[Marxism] Cockburn on Sontag

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 29 19:30:33 MST 2004

 From Alexander Cockburn's "Beat the Devil" column in the 3/20/2001 Nation 

You can pretty much gauge a writer's political sedateness and 
respectability in America by the kind of awards they reap, and it is not 
unfair to say that the literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment 
certainly deems Sontag safe. Aside from the recent National Book Award, she 
got a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, was appointed in 1979 a 
member of the American Academy, and in 1990 received the liberal imprimatur 
of a five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur 
Foundation, which once contemplated giving a fellowship to Said but 
apparently desisted after furious protests from one influential Jewish 
board member.

Now Sontag's been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth 
recipient of the award since its inauguration in 1963, and the second woman 
to be so honored, the first being Simone de Beauvoir. The award, worth 
$5,000, is proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of 
the individual in society, and is presented biennially at the Jerusalem 
International Book Fair. Past recipients of the Jerusalem prize include 
Bertrand Russell, Jorge Semprun, Isaiah Berlin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge 
Luis Borges, J.M. Coetzee, and rather bizarrely, Don DeLillo.

Sontag was selected by a three-member panel of judges, comprised of the 
Labor Party's Shimon Peres and Hebrew University professors Lena Shiloni 
and Shimon Sandbank. Peres has been quoted as admiring Sontag's definition 
of herself. "First she's Jewish, then she's a writer, then she's American. 
She loves Israel with emotion and the world with obligation." When notified 
of her latest accolade, Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea 
of how honored and moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this 
year's Jerusalem Prize."

Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony, 
which will be held within the framework of the 20th Jerusalem International 
Book Fair. One news report remarked that "According to book fair director 
Zev Birger, events which have blighted tourism in recent months have not 
adversely affected the publishing world. 'It's business as usual,' he said, 
noting that checks and hotel reservations were coming in."

Why dwell on the familiar currency of international literary backslapping? 
I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards. American 
intellectuals will be brave as lions concerning the travails of East 
Timoreans, Rwandans, Central American peasants, Chechens. But for almost 
all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have always been invisible. 
The intellectuals know well enough that to raise a stink about Israeli's 
appalling treatment of Palestinians down the years is to invite drastic 

Now it could scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political writer. 
But there was an issue of the late 1990s on which she did raise her voice. 
Along with her son David Rieff, Sontag became a passionate advocate for 
NATO intervention against Yugoslavia or, if you prefer, Serbia. (To put in 
a good or even a balancing word for the Serbs was of course another rare 
event in American intellectual life, where almost all liberals became, like 
Sontag, enthusiastic advocates of NATO's bombs.)

On May 2, 1999 Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times, "Why Are We In 
Kosovo?", urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "Of course, it is easy 
to turn your eyes from what is happening if it is not happening to you," 
she wrote. " Or if you have not put yourself where it is happening. Imagine 
that Nazi Germany had had no expansionist ambitions but had simply made it 
a policy in the late 1930?s and early 1940?s to slaughter all the German 
Jews. Do we think a government has the right to do whatever it wants on its 
own territory? Maybe the governments of Europe would have said that 60 
years ago. But would we approve now of their decision? Push the supposition 
into the present. What if the French Government began slaughtering large 
numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica . . . or the 
Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a 
million refugees . . . or Spain decided to apply a final solution to its 
rebellious Basque population? Is it acceptable that such slaughters be 
dismissed as civil wars, also known as 'age-old ethnic hatreds.'"

Now, Sontag is obviously not entirely unaware that there is a country from 
which more than a million refugees have been expelled. In 1973 she actually 
made a film in Israel, "Promised Lands," made in October and November of 
1973 after the Egyptians crossed the Suez canal in the Yom Kippur war. Back 
then, Nora Sayre gave it a politely damning review in the New York Times: 
"Throughout the ideas and the people and the machines of war are examined 
from a distance, as though everything had been observed through some kind 
of mental gauze. The Israelis - particularly those in robes - are filmed as 
if they were extremely foreign or exotic. Also, Israel seems like a nearly 
all-male country, since few women appear and none have been interviewed. 
There are a few sympathetic words for the Arabs, but their existence seems 
shadowy and abstract - almost as bloodless as the statues in a wax museum 
devoted to Israeli history."

But surely now Sontag has had time to reflect more deeply on real Israeli 
Jews, and on real Palestinians. Through the 1990s it became a lot harder 
than in earlier years for American intellectuals to claim that they did not 
know what was happening, or were in ignorance of how Palestinians have been 
treated. The subject became legal tender, even if the currency remained 
severely limited in fungibility.

Sontag has always been appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the 
fact that she, relentless critic of Slobodan Milosevic, (upon whose 
extradition to face trial in its Hague Court as a "war criminal" the US is 
now conditioning all aid to Yugoslavia,) is now planning to travel to get a 
prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials as 
a war criminal are robust and indeed undisputed by all people of balanced 
and independent judgement. To resurrect a tired phrase, Sharon really does 
have the blood of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese upon his hands.

Does Sontag sense no irony in getting a prize premised on the author?s 
sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of 
Palestinians is unrelentingly repressed? To dramatize her support for 
multi-ethnic Sarajevo, she actually produced a play in the beleagured city 
a few years ago. Imagine what bitter words she would have been ready to 
hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of Bosnia to receive money 
and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising her 
commitment to freedom of the individual, and poo-pooing "events that have 
blighted tourism."

Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which Sharon 
declares Israel's absolute and eternal control, and whose latest turmoils 
he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection of a 
thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy places. Can there 
be a more flagrant and disgusting pretensions to all those invocations to 
toleration and diversity Sontag and the others put forth, accompanied by 
their strident demands for NATO to drop its bombs on the Serbs?

Does Sontag plan to raise the issue of Palestinians in her acceptance 
speech? I would like to think so, but somehow I doubt it. She'll scurry in 
and scurry out, probably hoping not to attract too much attention. When the 
South African writer Nadine Gordimer was offered the Jerusalem prize a 
number of years ago, she declined, saying she did not care to travel from 
one apartheid society to another. But to take that kind of position in the 
United States would be a risky course for a careful (and by a less obliging 
token) a cowardly intellectual. Of course, Said knows he lives in a 
glasshouse, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his stone.

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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