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Brain drain
In defense of Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal

IT IS AMAZING that one year after the attacks of September 11, we are still hearing many usually progressive commentators complain that there is no public debate about the war on terrorism and George W. Bush’s desire to effect a "regime change" in Iraq. Actually, there is lots of debate — from leading Democrats like Tom Daschle and Al Gore, prominent Republicans like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, former generals like Brent Scowcroft, celebrated statespeople like Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, former presidents like Bill Clinton, and commentators including Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, William Safire, George Will, Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Nicholas Kristof.

Still, the progressive complaint may yet have merit. For what we’re seeing is that politicians, former presidents, generals, columnists, and even right-wing rabble-rousers are taken, to various degrees, seriously. Writers who’ve made a name for themselves as public intellectuals, on the other hand, are not. People who’ve commented on public and political affairs for more than five decades — often prompting useful intellectual debate — are now being written off as extreme left-wing, anti-American cranks. The attacks on Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal — the most prominent characters in this category — represent a blossoming of an ugly strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture that has always been present, but which is now, after September 11, in full force.

On the New York Times’ September 10 op-ed page, in a piece titled "Real Battles and Empty Metaphors," Susan Sontag lays out a persuasive argument for why the metaphor of "war" is precisely the wrong way to describe current US policies against Al Qaeda and its associates. Likening it to the "war on cancer" or the "war on drugs," she claims that such an overarching figure of speech as "the war on terrorism" is without precise meaning and thus grants the government power to do whatever it wants at home and abroad. Indeed, such a vague notion of war "is a powerful disincentive to having a mainstream debate about what is actually happening," she writes. Although Iraq is never mentioned, it is clearly the specter lurking behind Sontag’s plea for clarity in thought and language.

An op-ed piece by Noam Chomsky in the September 9 Guardian raises similar points: "The prescription for endless war poses a far greater danger to Americans than perceived enemies do, for reasons the terrorist organisations understand very well." Indeed, terrorists welcome the "Bush doctrine" as great for recruiting. "If we insist on creating more swamps, there will be more mosquitoes, with awesome capacity for destruction," Chomsky adds. These ideas are not new for Chomsky, and are echoed in 9/11 (Seven Stories, 2002), his recently published, best-selling book comprising interviews he has given mostly to the foreign press.

Meanwhile, lifelong dissenter Gore Vidal, in an interview broadcast September 10 on the BBC’s East Asia Today, accused the US government of misleading the American public on most foreign-policy issues, including Iraq: "America is a quarter of a billion people totally misinformed and disinformed by their government. This is tragic, but our media is — I wouldn’t even say corrupt — it’s just beyond telling us anything that the government doesn’t want us to know." These sentiments are explained at greater length in Vidal’s new book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated (Thunder’s Mouth Press), in which he expounds on a related issue: not only is the US government hated by folks in foreign lands, it is hated to a great degree at home as well, as proven by the Oklahoma City bombing. What, Vidal muses in his patrician but always searing manner, might have caused so much hatred among such antithetical groups? His answer, of course, is one that he has been offering for close to five decades: monumental abuses by the federal government in both domestic and foreign affairs. It is, in his view, simply the disenfranchised fringes striking back at the empire.

Except for Vidal’s overreaching condemnation of the American media, none of these commentators’ ideas seems particularly egregious or out of the realm of rational political discourse. That’s not to say that many people agree with them, but that disagreement is the very crux of debate and, we hope, the motor moving forward both thinking and action. Yet all three of these commentators have met with something beyond disagreement and criticism. Call it outright dissing. The day Sontag’s Times column appeared, Andrew Sullivan wondered aloud, on his blog, "Whose inspired idea was it to ask Susan Sontag to write an op-ed for the New York Times the day before the first anniversary of September 11?" The Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal noted Sontag’s piece under the headline stupidity watch. And the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, in a syndicated column for, dismisses Sontag as a member of "the English-speaking highbrow left."

This is nothing compared to the invective heaped on Sontag for her contribution to the punditsphere in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After publication of a Talk of the Town piece in the September 24, 2001, issue of the New Yorker, in which Sontag stated that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had to be contextualized in the broader history of decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, she was labeled a "fifth columnist," a "quisling," and a "pathetic ayatollah of hate" by various columnists. For a while, Sontag was the most hated woman in America. Sullivan even coined the Susan Sontag Award — given out on his blog — for statements that he considered to be the worst (and, of course, the best) of the "loony left."

Similarly, since Chomsky spoke out against the war in Afghanistan, Chomsky-hating has become something of a national pastime: his name now appears, as if by rote, in nearly every list of examples of "leftist lunacy" with nary an example given of his ideas. Even left-leaning progressives now feel free to dismiss nearly all of what the world-famous MIT-linguistics-professor-turned-foreign-policy-critic has to say. In a fascinating and highly readable essay titled "Faith, Hope, and Clarity" in the September 16 New Yorker, the usually even-handed Louis Menand charges Chomsky with being "anti-American" — i.e., with believing that the "United States is basically a global bad guy, a nation that was founded on the impulses of materialism and expansionism, and that is getting more materialist and expansionist by the decade" — which is certainly a highly selective reading of Chomsky’s large and ever-growing body of work. Even that darling of the postmodern literary left, Michael BŽrubŽ, in the September 15 Boston Globe, writes off Chomsky as a left-wing extremist who is, despite his intentions, hurting the left with his wildly immoderate views. To be fair, there are a few critics who take Chomsky seriously enough to engage him in active combat. The letters debate between him and Christopher Hitchens in the Nation, for example, showed both men at the height of their argumentative powers. But it is rare that Chomsky’s views get the respect needed for good, out-and-out intellectual battle.

Vidal — who carved out his outsider’s niche as political commentator and nonconformist in the 1950s — also receives enormous criticism, although in his case the attacks feel almost pro forma. Vidal’s position as the elder statesman of American apostasy is now used against him; rather than arguing with his ideas, the media treat him like a slightly eccentric uncle whose views are indulged and tolerated as the musings of an out-of-touch expatriate (he now lives in Italy). His appearances in the States a year ago around the time of Timothy McVeigh’s execution to discuss the issue raised by the Oklahoma City bombing received almost no major press coverage — even though what he had to say was potent, illuminating, and unusually well-informed given that he had spent hours interviewing McVeigh during his final weeks. Typical of the response to Vidal’s commentary is what R. Emmett Tyrell had to say in a May 10 commentary piece on the conservative Web site C-Log ( Vidal, Tyrell wrote, is a "moral idiot." Further, he’s a "crank." Why? "On a wide array of issues from religion to economics he holds ferociously to old-fashioned views once the intellectual property of the Know-Nothings, whose 1856 presidential candidate was Millard Fillmore." Comparing anyone to Millard Fillmore is a pretty low blow.

The attacks on Sontag, Chomsky, and Vidal are singular in their viciousness and intensity. This is not only because of what the three commentators say — most of which reflect already-stated positions, and which largely fall firmly within the long tradition of American critical political commentary — but because of their positions as public intellectuals. The attacks on them are not simply, as some have claimed, the panic reaction of a culture that has been deeply shaken by unexpected events in geopolitics, but the full flowering of a strain of anti-intellectualism intrinsic to US culture. What we are witnessing here is a full assault on the dwindling structures of intellectualism — both academic and public — in American life. It is less about the events of 9/11 than about the ascendancy of a deeply conservative campaign aimed at creating a national culture that values nationalism over individualism and physical and military might over open-ended dialogue.

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Issue Date: September 19 - 26, 2002
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