Tag Archives: essay

“Back to the Seventies” by Umberto Eco

This short essay on terrorism is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Eco begins by asserting the primary goals of terrorist activities.

What is a terrorist act usually intended to accomplish? Since a terrorist organization pursues and insurrectionary utopia, its primary aim is to prevent the establishment of any kind of agreement between the opposition and government … In the second place, terrorism aims to goad the government in power into hysterical repression, which the citizens will then find antidemocratic and unbearably dictatorial, and hence to spark an insurrection among the vast pool of “desperate proletarians or lumpenproletarians” who were only waiting for the last straw.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 225)

When I think about how divided the US has become following the 9/11 attacks, I can only sense that the terrorists were successful. A wall is now in place that makes it nearly impossible for individuals from the right and the left to find any common ground. Both sides are afraid that the other side will infringe upon or take away their rights. The result is that our fear of the “other” is causing our societal fabric to come apart.

Eco concludes that the most dangerous government response to terrorism is an assault on free speech, claiming that anyone who speaks out against the government is supporting the terrorists.

The principle can be put like this: Because terrorists exist, anyone who attacks the government is encouraging them. The corollary: It is criminal to attack the government. The corollary of the corollary is the negation of every democratic principle, blackmail of the press. denial of the freedom to criticize, denial of every act of opposition and every expression of dissent. This is not the abolition of Parliament or of the press (I’m not one of those who talk about the new Fascism) but something worse. It is using moral blackmail, holding up to civic disapproval all who express (nonviolent) disagreement with the government, equating verbal violence—common to many forms of heated but legitimate debate—with armed violence.

(ibid: pp. 227 – 228)

This is now were we are as a society. And I am not singling out any one side. The right and the left are both guilty of this as far as I can see. Progressives seek to silence speakers on campus whose ideas and views contradict theirs, and conservatives label opinions contrary to their own as fake news. We have lost the ability to have passionate debate, and the result is fear and hatred of our neighbors. And if we accept the words of Abraham Lincoln that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” then the terrorists have accomplished what they set out to do.

It’s about time we stopped focusing on our differences and instead seek out commonality. It’s really not too late. We just need to be a little trusting, a little patient, and willing to listen without prejudice.

Thanks for taking the time to read my rambles.

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“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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“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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“Pasta Cunegonda” – How Umberto Eco Dealt with a Troll

Umberto Eco

In this short essay included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco tells the tale of how he had written an article with some pragmatic suggestions on how to take action against the right-wing government controlled media. The article spawned a hateful response from someone who sent Eco a copy of a book that Eco had written, with the word “Shit” written in big red letters across every other page. Rather than succumbing to anger, Eco looked at the event with his usual wit and insight.

I tried to understand the mind and the walk of life of my correspondent. For the psychology, there’s no need of a psychoanalytic session, and I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. As for the man’s social background, I wonder if he already had the book at home, if he bought it specially, or if he stole it. If he already had the book at home, even if it belonged to his children, he must be a person of some status, which makes the business all the more interesting. If he stole it, theft too can be a form of political struggle, but the people who steal books were usually on the far left, and I would say that this isn’t the case here. Which leaves us with the possibility that he bought it, and if he did, then he spent a certain amount, plus the cost of mailing, in order to give himself this satisfaction. He must have calculated that he wasn’t going to contribute to my personal well-being, given the paltry percentage authors receive on paperbacks, but he didn’t consider the big check I will receive for this article.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp 193 – 4)

In my years of blogging, I have gotten several trollish remarks. After my initial indignation, I did my best to just let them go. But in this age of abundant internet trolling, Eco provides some great advice. There will always be people who disagree with you and feel emboldened to bolster their beliefs by putting you down. The best way to deal with them is with a sense of humor and a touch of empathy. And, if you can use it as inspiration for something creative, then by all means, do so!

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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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