Tag Archives: social criticism

“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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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore

I watched the film adaptation of this graphic novel many years ago, before I even knew about the graphic novel. I liked the film a lot. It spoke to my interest in science fiction, adventure tales, and 19th century literature. All of these things are brilliantly blended together in this book, which is lavishly illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.

This omnibus edition includes two full volumes, as well as a wealth of supplemental material that is all worth exploring. There are coloring pages, games, instructions for crafts, everything that an intrepid nerd could ask for.

In addition to all the fun material and the brilliant artwork, there is Moore’s incredible writing, which flows effortlessly while focusing a lens on human nature, and also touching on the mystical and unusual in experience.

Moore uses the character of Miss Mina Murray as a voice of criticism against the male-dominated society of the 19th century.

Mina Murray: “Why are men so obsessed with mechanisms that further nothing but destruction?”

Here she is not only speaking out against patriarchy, but she is also making a bold comment on the industrial revolution, and the negative impacts that it had on society. She then goes on to express how challenging it can be for women in positions of authority.

Mina Murray: “The point is that I’m supposed to be the person organizing this… this menagerie! But that will never do, will it? Because I’m a woman! They constantly undermine my authority, him and that Quatermain…”

Shifting the focus away from social criticism, I want to share a well-written passage describing Allan Quatermain’s drug-induced altered state of consciousness.

Quatermain had felt the consciousness torn from his body, gripped by the drug’s phantasmal diamond fist. He’d heard Marisa scream and then the awareness was dashed from him by a cold, obliterating light. Now he was lost. As sensibility returned, he found himself afloat, a ghostly form amidst a shimmering violet limbo. What had happened? This was not the breathtaking immersion in past incarnation that the drug had hitherto provided. All about him dream-like forms congealed from viscous twilight, half-materialized before once more dissolving into opalescent nothing. Smoldering ferns and mollusk spirals, scintillating on the brink of substance.

Describing the experience of a shift in consciousness is not an easy task for a writer, since the nature of this experience is generally beyond words. But Moore does a great job is conveying the experience.

One of the characters in this book is Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. As the tale progresses, Jekyll fades out of the story and Hyde becomes the dominant character. This symbolizes what happens when the dualistic nature of humans gets out of balance. As Hyde points out, there has to be a balance. If the light becomes too strong, or the dark becomes too strong, then there are negative effects on the individual.

Hyde: “Anyway, what that silly bastard did , he thought is he quarantined all these bad parts, what was left would be a ****ing angel. huh-huh.”

Driver: “Hang on. If you’re this chap’s sins, how did you end up so bloody big?”

Hyde: “Good point [chlop]. That’f a very goob poimp. I mean, when I started out, good God, I was practically a ****ing dwarf. Jekyll, on the other hand, a great big strapping fellow. Since then, though, my growth’s been unrestricted, while he’s wasted away to nothing. Obvious, really. Without me, you see, Jekyll has no drives…and without him, I have no restraints.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I will say, though, that the last section is very long, comprised entirely of small-type text and is intended to mimic a travel almanac. While you may be tempted to skip over this somewhat tedious part of the book, I found it worthwhile to read through it. It is brimming with literary and pop-culture references to fictional locations, and is done so in a very creative way. It is not easy to read, but I think it’s worth it. I found lots and lots of subtle allusions to books I had read in the past, which stirred some good memories for me.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading stuff.

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Evolution #11: Changing Times

Tomas: You ever wonder if the world is changing? Like, for the worse?

Abe: All the goddamn time.

Tomas: I see it all over. Not just in the big ways. It’s little ones. Sure, the weather is changing, resources are running out, and everyone seems to be loads crazier than before… But whatever is happening now? It seems way bigger. End of days-type business, you know?

In this issue, two men are on a train, discussing changes in humanity. It’s hard for this to not resonate. Our world, and everything in it, including all of us, is changing at a pace that we have not seen in the history of humanity. Change breeds uncertainty, and rapid change creates such a high level of uncertainty that the result is fear. You can see it everywhere, regardless of political leaning or spiritual belief. People are afraid and trust in others is diminishing. This fear is being exploited by media and corporations who see it as an opportunity to capitalize on this trend, offering home security systems, homes in “safe” gated communities, healthy this, secure that.

If you pause and take a step back, it is easy to see how insane this has become. Personally, I feel there is still a way out. Yes, the world will change. Yes, people will change. How that change manifests is still up to us. I choose to help foster a more positive change, and as such am doing small things on a personal and local level. Small changes ripple out and become larger shifts. Never underestimate the impact that your smallest decision has on the world.

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Evolution #10: Creating Our Own Horrors

We made a world where everyone is alone. Full of locked doors and safe rooms, away from the horror. But we’re all locked in with the monsters. The ones we create. The ones we are.

It is difficult to look around these days and not see the fear, isolation, and fragmentation that is rampant in our society. The level of distrust against the “other” has created pockets of people who are willingly keep themselves separate from all people who are not like them, who do not think and act in exactly the same way. And this isolationism is leading to more fear and distrust, creating a vicious whirlpool that threatens to suck us all down into a dark vortex.

I was told once that we are only as sick as our secrets. This is why I feel it is imperative that we break out of this habit we are in of isolating ourselves from people who we label as different and begin to have open, honest, and empathetic conversations. Because if we don’t, we are increasing the risk that we will end up with a world of horror, with all of us locked away in with our own internal monsters in cells of our own construction.

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