Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography of Gianni Vattimo

I was a bit hesitant when, a few weeks ago, I accepted to write a review of Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography (or non-auto-autobiograpy as I like to call it) of Gianni Vattimo, published by Columbia University Press. The book is officially called a “collaborative autobiography” because, even though it was written by Piergiorgio Paterlini, it adopts the style of a first-person novel. Basically, the written text is Paterlini’s but the voice you hear is that of Vattimo. The reason for this is given in the introduction, where Paterlini states:

”(…) because I wanted to do it (long live subjectivity) and because Gianni Vattimo agreed to do it with me. But above all, because this necessary (auto)biography is something he – who writes so engagingly, unlike many of his colleagues – would never have written.”

And I must say the approach worked. After a couple of pages you forget Not Being God is not written by Vattimo. It is beautifully ‘subjective’ in all senses of the word.
The first thing that struck me when I embarked upon the book, was that it almost reads like a lifeblog. The chapters, 64 of them, are a bit like short stories, mostly chronological, on different aspects of Vattimo’s life. The format makes for easy reading and allows the reader to put down the book from time to time for a moment of reflection without losing track of the story line. This is very useful, for instance, when you are reading about Vattimo’s philosophical thought and need to do some googling, like I had to. I am a notorious Philistine when it comes to ‘higher culture’. Sure, I like art and philosophy and literature, but I am about as highbrow and erudite as a rent boy in Turin’s Valentino Park. This is the very reason why I hesitated to write a review on Not Being God. To make things worse, I had never even heard of Gianni Vattimo! Well, it turns out my ignorance was not really a handicap. On the contrary. It allowed me to focus on the man behind the philosopher. And the book really is highly enjoyable. And so is Gianni Vattimo. You have got to love this gay man who wanted to have a normal family life, taking the view that “sexual specialization is impoverishing”, and who is endearingly candid about his personality:

”On one hand, faced with an attack full of gratuitous hatred, I think, with childish surprise: How can they not be fond of someone like me? On the other, I always think that I’m incapable of winning over anyone, of deserving anyone’s affection. If someone does show me affection, simply and naturally and without expecting anything in return, I almost wonder how it’s possible.”

Furthermore, the book whisks you through a few decades of Italian politics and history and even gives you an inside look on the way the European Parliament works (according to Vattimo):

“At Brussels I always used to say, “Give me a report, even a rapporto protetto.” Because, since they can’t decide anything, members of the European Parliament try to win a name for themselves by attaching their name to a report on some topic or other. The Commission sends you a measure they wish to take, you study it and write the whole thing up, then take it to your group and present it. Even if the Assembly does vote it down, the Commission goes ahead with it anyway, because they’re utterly indifferent.”

Philosophy takes, of course, a prominent place in Not Being God, but the philosophical passages are easily digestible and Vattimo (through Paterlini) explains them well enough. And there are several interesting ideas that even a layman like myself can understand and appreciate:

”I’m convinced that not much can be done about the uniformization of the world, in the current situation at any rate, under a sole empire, the United States. But tomorrow it might be someone else. If there’s a way out – with the end of every absurd claim to absolute objectivity – it’s for society to become the place where truth signifies accord among interpreters, not the claim to demonstrate how matters stand.”

So, to summarize, Being God is a delicious mix of philosophy, history, politics, ‘gayness’ and the personal experiences and thoughts of an interesting man, thinker and political activist with an extraordinary life. It is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written (and translated, by William McCuaig) and, at times, enormously funny. It should appeal to everyone and, especially, to those who already know Gianni Vattimo or take a keen interest in Italian culture, its recent politics and history. And do not worry if you know little about Italian politics. All the Italian abbreviations that are used in the book are translated and explained at the end. Also, there is a handy index in case you want to research the tons of names that are mentioned in this autobiography.
The book’s official Columbia University Press webpage is here, more excerpts from the book (about Vattimo’s concept of “weak thought” and death threats among other things) can be found here and Gianni Vattimo’s very own weblog (in Italian) can be found over here. Enjoy.

Administration of Torture by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Early 2004 photos emerged in the media showing Iraqi prisoners allegedly being abused and tortured by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. The impact was devastating and the Bush administration, already under fire by critics for the way it handled the Iraq war, was faced with yet another serious public relations problem. America, the leader of the free world, the winner of hearts and minds, the liberator of people from oppressive regimes was seen to engage in the very same “evilness” it had denounced and gone to war for. The fact that the American abuse took place in the very same prison where evil dictator Saddam Hussein used to torture his own prisoners made the contrast even more poignant. Of course, the Bush administration had to respond and protect the image of their America. On June 22nd 2004 president Bush stated:

Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country. We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.*

To cut a very long explanation short, the abuse was done by “rogue soldiers”, aberrational and not a matter of official US policy. The narrative was picked up and expanded upon by various actors in the public arena. The harshness of the various interrogation methods used at Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, was heavily debated in, among others, the blogosphere. Both domestically and, yes, internationally people asked questions like: “Do loud music and bright lights really constitute torture?” Even vice-president Cheney chimed in when he called waterboarding “a no-brainer”. He proceeded to invoke “the terrorist threat” as a valid excuse for using controversial interrogation techniques and reiterated the official line that “we don’t torture”.

Between 2004 and now a lot has been written about the subject and the issue of torture and prisoner abuse continues to haunt the current US administration, especially in view of the upcoming US presidential elections, as evidenced by this recent article in The New York Times in which senator McCain chastises Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani for the latter’s failure to call waterboarding torture. About a week ago international media found the issue interesting enough to report that the “whistleblower website” Wikileaks had published the Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedure, an outdated copy of the manual for prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay. And, naturally, the issue IS interesting. But what did really happen? What are the ramifications, both politically and morally, of what happened, and may very well continue to happen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay? What is the opinion of the experts, of people who actually deal with the interrogation of prisoners instead of laymen chattering about it on the internet? And what is it that sets this US Administration apart from others before it when it comes to the issue of torture?

With these questions I can introduce to our readers a truly remarkable book published by Columbia University Press, Administration of Torture, that answers all of them and is written by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, two lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Administration of Torture starts with an intriguing introduction in which ACLU lawyers Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh build their case that the current US Administration did condone torture, that the abuse of prisoners was indeed systemic, that senior government officials, like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, were personally involved, probably for the first time in US history, in determining which interrogation techniques were to be used and that those techniques were possibly illegal and even unconstitutional bordering on war crimes.

The text of the introduction in which these allegations are made, 52 pages long, is corroborated by over 300 footnotes pointing directly to official documents that are reproduced in the book over 374 pages. The true scope of the enormous investigative work done by Jaffer and Singh becomes clear when you know that over 100,000 of these official pages have been released to the ACLU and its partners under the Freedom of Information Act.

I have to admit that the prospect of wading through even 374 pages of official documents seemed a bit daunting at first. Especially since I am not a lawyer myself. But my initial reticence, and even scepticism as to the importance of this book when the whole issue of torture was already well-discussed elsewhere, was quickly overcome when I actually started to delve into these documents myself and when I discovered how easy it is to justify illegal actions with legal “loopholes”, how it was not really torture itself that was seen as a problem, but the way it could tarnish the reputation of the country or put at risk the career of certain people, how cynical and bureaucratical the whole issue was dealt with. And all of this on the basis of real, official documents and testimonies from and by people who were directly involved. In any case, the whole issue is explained extensively and clearly in the introduction to Administration of Torture, which handily serves as a manual to correctly interpret all those documents.

In the introduction, or the indictment of the Bush administration, if you will, Jaffer and Singh demonstrate, among many other things, how the US administration managed to deviate from previously established rules and practices, how it managed to reinterpret laws “in a way that would allow government personnel to engage in interrogation methods that violate both domestic law and also international law”**. One very telling example and quote:

In Januari of 2002, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales opined that the war on terror had “render(ed) obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on the questioning of enemy prisoners,” and he recommended that the president deny al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners the protection of the Third Geneva Convention to “preserve flexibility” and “reduce the threat” that administration officials and military personnel would later be prosecuted for war crimes. Stating that the war against terrorism had “usher(ed) in a new paradigm,” President Bush formally endorsed this policy in a memorandum issued on February 7.”

The opinion of Gonzales and the February memo of Bush are both reproduced in full in the book.

Jaffer and Singh also demonstrate how various government officials and agencies, who deal with interrogations as a part of their job, have expressed doubts about the efficiency of the recommended interrogation methods. Even within the military similar doubts had been raised. This alone blows to smithereens the whole argument that harsh interrogation techniques are by definition necessary to protect the average American from the “terrorist threat”. One example and quote, talking about aggressive interrogation tactics, with the corresponding FBI memo reproduced in the book:

Not only are these tactics at odds with legally permissible interviewing techniques used by U.S. law enforcement agencies in the United States, but they are being employed by personnel in GTMO who appear to have little, if any, experience eliciting information for judicial purposes. The continued use of the techniques has the potential of negatively impacting future interviews by FBI agents as they attempt to gather intelligence and prepare cases for prosecution.”

Remember, this memo was written by people whose job it is to gather intelligence.

Furthermore, we learn that many detainees have either “been arrested by mistake” or “were of either no intelligence value or were of value but innocent and therefore should (…) not have remained in captivity”. We learn of interrogations ending with the death of detainees, we learn that the interrogation techniques used in Abu Ghraib were also pervasive in other US detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and that abuse was endorsed by senior officials as a matter of policy. Torture, in other words, did not happen in spite of policy but because of it. All of these allegations are backed up by official documents.

In Administration of Torture Jaffer and Singh present enough evidence of illegal abuse and even war crimes committed by, among others, senior US government officials to warrant at the very least a thorough Congressional investigation no matter what your personal stance on the use of torture is. If it is against the rules, it is against the rules. Like any other ordinary citizen government officials are accountable and have to operate within the limits defined by law. Since the authors include official documents in this book, among which testimonies of people on the ground, we get a better understanding of how devastating even “soft techniques” like loud music, bright light, stress positions and isolation can be when used too extensively, as seems to have been the case. We learn therefore that, apart from moral reasons, there are also practical reasons for limiting the use of certain interrogation techniques. Some of them are plainly counter productive. We learn that in the absence of clear guidelines, or deliberate obfuscation of them, the slippery slope theory can quickly degenerate into reality, etcetera.

So, even when so much has already been said about the subject, I would highly recommend Administration of Torture, not only because it is a formidable example of investigative journalism, not only because it shows that torture is not by definition the way to go, not only because of its historic value in documenting a very important part of American history, not only because of its current “political value” since it could form the basis of a legal investigation into possible war crimes committed by an American administration, but because, to all of us, it demonstrates the way power can and will corrupt if it is allowed to go unchecked.

As a matter of fact, regardless of all those freedom speeches made by George W. Bush in the past years, I would consider the very existence of this book as the prime example of the true free spirit of the American people. I do believe, as evidenced by this American book published by Americans, that the values of their country are such that torture is not a part of their soul and their being.

So, yes, Administration of Torture is a serious indictment of the Bush administration warranting further investigation. But it is also, and foremost, proof that the American democracy is still alive and kicking and that we can still look to America as an example of true freedom. That is why, in these often dark and insecure times, this very book can and must serve as a beacon of hope and as an example to all those, even here in Europe, who seek to curb constitutional freedoms in the name of the war against terrorism. We should all be better than our enemies.

*The Bush quote is taken directly from the book.
** This quote in between brackets is taken from an interview with Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh from the Columbia University Press podcast series, also accessible through the book’s webpage at Columbia University Press.