Tag Archives: FOX News

“Foreigners and Us” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

I have to say, I was intrigued by the title of this essay (included in Turning Back the Clock), particularly given the distrust of foreigners that many Americans currently feel. There are some correlations between the essay and current affairs in the United States, but not ones I expected.

The first correlation is in regard to news media. Eco explains how the veracity of news is determined by whether the views expressed support the established views of the reader. This has been taken to the extreme in the US, where people on the left see MSNBC as the source of truth and those on the right assume FOX News is the source of truth. But the fact is that both sources are biased and the truth lies somewhere else.

By this reasoning, if a public prosecutor accuses us of a crime, then he is an agent of the plot, and if he acquits us, he is virtuous and upright. It’s like saying that The Economist is trash because it criticizes the Polo candidate, but The Times is a model of journalism because it is more indulgent toward him. Where will we end up if we fall into such barbarism?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 158)

Eco also points out that many politicians now rely on negative campaigning to differentiate themselves from the opposing candidate. It’s the “Vote for me because I am not that person” ploy, and it seems to resonate. I hear people saying they will vote for one candidate solely because they do not like the other candidate.

Many politicians have run for office saying that they wouldn’t behave like the Soviet Union, or Haider, that they weren’t Nazis or Stalinists, that they harbored no authoritarian ambitions, that they didn’t want their country to be reduced to the level of those governed by Idi Amin Dada, Francois Duvalier, Saddam Hussein, and so on.

(ibid: p. 160)

But the thing that stands out the most for me in this essay is a section regarding Americans, how we are a diverse culture bound together by rules of coexistence.

It’s hard to say who the Americans really are, because they are the descendants of the old British Protestant pioneers, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Puerto Ricans, and God knows how many others. But what makes the United States a nation is the fact that all Americans have absorbed a fundamental principle, one that—when the time is right—also fuels their patriotism. The principle is very simple: This is the country where I make a living and allows me, if I can, to become rich, so I must accept some of its rules of coexistence.

(ibid: p. 161)

Maybe this was the case in 2003, but I see a growing disregard for the rules of coexistence in this country. In fact, there seems to be a reaction against the rules of coexistence. A growing number of very vocal individuals appear to want rules of exclusivity that favor one group above others. I find this a frightening trend and one that is bound to end poorly if it continues.

As the 2016 election campaigns continue and the rhetoric becomes more vitriolic, I feel powerless to do much other than share my thoughts and watch how it all unfolds.

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“Numero Zero” by Umberto Eco

NumeroZero

As a result of the recent passing of Umberto Eco, I decided to bump this book up on my reading list. It is his most recent book, and sadly, his last one. It’s a short novel and fairly easy to read—not nearly as challenging as some of his other books. Still, it is classic Eco, steeped in conspiracy and social commentary, with ample references to history and literature.

This is a story about a newspaper in Milan that stumbles upon a conspiracy that may connect Mussolini with the Vatican, and suggests that Mussolini’s death was fake. There are lots of references that probably would have meant more to me if I was better versed in Italian history, but that did not detract from the book in any way. There is one criticism about this book, though, which I should probably get out of the way first. Personally, I thought the translation was very weak. It almost seemed like someone plugged the text into Google Translate which then spit out a translation void of nuance. This is especially noticeable in the dialog. All the language is flat and it is almost impossible to discern one character from another.

“But it’s like calling John XXIII the Good Pope. This presupposes the popes before him were bad.”

“Maybe that’s what people actually thought, otherwise he wouldn’t have been called good. Have you seen a photo of Pius XII? In a James Bond movie he’d have been the head of SPECTRE.”

“But it was the newspapers that called John XXIII the Good Pope, and the people followed suit.”

“That’s right. Newspapers teach people how to think,” Simei said.

“But do newspapers follow trends or create trends?”

(p. 83)

So in the previous excerpt, there are actually three people taking part in the dialog, but it is virtually impossible to tell one from another based upon the tone of the person speaking. I suspect in the original Italian, there was more nuance in the voices, but I cannot be certain about that. Anyway, now I can talk about what I liked.

This book’s strength is its critique against the news media. I’ve read essays by Eco where he addresses problems with news media, but here he presents his ideas creatively through fiction.

One of the ideas that Eco puts forth in this book is that news organizations actually create the news.

It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news.

(p. 49)

This is true. The newspapers and news stations decide what is news and what is not. They decide what information is disseminated to the populace, and often these decisions are influenced by political agendas and advertising. In addition to the news media deciding what is “news,” there is another issue that impedes one’s ability to find important and unbiased news, and that is the fact that in the digital age, news is buried and hidden within a “sea of information.”

The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading the news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition you add some shock headlines—mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc.—so news drowns in a great sea of information.

(pp. 140 – 141)

This passage makes me think a lot about FOX News and their scrolling ticker across the bottom of the screen. On a regular basis, the word ALERT! in red appears and pulls your eyes toward the ticker, distracting you from whatever is being discussed in the report. I cannot help but wonder if the timing of the alerts is orchestrated. As an experiment, I think I will watch closely and note what is being discussed each time an alert flashes at the bottom of the screen.

While this was not my favorite Eco book, I am still glad I read it and it is certainly worth reading, in spite of the translation issues. It’s a quick read and as with everything that Eco wrote, it is impossible to read this book and not come away a wiser person for doing so.

Cheers, and keep on reading!

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

UmbertoEco

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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“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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Star Trek: Khan – Issue #5

StarTrekKhan_05

This is the final issue in the series and it concludes nicely. Essentially, Khan finishes his testimony and the sentence is handed down (I will abstain from saying what the sentence is—you’ll have to read the comic to find that out for yourself).

After the trial, there is a great conversation between Kirk and Spock regarding human nature and the construct of history. For me, this was the most interesting part of the final issue. How we construct history based upon stories and scraps of information is something I find fascinating. Anyway, here is the conversation.

Spock: We have no way to verify his account of the late twentieth century. Records from that period are simply too scarce,

Kirk: That’s just it, Spock. Khan knows that. Now he gets to write the history he wants, and it’s human nature to make yourself the hero of your own story.

Spock: I fail to see the logic in that approach, Captain, if that was truly his intention. History will hardly judge him kindly given the destruction he has caused in both the past and present.

Kirk: Like I said, Spock, human nature. Logic doesn’t have much to do with it.

Most of humanity’s early history was written by the victors, and they certainly wrote the histories in a manner that put them in a positive light. Currently, with the internet and the democratization of information, modern history appears to be a little less biased. At least you can find alternate versions of events. But we still relate our history from biased perspectives. Just compare how FOX News and MSNBC tell totally different versions of the same event. This makes me wonder how our history will be interpreted 500 years from now. Digital records can be easily manipulated or erased. What historical documentation will remain in our future, and how will that color the images that our future generations have of events that are transpiring today? It is an interesting question and one worth pondering.

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