The Laws of Intellectual Safety

Source: http://www.antiwar.com | March 20, 2001

Said, Sontag and the Laws of Intellectual Safety

Alexander Cockburn

Here’s a story about what is intellectually respectable and politically safe in this country, and what is not. It concerns two of this country’s best known public intellectuals, Edward Said and Susan Sontag.

Though the range of Said’s intellectual interests is wide and his writings on history and culture immensely influential in the academies, his role as spokesman for the Palestinian national cause is preeminent, never more so than in recent years since the Oslo accords and subsequent agreements. Time and again Said has issued acrid critiques of the evolution of the so-called “peace process” and the relentless degrading of Palestinian national aspirations.

First by the mere fact that he is an articulate Palestinian, then by reason of his intellectual distinction and influential roost at the University of Columbia, Said has, down the years, elicited truly amazing onslaughts from the irreconcilables who tolerate no questioning of the moral and political propriety of the Zionist cause as applied against the Palestinians on the practical plane by Israeli governments down the years, and as unconditionally endorsed by Israel’s claque in the United States.

It’s a backhanded tribute to his effectiveness as spokesman for the Palestinian cause that the attacks on Said have, across the last couple of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity. A couple of years ago the journal Commentary, a shoddy publication sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, published an attack on Said by an Israeli-American called Justus Wiener, with a desk at an Institute in Jerusalem financed by the Michael Milken Foundation.

Wiener’s appointed task was to seek to demonstrate that Said had been mostly raised outside Palestine, therefore wasn’t really a Palestinian and thus had no standing as a tribune for his people! In fact as I dragged myself through Wiener’s interminable diatribe, it was plain that Wiener was in effect trying to portray just the sort of rootless intellectual with shadowy kinships spread across the Levant that was beloved of anti-Semitic pamphleteers in the nineteenth century.

Wiener’s mad attack was given wide publicity. There’s always space in the US press for charges that Palestinian do not in some complicated manner “exist”, and that therefore by the same token the Palestinian national cause has no merit. The acme of this mode of abuse was a book accorded immense deference a number of years ago, called From Time Immemorial. Its author, Joan Peters, was wildly acclaimed in publications such as the New York Times for her supposedly learned discovery that by reason of hitherto unknown migratory eccentricities, Palestinians had no secure claim upon the soil of Palestine. Then suddenly the row died away as Peters’ “scholarship” crumbled under scrutiny.

The latest storm over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he took last summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity to visit the recently evacuated “security zone” occupied by Israeli forces. As did many Arabs, the Saids shuddered at the horrors of Khiam prison, built by Israel and used for the incarceration and (subsequently admitted) torture of Palestinian and Lebanese captives.

Then the Saids drove to a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli troops, and now crowded with festive Lebanese throwing exuberant stones at the heavily fortified border. In competitive paternal emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in the act of so doing. You can scarcely blame him for being stunned at the consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence and if you are a Palestinian called Edward Said you’ll be the object of sharply hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York Times, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at Columbia and be disinvited by the Freud Institute and Museum in Vienna from a long-standing engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in May 2001.

As with the efforts to prove Said was somehow not a Palestinian, these assaults have a humorous absurdity to them. For decades the Israelis wreak mayhem on Southern Lebanon, without much commotion in the US press which is indifferent to UN resolutions telling Israel to abandon its illegal occupation. Both the Israelis and their hired Lebanese puppet force harass, torture and kill the inhabitants and demolish their houses. Indifference and mostly silence here. Then Said throws an innocuous stone at the border in understandable exultation at the flight of the occupiers and all hell breaks loose. To its credit, Columbia University stands by him and says the calls for his removal are preposterous and offensive.

What, aside from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said’s crime? As he himself has written, while “I have always advocated resistance to Zionist occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel’s military repression and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped.” Perhaps that’s the problem. The problem is that Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for Palestinians. He doesn’t say that the Jews should be driven into the sea. Such men are dangerous.

Now, as a public intellectual, Said lends his name to a wide variety of causes. He speaks out against injustice as a matter of universal principle, not just for his own people. Bearing this in mind, let us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public intellectual of great reputation, known for a variety of works down the years including the early books of the Sixties, Against Interpretation and Trip to Hanoi, later works on photography and disease, plus the more recent novel The Volcano Lover and, in 1999, another novel, In America, given the National Book Award the following year.

You can pretty much gauge a writer’s political sedateness and respectability in America by the kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment certainly deems Sontag safe. Aside from the recent National Book Award, she got a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, was appointed in 1979 a member of the American Academy, and in 1990 received the liberal imprimatur of a five-year (and richly endowed) “genius” fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, which once contemplated giving a fellowship to Said but apparently desisted after furious protests from one influential Jewish board member.

Now Sontag’s been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the award since its inauguration in 1963, and the second woman to be so honored, the first being Simone de Beauvoir. The award, worth $5,000, is proclaimedlygiven to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society, and is presented biennially at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Past recipients of the Jerusalem prize include Bertrand Russell, Jorge Semprun, Isaiah Berlin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, J.M. Coetzee, and rather bizarrely, Don DeLillo.

Sontag was selected by a three-member panel of judges, comprised of the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres and Hebrew University professors Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres has been quoted as admiring Sontag’s definition of herself. “First she’s Jewish, then she’s a writer, then she’s American. She loves Israel with emotion and the world with obligation.” When notified of her latest accolade, Sontag’s response was, “I trust you have some idea of how honored and moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year’s Jerusalem Prize.”

Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony, which will be held within the framework of the 20th Jerusalem International Book Fair. One news report remarked that “According to book fair director Zev Birger, events which have blighted tourism in recent months have not adversely affected the publishing world. “It’s business as usual,” he said, noting that checks and hotel reservations were coming in.

Why dwell on the familiar currency of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards. American intellectuals will be brave as lions concerning the travails of East Timoreans, Rwandans, Central American peasants, Chechens. But for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have always been invisible. The intellectuals know well enough that to raise a stink about Israeli’s appalling treatment of Palestinians down the years is to invite drastic revenge.

Now it could scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the late 1990s on which she did raise her voice. Along with her son David Rieff, Sontag became a passionate advocate for NATO intervention against Yugoslavia or, if you prefer, Serbia. (To put in a good or even a balancing word for the Serbs was of course another rare event in American intellectual life, where almost all liberals became, like Sontag, enthusiastic advocates of NATO’s bombs.)

On May 2, 1999 Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times, “Why Are We In Kosovo?”, urgently justifying NATO’s intervention. “Of course, it is easy to turn your eyes from what is happening if it is not happening to you,” she wrote. ” Or if you have not put yourself where it is happening. Imagine that Nazi Germany had had no expansionist ambitions but had simply made it a policy in the late 1930′s and early 1940′s to slaughter all the German Jews. Do we think a government has the right to do whatever it wants on its own territory? Maybe the governments of Europe would have said that 60 years ago. But would we approve now of their decision? Push the supposition into the present. What if the French Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica . . . or the Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees . . . or Spain decided to apply a final solution to its rebellious Basque populations. ‘Is it acceptable that such slaughters be dismissed as civil wars, also known as ‘age-old ethnic hatreds.’”

Now, Sontag is obviously not entirely unaware that there is a country from which more than a million refugees have been expelled. In 1973 she actually made a film in Israel, “Promised Lands,” made in October and November of 1973 after the Egyptians crossed the Suez canal in the Yom Kippur war. Back then, Nora Sayre gave it a politely damning review in the New York Times: “Throughout the ideas and the people and the machines of war are examined from a distance, as though everything had been observed through some kind of mental gauze. The Israelis – particularly those in robes – are filmed as if they were extremely foreign or exotic. Also, Israel seems like a nearly all-male country, since few women appear and none have been interviewed. There are a few sympathetic words for the Arabs, but their existence seems shadowy and abstract – almost as bloodless as the statues in a wax museum devoted to Israeli history.”

But surely now Sontag has had time to reflect more deeply on real Israeli Jews, and on real Palestinians. Through the 1990s it became a lot harder than in earlier years for American intellectuals to claim that they did not know what was happening, or were in ignorance of how Palestinians have been treated. The subject became legal tender, even if the currency remained severely limited in fungibility.

Sontag has always been appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she, relentless critic of Slobodan Milosevic, (upon whose extradition to face trial in its Hague Court as a “war criminal” the US is now conditioning all aid to Yugoslavia,) is now planning to travel to get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials as a war criminal are robust and indeed undisputed by all people of balanced and independent judgement. To resurrect a tired phrase, Sharon really does have the blood of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese upon his hands.

Does Sontag sense no irony in getting a prize premised on the author’s sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly repressed? To dramatize her support for multi-ethnic Sarajevo, she actually produced a play in the beleagured city a few years ago. Imagine what bitter words she would have been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of Bosnia to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the individual, and poo-pooing “events that have blighted tourism.”

Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which Sharon declares Israel’s absolute and eternal control, and whose latest turmoils he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy places. Can there be a more flagrant and disgusting pretensions to all those invocations to toleration and diversity Sontag and the others put forth, accompanied by their strident demands for NATO to drop its bombs on the Serbs?

Does Sontag plan to raise the issue of Palestinians in her acceptance speech? I would like to think so, but somehow I doubt it. She’ll scurry in and scurry out, probably hoping not to attract too much attention. When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was offered the Jerusalem prize a number of years ago, she declined, saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would be a risky course for a careful (and by a less obliging token) a cowardly intellectual. Of course, Said knows he lives in a glasshouse, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his stone.


Alexander Cockburn, one of America’s best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User’s Manual. His column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

Read Alexander Cockburn’s columns in: CounterPunch, New York Press, NewsMax