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Sontagged

The first Susan Sontag Awards are given out. Picture the Oscars, but with dumber winners.

12:01 AM, Oct 3, 2001 • By J. BOTTUM
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THE FIRST SUSAN SONTAG CERTIFICATE--The Weekly Standard's way of recognizing inanity by intellectuals and artists in the wake of the terrorist attacks--goes, of course, to the essayist and novelist Susan Sontag for her note in the Sept. 24 issue of the New Yorker. She managed, in the space of only 460 words, to score every possible point. There was the shtick of deliberately saying something outrageous: "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." There was the moral equivalence in which the attacked are blamed along with the attackers: "How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?" There was the willful obtuseness in moral reasoning with which she defined "courage" as "a morally neutral virtue." And finally, there was the use of the occasion to indulge old political grievances: "Everything is not O.K. . . . We have a robotic president."

Sontag set a standard difficult to match. Still, for sheer outrageousness, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen topped her, calling the destruction of the World Trade Center "the greatest work of art imaginable. . . . Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn't even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched into the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn't do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing." When the uproar in Germany caused the cancellation of a major program of his music, Stockhausen apologized, saying he meant that the terrorists had created a work of "the devil's art."

It seems hardly fair to include MIT professor Noam Chomsky, the linguistics theorist turned far-left activist, for he fell off the cliff into goofiness more than thirty years ago and hasn't made any effort to climb back. But he has a fanatical readership among anti-globalization types, and his Sept. 12 statement "On the Bombings" deserves recognition as a definitive statement of moral equivalence--or rather, moral inequivalence, for America is much, much more to blame than its attackers. "The terrorist attacks were major atrocities," he admits, but "in scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people." Noting that the attack on the World Trade Center is the first assault against the U.S. mainland since 1812, he points out that in the years between 1812 and 2001, "the U.S. annihilated the indigenous population (millions of people), conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way."

Matching Chomsky is the novelist Arundhati Roy, universally praised author of "The God of Small Things." In the Manchester Guardian, she declared that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are really the same person. The terrorist "is nothing more the American president's dark doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of 'full-spectrum dominance,' its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think." When Michiko Kakutani said in the New York Times that Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" was "Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character," this is probably not what she had in mind.