Friday, December 7, 2012

Why You Should Care About Susan Sontag

In 1982, Susan Sontag (a prominent American cultural critic and feminist) gave a speech in New York City. It brought the house down.

People walked out. She lost lifelong friends. Her life didn’t exactly come to a screeching halt, but the foundations certainly quaked a little. Here’s the bit that resonates strongest with me:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or [t]he New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Historical context: in 1982, it was becoming obvious that many of the things Americans had been hearing from left-wing intellectuals about the communist world were at best misguided, at worst outright fabrications. While it would be a stretch to call the intellectual left pro-communist, they certainly described it favourably.

This was a feisty upstart ideology, taking on the Americans and sometimes even winning. This was something purer, more human, more honest, more authentic than the capitalist west. This was something to emulate and model ourselves on. This was a system which gave dignity and importance to ordinary people. Perhaps this is even the future.

As we now know, the Soviet Union was not speaking truth to western imperialist power: it was every inch as narcissistic and inhuman as the forces it claimed to oppose. China was not a centre for progress, mutual respect and salt-of-the-earth democracy, it was a land that was wracked by starvation, consumed by partisan infighting, and which had sacrificed most of its intellectual class at the altar of ideological purity. The spread of communism generally was not a series of peaceful People’s Rebellions in which the population rose as one and chose a new destiny, but was instead every bit as corrupt and sordid and unrepresentative as the CIA marching across South America.

And in this sense, the intellectual left had betrayed the ideas they represented. Out of their desire to be pluralistic and open-minded, they had allowed their proverbial brains to fall out. Here we have an American free press looking the other way as Soviet journalists and dissidents simply disappear; here we have the American civil rights movements—women, people of colour, gays and lesbians—actively supporting a government which would have sent them straight to the gulags; here we have intellectuals sitting in coffee shops and university classrooms, waxing idly about the “authenticity” and “realness” of Soviet culture, blissfully ignorant of the fact that adopting this way of life would involve stripping off their turtlenecks, putting out their cigarettes, and pulling 14-hour shifts in the friendly neighbourhood steelworks.

Sontag urged these people to come back down to earth. To recognize and admit that the way the intellectual left treated the Soviet Union was more than a little ridiculous. The right-wing critiques (human rights violations, inefficient economies, intense corruption, serious threats to world stability, empowerment of vicious dictators…) were worth hearing and treating seriously, and could not simply be dismissed as conspiracy theories from unsophisticated reactionaries.

Above all else, Sontag was arguing for self-criticism. A movement that cannot recognize its own excesses—and, in particular, a movement that can begin to undermine its own stated purposes without even realizing—is fundamentally dysfunctional.

Many people describe this speech as the occasion on which the scales tumbled from their eyes. I wasn’t born until 6 years after her speech, and I first read her words when I was 23 years old—but it was still an earth-shattering revelation. What if all of my assumptions are wrong? What if I’m being selective about what I hear? What if my information is bad?

And even if all my own information checks out just fine, even if all my friends agree with me, even if the major newspapers share my point of view, maybe it’s worth cracking open a Reader’s Digest. Just to be sure.