What’s Happening in America? Susan Sontag Sought to Find Out in 1966
50 Years Later, As Trump Takes the Presidency, the Question Remains
As we confront the inauguration of a bawdy President, indecorous, undignified and illiberal, many among us—American liberals in particular—have been tempted to ask: “What’s happening in America?” Susan Sontag, whose political prescience has been duly noted, asked and answered this same question 50 years ago. And her answers, laden with the intellectual acuity of all her work, offer some insight into our own sour present.
“What’s Happening in America?” began as a questionnaire distributed, per the editorial custom of the Partisan Review, among a number of the notable intellectuals of the time. These included many men and, other than Sontag, a single woman: Diana Trilling. “There is a good deal of anxiety about American life. In fact there is reason to fear that America may be entering moral and political crisis,” wrote the editors at the top of the document. The questions posed included, among others, “Does it matter who is in the White House?” and “Is white America committed to granting equality to the American Negro?” Responses were then published in the Partisan Review’s Winter 1967 issue. Sontag’s take begins with a repetition of the editors dire characterization of the present, presenting readers today a precedent for the apocalyptic flavor of our political moment. If the conscience of the nation seems moribund to our 2017 sensibilities, “What’s Happening in America?” reveals it to have been flailing for at least five decades. When Sontag submitted her response, the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War; prettily titled operations with names like “Cedar Falls” were dropping bombs and killing thousands. Lyndon Johnson was President and Ronald Reagan Governor of California. The country was riven; the chasm between intellectuals and voters, liberals and conservatives, seemed then, like now, wider than ever.
Sontag’s characterization of 1966—she wrote the essay many months before it was published—is important for another reason, as calls for resistance to the new administration proliferate. She was adept, as revealed in her early opposition to the Vietnam War (and her bold trip to Hanoi even as it was underway), at carving out a position of dissent and non-complicity against even the most intractable milieu. It is that signature Sontag skill in which many of us need instruction today, and one which she supplies in the essay, underscoring at the outset that “everything one feels about this country is, or ought to be, conditioned by the awareness of American power, of America as the arch-imperium of the planet, holding man’s biological as well as historical future in its King Kong paws.”
This is an important exhortation, one whose application to the recent past and the recently arrived present would reveal that the imperium has persisted, differing in flavor but not ultimately in form. The outgoing Obama Administration, lauded now in part for its contrast against the garish and gaudy replacement, was sly in its use of America’s “King Kong paws,” raids and bombings and secret wars all an acknowledged part of its arsenal. Under Trump, King Kong promises to be ever more wild and unfettered, building walls, crushing and trampling with relish; in Sontag’s words “naked violence breaking through, throwing everything into question.”
If Sontag were alive, she may have noted that neither presidential candidate truly considered the nature of American power in the 2016 election. A less hawkish America was not a feature of Hillary Clinton’s political vision. This is a thorny fact to resurrect now, posited against the horror of a Trump presidency, but it remains a crucial one. In “The Third World of Women,” published in the Partisan Review six years after “What’s Happening in America?,” Sontag isolates as one of the failures of the women’s movement its inability to argue for a change in the nature of power itself. This would require not simply the transfer of a power subsistent on the structures of patriarchy to a female leader, but rather a complete dismantling of that system, so that its very character was changed. It is perhaps just this inability to re-conceptualize power itself that bears some relationship to the almost-but-never-quite nature of American women’s quest to get into the White House.
Today, President Elect Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States and his cabinet, made up of the whitest and richest of America, will begin to run the country. And yet, tomorrow, thousands of women will march and protest in Washington D.C. to express their opposition to his flamboyant misogyny, his xenophobia, and his ascendance to the country’s leadership. Sontag famously said in an interview to the Paris Review that “feminist” was “one of the few labels [she was] content with.” She went on to ask, “Is it a noun? I doubt it.” These women marching on Washington inauguration weekend are doing feminism, insisting on it as a verb and not a noun—not dormant, nor a tame description to affix to this or that. Their commitment to its active meaning is likely to be tested in the days to come as the promises of Trump’s cohort of cronies seek to abridge reproductive choice, marriage equality, to cut funding for programs that have provided assistance to domestic violence shelters, women’s health initiatives, and many others. Each of these fights, and others not yet enumerated, will require continuing energy, continuing vigilance, continuing insistence on feminism as a verb.
In “What’s Happening in America?” Sontag also notes three historical facts that required confrontation before any analytical grasp of the “moral and political crisis” of 1966 was possible: that America was founded on genocide and on the “unquestioned right of white Europeans to exterminate” the indigenous population, that it had the most brutal system of slavery that did not “in a single respect recognize slaves as persons,” and, finally, that it was essentially peopled by a European underclass who were not, in their native Europe, cultural producers. As a result, she argues, after America was “won,” it was “filled up with new generations of the poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era. And the country looks it.”
Condescending as it may be, Sontag’s assertion continues to resonate. Even before Trump was elected, comedian John Mulaney, appearing on the Seth Myers Show, joked that “Donald Trump is not a rich man, Donald Trump is like what a hobo imagines a rich man to be,” complete with “fine golden hair,” “tall buildings with [his] name on it” and a “TV show where [he fires] Gene Simmons with [his] children.” Mulaney was riffing, but in the months since others have picked up the track, pointing to the garish nature of Trump’s gold-laden rooms and conspicuous consumption as the core of his appeal to those who have little or nothing. Viewed in light of Sontag’s observations about the constitutive realities of America, Trump’s ascendance looks less like an aberration. It is instead the expected trajectory of a historical reality wherein Sontag’s three unacknowledged facts continue to determine the national mythos. Paths, after all, cannot be changed without a reckoning.
It is unsurprising that the tumult of the present, our collective chagrin at what is to come, has provoked a turning back—a re-reading of those who have come before, catalyzed by the belief that this perusal of intellectual history, of catastrophe’s endured, can provide some faint blueprint for the formulation of an ethical and active dissent. Sontag was searching too in “What is Happening in America?” considering one and then another avenue for hope. But hope was for her in 1966, as it is for us in 2017, elusive. Sontag located it in the young people of her time, whom she believed “understand that the whole structure of modern American man needs re-hauling” and that if “America is the culmination of white Western civilization” then “there must be something terribly wrong with white Western civilization.”
In this last prognostication, seeking hope in a burgeoning, youth-led re-thinking of America among the generation “not drawn to the stale truths of their elders,” Sontag may have been wrong. The young of 1966 are the old and older of now, but their vision—that brave re-configuration promised by the sexual revolution and by a turn to eastern mysticism and non-western forms of knowledge—never came to fruition. They may have, in the heady moments of youth, rejected the “stale truths of their elders,” but ultimately the same stale truths have been resurrected again: a disregard for racial equality, an insidious belief in the supremacy of whiteness, a disdain for foreign others, and a persistent faith in violence loom over many American baby boomers.
In the same Art of Ficiton interview in which she accepted the “feminist” label, Sontag also confessed that she sometimes began essays with the first lines, but others with the last. In “What’s Happening in America?” it is the next to last line that rings out most clearly, suggesting that it was perhaps Sontag’s first, generative thought. “This is a doomed country, it seems to me,” she writes. “I only pray that when America founders it doesn’t drag the rest of the planet down too.” Many Americans will be murmuring a similar prayer today.
Were she alive, January 16, 2017 would have been Sontag’s 84th birthday, but in its proximity to political catastrophe, it would not likely have been a very happy one.