“Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, and who would know better? This slender Miss Intellectual Manners book ranges between a disapproving aesthetics of war and a stern etiquette of detachment, part rebuke to the stubborn obliviousness of the affluent Western elite and part assiduously disconnected symptom thereof: “How much easier, from one’s chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority.” No one has assumed the position of moral-cultural arbiter with more icy tenacity, though Regarding the Pain of Others softens her stance even as it warns against the perils of empathy. Revising themes from On Photography and “The Pornographic Imagination,” flipping through the history of combat portraits and death-camp archives, Sontag takes a deep breath and delivers a good stiff lecture on “the iconography of suffering” destined to give the ladies of the Spring Lake garden club much introspective food for thought.
That iconography has always been her bread and butter—the lives of the Nietzschean saints, the stations of the aesthete’s cross—and her list of exemplary sufferers has invariably skewed toward the rarefied, the philosophically privileged. Regarding the Pain of Others sincerely attempts to extend its consideration beyond the “sublime” thinking of specialized figures like Simone Weil and George Bataille to the ordinary victims of warfare: those anonymous casualties whose photographed bodies make them the inadvertent poster children, women, and men of modern carnage. Sontag seeks to get beyond mere representation here, or behind it, to the reality such images claim to represent—she comes out in favor of flesh-and-bloody real life and against slick notions of all-enveloping spectacles which “[universalize] the viewing habits of a small, educated population.” Yet there is an arm’s-length, white-gloves mentality present that keeps backsliding into the language of art appreciation, easily diverted into questions of genteel sensibility, reducing history to inane euphemisms like “the inveterate fame or notoriety of the Jewish people.” (Famed, it would seem, for their partial extermination, notorious for “the identification of Israel as an apartheid state,” the Jews are treated in this passage with Swiss neutrality: Walking a fine line to offend neither Holocaust survivors nor Holocaust deniers, it doesn’t directly equate Zionism with Nazism while circumspectly not disputing those who would.) Combining rationalist polemics and political reticence, Regarding the Pain of Others aims to get past the self-absorbed voyeurism which devours the new war-nography, but its own class-bound gravitas tugs it relentlessly in the direction of a handbook on How to be a Good (that is to say: Moral) Spectator at the Atrocity Exhibition.
This inherent dissociation is one of the subjects of Paul Berman’s engaging, delusion-busting history primer Terror and Liberalism. It’s not only a matter of how “the party of the right-thinking” (as Sontag mockingly refers to her own kind) end up as unfazed spectators to monstrosity, but how through a tangle of rationalist denial and radical fantasy they see only as much of reality as they care to see. And they have so often become a captivated audience to the unspeakable in the bargain—”good-hearted and intelligent people” seduced by the romance of totalitarianism, millenarian scorched-earth revolution, and genocidal pathologies. Using Camus’s The Rebel as a departing point, Berman charts how the cultural song of murderous absolutism—the proxy music of terror, with over-the-rainbow paradise as its hook—went from the 19th century’s underground noise to the top of the 20th’s charts. The big beat of death-instinct drums made for the century’s ultimate crossover hit—moving contagiously from the fascist right to the communist left, then from the secular West to the Islamist East. So much for both “the clash of civilizations” and “the end of history.” No, Berman says, there is a unifying impulse here, however much it may change external ideologies, fanatical religions, or local chameleon color. At base, it is a blind, seething, irrationalist pursuit of the unattainable: perfect freedom or perfect subservience (if in such doctrines we can even tell them apart), a liberation whose means or ends (again, nigh unto indistinguishable) are rooted in an ideal of total annihilation.
Terror and Liberalism spends a good deal of time pondering the commentaries of Sayyid Qutb, who Berman calls “the single most influential writer in the Islamist tradition,” a brilliant theologian, philosopher, and pedagogue whose radical-conservative critique of liberal modern life is “wonderfully original and deeply Muslim, looked at from one angle; and, from another angle, merely one more version of the European totalitarian idea.” One area they intersect is of course the Jewish Question, in which the song of the exterminating angel remains the same: “The Koran points to another contemptible characteristic of the Jews: their craven desire to live, no matter at what price and regardless of quality, honor, and dignity.” (As Berman quotes one of Franco’s generals—”Viva la muerte!”) Now this has become the tune of deterritorialized fascism, with suicide bombers giving new meaning to the concept of “the body without organs,” like contestants fastidiously choreographing their moment of video glory on the world stage of Martyr Search or Palestinian Idol.
While Sontag acknowledges how images of horror and degradation can be used as brutalist propaganda, and how they may inspire “repulsive attractions,” Berman delves into the practical mechanics of this development, into the receptivity of international audiences toward the discourse of bombs, madness, and mutilation. He explores the suicide terror assaults launched against Israel and the peace process by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a kind of deranged public relations campaign, and a perversely successful one at that. The more it escalated, Berman believes, the more sympathy the campaign generated in certain quarters: Palestinian violence becomes the measure of Israeli guilt, proof of the insane extremes to which the Zionist Entity is capable of driving helpless people. Here the pain—and rage, despair, fundamentalist nihilism—of others transformed itself into militant role-playing, in order to take its place in the iconography of rebellion rather than that of murder/suicide-cult fascism (like Crash merged with The Battle of Algiers, though at least for the Western public the morbid titillation waned as jadedness set in).
In such an airtight, ambiguity-free scenario, the Jews literally can’t win. They’re both condemned as craven parasites (that disgusting attachment to their own survival!) and damned as the New Aryans. Israel’s continuing existence proves that eliminationist anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, even as the nation’s repressive policies are used to retroactively validate the conspiracy claims of the venerable Elders of Zion school of anti-Semitism: As a people, they have gone from the main cancer on the white race to the leading exponent of white racism in barely half a century. Through the magic of well-meaning rationalizations and one-sided justifications—as much aesthetically correct as politically—the Americans and the Israelis thus assume the place of Nazi Germany in the rad-chic imagination of oppression.
But that’s mythology for you, always something up its reversible sleeve: Turn Reagan’s rap about the “Evil Empire” and G-Dub’s black-and-white “Axis of Evil” inside out and you’ve got the Chomskyite/Edward Said-ist vision of the Am-Israeli Great Satan. The negative image of American—and Jewish—exceptionalism becomes another pristine form of wishful thinking, a cloak of intellectual innocence. Sontag and Berman both grapple with the issue of smart, civilized people who are at once hypersensitive and desensitized, deeply sheltered from reality yet overexposed to the secondhand smoke of warfare, unable or unwilling to comprehend “the particular viciousness and intransigence” of present-day terrorism. (Using the word not in a generic-amorphous sense, but referring to a specific belief system: an ideo-theology whose temples are mobile crematoria and infinitely portable abattoirs.) Regarding the Pain of Others places itself, and the reader, behind a scrim of mediation—the underlying assumption is that history is something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Terror and Liberalism‘s New Deals on Armored Wheels solution—rather more Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood than Christopher Hitchens—is for America to join the fray as a kind of militarized hyper-Peace Corps, though the crossed-fingers hope that the Bush junta will wind up spreading the values of liberalism in spite of themselves (certainly not on the war’s home front) is surely as misguidedly “reasonable” as all those nice apologias Berman debunks. He does offer a useful pipe dream of an idea: rejecting nihilism, which is at least a start. Yet supporters and opponents of the war alike believed they were fighting for “the freedom of others”—imagined that either winning or stopping the war would keep us safe from the clutches of history, comfortably superior to the murky, chthonic world of unreason, pain, and death. To which the world may answer: Welcome to History 101.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003