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


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.


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.



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.


... 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?


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.