Sunday, August 29, 2004

Dying lightly

Boingboing already posted a partial translation into English of this, but the Italian daily La Repubblica has a larger extract, and I thought I owed it to Enzo Baldoni to translate it, since that was what we both did. Translators are people who build bridges, so what better homage than translating this cheerful and lucid acceptance of death without bitterness.

“Of course, I’m certainly immortal, but if through any mistake of the Creator should it happen one day that I might die - and event I maintain the most serene and cheerful of dispositions for - these are the instructions for my funeral. For a start, when (and if) I should die, I hope it happens quickly, a nice plane crash, say, or a shipwreck. A car accident would be OK too, or better still in my bed, of a stroke. Immediately after my death I want to be cremated. Then my ashes should be dispersed. At sea, I’d say. But it’s up to you, after all what the fuck will I care at that point. Careful of the wind direction or we’ll up like the Great Lebowski.

[...]
Present should be all the friends reachable through email, blog and whatever other devilry technology will be able to come up with in the next hundred years. For no longer than thirty minutes, my wife, children, siblings and closest friends should draw a brief picture of me. Some word must not be uttered: pain, loss, unfillable void, loving father, model husband, valley of tears, we’ll never forget him, inconsolable, the world is a little colder, it’s always the best that go, and all euphemisms like he’s passed on, he’s disappeared, he left us.

[...]
I want champagne corks popping off, Guido [his son] with his accordion and his band playing De Andrè, especially La Città Vecchia and Il Testamento [the will] (when they’ll be opening mine people won’t laugh nearly so much, alas). Stefano on his monocycle juggling flaming torches, Gabriella[his daughter] with her clown’s nose. The Zapatistas’ band, the trumpeter playing through his balaclava. A woman playing the Birmanian harp. Twelve Timorese dancers covering my urn with colored drapes. Women dressed in strong colors, people laughing and telling dirty jokes. All the women I’ve been with in my life, yes, all three of them please. Rivers of wine, prosecco and spumante. Let each pour a few drops of wine on my urn, hey folks, I’m the one paying for it after all, don’t keep it all for yourself. A huge porchetta, sausages, devilled chickens and lasagne. I wouldn’t mind at all if new romances were born there. A quick one on some out-of-sight nook, I wouldn’t consider it an insult to death, but an offering to life.”

And for contrast - after the best Italians can get, the worst: Vittorio Feltri, the director of far-right daily Libero:


The pacifict with the kalashnikov by Vittorio Feltri

Examined cynically, that is with lucidity, Enzo Baldoni's misadventure strays into the territory of Italian Comedy. We wrote this yesterady already: a man his age, with wife and two children, would have done better to take advice from Alpitour [a famous and cheap Italian package travel company] than from Diario [the weekly Enzo Baldoni was working for], about the locality of his holidays, extreme or not (is that how they call them?). Obviously, as any good amateur in journalism, he preferred giving in to the impulse of his unhealthy passions for Iraq rather than listening to common sense. Everybody does as he pleases. And if it pleased him to risk snuffing it with the ambition of reaching the status of a caricature of the special correpondant, perhaps dreaming to be a Oriano Fallaci or an Ettore Mo, there's not much to object to. A lot to object to would there be to the fact that it's now up to the Italian State to pluck him from his troubles [using a Milanese expression meaning "plague"]. All right. Let's not look too closely at how much money will have to be spent to bring him back home, this asshole who's a lot like those guys who, during the weekend, don a mimetic and play the little soldier in the bushes of Varesotto.


This was before Enzo Baldoni's death. Afterwards, Feltri had to say that "the terrorists had no scruples killing him despite the fact that he was a friend of theirs" [since he was a pacifist]. He also whined about the fact that people now are "lynching" his paper.

For context, Enzo Baldoni had worked as freelance for many years, publishing on La Repubblica, Linus, Diario and many other papers. He interviewed Marcos before he was famouse and Xanana Gusmao when he was still in exile. Vittorio Feltri has been expelled years ago from the Order of Journalists.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

How I Survived After Clarion

In the summer of 2003 I went to Clarion West. It was the best time of my life. In the winter of 2003 I had a severe depressive episode and went very close to taking my own life. In the spring of 2004 I began writing again.

My bout of depression, for several reasons, was by far the most serious I’ve heard about - going into major depression is not usual after Clarion - but my predicament was not unique. Most of us went through some kind or another of what my fellow Clarionite Gabe Morgan called Post-Clarion Stress Syndrome.

Clarion is an extremely stressful experience. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was even a bit scornful about all these talks of how stressful, how hard, how taxing Clarion was. I had been under a not negligible amount of stress for the year and a half preceding Clarion, on account of my job (I was, perhaps will be again, a professional fiction translator) – something that contributed among other things to the gravity of my subsequent fall – and Clarion itself seemed, by comparison, loads of fun. I hadn’t realized that just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean that you can’t be under a lot of pressure. Having the time of your life by itself , not counting what happens when you have to go home, can be extremely hard.

But let’s concentrate on what happened to me after I stopped having fun.

My position was, if not unique, peculiar among Clarionites because I was a foreigner (well, I still am, of course). English is not my native language, and I didn’t reside in an English-speaking country. I come from a different culture, so along with all the rest, I was in for culture shock. Not at Clarion... when I got back. When I landed back in Milan and looked around, in the most scorching summer Italy has known so far, a shiver went through me. I felt like I was on an alien planet. If there was a bright and lively centre of the universe, I was in the place furthest from it. This was a large part of my Post-Clarion syndrome.

Another stress factor was the fact that for the six weeks of Clarion we had been spoiled, pampered brats. Our needs were, for our mums Leslie and Neile, of supreme importance. Our sleep was sacred (apart from the racket across the street, but that’s another story). Ailments and discomforts were taken seriously. Conflicts were dealt with. Paperclips were provided. At the parties, we were the stars. At the readings, we were sitting in the first row. We got to stand up and be applauded.

Clarion is a hothouse, and rightly so. You are treated like the privileged guy you are, and it’s implied you’re going to give back lots to the SF community, because the SF community gives you lots more than can be paid by your tuition fee.

Then the six weeks end. Reams of scrap paper are recycled. You leave. The others dissolve into a cloud of electrons. You go back home and you’re nothing and no-one. You’ve been to what? What is it, a kind of school? Did you win something? It’s that thing about Star Trek, right?

Rapid wilting of hothouse flowers suddenly exposed to January snow.

This is all the more true if you live far from the fandom network. In large cities, especially cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, where fandom is thriving and you may even have a Clarion mate practically next door, it is possible to resort to the network. But if you’re in the sticks, all your achievements and pains are suddenly worth or a weight for you and you alone. I went back to Padua, Italy. A country where Science Fiction is basically dead and fantasy doesn’t thrive either.

I would probably have been able to brave the slump, and the culture shock, quite well if it hadn’t been for other factors. One is personal and particular but one is very Clarionite – I was one of my year’s Clarion divorces.

They tell me the Clarion breakup is often a result of a Clarion hookup. In my case it wasn’t so. I wasn’t married but I was certainly sure I was going to be in a short time. My partner had joined me at the end of Clarion and the plan was to tour the USA together. As soon as I saw him I knew that, no matter how much I loved him, our life together was over. Clarion changes you, and the rest of your life sometimes doesn’t change accordingly. We went through the motion of a happy holiday anyway, were even happy together for the last time, then we came back home and he took a plane back to his home town and I haven’t seen him since.

The advice I would almost feel like giving people about the Clarion divorce is: don’t. Don’t take life-altering decisions in the aftermath of six weeks of intense stress, at a moment when you are high on exhilaration and exhaustion. Wait to go back to your normal life, to your routine. Settle down, get over the slump, get over the mourning for the separation and loss of leaving Clarion, and then decide.

But I won’t give this advice in the end. After long internal debate I think that, sometimes, people need a push. Maybe I needed one, to get out of a relationship that wasn’t bad enough to be broken up as it needed to be. Being in a moment of flux and crisis, having to face loss anyway, helped me take what was probably a wise decision that I would, otherwise, have delayed indefinitely.

But if you end up being a Clarion divorce, and if there’s no compensating hookup, do expect to go through the wasteland. There is no skirting around it.

So now, a few words about going through the wasteland – a few words about depression.

Feeling heartbroken and bereft is not pathological. Especially if you’ve got a huge stressor to justify it, like divorce, or Clarion, or both. But it can devolve into depression and depression has to be cured. Depression can be cured. The tell-tales are widely known but I’ll recap them briefly:

feelings of sadness and dejection
feelings of hopelessness, radical and unrelenting pessimism (this is probably the most important signal)
feelings of worthlessness, guilt or inferiority
loss of interest for activities or other things that used to give pleasure in the past
loss of interest or inability to perform everyday tasks
loss of sleep or increased sleep
feeling always tired
loss of libido
suicidal thoughts or ideation, including masked suicidal thoughts or behaviour like reckless driving, dangerous behaviour, etc.
loss of appetite

Almost everybody goes through some or all of these at some time or other in life, but if you experience most of these and they persist for more than two weeks, you’re likely depressed. Now depression can lift of its own, but you don’t want to wait for this, for several reasons. The first one is that nobody will award you any points for your stoicism, and there are good and efficient treatments for it; the second is that depression has quite a high mortality rate – that is, people who have it tend to kill themselves. Depression is a serious condition, a dangerous one. It is not a moral fault. It is not a character fault. It’s an illness, it’s a way certain brains have of dealing with stress, it’s got nothing to do with how brave, strong, worthy or nice you are. If you develop it, it’s because your brain has taken a pathological path to deal with stress. You’ve got to help it, just as you’d help your body deal with diabetes with insulin, or deal with an infection with antibiotics.

In dealing with depression, you will not be alone, no matter how strong and clear the impression that you are will be. Something that must always be remembered is that depression skews your perceptions. You will have strong, crushing feelings that all is vain, all is ugly, all is hopeless, that nobody loves you, nobody cares for you, and that life isn’t worth living. You may believe that you have lost the will or ability to write. And you will feel a soul-crushing loneliness. This is all an artefact of depression. You are not hopeless, you are not faulty, you are not alone.

Depression, as a friend told me, works like this: your brain has some feelings, generally of a very negative nature. It then searches for a reason to feel them. If it doesn’t find any factual reasons, and the feelings persist, it seizes on inexistent or irrelevant facts and constructs a pathological but very convincing case out of them. It is very important not to lose sight of the fact that what seems very convincing under the influence of the illness is not necessarily true.

I have, for example, throughout my illness, been consistently helped by several people who have devoted time and attention to my condition, some of them my Clarion mates, some of them unrelated to Clarion. They have listened day in day out to my pain and fear, and never stinted on reassurance, reason, company, and love. They sent me cards and little gifts, they chatted with me, they emailed me, they phoned me, they showed up at my house to sleep overnight on the day I felt most dejected and close to the edge. This did help me – I probably would have killed myself if they hadn’t been there – but throughout the episode my most crushing, painful feeling was of loneliness. I felt absolutely alone and bereft of hope. But, having been depressed in the past (and thanks to the generosity and patience of the above-mentioned people) I knew the feeling was just a feeling, and would disappear with the illness.

Clarion itself is a great resource in times of trouble. It is an incredibly bonding experience and there is not one, not one of my Clarion mates I did not miss, I did not feel close to, I did not love. Not even the ones I argued with passionately during Clarion (or indeed afterwards). This is a common experience and a resource that is there for most people who go through it.
My Clarion mates were probably the most decisive in helping me survive until I got better. Some people broke under the strain – two of the people I cared for and counted upon most ended up shoving me away. One probably did it believing it was good for me. The other did it because he couldn’t take it any longer. This will happen to anybody going through a serious crisis; some people will stay and some won’t. Some people will help and some won’t be able to. It is useless and unfair to hold it against them: it is not an easy task.

The most important thing, and the one that is hard to believe, is that one day you will realize all of a sudden that a feeling of grace has taken hold of you again: that once you were lost, and now you are found. One day – that may come quicker because of medication, therapy, help, or the natural lifting of the veil – you will realize that the dreadful loneliness was being far from yourself. That the reason nothing and nobody seemed sufficient company was because it was you yourself missing. Missing but not gone: and you will wake up one day and every piece will be there, and the disorder won’t be chaos any longer, and you will spend a happy weekend all alone with your words, and you won’t miss something vital any longer. And new words will come back. You will realize that even brief notes scribbled in notebook are not as bad, as useless as they seemed at the time you were writing them. You will go back to life. Even collecting rejection slips has its own perverse charm.

It gets better.

Really. It does.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

What America means to me

1. Unshakable beliefs

The thing about America and torture and the whole bloody mess that Iraq has become, in Europe, is that nobody is surprised. A few die-hard americanophiles are hurt, but in general, the revelation that Americans have been torturing people out of need or pleasure isn't very shocking news to Europeans.

Actually, what I have seen discussed with disquieting frequency on mailing lists and newsgroups, is the possibility that the Nick Berg beheading footage were fake. The theory bandied about is that Nick Berg has actually been beheaded by Americans in Abu Grahib. This completely wacky theory - together with the ones that the Twin Towers attack was really the doing of some shady American agency - is actually considered by intelligent and educated people. It is based on so much pure bollocks that I am actually at a loss as how to counter it: the "evidence" is based on things like a fuzzy blob being likened to another fuzzy blob in the photos of Abu Grahib as proof that there is, in the Nick Berg video, a "typical American Forces beret". Another "proof" is that the white plastic garden chair Nick Berg was seated on look an awful lot like the white plastic garden chairs seen in the Abu Grahib photos... and in my own lawn, I might add.

What this latest conspiracy theory shows, disquietingly and, for me, maddeningly, is that people here are prepared to believe the most atrocious things on the flimsiest evidence, as long as they indict America of some Bad Stuff. Trying to counter the wackiest examples by pointing out that there is, actually, quite a lot of Bad Stuff that's historically attested and it should perhaps be wisest to base one's assessment of a country on that (including the fact that it was brought to light by, lookie here, other Americans) is useless.

The sad fact is that people are prepared to believe wacky theories because they hate the USA. They hold unshakable beliefs about it that no mere fact can dislodge. The terrifying but perhaps not surprising thing is that many of these "facts" are no more or less than buying the neocon or right-wing version of something. Example - many Europeans believe that the war on Iraq has its cause in the Twin Towers attack. They then proceed to point out that 5,000 civilian deaths are bad enough, without adding some several thousands civilian deaths in Afghanistan or Iraq on top of them. No amount of evidence can convince them that the war on Iraq was planned long before 9/11. This is not surprising because Europeans, especially those without a good linguistic skill, do not read American or English blogs and news, and have been missing out on lots of clues consequently.

For much the same reasons, Europeans believe that Americans are far more right-wing than they are, and that they are far more ignorant and less educated than Europeans. They attribute to the Americans in general a total lack of subtlety and political savvy, and no amount of pointing out exceptions can convince them. They will listen to Chomsky and Vidal, or have seen Michael Moore's documentaries, but they come out of such contact with the American liberal thought with the unshakable conviction that it's an isolated minority. They never pause to think that liberal, subtle, educated thought is a minority position in pretty much the whole world - and this is particularly puzzling in my compatriots, who have, after all, witnessed the landslide electoral victory of such a champion of educated political subtlety as Silvio Berlusconi (who last week attributed the attack on the Twin Towers to his personal obsession - the "communists").

Since it's not a problem for conspiracy theorists to believe mutually contradictory things, Europeans - and I mean particular individual Europeans I know - are fully ready to believe that Americans are ignorant clumsy idiots and that there are infinitely wily American agencies that will do things like bring down that bastion of anti-establishment thought, the Cantor-Fitzgerald offices, in pursuing their shady ends.

Why am I ranting about this in English?

I guess I have some sort of confession to make.

2. Confession

I have been one of the people irrationally irked by America. I mean, being very fluent in English and having lots of friends in the blogosphere, as well as having had a few selected and much loved American friends, I have always been aware that the popular picture was, to be kind, skewed. And I used to become pretty incensed at people having a go at Americana in general and at the supposed general characteristics of the American people in particular. I could be scathing about Americans, but nobody else should dare.

But still, I was irrationally irked by the USA. I wasn't too anxious to go there, and the accent got on my nerves. I remember sitting in Schipol airport waiting for my flight to Washington, my second time in the USA, and being irritated by random snippets of accent drifting my way. Irrational as it is, I guess the continental discourse on the USA influenced me, no matter that I knew how ignorant and misinformed it was. This is the awesome power of prejudice, it gets you even if you know better.

It took me about two months to be assimilated. I can pinpoint the moment of complete assimilation when, around the beginning of November, I realized I had ceased noticing American flags. This was a sort of scary moment. But maybe the first twinges of assimilation had come when I heard the third wave of Europeans make the same remarks to the Americans about the things that freaked them out. The Americans happening by at that particular moment were far more gracious about it than I felt like being. The third wave of Europeans - embodied, as it happened, by my soon to be ex partner - were unfairly subjected to my ire, seeing as I had said just the same things when I had first got there.

3. Things that freak Europeans out: flags

I don't know if Americans consciously notice them, I guess not. But Europeans do notice them - with a start. And it's a continuos starting amounting to Tourettic moments. They're bloody everywhere. You can't turn your head without spotting one. And believe me, until you get used to them, it freaks you out.

It's very hard to explain exactly why. I mean, one could go on for a long time about nationalism being sort of associated with your neighbours coming over the border to hit you with big sticks since time immemorial, but that wouldn't convey the deep-seated reaction of your average European to a flag.

So I'll recount the following anecdote.

We were driving down from Seattle to San Francisco, spotting flags here and there and the occasional bellicose hand-written sign, which my soon to be ex partner would photograph. We stopped at one coffee shop in Eureka, which had all the trappings of an obviously wishy-washy bleedin-heart liberal establishment, complete with rainbow-colored kite and general post-hippy ambience. And a good enough mocha to induce even my soon to be ex partner - who could spot a less than completely orthodox espresso at forty paces - to admit that, seen as a chocolate with coffee in it and whipped cream on top, it wasn't half bad. Provided one didn't think of it as coffee.
At one point my soon to be ex partner freezes, his gaze aimed past my shoulder, and stammers: "Wha-what is that?"
I turn and read the large sticker that I had already noticed on the coffee-shop's glass door: fluidly waving star-and-stripes, fiercely-looking eagle, and the caption "Peace is Patriotic".
"It means they're left-wing," I supply.
"But-but-but." He looks at me with the air of somebody caught in a world-upturning case of being smacked between the eyes by cultural relativism. "But the flag!"

Lest somebody think that I'm being unfairly hard on my ex, I did my share of flag-boggling during my first weeks in the US, and was repeatedly ready to share such bogglement with any handy American. They were very gracious about them.

4. Things that freak Europeans out: tips

Because you mostly don't tip in Europe. Oh, well, you do in case of particularly outstanding service, but it's very, very rare. I guess lots of Europeans tourists don't tip out of perfect and innocent ignorance of the custom, and are therefore a lot less liked overseas than American tourists (who, probably, tip out of sheer force of habit and not knowing it's not required) are in Europe. If you're even marginally clued, they would have told you that tipping in America is required, because waiters and staff will depend on that to reach a decent wage. This means that every time you add in the tip, you're reminded that some poor bloke's making the rent depend in part on how generous you feel. It's not a welcome feeling. It's also inconvenient to calculate the right amount every time, partly because nobody gives you real rules about it. Is it 15%? 20%? Used to be 15% but now is 20? Leaving 20% will be too much? Leaving 15% will be too little? What if you don't have the change? Will I be thought a miser? Clueless? Too generous?

Add to this the fact that tax is usually counted in the shown price in Europe, and every bill comes with a little nasty surprise and a moral problem for us. Every time we pay a bill, there's a little hint at the state of the working person in the US. It's not probably a fair picture - but disproportionately disquieting because it forces you to take part in what is, to us, a displeasingly arbitrary system.

4. Things that annoy and puzzle Europeans: money

The smallest annoyance, all right, but a curiously abiding one. Once you get over the flags, the tips, the taxes, you still have this itch. Why oh why in a country where so many things go out of their way to make your life easier - cars with automatic transmission, motels, round-the-clock seven-days-a-week shops, large friendly directions, cat's eyes in the middle of the road, and, well, friendly natives - why has the money to be so stubbornly difficult to tell apart? If cutting it different sizes is too much effort, would it be so difficult to catch on to that stroke of genius the rest of the world has had - printing each denomination a different color?

Pointing out that the greenback is part of the national identity doesn't cut much ice with people who just switched over to the, let's face it, rather drab euro. But as dubiously attractive as the euro banknotes are, at least they're easy to tell apart!

And if having money that's rigorously all the same is that important to the national sense of identity, how come the States mint their own distinctive quarters, eh?

5. Assimilation

It might have happened around the fourth of July. I was looking at the fireworks seated between two friends, and they were mumbling disgustedly at the whole nationalistic pomp and crassness. I said joyously that I was actually enjoying the whole nationalistic trip - hey, it was so quaintly American! They both - from their quite different backgrounds - looked at me in disgust, and shook their heads. Somebody in the back kept going "Yes! Yes! YES!" at every successive bang and shower of sparks, finally erupting in a positively climatic "GOD BLESS AMERICA!" that I suspect accompanied other climatic moments in his life. My two friends were still shaking their heads.

Or it might have been when I discovered Office Depot - a country that houses such a temple to stationery can't be all bad. Or maybe when I found out that the bookstore cat was more or less mandatory for most independent bookshops. Or when I saw the Employees' Rights placard in the already mentioned Eureka cafe. Or when I had to take the final leave from the last of my Clarion mates. Or crying over email in a San Francisco Starbucks, because email wasn't the same thing, and San Francisco was so windswept and mellow outside, all soft but neat whites and deep blues, and cheap sushi.

I'd always known Americans were uncommonly nice people, but I thought the ocean acted like a sort of filter, that only the best specimens came through. Well, admittedly, I met a very intensively filtered kind of American through Clarion - the best fandom had to offer. But I guess it was enough to counter prejudice. Somehow, even the accent sounds different.

So I was assimilated. I have reflected on that since I left. I would go back to the States if I could, despite the nasty government and the appalling working conditions, and even despite the frightening lack of protection from the misfortunes of your health. And the silly lookalike money. And despite what New York smells like in high summer. It's first and foremost because of the people, of course. And because Science Fiction is still alive and kicking there, and it doesn't kick you in the shins like it does in the UK - though there's no finer kick in the shins to be had, UK contingent, let me hastily add. But maybe it's because this strange, unclear, ultimately rather unsettling feeling that the US is more real than the rest of the world. I've been thinking about this, and I have found no other better way to phrase it. Put it down to cultural imperialism. Put it down to the world becoming globalized, and my country only supplying the shoes. Put it down to our imagination being colonized. Put it down to this being the cradle of the best and of the worst - mah. That was a Canadian saying that, after all.

I am left, sadly, with a lingering antipathy for my country. Maybe because it tries to be the US and keeps missing in embarrassing ways. I have never resented copying the US, on the contrary, I've always been very irked by those that leveled "americanism" like an offense at me. But I would have liked it to be copying like Sergio Leone used to copy - with love, and ultimately being himself. Instead we get faded carbon copies of the most unfashionable stragglers of the American Right wagon. They look worse than pathetic - they look unreal.


Thursday, May 13, 2004

Style

One thing you can't say about Italians is that they lack style. This is the latest addition to the Highway Police car pool. Apparently Lamborghini made a present of the car to the police. One is none the less inclined to think of the state of research funding in Italy, but hey, we got style.

Semantics

I was reading the NYT and found this article which struck me for several reasons. The first is the cute way it lists the traditional means of torture, like pushing somebody's head under water and stopping short of drowning him, and then calls it "stopping short of torture". It does say that "defenders of the tecniques" are saying that, but it consistently uses "tecniques" throughout the article. I'm left wondering what do you have to do to qualify as "torture".

The second is this priceless little bit:


Concerns are mounting among C.I.A. officers about the potential
consequences of their actions. "Some people involved in this have been
concerned for quite a while that eventually there would be a new
president, or the mood in the country would change, and they would be
held accountable," one intelligence source said. "Now that's happening
faster than anybody expected."

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

About this blog

I have finally - to the general relief of my two remaining readers no doubt - decided to change my template. I am afraid that to switch on the new Blogger service that lets me have comments and warns me via email when they come, I had to lose my old comments. That's bad, I know. But let's try to be forward thinking. Also, now I'll know when people comment on my blog.

Suddenly we make the news

While I work I keep checking the news. Yesterday La Repubblica's website was "Amnesty [International] accuses: Blair knew".

Oh-ho. Amnesty makes the headlines. That's new.

That's new because in the few years I've been a member I've read press release after press release with facts and figures - some of them relating to Western countries - that completely overshadowed the things we've all seen these past few days.

Reactions?

None.

Because let's face it. It's not torture that shook the public opinion in the USA and elsewhere. It was known that the US Army used torture. Its own coroners were returning a verdict of murder - not manslaughter, murder - for dead inmates in Baghram jail. What shook up people was not torture. It was pictures in prime time.

Any way, we're making the news. I think that's a good thing. I mean, not that Amnesty is making the news - that people are recoiling in horror. It would have been better if they had paid attention before, but it's a good, good thing that now that they are paying attention, their reaction is of horror.

What this means is that in future, pictures will not be allowed to circulate so freely - it's already happening. This will mean that torture will be carried out with a minimum of caution. Don't take me as a pessimist if I say this: it's not a bad thing. One thing that's glaringly obvious from the pictures themselves, is that there was what Amnesty calls a climate of impunity. Impunity means that people doing that sort of thing are seldom punished and if they are, they are punished extremely lightly. It means that the message travels down the ranks - we're looking elsewhere, and if you have to "take the gloves off" to make prisoners talk, well, we'll be looking out the window. To the extent that you can take pictures in the serene knowledge that nothing will happen to you if they circulate. (I don't rule out the possibility that torture wasn't encouraged or suggested, or even ordered. I'm just going by the most generous interpreation here.)

Now, if I may be permitted to point at the silver lining, the climate of impunity is lessened. People are paying attention.

To be honest, I am inexpressibly glad that the uniform - or almost uniform - reaction to the pictures was horror. Nobody - or very few - said "well, but it's the only language those people understand". Or "it's war, innit?"

This is a good, good thing.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

On torture, impunity, bystanders

Kathryn Cramer has a post about heroes: people who refused to torture or denounded or stopped torture once they knew about it. Which brought to my mind sections of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, by John Conroy, a book I wish everybody would read, especially these days.

I googled a bit and found this piece by Conroy himself. It seems to incorporate a lot of the best material from the book. It is dated 2000.

Highlights:

... It takes no genius to see a pattern ... and that pattern is repeated throughout the world: torturers are rarely punished, and when they are, the punishment rarely corresponds to the severity of the crime.


[...]
Democracies and authoritarian regimes sometimes offer the same rationales for failing to prosecute torturers. The morale of the security forces, for example, is as sacred in a democracy as it is in an undemocratic regime. Putting soldiers or policemen on the witness stand is politically dangerous. They might, after all, name high-ranking officers or public officials who sanctioned the treatment.


Furthermore, it is often difficult to mount an effective prosecution. Torture usually occurs in a closed room without independent witnesses. Sometimes the victims have been blindfolded or they are dead, so although their in juries indicate they were tortured and it is not hard to determine what unit was responsible for their custody, it may be impossible to determine which man in particular attached the electrodes, performed the rape, the near drowning, or the severe beating. Without predetention medical examinations, it is often difficult to prove that a victim's injuries were sustained in custody.


A prosecutor's task is made more difficult by the fact that torturers are often decorated soldiers or policemen who have served their country in time of need, men who often represent popular belief: they were tough on crime, or they were saving the country from subversion or immorality. The victims, on the other hand, may hold political or religious beliefs not in favor in the larger society, or they may come from some lesser class that is viewed as a threat to the society at large gooks, niggers, Paddies, Arabs, Jews, criminals, agitators, heretics, labor organizers, stone throwers, flag wavers, singers of nationalist songs, terrorists, friends of terrorists, and so on.
[...]

The response of those societies is fairly predictable and can be charted in thematic, if not chronological, stages.

Consider, for example, the British reaction to the revelations that they were torturing the Northern Irish in 197I. The first stage of response was absolute and complete denial, accompanied by attacks on those who exposed the treatment.
[... spooky, eh?]


The second stage was to minimize the abuse. The government referred to it not as torture but as "interrogation in depth"
[ ... "abuse"]


A seventh component of a torturing bureaucracy is to put the blame on a few bad apples.
[...]

[And finally, a helpful, hopeful note:]

In his book The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, Staub argues that helping is infectious, that helpful bystanders, if they are not devalued by the perpetrators and inactive bystanders, break the uniformity of views, chip away at widespread antagonism toward a particular group, affirm the humanity of the victims, call attention to values disregarded by perpetrators and passive bystanders, and make it clear that persecution can have consequences for the persecutor. Staub points out that the citizens of Le Chambon seemed to have a profound effect on the Vichy police charged with rounding up the Jews: anonymous callers, believed to be policemen, warned the local pastor of impending raids.


Staub argues that helpful bystanders can also inspire victims. Staub points out that during World War II, Belgians resisted the Third Reich's anti-Semitic orders, and Belgian Jews did more on their own behalf than Jews in other Nazi-dominated countries because they did not feel abandoned, helpless, and alone.

Go and read it all.

Monday, May 03, 2004

No News

Mostly, I don't know what to say. I think I said it all about a year ago, when I wrote my long post about torture. Back then, I was moved to outrage. I am not outraged now. I was in a state of continuos outrage all the time, because the news where there for people willing to listen to them. Do I believe it's just a few bad apples?

LOL.

A few bad apples don't take photos with great big smiles and trade them around. No, I don't believe in a few bad apples. I believe in what we in Amnesty International call "impunity". It's the thing that makes torture possibile. When it's done with the encouragement, sometimes consisting in just turning a blind eye on, of the authorities.

I will make a prediction. In a little while, if it's not happened already, somebody will start saying it's not so bad. Just a few pranks, innocent mocking, despicable, all right, but real torture is something else, right? It is not, after all, as if we fed people in an industrial shredder feet first, right? (No: just dumping them overboard offshore in the knowledge that they can't swim. Or dumping them off a moving vehicle. Or beating them up until they're dead and then traying to buy the family's silence.)

You just wait and see.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Why I stopped updating my blog

Last March, on the first day of spring, two things happened, one good and one bad. I got a phone call from Neile Graham, Clarion West administrator, to tell me that I was being invited to Clarion West 2003, and the war started.

I have to admit that I became a coward. I needed a visa for the US to be able to attend Clarion, and I knew there was no way I could talk about the war and not say things that could, concievably, no please the current administration. I thought it was mostly paranoia on my part, or at least exaggeration - and I was a bit spooked by the number of Americans who told me flatly, and in apparent all seriousness "no it isn't."

Anyway, cowardice went to keep company to laziness and the general sense of shame I felt, and the feeling the keeping the world appraised to what went on in Italy was both an Herculean task (they did too many, and too bloody outrageous things every day) and of dubious utility and impact.

I was also, as I recognized afterwards, in the first stages of the worst depressive episode of my life, that got seriously under way after Clarion and incapacitated me for most of last winter.

At any rate, I'm out of that now and though I still wish to travel to the US, it's no longer a matter of life and death, and things have been happening that I'd like to blog about. So here I am.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

And then.



I got some extremely good news on Tuesday. I had one day to enjoy and then... well, then. Wednesday night I slept with the TV on, because I was seized by anxiety whenever I tried switching it off. And so, even without waking up fully, I knew when it happened. The next day I went around with a strange feeling of relief. It was happened: it was out of our hands. Then my ingrained optimism kicked in. Maybe, I thought, it will be like in the song: it's going to be a small war, and it won't be people fighting it, and when it's over nobody will remember it. Maybe it won't be so bad. Then I looked at the TV and remembered how much they lied last time around.

I have had along the years the fortune and privilege to be the Italian translator of some of the worksIain (M) Banks. He's one of my heroes. It has happened that his books have disappointed me a bit, but it is with a feeling of warm fuzziness that I read this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The search for sanity and decency in the whole sorry torture discussion

One catch (out of, let's fondly hope, many out there): Mark
A.R. Kleiman says excellently a lot of the things I've
tried to say confusingly and in fear of being deluged by
outrage:

He rather callously adds, "It's a good bet that
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has felt some pain. And if that's
the best chance of making him talk, it's OK by me."

No doubt it is. The human capacity for courage in the face
of pain felt by strangers is always pretty impressive, and
fear and hatred can make that capacity virtually boundless.
Taylor disapproves of "actual torture," for example
breaking bones or tearing out fingernails, but even then
makes a reservation for what he calls "extreme
circumstances."

We faced truly extreme circumstances in 1861, and again in
1941, and again until 1989. We do not face them now. The
threat of terrorism is a real threat, but it is not a
threat of such gravity that it forces us to chip away at
the Constitution to preserve the Constitution itself. The
terrorists can't conquer us or overthrow our government.
The worst they can do is kill some of us, and we're all
going to die some day anyhow.

Lest someone attribute to me the same sort of callousness
of which I accuse Taylor, let me bring this down to a
personal level. About 3000 people died on 9-11, out of 300
million Americans. If the next attack were as successful,
and its risks were spread evenly over the population, each
of us would face a risk of 1 in 100,000 of dying in that
attack. (If the risks of ordinary homicide and of
automobile accidents were evenly spread, each of us would
have about 1 chance in 15,000 of being murdered this year
and about 1 chance in 7500 of being killed by a car.)

Imagine, then, that torturing the next al-Qaeda suspect has
one chance in ten of preventing a disaster that great, and
thus one chance in a million of saving you, personally,
from being killed by that terrorist act.

Would you choose to be a citizen of a country that
practices torture to avoid one chance in a million of dying
suddenly? I wouldn't.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Unspeakable

I have never, not even indirectly, met with torture. Not only I was born in a time and place, and to a class, where the danger to meet it was minimal. I have also, despite several years as an active member of Amnesty International, never met anybody who has faced it, something for which I am somewhat grateful, because I am not sure I would have been able to look at them and see them, as they deserve to be seen, as human beings, and not as survivors, burdened with the terrible knowledge of the extreme, saddled with the necessity of their witnessing, bounded in by their past, forever victims or martyrs.

I have then only and always met torture through the silent communication of the written word, which is no substitute for human experience, however piercing its papery scream.

This means that before embarking in any discussion of it, the standard disclaimers apply. I have, thanks to my good fortune, no direct knowledge of the matter. People who do often repeat it is not communicable. John Conroy, in his superb book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, (and here's the USA edition if you wish to buy it) says:

"I think it may be possible to set down on paper a description of al the horrors of torture in such a way that a multitude of survivors might nod and say, 'Yes, that adequately portrays the pain that I felt.' And yet the end product of such an exercise could be a book too painful for most people to read. Those who managed to reach the final page might find their eyes glazed over and their heart hardened.".

Jean Amery, who was tortured by the Gestapo and lived to tell the tale (before taking his own life), reiterates often in his essay "On Torture" that the thing itself defies the limits of language. "The pain was what it was," he writes simply. "There is nothing else to add. The quality of sensation is neither comparable nor describable. It establishes the limits of the possibility of verbal communication. Whoever might make others appraised of their physical pain would be forced to provoke it, and so begin torturers themselves." (My translation from the Italian edition: it is probably this book).

People who have been tortured do bear witness but certainly not easily. They have to overcome shame, and reawakened pain and fear, and often the very real possibility of retaliation, and even the understandable and probably very healthy desire not to be forever defined by the experience. But more than anything, they have to overcome the unspeakableness of the experience. Description only goes so far. It?s easy to gross out people but harder to convey the horror of apparently smaller things. And knowing all this, for me to talk about these things often smacks me of an outrageous usurpation of somebody else?s witness, a violation of somebody else?s silence, even.

But the fact is, I have been obsessed by torture for a long time and I have come to accumulate a lot of knowledge, however partial, mediated, indirect and undeserved, about it. And when everybody and their dog is speaking about it, sometimes with cheerful callousness and fake courage (it?s very easy to generously steel oneself into giving consent for the torture of somebody else), I think I have probably, if not the right, then the duty to add my voice. That was what I joined Amnesty International for, after all. To wrestle with this particular demon.

It?s easy as I said to gross out people with torture. To mention the insertion of mice into vaginas; to speak of the young women whose hood was removed in front of a mirror with the warning "Take a look at your pretty face because this is the last time you?ll see it"; to talk of La Venda Sexy and La Escuela Mechanica and so on. Easy but pointless. Once you?ve waded through blood and excrement and death, all you?ve achieved is that people will squirm a bit and then talk about some bloodless, ?painless? forms of torture.

So I?ll tell you first off what was my hands-down worst moment in all my readings about torture. It doesn?t really concern torture at all. It concerns murder. But it makes the point.

Not many years ago I read the book-long confession to journalist Horacio Verbitsky of Roberto Scilingo (, and USA edition, also a book to buy and by damn read before granting cavalierly permission torture one's favorite enemies), one of those rarest of things, a repented torturer. Scilingo was in the Argentinian army, and he ended up involved in the dirty war Argentina waged on pretty much a whole generation of bright, intelligent, idealistic and in the vast majority of cases totally innocent kids. This is a touchy subject for me for several reasons, one of which is that I am only a little younger than those dead kids, and living in a different if similar country, but in all other things very much like them. A lot of them were even - as many Argentinian are - Italian (Italian nationals, I mean, with Italian passport, not descendants of Italians).

Now the book?s title is ?The Flight?. Because what bugged Scilingo, who never took a hands-on part in the actual torture (he managed the pool of cars used for the kidnappings) was that on a couple of occasions he had been embarked on one of the planes employed by the Argentinian military to dispose of prisoners who had outlived their usefulness. The prisoners, all of them ?desaparecidos?, disappeared, were told that they would be transferred to a proper prison, which meant that they would reappear to the world and their families. They were told they would be given some vaccination shots, actually a narcotics injection. Then, once unconscious, they were stripped and put on a cargo plane. Once the plane was over the ocean, they would be thrown out a hatch, alive.

Now this may gross you, it did gross me, but I have long known all of this and I could read it with nothing but a grim feeling of deja vu. What Scilingo adds then really makes me mad. Along the people charged with the stripping and throwing, he says, there were on the planes also the pilots, obviously, and a doctor. The doctor had the task of injecting the prisoners with another dose of narcotics (which did not prevent some of them from waking up, apparently) to keep them safely under. Then, Scilingo says, the doctor would go into the cockpit and close and latch the cockpit door.

Because of the Hippocratic Oath, you know, Scilingo says.

There. In all my years of reading about torture nothing, no unspeakable act, no gross physical violation has ever upset and revolted me just as much as this rationale. Because of the Hippocratic Oath.

I?m not here to say that hypocrisy is worse than actual responsibility. I?m here to say that hypocrisy does not get you out of responsibility. I?m telling you that hypocrisy is what allows torture to happen, and to happen again, and to happen now, in this very moment.

It?s too easy to get out of confronting torture, you know. It?s too easy to redefine parts of it as not-torture. It?s too easy to find special cases, special circumstances, special classes of people who are not exempted, who are not deserving of the same standards we would apply to our precious physical and psychological integrity. It?s too easy to redraw ourselves in the shape of the good guys, not matter what we do. John Conroy says ?Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people, armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it.?

It?s easy to find a way to excuse or even praise torture. People at this point usually ask pointedly if the noble soul ready to sanction the use of torture is ready to do it personally. I won?t. I?ll ask if anybody can imagine a scenario in which it would be right and just to be tortured.

And now the time has come to tell why torture is bad, wrong, and evil.

Though.

Allow me to get personal for a moment. I have already said that I am obsessed by torture. I?ll leave off the coyness for a moment and talk about personal matters - I write. I write pulpy space operas which I believe have some merit despite having remained unpublished for now, and mostly I write about torture. And I don?t really feel that I am entitled, but somehow I can?t avoid it. Because I am obsessed, as I say. I often wonder why, since I never have been tortured, never met anybody who was, never encountered the thing in real life in all my born days. And I do feel, kind words notwithstanding, that I am trespassing on very touchy ground, on an experience of a seriousness that should not be mixed with space opera.

I am not alone in feeling this, well, this fascination. With some friends and colleagues and the sponsorship of the Italian section of AI I have helped organize a contest for an SF short story that centers around a human rights theme. The first time around, we mostly got stories that had a lot more to do with urban legends and media scares than with any real-world concern, let alone one that had anything to do with human rights. So we decided to give a nudge to the aspiring writers and encouraged them to write about torture.

This turned out to be a very bad idea. What we hadn?t realized, being people who had all read plenty of accounts of real torture, who had a clear idea that it was a real-life fact that involved real-life people, was that people had fantasies about it. And they were, how shall I put it?, unsavoury fantasies.
It?s unpleasant to say, but torture fascinates people who, like me, have never met it, as it were, in the flesh. This obviously revolts and angers those who have - one of my colleagues on the contest jury panel, who has several friends among the survivors of torture, was quite upset at some of the things we received. But it?s true none the less.

I have several possible explanations for this fascination. One is that it?s a defence mechanism. Fantasising about the ultimate evil is a way to control it. One is that all things extreme fascinate us, in their excessiveness itself. One is, of course, that torture represents the ultimate control, the nearest one can come to omnipotence. And this fascinates us.

People in blogdom have been discussing the practicalities of torture, whether it works or not. I think the best answer I found in Salon, long ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: "Lessons on how to fight terror", by Andrew Brown

Torture is the crack cocaine of anti-terrorism because, for a while, it works. The terrorists will certainly use it. But everyone tries it. The Brits did it in Northern Ireland, the Israelis use it on the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority uses it on Palestinians too. The French, in their Algerian war against terrorism in the 1950s, turned it into an instrument of policy. But the price is higher than a democracy can pay. Either the people who have to do the torture are sickened, and spread their disillusion throughout society (this is what happened in France); or they are not sickened. They come to enjoy it; and then you have lost the values that you are fighting for. Either way, after a time, it stops working. The Russians in Chechnya can torture all they like. They still can't win the war there.

That?s all true and more than worthy of mention, but I think beside the point. People who have read a bit about how torture is used in the world (and let?s bear in mind that torture is used in this world, right now as we speak, for real, on real flesh-and-blood people like me and you, reader; that Mohammed al Kahlid is being tortured right now, as we write, or at any rate will have been, whatever we say about it, whether we are for or against it, no matter what we think or feel or argue or any permission we give or withhold. The matter is simply not in our hands, not for us to decide) will know that gathering information is really not the point. Torture works, yes, and the information it provides is often useless, yes; and often it is not, but lead to an escalation in brutality that landed us where we are right now. But that?s not the point.

People are not tortured to gather information. They are tortured as a means of controlling other people. Of putting the pressure on future prisoners, and their friends, and their supporters. They are a means of terrorizing a whole population, in the (often, at that, mistaken) belief that a terror-stricken people will not give flak. Torture is not about information, and it?s not about pain, which is why arguing that there are ?painless? forms of torture is placing one?s head under a thick covering of sand (?painless? torture, like sleep deprivation, exposure to white noise, disorientation, and so on, has wrecked people for life. There are survivors of the ?five techniques? used in Northern Ireland, and of course decreed ?not torture? by a tribunal, that are still suffering from the experience now, thirty years after the fact.). Torture is about control. Torture is the ultimate, most extreme form of control.

"With the first hit" Jean Amery says, "the prisoner realizes to be lost to itself: it contains therefore in itself all that is to come. After the first hit, torture and death in a cell - events of which the prisoner might have known, but without this knowledge possessing a real actuality - are anticipated as real possibilites, if not certainities. They are allowed to punch me in the face, realizes the victim with confused surprise, and with equally confused certainity he deduces: they will do to me what they will. Outside nobody knows and can do anything for me. Whoever may want to rescue me, a wife, a mother, a brother or a friend, could never reach me here."

And again:

"The most important element of the trust in the world yet, and the only one relevant to my argument, is the certainty that the other, on the strength of written and unwritten social contract, will respect me, or more precisely, he will respect my physical and therefore metaphysical substance. The boundaries of my body are the boundaries of my Self. My skin surface protects me from the outside world: if I am to trust, I must feel on my skin only what I want to feel.

"With the first hit, then, such trust in the world collapses. The other, against whom I put myself in the world and with whom I can only be as long as he respects the boundary of my skin, hitting me imposes his physicality on me. He comes upon me and thus annihilates me. [...] When there is no hope of succor against physical abuse, it becomes forever a form of annihilation of one's existence."

Amery argues that torture is so characteristic of Nazism that it becomes its one defining fact. I am afraid, and saddened, that if he is right we must broaden the definition of Nazism too much. I do believe that it is a constant characteristic of fascism, inasmuch as fascism is an apsiration to total control of all individuals. Torture certainly does that: it imposes its reality on anybody who encouters it, it crushes and violates them. It is the ultimate imposition, the final form of control. You may not break all the victims of torture - though they tell me it happens with such high degree of success that one may discount the possibility of resisting it - but when you're impotent against their values, actions, networks, culture, you can at least without doubt or impediment hurt them.

And this is, I think, why people have been clamouring for it. Not because it works, because other things work much better in the short (good traditional police work) and the long (establishing a better way of co-inhabiting the planet) run. It?s because of the hunger, the need, the pathological desire for control.

I said pathological but I know that?s not the right word. Maybe ?futile? would be a better word. Or ?desperate?. I don?t think that pining for total control, for perfect safety, is wrong. I just think that it is a desire that everybody has to admit, at one point in life, is destined to remain frustrated. Total surety, total control of our environment would be a neat thing: it is just not possible. This, alas, goes for terrorism as well.

I don?t want to sound callous, because I?m not. I have lived through terrorism. I think the risks have to be minimized as much as possible. I think all the strategies for minimizing such risks (for example, try to talk ?friendly? regimes out of radicalizing their opposition by means of torturing its members) are to be pursued. But when all?s said and done, there?ll always be the idiots, the death-wish fanatics, the crazy, the evil. And we live in a society where a few people can do a lot of damage with mundane means. It doesn?t take advanced technology, or a great organization. A single madman with enough dynamite, or a long range rifle, can pull it off.

Jim Henley among other worthy things (that should be read) has quoted Kevin Maroney saying:

"Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."

--General Carlo Alberto Della Chiesa, head of the investigation into the kidnapping (later murder) of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, 1978

This has moved me and shaken me. Dalla Chiesa was no bleeding heart liberal. During a prison riot he sent the troops in and quenched it at the cost of several lives, including those of five hostages. But he was also, above all else, a faithful servant of the State. He knew what the country he served and revered was all about. And he did defeat terrorism, or at least the part of it that wasn't fueled, organized and defended by shady parts of the State itself.

But we still get terror. We still lose people to abysmally idiotic fighters.

Americans have obviously had a different experience of terrorims than we - Italians, Spanish, British - have had. The body count was higher (though not by orders of magnitude) but more importantly it happened suddenly, with no warning and with a terrifying magnitude. The rest of us, we all had the slow escalation of terror to get used to it. (And, Dalla Chiese notwithstanding, we all had our moments of weakness, when torture looked a good idea). But the sad fact, common to all situations were terrorism takes roots, is that there is no guarantee of safety. Torture offers no guarantee (and several tactical disadvantages). Praying offers no guarantee. The common will of the people offers no guarantee. The sad fact is, you can reduce the body count, you can minimize the risk, but "defeating terrorism" does not mean that it will be totally obliterated and that complete and serene safety will ensue for ever and ever. It will only mean that it will happen seldom, and few people will be killed. That's the best that can be done until the nature of this world changes.

We do not have control of this world, however mighty or righteous we are. Total safety, complete surety, is not of this world. Invoking torture is a panic response, if not the totalitarian desire to substitute Orwell's repressive boot for the lost feeling of safety. The search for closure and vengeance, that goes with terror and weakness. It may make people feel better - because, face it, torture is a great source of satisfaction when it happens out of sight, to your chosen enemies - but will not guarantee total safety.

What it will guarantee, is fascism.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Speechless

I don't read too many blogs because I'm afraid of stumbling on something so sick and so evil that it will physically hurt me. But when I do stumble upon it, I have to point it out. This is it. This is as evil and as sick as you can be:

"I don't approve of ever torturing American citizens, who are of course protected by the Constitution. But so long as we're at war, I think there are limited circumstances -- the "ticking bomb" scenario outlined by Dershowitz, for example -- where the torturing of foreign national combatants hellbent on destroying us can be justified."

Do I have to explain my disgust? I hope not. Well, maybe. I understand people who consider torture. I think they're wrong, but I do think they have sort of a point, that has to be discussed. (It has to be discussed. I have long meant to do it, and collected links and thoughts about it. But it needs time and tranquillity that at the moment I do not have. I will come back to it.)

But people who do grasp that torture is wrong, if applied to "real human beings" (i.e. citizens of the United States of America), and are still willing to see it done to the others... well, they are the face of evil.

There are people I respect who believe that patriotism is a good thing. Of course they aren't thinking about this kind of thing when they think about patriotism. Me, I don't believe patriotism is a good thing, because too often it is all about the above.

Update on previous post. The author has seen fit to tell me that his point is legal and not moral. Well, sir, I did read the whole post. You do not seem to have understood that my point is moral, and not legal. You seem to also think that legality begins and ends with the American Constitution, and that international treaties, conventions or any other form of legislation banning the use of torture, like the International Declaration of Human Rights, which I believe the USA is signatory to, have no value whatsoever.

I don't know what kind of person you are. You may be a good and decent person, but then so probably are many torturers. Your position disgusts me and sickens me from, yes, a moral point of view.

You also, I think, did not understand that I am not, myself, a citizen of the USA. You will probably understand, bearing this in mind, just why I found your post so evil and so immensely offensive.

Monday, February 17, 2003

When in Rome

People have sort of taken a liking to demonstrating. This is the second time three million people hit Rome. I particularly like Repubblica's photos, and in particular I love this.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Flags

They appeared slowly, tiptoeing into the urban landscape in days of luminous cold, one by one. One of the first ones was this. I don't remember when it was that I saw it first. Then two others blossomed together in my own street, tied to the omnipresent railings. I stopped and looked at them in something like recognition. Then it was its turn. From that day on I walked with my nose in the air, looking at them, feeling for the first time in the almost twenty years I've lived in this city not only affection but kinship.

Sometime later, at the beginning of January one freezing and most bright Sunday we went out to get drunk on the sharpness of the light, and to stamp on the iced pools, and we bought one.

I don't know how many of them there are all told in this town. It seems there are a million of them in Italy, and Padua is one of the most flag-ridden town in Italy. Even the Town Hall has one, exposed with the approval of one of the majority's councillors, an ex-helicopter pilot in Bosnia. They keep cropping up and sometimes you say, "Oh, look, that's a new one. That one wasn't there last time." They call out to each other and encourage each other. Some of them were taken down and paraded, often with the ribbons to tie them down still on, in the small but very colorful demonstration of the 4,000 Padua citizens who didn't go to Rome with the 40 coaches or the special trains.

They are silent. They are made from a thin, silky fabric, and when the wind blows mine up against the window it becomes a veil for a moment, but a dazzingly colorful one. They are difficult to pin down, especially if you don't have a railing, and often end up furled up against the sill. They flap merrily at the tiniest breeze. They ripple when pinned by the four corners to railings, they snap and furl and unfurl from the few flagpoles. Some houses here still have the flagpole stand on the balcony from whence you were, once upon a time (as my grandmother told me, showing me the corresponding Monarchist flag) obliged to fly the national flag on holidays. But few have the pole, and most just use a broom handle and stick it somewhere among the railings.

They peek from upper stories windows. They hang demurely over Padua's many canals. They are trapped by rolling blinds, or hang by clothspins from clotheslines. I even spotted one, and stamped on the brake to jump down and take a shot, hanging inside the local Apple shop.

They are silent and cheerful. This winter, so unremarkably normal, so uncommonly clear, with its string of clear, bright, cold days, has been kind to them. This town, with its two or three stories houses, encourages them. The Italian soul is partial to them: they have, undeniably, a pretty design - much prettier, in fact, than the national flag.

I don't know what kind of people, inside those windows, fly them. It is tempting to imagine them close to me in feelings and convictions. I know that many of them are moved by religious conviction, this is very much a Catholic province, and the archbishop has encouraged their pacifism. But they are still close to me, in this vain act of minuscle courage, in standing up to be counted by all.

I don't know what their motives are or what their degree of pacifims is. I don't know if they ever mourned the loss of Mantegna's first fresco, bombed by mistake in the effort to get a Germans' depot, if they were ever touched by the bronze shield sent by King George with apologies. Or if they ever paused before the shelter, hit by a stray bomb, where among too many of Padua's citizen died the wife and child of the local Resistance commander. I don't know if they look at the sky in disquiet, in fear or in guilt because no torrent of fire and iron will fall on us from there. I don't know if they have read Love Thy Neighbour - that's difficult, because it's not translated - or Chomski, or maybe Joe Haldeman. They can't tell me because the flags are silent but for a very faint swish-swish, and their message simple.

There are lots of them. Lots and lots, and when I walk through my streets I walk in a silent, flapping, rippling, cheerful, peeking, furling, waving, snapping, thin and silky chorus of like-minded people.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Oh yes, Bjorn Lomborg.


Bertramonline, which I've just added to my blogroll and not out of reciprocity either, has some things to report on Bjorn Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Enviromentalist had me all enthusiastic in the short space of time that went between giving it a look and reading the Scientific American review.

I was taken in by this guy? I'm embarrassed. And not a little pissed off.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Mount Etna

I have been on the Etna several times, and once I went up to the summit too, but even if it is always more or less active, my visit have maddeningly always coincided with particularly quiet periods. It isn't such a quiet period now, and yesterday it seemed like Rifugio Sapienza, where all my visits had started, and even the cable car to the upslopes, would have to go.

The lava has seemingly stopped this night, and I happened across this incredible gallery of photos. It's really a pity that the larger versions have been reduced for easy loading to the point of losing much of their magic. The best way to admire them is en masse, even if at thumbnail size.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Impunity for the powerful

The Guardian has an impeccable article on Androtti's conviction. Besides being informative and correct (though I wonder if people can follow the dark convolutions of Italian history through its most terrible turns) it ends with the ominous note everybody has been pointing out to me these last few days:

Paradoxically, the fate of a man who always
emphasised his faith in the justice system is
likely to be used by Mr Berlusconi and his allies
to mount a renewed assault on the judiciary, for
the rules and traditions of which the present
prime minister has scant regard. The result could
be a reduction in the autonomy of the magistrates
and a return to the impunity of the powerful: the
principle that characterised, perhaps more than
any other, the Andreotti years that have just been
condemned.

Monday, November 18, 2002

"To think badly is sinful...

... but you're often right" is probably the most famous of the celebrated witty utterances of Giulio Andreotti, sith times Prime Minister of the Italian Republic, affectionately known by friends and enemies together as "The Devil", sentenced yesterday to 24 years for commissioning a murder.

I was driving towards a cinema yesterday (to see the absolutely crappy K-19, a grievious disappointment) when my mobile rang to the tune of The Simpson - my partner Emiliano calling. I stopped and answered.

"They found Andreotti guilty!" he screamed at me.
"They what?"
"He was found guilty of murdering Pecorelli!"
"You kidding?"
"No!"
"You know... " I said after a brief pause, "I was almost coming to think he was really innocent."


Yes. Giulio Andreotti, the wilyest Italian politician, one of the few with a sense of humor, one of the few of total personal honesty - he never got rich - one of the many utterly devoid of a sense of public morality. Is he really guilty?

Who knows. People who know him swear on his personal integrity. A lot of them also admit to his certain political responsability for a lot of the ills that befell Italy in the last fifty years, including the Mafia. He may have ordered to have Pecorelli killed. He may simply have expressed a wish, knowing that the wish would have been met. Or he may be guilty simply because being an intelligent and anything but naive man, he should have anticipated the consequences of voicing a wish in the wrong ear.

I won't go into the convoluted an tormented history of his two trials (another one is at the appeal stage in Palermo - for Association with the Mafia). Believe it or not, I will praise the man.

Andreotti benefited from the Mafia. He did not create it and may not have used it. But he let it be. He knew - or should have known - that his men in Sicily were in connection or part of the Mafia families. He knew - or should have known - that the Mafia voted and had people vote for his party. He was a man of few scruples and probably believed it was for the ultimate good - defined by him, of course. But credit where it is due: when push came to shove and he could not ignore any longer what was going on, he fought it. That was why his good friend Salvo Lima was killed, because the Mafia felt betrayed by Andreotti.

And when he was brought to trial, he submitted to it. He did not stall. He did not cry that he was the victim of political persecution. He did not try to pass legislation that might get him off the hook. He went to his trial. He testified. Even horrified by the latest sentence, he has just said that he still has a deep respect for the Judiciary, and that the country needs such respect.

You'd think this is normal, obvious? It isn't. It takes guts. Everybody else is screaming that a politically motivated and insane judiciary must be brought to heel and subjected to the rule of the executive power. It would be easy for him to join in. He doesn't. Like Adriano Sofri, serving a 22-years sentence for a murder he most probably did not committ, he played fairly and accepted his sentence.

Maybe it's because he knows that no matter what, at 83 he cannot legally be actually sent behind bars. Maybe he does not care for exculpation on such tricky grounds.

Maybe in his old age he grew what we all would have denied he ever could possess: a public morality.

I don't know and I don't care if he was a murderer. As many have already said, in the eyes of history, politics and morality he certainly was guilty of even worse crimes. But for playing by the rules, I salute the man.