Susan Sontag, without Coats

by Yule Heibel on October 12, 2003

Susan Sontag was honoured today in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche with the Peace Prize, established in 1950 by the Boersenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (association of German book trade). The Boersenverein‘s lineage dates back to booksellers’ trade fairs set up in Leipzig in 1792; it was formally established in 1825. Since 1950, the prize — valued at EURO 15,000 (about US$17,000) — has been awarded to individuals in the field of literature, science, art, and politics, who have made exceptional contributions to the realization of the idea of peace. See this link for a complete list of recipients.

Until yesterday, there was speculation that Sontag would talk about the recall in California, or about the Bush regime’s global ambitions. In the end, it seems she built a bridge to ambassadorship, which put her one up over the “real” US ambassador, Daniel Coats, who refused to attend the ceremony. Against this sort of petty politics, Sontag marshalled the force of literature, which strengthens one’s ability to cry for people who are different from us, who aren’t part of our world: in other words, literature enables us to step into another’s shoes. In politics, the world is polarized into “us” and “them”; literature — story-telling — has the task of mitigating these cliches.

Americans, Sontag said, have become used to seeing enemies: communism as threat has been replaced by Islamic fundamentalism as threat, and “the word terrorist can be used even more flexibly than the word communist.” Writers can influence these cliches since they are not just transmitters but also creators of myths. And through these means the writer can help demystify polarizing ways of thinking.

Daniel Coats, meanwhile, chose to stay away, despite the fact that an American citizen was being honoured with a significant cultural prize in a country to which he was appointed ambassador. But perhaps Ambassador Coats hates writers and their unruly cultural kin: he voted “yes” on spending $75mil. for “abstinence education” (July 1996), but voted “no” on national education standards (Feb. 1994). He also voted “yes” on limiting death penalty appeals (Apr. 1996), which leads me to observe that it seems perverse to send, as ambassador, an advocate of the death penalty to Germany, given that in a previous incarnation Germany enacted the death penalty, without possibility of appeal, on entire populations. The death penalty is evil. Get rid of it, America and join the civilized world. But there’s no chance of that, it seems; instead, Coats wants more support from Germany in the “campaign against terror.”

Coverage of Sontag’s award in the US press is laughable; one could almost think it’s censorship. The New York Times is silent. The Canadian and British press have had some reports, but it’s amazing how underreported this was.


Stu Savory October 13, 2003 at 4:23 am

Hallo Yule,
Living here in Germany, I was able to hear her speech live. A very clever speech indeed. It put the pro-Bush US ambassador to shame. He should have ignored his petty prejudices and been there!

Stu Savory

Yule Heibel October 13, 2003 at 2:12 pm

I would like to have heard her, too. But I can’t even find a complete transcript, just bits and pieces. (And while I haven’t looked at any US papers today, I bet it’s still a non-item. Censorship.)

Joel October 14, 2003 at 10:44 pm

When I get this power supply issue fixed, I intend to post about this, Yule.

I’ve always liked Susan Sontag.

Yule Heibel October 15, 2003 at 2:10 am

If you find any longer excerpts of her speech, point to them, Joel! I’d like to read them.

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