Kevin Myers on Susan Sontag

I’d like to start off by saying I have no familiarity with the life and works of the recently departed Susan Sontag (apart from having merely heard of her), but I couldn’t help noticing the piece by Kevin Myers in today’s Sunday Telegraph, I Wish I Had Kicked Susan Sontag (you’ll need to register, which is free):

If ever a single person was living proof that intelligence is a meaningless quality without modest common sense, it was Susan Sontag who died last week. The reverential tone of the obituaries served to confirm that self-proclaimed intellectuals, no matter how deluded or preposterous, exert a strange, intimidating power over non-intellectuals – especially if they employ that infuriating literary device, the epigram.

I can’t help but wonder if the hostility of the Right to Sontag actually has more to do with her opinions after 9/11 than with her academic and literary career? Before the dust had settled on the Twin Towers she wrote in the New Yorker an article questioning the accusation of “cowardice” against the hijackers, and suggesting that the actions might be the consequence of US foreign policy. She also denounced the media for “the disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators”. The anti-Arab blog Little Green Footballs called her “blinkered by her negative faith in America the Ugly” and noted her earlier support for Salman Rushdie. (Which I don’t find so contradictory except for the fact that Rushdie offended Muslims. It’s only normal for writers to defend their ability to offend certain groups without their lives being threatened.)

This piece is full of the usual attacks on US liberal campus culture for which the right-wing press (particularly in the US) has become so notorious lately, which was a major subject of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas / America? which I reviewed back in September. The problem is that academia is by nature an intellectual ghetto, and usually contains quite a few eccentric, pretentious and socially inadequate people. The very people who parade the west’s superiority over all the other nations of the world using its intellectual heritage and freedom seem to be those most willing to condemn those who make use of it. Worse than this are certain universities which are full of people partying and not really doing much work at all. This is what I found at my university in Aberystwyth in the mid 1990s.

As ever, let’s have a look at another Myers or two to get a flavour for this artist’s work. In “Do we want the Turkish peasantry here?” (19th December 2004), which is full of the usual side-swipes at the liberal intelligentsia of Islington, he observes that more people are moving out of the Netherlands than into it, and that Rotterdam is on its way to becoming Europe’s first Muslim-majority city (after Istanbul, Edirne and Tirana, which he’s forgotten about). Perhaps if all those Dutchmen who had gone to molest the natives of South Africa had stayed where they belonged, their country wouldn’t have this problem. Perhaps if European women (not just in Holland - Italy is the worst hit by this phenomenon) actually had enough children to stave off the “demographic threat” posed by Muslims, they wouldn’t have this problem.

Later on, he comes up with these bizarre statistics:

Well, my little liberal friends, it hasn’t turned out like that. Opinion polls show that 11 per cent of Britain’s two million Muslims approved of the attacks of 9/11, and 40 per cent support Osama Bin Laden. Nearly 1,200 British Muslims have been trained in terror camps in Afghanistan; three British Muslims have become suicide bombers. British police are - finally - investigating 122 possible “honour killings” of women in immigrant communities.

All I can say is that I’ve never been asked by any opinion polling company what I thought about the 9/11 attacks or OBL - or, indeed, anything else. The description of the training camps as “terror camps” is possibly inaccurate as they may have been training for actual warfare, which is not the same thing as terrorism. The honour-killing statistic is questionable, since the discussion is about Muslims and not all honour killings, by any means, are the work of Muslims.

He’s also got a few words to say about art: in “Tracey Emin, you’ve been rumbled” (5th December), he goes on and on about an anti-art movement he calls “the Great Con”, which he Frenchifies into “Le Grand Con”. I was under the impression that the word “con” in French meant not deception, but a part of the female anatomy, and this online dictionary agrees with me. He identifies Picasso as its inceptor, and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, which as a letter writer points out, was actually a jab at a group of “self-styled art critics” working in Zurich. “However, to imply that Picasso was a fraud is to suggest that Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh were simply wasting good paint.”

Oh yes, he has a piece on “the gipsy problem” (3rd Oct 2004) as well (and those human-rights wallahs who only see victimhood and not responsibility). Dirty, disease-ridden, caste-based, often violently misogynistic. Most of all, short. Not so, says Beverley Cohen (10th Oct); her sister has been a traveller for over 10 years, living with her partner in a converted horse-box, and their children have never eaten fish caught by other than a member of their family and would be punished if they dropped litter. I’ve had enough now.

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