Tag Archives: Berlusconi

“Chronicles of the Late Empire” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It’s an amazing book, and I have been slowly working my way through it, reading the occasional essay between my other literary indulgences.

In this piece, Eco looks at how Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy (who Eco jokingly calls the Great Communicator), created his own media scandal around his wife’s affair with another man. Essentially, Berlusconi disregarded the boundary that separates one’s personal life from the affairs of state, something that was en vogue in ancient Rome at the height of Roman decadence. He contrasts this to how Bill Clinton sought to keep his personal affairs separate from his affairs of state.

But the issue is of historiographic importance. Usually, politicians do their best to keep their domestic problems separate from matters of state. Clinton got caught with his underpants in his hands, but he glossed over the matter and even got his wife to rally around and say on television that it was an insignificant affair. Mussolini was what he was, but he worked out his problems with his wife within the four walls of his home, he didn’t discuss them before the crowds in Piazza Venezia. When he sent off a whole lot of men to die in Russia, it was in pursuit of his own dreams of glory, not to please his mistress Clara Petacci.

Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and personal affairs? In the Roman Empire, where the emperor was the absolute master of the state. No longer controlled by the senate, he needed only the support of his praetorians, and so he could kick his mother, make his horse a senator, and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 196 – 7)

We are still living in a time when we assume that a leader’s personal life should be made public to validate whether that person is moral enough to serve the state. While I agree that crimes should not be ignored because a person is in a position of political power, that person’s spiritual beliefs, family life, sexuality, and so forth, should be their own business and not part of the media spectacle that we call politics these days.

Eco’s wit and brilliance is unique. While I’m sad that he is no longer with us, I’m glad he left such a volume of work for us to think over.

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“The 2001 Electoral Campaign and Veteran Communist Strategy” by Umberto Eco

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While this essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, explores the 2001 Italian election, there is a lot that is relevant to the 2012 election here in the US.

Eco first points out that advertising principles play an important role in electoral campaigns: “From the model of advertising they have taken the constant repetition of one symbol plus a few simple slogans, as well as a shrewd color scheme.” (p. 121) In the US electoral race, this is standard across the board, and every candidate must use some color combination of red, white, and blue.

One thing I have noticed about the 2016 US political race is how aggressive it has become. Eco points out that this was also the case in the 2001 Italian election: “… every opposing point of view was branded as against the people, accompanied by constant complaints about the aggressiveness of others.” (p. 123)

Possibly the most frightening similarity is the stanch refusal to compromise on anything. Politics in the United States has become so polarized that it no longer matters what the policy or idea is—if it was presented by the other party, then it must be rejected completely. This was also the case in Italy, as Eco explains.

The 1968 model also lives on in the tactic of never giving an inch to the adversary, but always demonizing him whatever his proposals are, then refusing dialogue and debate (such as turning down interviews with any journalist seen as a lackey of power). This rejection of compromise was based on the constantly reiterated conviction that revolutionary victory was imminent.

(p. 125)

As I read this, I could not help but consider the Republican refusal to consider a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama asserting that the next president (meaning a Republican based on their victory conviction) should fill the post.

Finally, there are stark similarities between Berlusconi and Donald Trump regarding popular appeal and the reasons behind it, particularly that because he is rich, he is better qualified to be a leader.

Nor should we ignore the populist stamp of some of the arguments with which people, even those of humble origins, used to demonstrate their liking for Berlusconi. The arguments are: (1) being rich, he won’t steal (an argument based on the man in the street’s slipshod equation of politician with thief); (2) what do I care if he looks after his own interests, the main thing is that he look after mine too; (3) a man who has become enormously rich will be able to distribute wealth among the people he governs…

(p. 126)

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, as is evident when you compare Italy’s 2001 election with the current American one. Sadly, though, people ignore or forget the lessons that history offers. I can only hope that this tendency changes in the future, but, if history is any indicator…

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“For Whom the Bell Tolls: A 2001 Appeal for a Moral Referendum” by Umberto Eco

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So it’s officially 2016, which in the US means it’s an election year, and already the battle lines are being drawn. People are choosing who they will support and social media is buzzing with political memes. And sadly, I am seeing the beginning of what promises to be a polarizing and divisive election. Who will end up suffering as a result? We will, of course. Which is why this essay written by Eco 15 years ago resonated with me. It’s almost prophetic.

In this short essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco looks at an election in Italy, the influence of media on the electoral process, and the groups of people who form various factions of the electorate. One of the categories of voters he calls the Mesmerized Electorate, and this is a group that I see playing a prominent role in the upcoming US election.

The second category, which I call the Mesmerized Electorate, the most numerous, has no defined political opinion but has based its values on the creeping form of “culture” imparted for decades by the various television channels, and not only those owned by Berlusconi. What counts for these people are ideas of well-being and a mythical view of life, not unlike that of the people I would call generically the Albanian immigrants. The Albanian immigrant wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to Italy if the TV had showed him for years only the Italy of Open City, Obsession, or Passion—he would have steered clear of this unhappy country. He comes because he knows Italy as a country where a colorful television hands out easy money to those who know that Garibaldi’s given name was Giuseppe: a rich, showbiz Italy.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 117)

Here in the US, I picture people in this category sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, switching between reality TV, game shows, and FOX News. They are fed a constant stream of how great things are, the threats to their imagined way of life, and how their life should be, yet are distracted from the realities that are growing around them.

While the image of a Mesmerized Electorate is unsettling, I find the Discouraged Electorate to be much more disturbing.

We are faced with the Mesmerized Electorate and the Motivated Electorate of the right wing, but the greatest danger to our country is the Discouraged Electorate of the left (I mean the left in the broadest sense of the term, from the old secular republicans to kids in Rifondazione Communista, down to Catholic volunteers who no longer have any faith in politics). This electorate is made up of that mass of people who know all the things said here (and don’t need to hear them repeated) and are disappointed with the outgoing government. They castrate themselves to punish their wives. They ensure the victory of the de facto regime to punish those who failed to satisfy them.

(ibid: p. 119)

Unfortunately, I know many people who fall into this category: people who supported Obama and felt they were let down; people who think Hillary Clinton is a liar and untrustworthy; people who feel Bernie Sanders is too far to the left; and those who are so disillusioned with politics that they view all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, as part of a corrupt political system which they no longer want to be a part of.

As the rift between voters in this country widens, the debate becomes more vitriolic. Personally, I do not see this as helpful to the advancement of our society. I encourage everyone to read broadly, learn as much as possible, and keep an open mind between now and November. Try not to let emotions, fear, or the media cloud your judgment and lead us farther down this path.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

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