Thursday, February 22, 2007

Never on a Sontag

[posted by Callimachus]

Susan Sontag's post-9/11 essay in the New Yorker sparked a lot of outrage. It appeared less than two weeks after the attacks, with this tone:

Where is the acknowledgement 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 super-power, 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.

Already it becomes difficult to remember how much that felt like a twist of the knife. Truth is not the point. There are times when you tell the truth to a friend, and times when you hold it back for another day. Like when he's cradling his dying child in his arms might not be the right time to say, "You know, you really deserved that."

Now, it turns out, we never saw the full essay:

Sontag’s diatribe against the instant public-relations spin in America was published by The New Yorker immediately after the attacks, drastically edited; it appears here [ed: in a new collection containing her last works] for the first time in its intended form. “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by nearly all American officials and media commentators in these last days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy,” she wrote. “Our leaders have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management.”

Also included is a later change of heart about the tone.

Two essays that follow demonstrate Sontag’s evolving response to the catastrophe. She had been in Berlin on 9/11, glued for 48 hours to her hotel television. “In those first days after my return to New York,” she explains in “A Few Weeks After,” “the reality of the devastation, and the immensity of the loss of life, made my initial focus on the rhetoric surrounding the event seem to me less relevant.”

That explains a lot. Look at America from Europe and you write about it with a European's cold-hearted contempt. Get close to us and you wish you hadn't.

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