Kicking and Spanking

This is an odd piece – a mix of harsh but possibly true observations and macho unpleasantness. Of course the one so often does slop over into the other. I do that slopping often myself, at least so I’m told (and I’m sure it’s true). That’s what’s usually going on in disagreements over Richard Dawkins (and Christopher Hitchens, too: he attracts such Necker cube-like clashes of perception the way chocolate attracts, er, me). Many people think Dawkins is being rude, tactless, brutal, self-satisfied and the like, while others think he is being honest and fog-dispelling. I tend to the latter view, but then I’m an atheist myself, so what he says doesn’t get up my nose at the outset.

But this guy who doesn’t admire Susan Sontag…

The reverential tone of the obituaries served to confirm that self-proclaimed intellectuals, no matter how deluded or preposterous, exert a strange, intimidating power over non-intellectuals – especially if they employ that infuriating literary device, the epigram.

Well, yeah. One does know what he means – though actually I would say that it’s (some) intellectuals that the intimidating power is really exerted over, rather than non-intellectuals. It’s hard not to suspect that some version of that is what’s going on with the cult of Derrida. (I say ‘suspect’ because as I’ve mentioned several times, I haven’t read Derrida [apart from a few late articles], so I’m talking about the way his followers [and they are followers, all too often, rather than merely admirers or readers] talk and write about him, not what he said and wrote himself.) The admiration seems to be so out of proportion to anything anyone manages to articulate that one has to wonder – are they simply snowed by rhetoric? If they were snowed by substance, wouldn’t they do a better job of convincing skeptics?

But even though one knows what he means, one also wishes he had kept some thoughts to himself – or better yet not had them at all (in a perfect world).

But would that someone had treated Sontag in life as Dr Johnson had disposed of Bishop Berkeley’s contention that objects only exist because we see them: kicking a stone till he bounced off it, he snarled, “I refute it thus.”

To take the trivial point first, it’s well known that Johnson didn’t ‘dispose’ of anything, that idealism is not disposed of that easily, that Berkeley was not such a fool that he didn’t know what a stone was. But that aside – Johnson kicked a stone, not Berkeley. Here’s this columnist guy (an intellectual of some sort, presumably, or he wouldn’t have the gig) apparently wanting to kick Sontag herself. Or perhaps not – perhaps simply wanting someone to ‘dispose of’ her contentions by kicking stones with energy. But he phrases it so vaguely and ambiguously that we can’t really tell, and I suspect that’s deliberate. Especially given the way he follows it up.

If memory serves – and possibly it doesn’t, no doubt clouded by guilt that I failed to put the wretched woman over my knee and give her a sound spanking…

Oh please. Come on. Isn’t it time to wake up now? Time to get a clue? Time to, you know, not let one’s threatened guy syndrome hang out quite so blatantly? Don’t men realize what they sound like when they slaver over fantasies of beating up women? Well who knows – I suppose in their view and that of their fans they are doing what I take people like Dawkins to be doing: brushing away clouds of sentimentality and obfuscation and appeasment (as Salman Rushdie put it) to tell the plain truth. Being blunt, irreverent, disrespectful, amusing, and honest. But threats of violence (however ‘jokey’) don’t work that way. Except clearly some people think they do. Oh well.

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