Tag Archives: culture

Thoughts on “Beauty Queens, Fundamentalists, and Lepers” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. In the essay, Eco employs his wit to address issues of globalization, and how the media contributes to the negative aspects of globalization.

I am one of those who think that out of every ten phenomena of globalization, at least five may have a positive outcome but if globalization does have a negative aspect, it is the violent imposition of Western models on underdeveloped countries to induce consumption and raise hope that such countries cannot fulfill. If I show you beauty queens in swimsuits, it’s because I want to promote the sale of Western beach wear, maybe sewn by hungry children in Hong Kong. The clothing will be bought in Nigeria by those who aren’t dying of hunger (if these people have money to spend, they are making it at the expense of those dying of hunger) and who actively help Westerners exploit the poor and keep them in precolonial condition.

(pp. 261 – 262)

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all painfully aware of how fragile the globalized consumerist economic model truly is. Our insatiable craving for cheap goods to fill some void within us has killed local manufacturing and the result is that when things fall apart, as they eventually will, we are left without the infrastructure and ability to provide for ourselves. This is evident in the barren shelves which are reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film.

I have no idea what our post-coronavirus world will look like, but I am quite certain that it will be very different from what we have become accustomed to.

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Earth Day 2020: Thoughts on Rolling Stone, Issue 1338 – April 2020

I drafted this post several days ago, but held off on posting until Earth Day. I figured that this would be the appropriate time to share my thoughts.

It had been quite a while since I read an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout a good portion of my younger years, Rolling Stone was a staple of my regular reading, allowing me to stay current on arts and music, as well as politics and social issues. But I kind of fell out of it. I would see issues at newsstands, and be intrigued, but declined picking up a copy. Recently, my wife brought home the latest issue of RS, a special issue dedicated to the current climate crisis, a subject I am passionate about. I began reading and got drawn in. The publication still has its journalistic integrity, intelligent writers, and progressive stance that inspired me in my youth.

The articles in this issue evoked a range of emotions in me from anger and frustration to hope and inspiration. As infuriating as the corruption and greed is that fuels the current crisis, there is also an amazing amount of courage and innovation out there, spearheaded by energetic groups and individuals who refuse to succumb to the forces unwilling to relinquish their grip on global power.

Not surprising, one of the articles focuses on Greta Thunberg, a young woman whose passion, courage, and dedication is a huge inspiration for me. But I confess, I was shocked and disgusted by the level of hatred directed towards her, which truly underscores how challenging this cause is.

Outside of the Parliament building, Greta tells me she doesn’t worry about her safety despite Trump and others speaking cruelly about her on social media. (According to her mother, locals have shoved excrement into the family mailbox.) Later in February, she would march in Bristol, England, and be met by social media posts suggesting she deserved to be sexually assaulted.

(p. 42)

Greta’s determination leads me to something Jeff Goodell said in his article. We cannot allow our personal despair to suck us into the quagmire of inaction. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to help in this crisis.

When you look at images of the bush fires in Australia or the cracking ice shelves in Antarctica, it’s easy to think that it’s too late to do anything about the climate crisis — that we are, for all intents and purposes, fucked. And it’s true, it’s too late for 182 people who died from exposure to extreme heat in Phoenix in 2018, or for 1,900 people in northern India who were swept away in extreme floods in 2019, or the 4 million people who die each year around the world from particulate air pollution caused by our dependence on fossil fuels. And the way things are going, it’s probably too late for the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, for large portions of the Great Barrier Reef, and for the city of Miami Beach as we know it.

But the lesson of this is not that we’re fucked, but that we have to fight harder for what is left. Too Late-ism only plays into the hands of Big Oil and Big Coal and all the inactivists who want to drag out the transition to clean energy as long as possible. Too Late-ism also misses the big important truth that, buried deep in the politics and emotion of the climate crisis, you can see the birth of something new emerging. “The climate crisis isn’t an ‘event’ or an ‘issue,’ ” says futurist Alex Steffen, author of Snap Forward, an upcoming book about climate strategy for the real world. “It’s an era, and it’s just beginning.”

(p. 39)

As I watch the global response to COVID-19, I can’t help but think that this is the kind of response we need to the climate crisis. And yes, there will be deniers just like there are COVID-19 deniers protesting that they have the rights to congregate in spite of the risk doing so poses to others. And yes, we cannot depend on governments to address this challenge. Just like the COVID crisis, we need businesses and individuals to come forward and lead the way, because our political structure is way too dysfunctional to foment any substantial change.

I’d like to close with one last thought. Since we all need to do our part, I’m going to assert that if you are not making personal changes and sacrifices in your lifestyle that are difficult and uncomfortable, then you are probably not doing enough. Filling out online petitions while sipping a Starbucks latte from a disposable cup, or driving your gas-powered car to a demonstration is not going to create the level of change needed. Decide what you are comfortable doing, and then do more.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on keeping on.

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The Old Master Haggadah

This Passover seems unusually symbolic, with people isolated in their homes dealing with a pandemic worthy of being considered a biblical plague. For the first night, we gathered family members together from around the country and had a virtual Seder via Zoom, which was unique and actually worked nicely. For the second night, my wife and I will just do something low key and go through the Old Master Haggadah.

I acquired this book at a silent auction as part of a fundraising event, and I have to say I love this Haggadah. It includes the Seder instructions, in both English and Hebrew, and interspersed are stunning pictures of paintings by 17th century masters, along with a few paragraphs explaining the painting and its symbolism.

I will keep this post short, and just include some images of paintings that are included in this wonderful text. May you and your family stay safe and healthy, and may this virus pass over all our homes.

Inside cover of book

Rembrandt: Abraham Entertaining the Angels

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac

Rubens: Samson and Delilah

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Covid-19 and The Decameron

I confess that I have only read about half of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. But yesterday, I saw a friend’s Facebook post that included a quote from the text, which inspired me to reread the Introduction, which is relevant to what we are dealing with in these times of Covid-19.

So to provide a little background about this book for those who do not know about it:

The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Boccaccio describes how the plague originated in the East and then spread to the West, eventually infecting people in Florence, similar to the advent and spread of our current pandemic.

I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.

(p. 1)

Boccaccio then details the initial response, how the city restricted entrance by individuals showing signs of infection. This is the same as the initial response by the US and many other countries as the virus began to spread.

In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.

(p. 1)

Next, he describes how the infection was not only passed from sick to healthy persons, but that the germs also survived on materials and could be contracted that way.

Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.

(p. 2)

Finally, individuals are described as going into “voluntary exile,” essentially social distancing until the threat of contagion has passed.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.

(p. 3)

The social distancers of Boccaccio’s time passed the time by telling stories. Thankfully, we have tools of communicating which were not dreamed of in 14th century Italy. We can share our stories via phone calls, video conferences, social media, and numerous other platforms. In times like this, the stories we share matter. They allow us to stay connected to our humanity. This is why I continue to write here and share with everyone.

As you are staying home, I encourage you to talk with people you know, reach out to those who may be alone, and help each other through these difficult times. Stay safe!

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Thoughts on “The Taking of Jerusalem: An Eyewitness Report” by Umberto Eco

Painting by Émile Signol

So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco’s work, and this short piece is a fine example of why. It is a piece of brilliant satire intended to demonstrate the absurdity of news commentary, particularly in regard to war coverage. The piece is written from the perspective of a war correspondent covering the taking of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Typical of a news reporter, the reporter is always looking to get into the heart of the conflict.

My informants tell me that the attack is more interesting on the northwestern front, at Herod’s Gate. I will hop on a mule and try to get to the other side of the walls. And now, back to the studio,

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 255)

The correspondent then gives a play-by-play account, reminiscent of sports commentary. I have often noted that coverage of conflicts, as well as politics, often seem like sports narrative.

From my new position I have a clear view of Godfrey of Bouillon directing the final assault from the top of a tower. The first Christians are on the top of the walls. They are Luthold and Engelbert of Tournai, I’m told, Godfrey and the others follow them, the Moors are falling under their blows, others are leaping from the walls. Herod’s Gate is down—unless it was opened by our men already inside. The men of the Christian Alliance have entered the city on foot and horseback!

(ibid: p. 256)

Toward the end of the piece, Eco makes his most important point, in my opinion. We like to believe that the end of a conflict is the end of the war; this is not true in far too many cases. Sadly, the termination of a conflict is only the beginning of a longer war, that of ideals fueled by resentment and hatred of the other faction.

A monk I spoke to this morning pointed out that this massacre amounts to a defeat. If we are to establish a Christian realm in these lands, we ought to be able to count on the acceptance of the Muslim inhabitants and the tolerance of the neighboring kingdoms. But the slaughter has raised a wall of hatred between Moors and Christians that will endure for years, perhaps centuries. The conquest of Jerusalem is not the end but the beginning—of a very long war.

(ibid: pp. 258 – 259)

We still have this war mentality that permeates so much of our culture: war on crime, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on coronavirus, on and on. Our political debates are battles, this side vs. the other. Everything is broken down to my team against yours (which team are you?). If we are to survive as a species, we need to collectively change this attitude. Us and them no longer works. It has to be we, and that will only be achieved through cooperation and support.

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“Negotiating in a Multiethnic Society” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Eco’s book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Early in the essay, Eco writes:

If, as some say, there are no facts in the world but only interpretations, negotiation would be impossible, because there would be no criterion that would enable us to decide whether my interpretation is better than yours or not. We can compare and discuss interpretations precisely because we can weigh them against the facts they are intended to interpret.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 248)

This gets to the heart of a deep issue we face in our world. People do not share the same sense of what is true and factual. All information, data, and facts are subject to suspicion at best, and often flat out denial, if for no other reason than the source tends to lean to one polarity or another in the sociopolitical sphere. This is why factions are unable to negotiate anymore, making compromise and progress virtually impossible.

Let’s take an example. Let us assume that “climate change is affected by human activity” is a fact. If we can all agree on this fact, then policy makers from both sides of the political spectrum could negotiate how best to address the issue, weighing considerations from each side to ensure the best possible outcome. But when one extreme denies that humans have any influence on climate change, and the other extreme asserts that humans are the sole cause of climate change, then the fact is nullified and constructive negotiation becomes unattainable.

In this age of information, we must be prudent and use critical thinking to avoid the trappings of misinformation. The internet provides support for any idea, regardless of whether that idea has any validity whatsoever. As we enter into the year 2020, let’s try to have a little more clarity in our collective vision, because only through negotiation will we be able to deal with the challenges that face us on a global scale.

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Thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

It is very rare for me to start reading a book and not finish it. I can forge on through thick, dense texts, as evidenced by the fact that I actually read Infinite Jest. But after getting through about a third of this book, I decided it was not worth my time and energy to continue. I estimate I can probably read two or three other more interesting texts in the time it would take me to finish this.

I was very enthusiastic at the onset of this book, since the topic sounded interesting to me, basically an historical analysis of how and why specific cultures became technologically advanced more rapidly than others, leading to subjugation and in too many cases annihilation of the less technologically advanced cultures.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.

(p. 13)

So while the topic sparked my interest, the problem for me with this text is one that I’ve encountered in other historical works: way too much data so that the pertinent information gets lost in a sea of superfluous facts.

Let me say that while I was an English Lit major in college, I did my minor in History, so I read my share of history books, and some told fascinating stories about how history unfolded, and how events and ideas shaped the direction of cultures and the world. But then there are those books which don’t tell a story but instead inundate you with pages and pages of data which no one could remember and really serves no purpose except as footnotes to other more engaging works. In all fairness, I believe Jared Diamond was working to tell a story through data, but there is a point of overkill for me, and he crossed that threshold.

I’m a technical writer and editor by trade, so I am painfully aware that it is important to strike a balance between facts and data, contextual information, and getting to the heart of the matter. If I’m writing a guide explaining how to generate a report, and I bury the central information within pages of supporting information which the user does not need, then the reader will disregard my text and seek information elsewhere. There is a fine art to providing key ideas with just the right amount of context.

As I was reading this book, my daughter told me that she had watched a film based upon this book in one of her history classes. Since the topic is interesting for me, as I said, I think I will see if I can stream the film, and get the two-hour abridged version.

Cheers!

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