Tag Archives: public opinion

“Some Reflections on War and Peace” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

While in Paris this past spring, I visited the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. While I was there I purchased a copy of Umberto Eco’s Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. I began reading it the other day, fully expecting that I would read through the book and then write a review of it. I discovered that the book is actually a collection of essays written by Eco and after reading the first one realized that my original plan would not do this book justice. Hence, I decided to write individual blog posts specific to essays in the book.

“Some Reflections on War and Peace” is the first essay and it explores what Eco sees as the two types of warfare: paleowar, which is traditional war fought on a defined front against a clear enemy; and neowar, which is war where the identity of the enemy is uncertain and there is no front.

Eco asserts that the first Gulf War marked the advent of neowar and a shift in the general psychology and public view of warfare. It was no longer acceptable to simply wipe out an enemy, regardless of collateral damage. Global media has increased public sensitivity to war and the casualties associated with it.

The Gulf War established two principles: (1) none of our men should die and (2) as few enemies as possible should be killed. Regarding the death of our adversaries we saw some hypocrisy, because a great number of Iraqis died in the desert, but the very fact that no one emphasized this detail is an interesting sign. In any case neowarfare typically tries to avoid killing civilians, because if you kill too many of them, you run the risk of condemnation by the international media.

Hence the employment and celebration of smart bombs. After fifty years of peace due to the cold war, such sensitivity might strike many young people as normal, but can you imagine this attitude in the years when V1s were destroying London and Allied bombs were razing Dresden?

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 14 – 15)

Eco seems very critical regarding media’s role regarding neowar. He uses 9/11 as a prime example. In this case, the media actually aided bin Laden in achieving his goals, which is to spread fear and uncertainty.

Bin Laden’s aim was to impress world public opinion with that image, and accordingly mass media talked about it, showed the dramatic rescue operations, the evacuations, and the mutilated skyline of Manhattan. Did they have to repeat this news item every day, for at least a month, with photographs, film clips, and the endless eyewitness reports, broadcasting over and over the images of that wound before the eyes of all? It is hard to give an answer. Sales of newspapers with those photos went up, television channels that offered continuous repeats of those film clips enjoyed improved ratings, the public wanted to see those terrible scenes replayed, perhaps to feed its indignation, perhaps sometimes to indulge an unconscious sadism. Maybe it was impossible to do otherwise, but the fact remains that in this way the media gave bin Laden billions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, showing every day the images he had created, sowing bewilderment among Westerners, and giving fundamentalist supporters a reason for pride.

(ibid: p. 18)

Eco makes another astute observation regarding how media influences the public’s opinion regarding war. People in the West often side with a group not because they believe in a cause, but because they oppose war as it is being presented via international media. A perfect example of this is the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. One could argue that many Palestinian supporters side with them not because they agree with their ideology, but because they feel a sense of outrage at the images which they are exposed to.

Within the ranks of the West, pro-Islamic groups would be formed not out of faith but out of opposition to the war, and new sects would arise that reject the West, Ghandians who would put down their tools and refuse to collaborate with their governments, fanatics like the Davidians in Waco who (without being Muslims) would unleash terror campaigns to purify the corrupt Western world. In the streets of Europe, processions would form of desperate, passive supplicants waiting for the Apocalypse.

(ibid: p. 25)

The later part of the essay deals with the possibility of peace on a global scale. Eco is not optimistic. He asserts that conflict is part of human nature, and while we would like to envision a return to a peaceful state, mirroring that of the Edenic state, the sad fact is that humans have never enjoyed a prolonged state of peace.

I don’t believe that on this earth men, who are wolves preying on their fellow men, will attain global peace. Basically, Fukuyama was thinking about this peace with his idea of the end of history, but recent events have shown that history repeats itself, and always in the form of conflict.

(ibid: p. 29)

While this view of war and peace seems dismal, Eco ends the essay on a note of optimism. While global peace may never be possible, peace on a local level is certainly within our grasp. And I would augment this by asserting that if enough people worked towards local harmony, this could have a rippling effect across a wider plane.

Our only hope is to work on local peace.

(ibid: p. 30)

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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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