Open Letter to Susan Sontag,
by Melissa Byles

May I interpret you a little, Susan Sontag? You tell us you despise TV, you never watch it when you're at home, you don't even own a TV set, but on September 11 you were in Berlin and, like so many of us, you were glued to CNN. That's understandable. Then you became incensed. Not by the images, but by the words. The terrorists who had crashed those planes were being called "cowards," their action "cowardly." A travesty of language! So right away you shot off an article to The New Yorker, which appeared in the September 24 issue, the one with the black-on-black subtle cover, and was translated in several foreign newspapers. Your point:

"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 [i.e. American bomber pilots], 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."
You made your point. But was it opportune? To blame for using the wrong words those whose job was to say something publicly about the day's events, yet who likely were stunned almost to speechlessness as we all were -- like blaming Bush for blurting out, at the beginning, that we wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive -- seems more than a little pedantic and censorious: it looks like a comic caricature of "the intellectual." And over and beyond the issue of timeliness, and passing over, too, your parenthetical statement that courage is a morally neutral virtue (parentheses are almost invariably pregnant with hard questions): is it really true that the perpetrators of the September 11 slaughter cannot be called "cowards"? More generally, is not "cowards" an apt word for fanatics of all sorts? Obviating life's perplexing ambiguities, the difficult problems of being in the world and of living with others, in the name of a simple faith in a beyond -- in this particular case, a faith which promises those young men who blow themselves up for Allah eternal delights in a paradise where flow rivers of milk, wine and clarified honey, with beautiful maidens whose virginity is ever renewed, like the moon -- may we not properly call such contempt for life and such simple faith cowardly? I am putting this question about cowardice to you without much hope of getting an answer: "intellectuals" do not like to deal with live questions or questions about faith. Too intractable.

Am I being unfair in calling you an intellectual between quotes? Yet I think it's justified. You've always felt nostalgia for mandarinism -- I mean the European regime of several generations ago whose vir egregius was Sartre; those intellectuals who could be counted on to give categorical opinions on no matter what. I remember your admiration for Gide, for Valéry, for Barthes. They could discuss so elegantly what they knew nothing about. They seemed set so high up, olympian, universal. So philosophical. Recently I read your interview with a journalist, Francesca Borrelli, and you sound much like those intellectuals of yore: thus my quotation marks. You appear to have no doubts about what's right and what's wrong. Sanctions against Iraq, for example, are wrong because many Iraqis are suffering. You may be right, and perhaps the U.S. should instead wage another quick war to topple Saddam Hussein. I cannot say. And once again, you state that all high functionaries in the U.S. government are at a loss for words, they cannot speak properly about our dire predicament. You, of course, believe you can and you do; another reason for the quotation marks.

Yet by far the most important distinction in philosophy, ever since Socrates and up to Kant, is the one between what we know and what we do not know. One would not notice this by reading your models, who were inspired by less cautious thinkers -- thinkers of the Hegel sort, who brandished their thoughts not as their own, but God's -- and who followed their masters in confusing knowing and not knowing into a hopeless mess. It is funny, or perhaps sad: watching C-SPAN,  listening to a Pentagon official answering questions from journalists and making careful distinctions between what they know for sure, what is merely likely, and what they don't know at all about the situation in Afghanistan or elsewhere, one gets the impression that they at the Pentagon are better philosophers and more honest intellectuals than either you or the models you admire. Admittedly, an impression caused by method and style; as for content, the Pentagon might be feeding us lies: it wouldn't be the first time. U.S. government officials are not very good with words, as you point out, but setting, as you do, more store on how thoughts are expressed than on their quality and their honesty -- especially on that basic distinction between knowledge and ignorance -- is the trademark of the sophist, as Socrates never tired of repeating.

You feel proud to belong to the group of American intellectuals ("alas, how few") who are dissenters. Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and others. I can sympathize with that; I too aspire to be a celebrated author, a dissenter. But being a dissenter does not excuse a lack of intellectual rigor. True, part of the information we need if we are to have well-founded opinions is classified; other parts are ambiguous. Well then, what's wrong with saying occasionally, "I don't know," or, "I'm not sure"? Even from a purely rhetorical perspective, it would be a smart move. Your chief argument -- which is your fellow dissenters' chief argument as well --  that our country is afflicted with imperial arrogance, would thereby gain in dignity, and it will become more persuasive once it is presented with less intellectual arrogance.


This article elicited an exchange of letters.


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