Tag Archives: society

Thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

It is very rare for me to start reading a book and not finish it. I can forge on through thick, dense texts, as evidenced by the fact that I actually read Infinite Jest. But after getting through about a third of this book, I decided it was not worth my time and energy to continue. I estimate I can probably read two or three other more interesting texts in the time it would take me to finish this.

I was very enthusiastic at the onset of this book, since the topic sounded interesting to me, basically an historical analysis of how and why specific cultures became technologically advanced more rapidly than others, leading to subjugation and in too many cases annihilation of the less technologically advanced cultures.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.

(p. 13)

So while the topic sparked my interest, the problem for me with this text is one that I’ve encountered in other historical works: way too much data so that the pertinent information gets lost in a sea of superfluous facts.

Let me say that while I was an English Lit major in college, I did my minor in History, so I read my share of history books, and some told fascinating stories about how history unfolded, and how events and ideas shaped the direction of cultures and the world. But then there are those books which don’t tell a story but instead inundate you with pages and pages of data which no one could remember and really serves no purpose except as footnotes to other more engaging works. In all fairness, I believe Jared Diamond was working to tell a story through data, but there is a point of overkill for me, and he crossed that threshold.

I’m a technical writer and editor by trade, so I am painfully aware that it is important to strike a balance between facts and data, contextual information, and getting to the heart of the matter. If I’m writing a guide explaining how to generate a report, and I bury the central information within pages of supporting information which the user does not need, then the reader will disregard my text and seek information elsewhere. There is a fine art to providing key ideas with just the right amount of context.

As I was reading this book, my daughter told me that she had watched a film based upon this book in one of her history classes. Since the topic is interesting for me, as I said, I think I will see if I can stream the film, and get the two-hour abridged version.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Holy Wars, Passion, and Religion” by Umberto Eco

In this essay, Eco explores fundamentalism and the need for critical and objective analysis when thinking about this complicated phenomenon. He basically argues that the problem with our approach to understanding fundamentalism is that we look at it from our own cultural perspective and not from the perspective of the society that spawned the fundamentalist movement. He also argues that understanding fundamentalism in other cultures helps us better understand fundamental movements within our own cultures.

Imagine is Muslim fundamentalists were invited to carry out research on Christian fundamentalism (I’m thinking of certain American Protestants, more fanatical than any ayatollah, who would expunge all reference to Darwin from the schoolbooks). Studying the fundamentalism of others helps us understand our own fundamentalism better. Let them come and study our concept of holy war (I could suggest a very interesting reading list, with some recent works), and perhaps they will view the concept in their own countries with a more critical eye. We Westerners have reflected on the limitations of our own way of thinking by describing la pensée sauvage.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 244)

Our world has become very complicated, and as such, people have a general sense of being lost, as the speed of change continues to increase exponentially. This is the reason, Eco states, that we need to apply critical thinking in all areas of our lives.

But maybe it’s only a sign that in times of great disorientation (and we are living through such a time) no one knows where he stands anymore.

It is precisely in such moments of disorientation that we need to apply the tools of analysis and criticism—analysis of our own superstitions as well as those of others. I hope that these things will be discussed in the schools and not only at press conferences.

(ibid: p. 246)

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“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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“The Laws of Spirit” by Dan Millman

New age books can be hit or miss. This one has been on the shelves for a long time. Someone had given it to my wife as a gift. Anyway, I was looking to read something spiritual and this was nice and short, so I gave it a quick read. I have to say, it was better than I had expected.

The book adheres to the tried and tested format of the seeker meeting the sage, and they have an ensuing conversation where the sage has the answers to life’s questions. It’s kind of hackneyed, to say the least, but is saved by the fact that the chapters are very short and focused. Each chapter averages about eight pages in length. Also, Millman gets right to the point and does not wander off on tangents, which is appreciated.

As with most books of this nature, you get out of it what you bring to it. For those starting on a spiritual path, many of the concepts may be new, fresh perspectives. For me, it was more a refresher, which I confess I regularly need. It’s easy for me to get caught up in life and forget the fundamental principles I have learned.

The first passage I want to share from this book that resonated with me is about how all religions are one, that they essentially all teach the same spiritual principles, just using different languages and symbolism.

“You don’t have to believe in the sun to delight in the warmth of the morning light. It is simply obvious. That is how I know God. And as to my religion,” she continued, gazing into the distance as if remembering times past, “I’ve sat in the shining temples of the Israelites and under the glorious spires of the mosques of Islam; I’ve knelt in the great cathedrals and bathed in the light of Christendom; I’ve sat in sweat lodges and passed the pipe, lived as a shaman on the African plains, meditated in Buddhist temples, and inhaled the sweet aroma of incense on the banks of the Ganges. And everywhere, I’ve found the same Spirit in all religions—a Divine Will that transcends time, belief, and culture—revealing the universal laws that are the treasure of God.”

(p. 6)

And just as all religions are one, all spiritual paths ultimately lead to the same destination, you just learn different lessons based upon the path you choose.

“You lead for a while,” said the sage.

“But I don’t know where we’re going.”

She looked at me and smiled. “An interesting belief, Traveler, but I think you’ve always known where you were going, whether or not you were aware of it. So, which path will you choose?”

“Does it make any difference?”

“Ultimately? Not at all,” she replied. “In the end, all paths lead to the same destination. But one of these paths may lead into a green valley, another to a rocky peak, and the third into a dark woods. You can’t be sure where each trail leads; still, you must make a choice.”

(p. 18)

This life is filled with challenges, on individual levels as well as globally. But it is important to remember that these are just challenges, and that ultimately, things will balance out if we but persevere.

As the sage finished speaking, the rain stopped. Stepping out from under some trees into the warm sunlight, I felt an extraordinary sense of calm and well-being. In that moment, I knew that despite the challenges and tests confronting humanity, our world was in the hands of Spirit, unfolding, like a flower, toward the Light.

(p. 56)

As I mentioned earlier, this is a very short book, just over 100 pages, but there is a fair amount of insight inside, presented in clear and easy-to-understand language. It’s definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.

Thanks for stopping by.

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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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