I discovered that posting quotes regularly did not really take that much less time; in fact, I think I spent even more time, since I felt compelled to post more often.
My daughter was all excited because she Googled something by Umberto Eco and one of my blog posts was the top Google search result.
Anyway, I figure I will write when I can, and not sweat it if I get too busy to write. That said, my thoughts on this book.
I came across this at a community center where there was a table of free books (a dangerous thing for a bibliophile). Most of the books were of no interest to me, but this one immediately caught my attention. While in college, I had read Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece of political theory, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The book was one of those that left a strong and lasting impact on me. I cannot tell you how many times I have observed the behaviors of political leaders and listened to their words, then thought back to Arendt’s book. Essentially, she wrote the book on totalitarianism. The term did not exist until she coined it.
The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a biographical graphic novel. It provides a witty overview of Arendt’s life, how she fled Europe during World War II, established herself as a political theorist and philosopher, and eventually went on to become the first woman to be appointed full professor at Princeton University.
While most of the book tells the story of Ms. Arendt’s life, it does briefly summarize some of her political ideas.
As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of totalitarianism is untruth. Before totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unreeling contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up.
The graphic novel quotes Arendt as saying, “Whatever I do, I am simply unable to avert my eyes from the reality of the world around me.” (p. 126) I feel the same way. It is impossible to ignore what I see going on in the world. And if you ever read The Origins of Totalitarianism, you will also not be able to look at the behaviors of political leaders the same way again.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share in my musings. I hope you find these posts interesting. If so, please let me know. As long as there is interest, I will do my best to keep writing.
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.
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.
This book is a very fast read. It was so engaging that it was difficult to put it down. I found myself crawling out of bed at 4:00 am to get some reading in before the day started and work began dominating my mental energy.
In case you don’t know already, Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. Personally, I enjoyed this book better that the first one. Maybe it was because I was already invested in the characters and the story, but I think it was also the way that the book examines totalitarian government and how a totalitarian regime controls the masses.
While I was in college, I took an interdisciplinary honors seminar that had an emphasis on totalitarian government, and one of the books that made a lasting impression on me was Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. The book goes into detail on the social climate that gives rise to totalitarian regimes, how they gain power, and the methods they use to spread misinformation and control the masses. It’s a fascinating book and I have never looked at government and media the same since.
The Capitol in Chasing Fire is the classic totalitarian government. It uses fear and extreme forms of public punishment to control the masses. Control of resources keeps individuals weak and focused on basic survival. Finally, and most important, is media control. The government controls what images and what information is presented to the people. Never underestimate the power of the media when it comes to manipulating people.
I love that this book introduces the younger generation of readers to the threat of totalitarianism. Let’s face it, totalitarian governments still exist today, and in many countries, the sociopolitical climate is ripe for the rise of a tyrannical regime. Large groups of people are embracing the fear that is spread via media and seem willing to accept the oppression of those they fear in order to gain a sense of security. Thankfully, there are still people out there who recognize the threat and can express the dangers in a way that motivates people to stand up and face these issues. I see these brave individuals embodied in the character of Peeta:
He can use words. He obliterated the rest of the field in both interviews. And maybe it’s because of that underlying goodness that he can move a crowd–no, a country–to his side with the turn of a simple sentence. (p. 235)
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