Tag Archives: democracy

“On Mass Media Populism” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

This essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, is actually comprised of several shorter essays on the same theme. It’s very timely, considering the media circus surrounding the presidential primaries here in the US.

Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the US primaries will likely agree with Eco’s assertion regarding how a politician can dominate the media.

He makes promises that—good, bad, or indifferent as they may seem to his supporters—are a provocation to his critics. He comes up with a provocation a day, and if they are bizarre or outrageous, so much the better. This allows him to occupy the front pages of the paper and the breaking news on television, with the result that he is always at the center of attention. The provocation must be calculated to ensure that the opposition cannot avoid picking up the gauntlet and reacting vigorously.

(p. 134)

One thing I found enlightening in this essay was Eco’s explanation of how news stories use structure to validate their arguments while positioning their view as the truth in a debate.

Television works this way. If there is a debate about a law, the issue is presented and the opposition is immediately given the chance to put forward all its arguments. This is followed by government supporters, who counter the objections. The result is predictable: he who speaks last is right. If you carefully follow all the TV news programs, you will see this strategy: the project is presented, the opposition speaks first, the government supporters speak last. Never the other way around.

A media regime has no need to imprison its opponents. It doesn’t silence them by censorship, it merely has them give their arguments first.

(pp. 144 – 145)

Finally, Eco asserts that electoral campaigns have become a spectacle focusing on appearances.

The electoral campaign emerges as a spectacle of form, in which what matters is not what the candidate actually stands for but how he appears to others.

(p. 155)

So what is a voting citizen to think about all this? It’s a legitimate question and one that Eco poses as the conclusion of his essay.

When you finish reading, you wonder: Is this really what democracy is all about? A way to gain public favor, based only on orchestrated appearances and a strategy of deceit?

(p. 156)

Ever the idealist, I’d still like to believe that democracy means more, that it is still about advancing humanity and civilization. As always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read thought-provoking stuff.

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US Constitution: Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 – Regarding Appointment of Supreme Court Justices

Constitution

Almost immediately after the passing of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican senators vowed to block any appointment by President Obama to fill the seat, stating that the “American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice” (source: Huffington Post). To this, my brother who holds a Master’s Degree in History asserted that Republicans “quote the Constitution verbatim when it comes to ‘The right to bear arms’ but they ignore it when it comes to the President’s obligation to appoint Supreme Court justices.” I decided to read the part of the Constitution concerning appointment of Supreme Court Justices, since I had not read it since college.

[The President] shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

(Source: Cornell University Law Dept.)

The Constitution is very clear here. Nowhere does it state that the American people should select Supreme Court Justices; it is solely the President’s responsibility, and it is the responsibility of the Senate to provide “advice and consent.” Rather than obstructing the nomination, the Senate should expedite and assist in the process. This is what the Constitution demands.

I find it troubling that the US Constitution is being used in the same manner the Bible is often used—to be cited when it justifies what a group or individual believes in, but ignored when it contradicts those beliefs or opinions. The Constitution is the defining document that dictates how our government should operate and how our laws should be interpreted. If we begin to disregard sections for the sake of partisan politics, then we start down a very dangerous and slippery slope.

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“On Private Schools” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This is a very short essay included in Turning Back the Clock where Eco shares his thoughts on private schools, which he presents as being antithetical to democracy. I figured I would share a couple quotes.

And this is the situation in the United States: those with money can buy their children a good education; the children of those without money are condemned to semi-illiteracy. Hence the American state does not provide its citizens with equal opportunities.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 98)

I admit that, if we leave things as they currently stand under the Constitution, we won’t be able to eliminate a certain amount of injustice: the rich will continue to send their children where they wish, while the poor are left in the hands of the state school system. But democracy also means accepting a tolerable quantity of injustice to avoid greater injustice.

(ibid: p. 101)

Personally, I have no problem with private schools. If someone can afford to send their kids to one, that’s fine. What I find offensive is the concept that people who elect to send their kids to private schools should be entitled to government funding in the form of vouchers, essentially taking educational funding away from those who need it. If you can afford tuition at a private school, you do not need state assistance. Demanding that you get this is the epitome of greed and selfishness. Just be grateful that you have the resources to provide an advantage for your kids. Lots of people would love to have that luxury.

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“The Wolf and the Lamb: The Rhetoric of Oppression” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

I read this essay yesterday and it took a day to digest this fully, even though the impact of it was immediate. In this piece, Eco explores how rhetoric is used to justify tyranny and the oppression of others by leaders and governments. He backs up his arguments by examining speeches and documents from various sources to demonstrate how the various techniques are employed.

Eco defines rhetoric as “a technique of persuasion, and persuasion is not a bad thing, even though, reprehensibly, you can persuade someone to act against his own interests.” (Turning Back the Clock: p. 45) He then presents Phaedrus’s fable of the wolf and the lamb as the classic example of the rhetoric of oppression. In the fable, the wolf and the lamb meet at a stream to drink. The wolf wants to eat the lamb and goes through a series of arguments with the lamb until the wolf can justify his attack on the lamb.

Eco points out that these arguments become more effective when they are aligned with a shared public opinion. As an example, he uses a passage from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which he argues against the inferiority of other races, specifically blacks. The quote, while disturbing and lengthy, is worth including since it demonstrates how logic can be used in an attempt to promote ideas that are clearly deranged and racist.

From time to time our illustrated papers publish, for the edification of the German philistine, the news that in some quarter or other of the globe, and for the first time there, a Negro has become a lawyer, a teacher, a pastor, even a grand opera tenor or something of that kind. While the bourgeois blockhead stares with amazed admiration at the notice that tells him how marvelous are the achievements of our modern educational system, the more cunning Jew sees in this fact evidence in support of the theory with which he wants to infect the public, namely that all men are equal. It does not dawn on the dull bourgeois mind that the published fact is a sin against reason itself, that it is an act of criminal insanity to train a being anthropoid only by birth until the pretense can be made that the being has been turned into a lawyer—while millions who belong to the most civilized races have to remain in positions unworthy of their cultural level. The bourgeois mind does not realize that it is a sin against the will of the eternal Creator to allow hundreds of thousands of highly gifted people to remain floundering in the swamp of proletarian misery while Hottentots and Zulus are drilled to fill positions in the intellectual professions. For here we have the product only of a drilling technique, just as in the case of a performing dog. If the same amount of care and effort were applied among intelligent races, each individual would become a thousand times more capable in such matters… It is indeed intolerable to think that year after year hundreds of thousands of young people without a vestige of talent are deemed worthy of a higher education, while other hundreds of thousands who possess hugh natural gifts have to go without any sort of higher schooling at all. The practical loss to the nation is incalculable.

(ibid: pp. 48 – 49)

Eco asserts that one of the most effective forms of oppressive rhetoric is to employ the conspiracy argument, positing the idea that there is a plot by another person or country that threatens one’s safety.

In general, in order to maintain popular support for their decisions, dictatorships point the finger at a country, group, race, or secret society that is plotting against the people under the dictator. All forms of populism, even contemporary ones, try to obtain consensus by talking of a threat from abroad, or from internal groups.

(ibid: p. 52)

I have seen firsthand just how effective this rhetorical tool is. In the United States, the threat of terrorist attacks against American targets has led to the loss of individual freedoms and the implementation of oppressive laws such as the Patriot Act. It is also used profusely by media groups such as FOX News or MSNBC to polarize support for a particular political side. For example, if we consider something like the controversial Keystone Pipeline, FOX News would claim that liberals have fabricated evidence of climate change to push through their agenda which could have a negative impact on jobs in this country. Conversely, MSNBC would assert that right-wing legislators are being paid off by the oil lobby and seek to benefit financially at the expense of everyone else. Without taking sides here, we can see that both sides are using the same type of rhetoric, each claiming a conspiratorial plan by the other side.

Toward the end of the essay, Eco cites a speech by Pericles included in the writings of Thucydides where Pericles justifies an Athenian assault against a neighboring city state because it is their right.

This is another figure, perhaps the shrewdest, of the rhetoric of oppression: we have the right to impose our might on others because we embody the best form of government in existence.

(ibid: p. 62)

I cannot recall the number of times I have hear it said that we are invading a country to free the citizens from a dictator or to install or protect democracy. This argument strike deep in every American because we are conditioned to believe that democracy is the best form of government. And why wouldn’t people in every country want to share in the freedom afforded by a democratic country? But if we think about it, we must accept that this is only rhetoric used to persuade us to accept the decisions made by leaders. It is a way for leaders to justify their actions so that the majority of citizens will acquiesce. As Eco points out, it is a shrewd form of the rhetoric of oppression.

There are other examples in this essay that are worth reading and considering. I strongly encourage you to buy a copy of Turning Back the Clock and read this essay in its entirety. It is powerful and sobering, and after reading it, you will notice just how insidious this form of rhetoric is.

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“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare: How Politicians Manipulate Public Opinion

Coriolanus

Today is Election Day, so I figured it would be appropriate to write about something political. I had seen this play performed this past summer and really enjoyed it. I found its themes of political opposition and the manipulation of public opinion to be relevant to modern American politics.

Before I get into the politics of this play, I figured I’d touch on a couple things that I feel are important. Firstly, while this is a tragedy, only one person dies: Coriolanus. I sort of expect a stage full of carnage in a good Shakespearean tragedy, but that’s not the case here. As far as his tragic flaw, his main flaw is his pride, a somewhat hackneyed flaw in my opinion, but it fits. He is also a poor communicator, which is a problem for anyone playing the political game. Finally, I have to mention his relationship to his mother. Freud would have a field day with this. He addresses his mother with reverence while calling his wife “woman.” Pleasing his mom seems to be Coriolanus’ chief motivator throughout the entire play. One could certainly write an entire post on this mother/son relationship, but I will leave that to someone else.

OK, now on to the politics.

I constantly marvel at people’s ability to forget the past and change their views based upon the latest media hype. I confess that I thought this was a modern issue and the result of diminished attention span; but it seems that this was the case in Shakespeare’s day also. As the scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius consider Coriolanus’ recent popularity and the likelihood of his election as consul, Sicinius points out how easy it is to sway public opinion.

Sicinius:

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t.

(Act II, scene i)

The two then discuss how to manipulate the public’s opinion of Coriolanus by implying that he does not care about them, that he is full of pride and a tyrant, and that he will ultimately take away their freedoms. This is exactly the type of partisan hyperbole used by each political party to rally voters.

Brutus:

So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenced their pleaders and
Dispropertied their freedoms, holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in the war, who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

Sicinius:

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people–which time shall not want,
If he be put upon ‘t; and that’s as easy
As to set dogs on sheep–will be his fire
To kindle their dry stubble; and their blaze
Shall darken him for ever.

(Act II, scene i)

When Coriolanus must face the populace and the accusations of the tribunes, his mother offers him some advice.

Volumina:

I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.

(Act III, scene ii)

Shakespeare draws a comparison between acting and politics. In both, one is on a stage, performing a part for the public. In fact, there is even a term for this, “Political Theater,” which is defined as actions by politicians intended to make a point rather than accomplish something meaningful.

In modern American politics, pitting the rich against the poor is common political practice. On one side, the rich are told they should have disdain for the poor, who are depicted as lazy and seeking only to live off the wealth which they worked hard for. Conversely, the poor are told that the rich are nothing but a bunch of greedy money-grabbers seeking to exploit them. It appears that this type of divide was also exploited by politicians in Shakespeare’s time to manipulate the public.

Sicinius:

Bid them all home; he’s gone, and we’ll no further.
The nobility are vex’d, whom we see have sided
In his behalf.

Brutus:

Now we have shown our power,
Let us seem humbler after it is done
Than when it was a-doing.

Sicinius:

Bid them home:
Say their great enemy is gone, and they
Stand in their ancient strength.

(Act IV, scene ii)

As is often the case, political games and craft have a tendency to backfire.

Menenius:

‘Tis true:
If he were putting to my house the brand
That should consume it, I have not the face
To say ‘Beseech you, cease.’ You have made fair hands,
You and your crafts! you have crafted fair!

Cominius:

You have brought
A trembling upon Rome, such as was never
So incapable of help.

Both Tribunes:

Say not we brought it.

(Act IV, scene vi)

As I read this, I could not help but think about the mess in the Middle East. For years the US has been involved in that conflict, offering support to whichever faction seems to be more aligned to our political stance. The results of this policy has been disastrous, to say the least. Yet, our political leaders continue to make the same mistakes and play the same political games.

As members of a democracy, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues that affect our society and the world around us, and to make decisions based upon our views. It is important that we do not fall victim to the manipulation of political factions who seek only to wrest control of power from the other side. Regardless of which political side you lean towards, you should avoid buying in to the propaganda that is shoveled our way by political action groups on either side.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and if you are an American citizen, go out and vote today.

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