I am one of those people who don’t miss their youth (I’m glad I had one, but wouldn’t like to start over), because today I feel more fulfilled than ever. But the thought that all my experience will be lost at the moment of my death makes me feel pain and fear. The thought that those who come after me will know as much as I do, and even more, fails to console me. What a waste, decades spent building up experience, only to throw it all away. It’s like burning down the Library of Alexandria, destroying the Louvre, or sending the beautiful, rich, and all-wise Atlantis to the bottom of the sea.
We remedy this sadness by working. For example, by writing, painting, or building cities. You die, but most of what you have accumulated will not be lost; you are leaving a message in a bottle.
Was the New Age a generational invention? As far as its content goes, it is a collage of ancient esoteric elements. It may be that young people were the first to turn to these elements, as if they were rediscovered giants, but the diffusion of images, sounds, and beliefs typical of the New Age, along with all its recording, publishing, cinematic, and religious paraphernalia, was taken over and run by the old foxes of the mass media, and if some youngsters run off to the Far East, it is to throw themselves into the arms of an elderly guru with lots of lovers and even more Cadillacs.
I have learned to distinguish between the policies of a government (or even the constitution of a state) and the cultural ferment at work in that country. This is why I later attended cultural meetings in countries whose politics I didn’t agree with. Recently I was invited to Iran by some young, open-minded scholars who are fighting for the development of a modern culture there, and I agreed, asking only for the visit to be postponed until the situation in the Middle East became clearer, because it didn’t strike me as sensible to find myself on a plane that might get caught in missile crossfire.
If I were American, I certainly wouldn’t have voted for Bush, but this doesn’t stop me from having continuous and cordial relations with various American universities.
Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock
Comments Off on Government Policy vs Cultural Dialog
There is an expression that has become proverbial in English: “Some of my best friends.” People who start off by declaring, say, that some of their best friends are Jewish, usually come to a “but” or “however,” followed by an anti-Semitic tirade. In the 1970s there was even a play about anti-Semitism called Some of My Best Friends (running in New York). Those who begin with this expression are immediately labeled as anti-Semites—and in fact some time ago, paradoxically, I decided that the best way to begin any discourse against racism would be to start off with: “Some of my best friends are anti-Semites…”
We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.
Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.
Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.
. . .
When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.
(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)
If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).
(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)
Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.
I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.
In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.
Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.
In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.
(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)
Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.
School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.
(ibid: p. 276)
I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.
Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.
In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.
In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.
Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.
(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)
Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.
This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. In the essay, Eco employs his wit to address issues of globalization, and how the media contributes to the negative aspects of globalization.
I am one of those who think that out of every ten phenomena of globalization, at least five may have a positive outcome but if globalization does have a negative aspect, it is the violent imposition of Western models on underdeveloped countries to induce consumption and raise hope that such countries cannot fulfill. If I show you beauty queens in swimsuits, it’s because I want to promote the sale of Western beach wear, maybe sewn by hungry children in Hong Kong. The clothing will be bought in Nigeria by those who aren’t dying of hunger (if these people have money to spend, they are making it at the expense of those dying of hunger) and who actively help Westerners exploit the poor and keep them in precolonial condition.
(pp. 261 – 262)
The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all painfully aware of how fragile the globalized consumerist economic model truly is. Our insatiable craving for cheap goods to fill some void within us has killed local manufacturing and the result is that when things fall apart, as they eventually will, we are left without the infrastructure and ability to provide for ourselves. This is evident in the barren shelves which are reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film.
I have no idea what our post-coronavirus world will look like, but I am quite certain that it will be very different from what we have become accustomed to.
So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco’s work, and this short piece is a fine example of why. It is a piece of brilliant satire intended to demonstrate the absurdity of news commentary, particularly in regard to war coverage. The piece is written from the perspective of a war correspondent covering the taking of Jerusalem during the Crusades.
Typical of a news reporter, the reporter is always looking to get into the heart of the conflict.
My informants tell me that the attack is more interesting on the northwestern front, at Herod’s Gate. I will hop on a mule and try to get to the other side of the walls. And now, back to the studio,
(Turning Back the Clock: p. 255)
The correspondent then gives a play-by-play account, reminiscent of sports commentary. I have often noted that coverage of conflicts, as well as politics, often seem like sports narrative.
From my new position I have a clear view of Godfrey of Bouillon directing the final assault from the top of a tower. The first Christians are on the top of the walls. They are Luthold and Engelbert of Tournai, I’m told, Godfrey and the others follow them, the Moors are falling under their blows, others are leaping from the walls. Herod’s Gate is down—unless it was opened by our men already inside. The men of the Christian Alliance have entered the city on foot and horseback!
(ibid: p. 256)
Toward the end of the piece, Eco makes his most important point, in my opinion. We like to believe that the end of a conflict is the end of the war; this is not true in far too many cases. Sadly, the termination of a conflict is only the beginning of a longer war, that of ideals fueled by resentment and hatred of the other faction.
A monk I spoke to this morning pointed out that this massacre amounts to a defeat. If we are to establish a Christian realm in these lands, we ought to be able to count on the acceptance of the Muslim inhabitants and the tolerance of the neighboring kingdoms. But the slaughter has raised a wall of hatred between Moors and Christians that will endure for years, perhaps centuries. The conquest of Jerusalem is not the end but the beginning—of a very long war.
(ibid: pp. 258 – 259)
We still have this war mentality that permeates so much of our culture: war on crime, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on coronavirus, on and on. Our political debates are battles, this side vs. the other. Everything is broken down to my team against yours (which team are you?). If we are to survive as a species, we need to collectively change this attitude. Us and them no longer works. It has to be we, and that will only be achieved through cooperation and support.
This short essay is included in Eco’s book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.
Early in the essay, Eco writes:
If, as some say, there are no facts in the world but only interpretations, negotiation would be impossible, because there would be no criterion that would enable us to decide whether my interpretation is better than yours or not. We can compare and discuss interpretations precisely because we can weigh them against the facts they are intended to interpret.
(Turning Back the Clock: p. 248)
This gets to the heart of a deep issue we face in our world. People do not share the same sense of what is true and factual. All information, data, and facts are subject to suspicion at best, and often flat out denial, if for no other reason than the source tends to lean to one polarity or another in the sociopolitical sphere. This is why factions are unable to negotiate anymore, making compromise and progress virtually impossible.
Let’s take an example. Let us assume that “climate change is affected by human activity” is a fact. If we can all agree on this fact, then policy makers from both sides of the political spectrum could negotiate how best to address the issue, weighing considerations from each side to ensure the best possible outcome. But when one extreme denies that humans have any influence on climate change, and the other extreme asserts that humans are the sole cause of climate change, then the fact is nullified and constructive negotiation becomes unattainable.
In this age of information, we must be prudent and use critical thinking to avoid the trappings of misinformation. The internet provides support for any idea, regardless of whether that idea has any validity whatsoever. As we enter into the year 2020, let’s try to have a little more clarity in our collective vision, because only through negotiation will we be able to deal with the challenges that face us on a global scale.
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