The death of Susan Sontag, two days before the Year of Dread 2004 ended, was a punch in the head when I read it on BBC World on-line. It was widely known that she had leukemia, but I hadn’t known about the cancer that finished her off at the age of 71.

One usually feels a death in the heart, but she was a thinker and a talker, full of ideas, and, most unusually for an intellectual, always open to the notion that she might be wrong if your case could be made very well indeed. So, as Monty Python once put it so very well, my brain hurt.

Ironically, I had been reading Regarding the Pain of Others, her essay on photography and war photography in particular, because I was watching hours of footage of people dying all around the beautiful edges of the Indian Ocean. Ms. Sontag had much to say about the kind of images we have all been exposed to over the past week and a half. She did not approve of Workers, Sebastião Salgado’s great book of photographs of the anonymous poverty-stricken toilers of the planet. She didn’t like people being reduced in dignity, made generic, you see.

Associated Press disgraced itself by sending out a Sontag obituary loaded with contempt, which some newspapers on deadline were forced to run. AP repaired its mistake quickly, but I shall take a page from Ms. Sontag and find the anonymous screed instructive rather than hurtful.

The obit is a long sneer at Americans who think, particularly American women who indulge in this practice. (Ms. Sontag once protested when Jonathan Miller called her the smartest woman in America, saying it implied that it was unusual for a woman to be smart.) But this is the prevailing theme of the first obituary, that Ms. Sontag was smart in the sense that she “disagreed” muchly, implying this was unseemly in a woman and indeed in an American.

“Unlike many American writers, she was deeply involved in politics, even after the 1960s,” the writer states, which is an absurd remark, especially since it applies to her defence of Salman Rushdie and her championing of dissidents. “She did not practise the art of restrained discourse,” the writer states, as though this were disgusting in a writer. He means she was shrill, mouthy and disagreeable, when all she had done was say the attack on the Twin Towers was “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” which it was.

“Even among sympathetic souls she found reason to contend.” (Here he sounds like a marble-mouthed Henry James character condemning the wildness of Miss Daisy Miller.) “Miss Sontag’s intelligence is still greater than her talent.” This is a Gore Vidal quote that the writer had to search all the way back to 1967 to find.

It’s rare to find the dislike of intelligent women so openly displayed. Even misogynists practise a little camouflage. But two things stand out. “She read authors from all over the world,” the obituarist says (Red states, I presume). He says this as though it were astonishing for an American to read anything that was not American. Which it may be, but to display one’s insularity so artlessly! The gal reads furriners.

Second, the unstated message of the obituary is “How dare she?” He means, “How dare she speak freely?”

Americans of both sexes and all states run this tape loop non-stop: In the land of the free, they don’t agree with what you say, but they’ll defend to the death your right to say it. That’s free speech.

What nonsense. Republicans do not even understand the concept of free speech. They tolerate it as a marketing slogan or a legal defence, but not as an idea, an abstraction to be lived in the concrete. Right-wing Canadians react in the same way to remarks by Sunera Thobani or Carolyn Parrish. I don’t think it’s accidental that intelligent, daring women attract special vitriol.

I have always puzzled over why Republicans used to get so violently angry about my columns. In fact, I am fortunate. Well-read, thoughtful Americans who dare to disagree with the prevailing wisdom are now drawn and quartered. Apparently, free speech to a right-wing American means right-wing free speech. I cannot watch Steven Spielberg movies, finding them painfully simple-minded and so saccharine I gag. But Republicans can’t even tolerate his re-enactment of the battle for Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, because it’s all sweary. No free speech on D-Day.

The tone of Ms. Sontag’s obituary is dislike and fear. She could out-think you, could out-write you, and then you discover that she wasn’t on your side. Suddenly all free-speech bets are off.

The remark about daring to disagree has run in my head since I first read it in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying as a young teenager. An American man, busy bullying his wife, tells Isadora Wing that American universities need a whip hand. “No,” [Ms. Wing] said, “I don’t agree.”

So Ms. Sontag’s gone, that woman who didn’t agree. She did it in such a startling, wise way.

She said Vietnam photographers, just by doing their jobs, made photography seem subversive, and reporters were never again given full freedom of reportage. “Mainstream media are not in the business of making people feel queasy about the struggles for which they are being mobilized,” she wrote in 2003.

In llness as Metaphor, she changed the way we look at those stricken with cancer and AIDS, returning them to the mainland from their island exile of applied shame.

She suggested that America had a case to answer in its cavalier use of everything in the Middle East.

Americans found these arguments unpatriotic. Only Susan Sontag, this very disagreeable woman, could have devised them.