David Aaronovitch, "The Trouble with Sontag's Story" (Guardian)
And sometimes he's not the only one. As Aaronovitch points out, Susan Sontag was right to emphasize in 1999
that "the principal instances of mass violence in the world today are those committed by governments within their own recognised borders. Can we really say there is no response to this? Is it true that war never solved anything? (Ask a black American if he or she thinks the civil war didn't solve anything.)"These questions (Sontag's and Aaronovitch's) are still worth pondering.
Sontag herself wrote those words in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo intervention. And even she characterises the Iraq invasion as "a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times ... " Why would going to Kosovo be any less intrinsically colonialist and therefore less likely to release the demons in the American psyche?
Yours in struggle,
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
The trouble with Sontag's story
'The photos are us," said the cover line for Susan Sontag's G2 essay yesterday. I took this to mean that a much respected writer would demonstrate how the Abu Ghraib pictures told all Americans (and perhaps all Britons too) something about themselves. Good. When the news emerged of the US bombing of a gathering on the Syrian border last week, I wanted to drop down a hole and pull it in after me. I didn't for one minute believe that it was a careful targeting of a fedayeen raiding party. Nor have I accepted that the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse pictures represent simply an aberration. And if Sontag was in the business of explaining how "we" got to this point, then I was certainly in the market for it.
Sontag didn't write that cover line, of course, but the trouble is that her essay is not about "us" at all. She argues, in essence, that the abuses in Abu Ghraib are the product of a violent society and a corrupt policy. Her essay is an intellectual's version of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. All the blame lies with "them". It's a case of Never On Sontag.
Like Moore, Sontag identifies "America's ... increasingly out-of-control culture of violence" in which sex, entertainment and physical brutality are intertwined. And she extrapolates: "This idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what Mr Bush is telling the world - part of 'the true nature and heart of America'." The evidence, she writes, is everywhere, "starting with the games of killing that are the principal entertainment of young males", and extending to the phenomenon of "hazing", in which initiates to new colleges, schools or barracks are subjected to sexual teasing and - sometimes - violence. These acts, and "what formerly was segregated as pornography" are now being normalised, says Sontag, "by the apostles of the new, bellicose, imperial America, as high-spirited prankishness or venting".
But who - an intelligent conservative might ask - championed sexual freedom if it wasn't us on the liberal left? Who made films full of shocking violence and endless sex? Who wrote the 80s and 90s books on how to bring up your kid? If there has been a decline of the sort that Sontag laments, do the liberal "we" not share any responsibility? Didn't the conservatives warn us that all this would happen?
Despite the new culture of brutality, the administration, repudiating the acts in Abu Ghraib, "has invited the American public to believe [in the] virtue of American intentions ... " In other words, the same debased, brutal people who love sexual humiliation are gulled by the president into accepting that America hates torture and sexual humiliation. There is an unexplored contradiction here.
Which brings us to Sontag's second "them". "The photographs are us," she writes. "That is, they are representative of distinctive policies and of the fundamental corruptions of colonial rule." Presumably she is saying that the whole idea of invading a country to bring democracy to it, or otherwise "improve" it, is essentially flawed - institutionalising a corrupt relationship between the invader and the invaded. Torture grows easily out of this corruption.
But she also complains bitterly (and rightly) about the "strenuous avoidance of the word genocide while the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda was being carried out ... [an avoidance] that meant the American government had no intention of doing anything".
What should it have done, by her lights? Intervention by the west (who else?) would surely have brought about "the fundamental corruptions of colonial rule". Not least, presumably, because of the intrinsic brutality of the society that would have provided most of the soldiers. And a note here to liberal Americans - French and German boys play violent videogames too.
Sontag would, one imagines, have the same objection to anyone who could argue recently that "the principal instances of mass violence in the world today are those committed by governments within their own recognised borders. Can we really say there is no response to this? Is it true that war never solved anything? (Ask a black American if he or she thinks the civil war didn't solve anything.)"
Sontag herself wrote those words in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo intervention. And even she characterises the Iraq invasion as "a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times ... " Why would going to Kosovo be any less intrinsically colonialist and therefore less likely to release the demons in the American psyche? Surely not simply because there is a Bush - one of "them" - in the White House?
Suppose that it isn't about "them" but "us". I'm not sure I buy the idea that everything is worse than it was. Unlike in the days of Robert Musil's Young Torless, brutalised at boarding school, "hazing" is banned on most campuses. The authorities, imperialist or not, disapprove of it. Interestingly, the film cited by Sontag to suggest current mores, Dazed and Confused, was made in 1993 about a school in the year 1976. Watching Gus van Sant's more recent Columbine film Elephant, I was struck by how much nicer all the kids were to each other than the boys were at my school 30 years ago. There are no race riots, there is no formal segregation, there has been no My Lai in Iraq, no one is called "gook" as far as I know.
The Progressive's horror is that we thought the other stuff had gone away. Not entirely, but mostly. We thought that, however thick and repulsive the Rush Limbaughs, at least the Powells and Rices would know what they were doing. Mea culpa, if that's what you want. I cannot better Sontag's description of "the mystifying, near-total unpreparedness of the American rulers of Iraq to deal with the complex realities of an Iraq after its 'liberation' ". And I agree with her about the Guantanamisation of the war on terror.
But by making this about them and not really about us, Sontag is in danger of making all action impossible. If it is about them, all we have to do is to defeat them. If it is about us, we have to take constant and daily action to notice and to deal with those things in ourselves and our societies that humiliate others. We have to be always vigilant, always re-examining, always questioning. Which is a bloody and necessary pain.