Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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I just listened to the Deutsche Welle -- Germany's state-sponsored international media concern -- coverage of Susan Sontag's death. I don't get a chance to listen to German much anymore, but did tune in, randomly, to the coverage of her winning a German freedom prize last year. So I was interested to hear what they had to say. Appropriately, the coverage was bookended by snippets of Bruce Springsteen's Born In the USA. Sontag had a thing for Bruce. The coverage itself repeatedly emphasized the German perception that Sontag had helped to build a bridge between Europe and the United States, while acknowledging that Americans who are not, "literature professors on the East Coast," tended to either ignore or resent such bridge-building efforts. At one point, a literature critic from one of the German papers phoned in his thoughts. Asked why the American media had given very little attention to the passing of such an important figure, he remarked that it did strike him as strange, but concluded that it must be because of Sontag's outspoken opposition to the War on Terror waged by the White House. I'm afraid, however, that the truth is less dramatic. Americans are far less likely to respect their leading intellectuals. In general, they would rather be led by people who seem to be more like them, even if that apparent similarity indicates a failure to prepare for leadership. That's the easiest explanation for George W. Bush's continued popularity with half the country's population. Even as I feel the urge to critique the American reluctance to embrace truly exceptional individuals, however, part of me remains attached to the very trait -- Europeans would likely term it "anti-intellectualism" -- that I wish to interrogate. My year in Germany taught me just how typically American I was. Nearly two decades later, despite all the education I've received in the interim, I remain a lot more American than my rational side would like me to be. So, with Sontag's passing, I regret the loss of one of the few American intellectuals recognized as such by the world community. At the same time, however, I also celebrate the fact that, for all the faults of the United States and its citizens, there's more opportunity for people like myself, who lack Sontag's standing, to use our intellect in public without being dismissed as illegitimate. Whether I'm deluding myself in the course of that celebrating is unclear. But I celebrate regardless.

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