Tag Archives: America

“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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Doomsday Clock: No. 1 of 12

I’ve had this comic for a few weeks now, but waited until I had finished Watchmen before reading it. I was on the fence about getting this, but some people that I know said good things about it, so I figured I would give it a shot. Glad I did!

First off, the artwork in this book is stunning. The detail in each panel demonstrates the amount of effort that went in to illustrating this story. While I am no artist, I can appreciate the attention to detail that a great illustrator puts into his or her work. I suspect that anyone reading this will be impressed with the drawings.

But of course, the key to any good story for me is the quality of the writing, which is outstanding. The story picks up where Watchmen left off, after the cataclysmic event that was supposed to unify humanity. But humans being what we are, conflicts again arise and humanity finds itself on the brink of extinction.

While this story is set in the early 1990’s, the creative team draws on current events and weaves the references and symbolism into the text and artwork. There are images of protesters carrying signs demanding that we “Make America Safe Again.” But the clearest example of the connection to current affairs is a series of panels depicting clips from various news sources.

“The President scored a hole in one earlier today, beating his previous record…”

“Less than two weeks into the collapse of the European Union, Russia has amassed its military in Belarus, and is threatening to enter Poland…”

“World leaders have proclaimed they will not stand by if blood is shed…”

“… North Korea now capable of reaching as far inland as Texas.”

“Hundreds have broken through the wall and flooded into Mexico. Thousands more are expected to follow…”

I had a discussion with a friend at a party recently about whether there is a higher level of anxiety about the “end of days” now as opposed to the mid-90’s at the height of the Y2K/millennium fears. I said that I think the anxiety is higher, but it is different. There is almost a sense of resignation associates with these fears, which make it the perfect climate for a story such as this.

Looking forward to the next installment.

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“The Revolt Against the Law” by Umberto Eco

I have been slowly working through Turning Back the Clock, a collection of essays by Eco. As I read this essay, there was a passage that really struck me.

… and, even before his guilt was decided, the masses in front of the TV were gloating over his humiliation and disgrace, as if watching a variety show in which the amateurs make fools of themselves. It was bad—bad for those who emerged innocent and bad for the guilty too, because the price they paid was higher than that called for by the law.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 182)

As I read this, it dawned on me just how much, as a society, we do this here in the US. I confess that I have been guilty of this myself. When I hear that someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum has been “accused” of some wrong doing, I have been quick to use that to justify my pre-established conceptions about that person. People on the left do it with Trump, and people on the right do it with Hillary. We have gotten to a point in our collective culture where what we accept as the truth is that which supports the beliefs that we already have. It’s a dangerous place for us to be in as a society.

One of the reasons I read is because it allows me to reflect upon myself, and I am humble enough to recognize when there are areas where I can improve as a person. This is one of those areas. Now that I am aware of this tendency, I am going to try not to engage in it. I’m sure I’ll fall short, especially as Mueller forges on with his investigations, but it’s about progress and not perfection.

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“Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance” by Maria Popova

mlk

I subscribe to the Brain Pickings newsletter, and while I do not always have time to read all the thoughtful essays, I am spiritually and intellectually stimulated each time I do. This week’s installment included an article about Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’” which I figured would be appropriate to read this morning for MLK Day.

Popova begins the essay by pointing out the spiritual traditions and philosophies that influenced King.

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Popova then begins exploring the key tenets in King’s essay “An Experiment in Love,” which I have not yet read in its entirety, but suspect I will have to soon. The first quote that really struck me concerns how we treat those we oppose.

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.

This single sentence perfectly captures my present sentiment. I recently had to cut myself off from much of social media because of the toxicity that permeates it these days. I get the sense that social media has become a tool for people to denigrate those they disagree with through snarky tweets and memes that depict the opposition as objects to be feared or ridiculed. Social media, instead of bringing us closer together, has helped drive a wedge between us, and I refuse to expose myself to this any longer.

The other passage that resonated with me concerns physical and spiritual violence.

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

This tenet applies to the social media toxicity I mentioned earlier, as well as the divisiveness we are experiencing in the aftermath of a most contentious election. There is so much hatred and fear and anger and distrust directed at “the others,” that it has resulted in a violence that manifests physically and spiritually. We have found ourselves in a terrible place and as a society we need to move past it.

If our civilization is to survive, we need to transcend the “us and them” mentality and begin to see ourselves as one people, regardless of our differences. We do not have to agree with everyone, but we need to begin respecting everyone and treating everyone with dignity. If we don’t, we will cease to advance.

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