One of my guilty pleasures in life is reading liberal/leftist authors.
I do this to buoy up a strong frame of reference while formulating my own views, which tend to be conservative.
Years ago, I met and interviewed Susan Sontag. Whatever your politics, Sontag was a cultural force, given the impact of her two early books of essays, Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will.
I first heard Sontag speak one year out of high school when she came to Philadelphia with her son, David Reiff, both of them dressed in black with Sontag in a cape and smoking from a cigarette holder at the podium at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The style, the swagger, the drama of that lecture, since both Sontag and her son had long hair past their shoulders. It was a radical chic moment; in alignment with an Andy Warhol film that year of Sontag staring into the camera after she became a celebrity, and a short film of Sontag (now on YouTube) as a young woman driving a convertible in mid-town Manhattan going to meet architect Philip Johnson at the top of the Seagram building in New York.
Through the years, I continued to read Sontag’s books and made it a point to meet and talk with her whenever she came to Philadelphia.
In Sontag’s journals published after her death in December 2004, there are references to her early interest in Catholicism. It seems that for a brief time Sontag actually considered becoming Catholic but in the end her “natural” atheism took over and relegated that desire to the trash bin.
Had Sontag converted to Catholicism, what then? How would that have changed her?
In an interview with Salon.com, her son David Reiff is asked about his mother’s atheism and how she refused to accept any consolation, as she lay dying from a rare blood cancer, from the hope of an afterlife.
“Well, I’m an atheist too; if anything, more militant than my mother,” Reiff says. “I think it would have been grotesque of my mother to have become a person of faith purely in the interest of consoling herself. Surely, that would have been the most terrible therapeutic use of faith, and a disgrace in terms of faith. You shouldn’t start to believe because it suits you.”
There might be a degree of integrity in that statement, yet it is still tragic that Sontag never came around to belief. To go to your grave as an atheist cannot be a good thing. As an old Orthodox monk once told me, “Eternity is a very, very long time.”
I’m thinking of Sontag because a volume of her essays on feminism, On Women, was published in May 2023. The book is vintage Sontag, and yet unlike some leftist (atheist) critics of the culture, Sontag is not afraid to “credit” Christianity when it seems appropriate.
In an essay entitled, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source,” she writes:
“It was principally the influence of Christianity that deprived beauty of the central place it had in classical ideals of human excellence By limited excellence (virtus in Latin) to moral virtue only, Christianity set beauty adrift—as an alienated, arbitrary, superficial attachment. And beauty has continued to lose prestige. For close to two centuries it has become a convention to attribute beauty to only one of the two sexes: the sex which, however Fair, is always Second. Associating beauty with women has put beauty even further on the defensive, morally.”
She goes on to write, “That one can call a man ‘beautiful’ in French and in Italian suggests that Catholic countries—unlike those countries shaped by the Protestant version of Christianity—still retain some vestiges of the pagan admiration for beauty…”
Sontag was no lover of identity politics. This is best exemplified by the criticism she received by the gay movement for never coming out as gay, yet if one examines her life her romantic involvement with men was significant. She even took Warren Beatty as a lover.
She was also highly critical of the transgender movement, and in fact compared sex change operations to “body butchery.”
While the essays in On Women are adamantly feminist in an old school sense, Sontag’s views come nowhere near what’s being written on the left today regarding “gender ideology.” Like many social conservatives, in her essays she uses the word “sex” instead of “gender.”
Sontag being Sontag, she nevertheless insists that women should:
Whistle at men in the streets, raid beauty parlors, picket toy manufacturers who produce sexist toys, convert in sizeable numbers to militant lesbianism, operate their own free psychiatric and abortion clinics, provide feminist divorce counseling, [and] establish makeup withdraw centers…
Sontag nevertheless dropped the moral ball completely when she called the White race “the cancer of human history.” Although this belief is certainly the moral imperative behind Critical Race Theory, as well as something taught in many high schools, it never prevented Sontag from enjoying the fruits and advantages of “White civilization.”
As the quintessential New York intellectual, Sontag was as “white bread” as they come. Her audiences and readers were almost exclusively White. Despite her dislike of identity labels (“lesbian,” etc.) it’s highly doubtful that were she alive today that she would champion identity politics the way that it has been welcomed by the radical left.
Despite Sontag’s card-carrying leftist credentials (the most infamous and perhaps most misunderstood being her New Yorker magazine comments about the “non-cowardice” of the 9/11 terrorist-pilots on 9/11), I believe she had a conservative conscience that she tried to keep at bay.
Her bold defense of author Salman Rushdie when she was president of PEN when Rushdie was put under a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for “insulting Islam” in his book The Satanic Verses, definitely put Sontag in harm’s way.
In her defense of Rushdie, she was quick to condemn those milquetoast writers who were afraid to sign petitions condemning the Islamic fanatics in Khomeini’s circle.
Sontag’s leftist male counterpart might be said to be Martin Duberman, author of over two dozen books including Stonewall, Cures, Paul Robeson, Andrea Dworkin and a 1964 hit play, In White America.
Duberman, unlike Sontag, fully embraces the fatted calf known as identity politics in a very big way, especially when it comes to his identity as a gay man.
Reaching Ninety is Duberman’s latest book, a memoir of his time working in leftist circles as well as dealing with the homophobia of the left in the world of publishing and Academe.
“Most heterosexuals on the left regard most queers as contemptibly frivolous, in capable of joining any alliance with a serious minded purpose,” Duberman writes. “Yet politically active gays do exist, and in mounting numbers among the young.”
The story of Duberman’s social activism is as extensive as his work as an author and playwright. Open Reaching Ninety at almost any page and you’re likely to read passages like, “We hoped to establish a legal clinic for low-income queers, provide greater access to health care for those of limited means, and hire a full-time community organizer to coordinate grassroots activity.”
Duberman writes, “As my politics (radical and gay) remained adamant, outlets and invitations significantly decreased over time. The straight left has never regarded gay rights as a significant matter, and the gay movement itself has mostly lost its radical edge…. An aging, political radical queer no longer appeals to (merely) liberal straights….”
While the stories of Duberman’s struggles as a writer provide some compelling reading, I was struck by this radical queer’s view of The New York Times, a newspaper often chided by conservatives for its left-tilted nearsightedness. But as this book makes clear, the left has its own loathing for The Times, with Duberman complaining that a Times reviewer for his Stonewall book “stopped the book’s momentum in its tracks.”
The Times’ reviewer, a feminist historian, apparently complained about the book’s “lack of contextualization” and for his use of street language in the book.
Even the leftist Nation magazine dismissed Stonewall as “a young man’s puffery” and killed the review.
In Reaching Ninety, Duberman touches on his friendship with Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States).
The two likeminded radical writers agreed on nearly every subject, although according to Duberman, Zinn was indifferent to feminism and gay rights. After Zinn’s death, Duberman learned that “Howard had destroyed nearly every scrap of paper relating to his private life—including his marriage, his parenting, his friendships, and his affairs.”
Duberman wanted Zinn’s papers in order to write a biography of the “historian,” a biography that when finally published, “the right-wing media ignored.”
No matter, though, because “the real division,” Duberman claims, “was between ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ on the left.”
Duberman takes potshots at Mary Grabar’s book, Debunking Howard Zinn, as “polemical’ and “shoddy,” while nevertheless admitting that “Howard’s version of events [in A People’s History] “sometimes lacks nuance, overstates the solidarity of working-class protest, suffers from inexplicable omissions (like a sustained history of communes), and avoids dealing substantively with issues relating to gender and sex.”
While defending parts of Zinn’s book, as well as Zinn’s reason for writing it, Duberman sheds an interesting light on liberal criticism of it as “history.”
“The charge that Howard’s account is one sided—that it lacks academic neutrality—is to some extent true,” Duberman admits.
All of which seems to suggest that even in the head of a “radical queer” it’s still possible for conservative illumination.