prisoners,” Sontag asserted, “would contradict everything this administration has invited the public to believe about the virtue of American intention and America’s right, flowing from that virtue, to undertake unilateral action on the world stage.”

In short, 9/11 did not sweep away the vestiges of the culture wars to make way for a new era of seriousness, but revealed how seriously Americans needed to take debates about the limits of morality and the exercise of state power in the name of American moral authority.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    Thanks for the reflection. As an aside, it’s hard for me to take Charles Krauthammer seriously as a reflective person. I scan his regular column (it appears in the Peoria Journal Star), and he won’t deny the validity of even … a … single … thing that the Tea Party espouses. To me, he is the epitome of single-minded Tea Party love and one-sided Obama detraction among the pundit class; he can’t find a thing to concede to his opponents. That kind of extreme “thinking” is really indicative of ideology, not reflection. In sum, it’s hard to not take even his ten-year-old 9/11 reflections seriously. I’m suspicious of his ability to think outside the Culture Wars paradigm.

    – TL

  2. My favorite line, “unworthy of a mature democracy.” Of course, I have never really though of the US as a mature democracy, throughout the 20th century one of the leading characteristics of our body politic has been intellectual immaturity.

  3. I agree with Tim above. My interpretation of Krauthammer’s views is that they reflect an extremely rigid ideology. He seems devoid of the ability to (or repelled by the prospect of?) being open to any kind of nuance that challenges his own strong beliefs. If he didn’t have his posh job, he’d be a right-wing troll.

  4. Perhaps a question to ask is whether Charles Kruathammer is a consequence of a mature democracy or a sign of its slow demise. Thanks to Nils for providing empirical evidence of neocon anachronism.

    Who is Sontag’s successor these days?

  5. This article is why I love Susan Sontag–she knew how cut through the crap. I remember reading this piece when it was first published and being very angry about how it complicated my own feelings of outrage and hurt. I didn’t believe the argument that she was part of the “we deserved it school” but Sontag also doesn’t retreat into the empty-headed moralism of conservative writers or the almost existential musings of Rothstein and Rosenblatt. I think what she does is to take these attacks, which, to many, seemed almost cosmic in their implications, and reduces them to their proper proportions as geopolitical events with identifiable causes and effects–some of which, of course, originate here at home. In hindsight, I think this is exactly the kind of reality check that intellectuals and journalists should provide during a crisis and what the majority failed to do in the months after 9/11. I think it was the acquiescence of the media that helped lead us into the economic and military quagmire we’re stuck in today and that makes this article stand out in even sharper contrast. This is one of the pieces I would place in the forefront of any 9/11 archive, not just because it’s brutal and eloquent, but also because it is one of the few pieces written at the time that dares to address the relevant issues of the time.

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