Well, Susan Sontag is dead of cancer at age 71. I’m not about to rejoice–because death by cancer, a disease that had plagued Sontag for decades–isn’t something to wish on anyone, and Sontag was, after all, someone’s mom. Yet it must be noted that Sontag, although lionized in the usual media as one of America’s great public intellectuals, will mostly be remembered as the gal who put both the “radical” and the “chic” into the phrase “radical chic.”

She was almost singlehandedly responsible for all the bad intellectual fads that came out of the 1960s and are still with us: pornography as high art; “camp” as something more significant than the gay subculture’s fondness for Judy Garland; the tiresomely “ironic” stances on everything that are now de rigeur among artists and academics. From Jonanthan Franzen to Al Franken–they’re all Sontag’s moral children. Worst of all–and very much alive–is the Sontag-generated notion that America is the most fearsome tyranny on the face of the earth and that anyone who would seek to destroy America, from Fidel Castro with his Soviet-supplied missiles to the terrorists who plowed the planes into the World Trade Center towers, deserves a hero’s medal.

I’m going to let Roger Kimball of the New Criterion’s website have the last word on Sontag, however (he’s quoting from “The Long March,” his 2000 book about the 1960s):    

“Few people have managed to combine na’ve idealization of foreign tyranny with violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect. She has always talked like a political radical but lived like an aesthete. At the annual PEN writers’ conference in 1986, Sontag declared that ‘the task of the writer is to promote dissidence.’ But it it turns out that, for her, only dissidence conducted against American interests counts. Consider the notorious essay she wrote about ‘the right way’ for Americans to ‘love the Cuban revolution.’ Sontag begins with some ritualistic denunciations of American culture as ‘inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian.’ Item: ‘America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information.’ One of the few spots of light, she tells us, is Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, which teaches that ‘America’s psychic survival entails her transformation through a political revolution.’ (It also teaches that, for blacks, rape can be a noble ‘insurrectionary act,’ a ‘defying and trampling on the white man’s laws,’ but Sontag doesn’t bother with that detail.)

“According to her, ‘the power structure derives its credibility, its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the individuals who operate it. The people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are the living dead.’ Since the counterculture is not strong enough to overthrow IBM, the Pentagon, etc., it must opt for subversion. ‘Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature–really grooving on anything–unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.’ And here is where the Cubans come in: they enjoy this desirable ‘new sensibility’ naturally, possessing as they do a ‘southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white, death-ridden culture denies us. . . . The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print culture.’

“Indeed not: supine, desiccated creatures of a Communist tyranny would be more like it, though patronizing honky talk about ’southern spontaneity’ doubtless made things seem much better when this was written. In the great contest for writing the most fatuous line of political drivel, Sontag is always a contender. This essay contains at least two gems: after ten years, she writes, ‘the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization’; even better perhaps, is this passing remark delivered in parentheses: ‘No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published.’…

“Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay ‘Trip to Hanoi’ (1968) is another classic in the literature of political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially savor Sontag’s observation that the real problem for the North Vietnamese is that they ‘aren’t good enough haters.’ Their fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way of the war effort.

“They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, “because they’re bigger than we are,” as a Vietnamese army officer told me, “and they’re used to more meat than we are.” People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man . . . and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen.’
“It would be interesting to know what Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war who was brutally tortured by the North Vietnamese, had to say about this little fantasia….

“Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Sontag took to the pages of The New Yorker to explain that the assault of September 11 was ‘not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” [note the scare quotes] but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards.'”

To her credit, every once in while Sontag would come to her senses, as during the late 1980s when she suddenly realized that communism was essentially a form of fascism. But there was always a relapse into mindless anti-American cant. Kimball sums it up:   

“Sontag enjoyed an extraordinary career. But…her celebrity was not the gratifying product of intellectual distinction but the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic.”