War on sim­plis­tic pop­ulism

Turn­ing Back the Clock By Um­berto Eco Trans­lated by Alastair McEwen Harvill Secker, 369pp, $ 55

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams

SO far in the 21st cen­tury, West­ern pol­i­tics and cul­ture have been char­ac­terised all too of­ten by crude ap­peals to pop­ulism. Bom­bast, bel­liger­ence and base slo­ga­neer­ing have fre­quently been the or­der of the day. Elec­torally and fi­nan­cially, th­ese strate­gies have usu­ally paid off for those who adopted them.

This ugly phe­nom­e­non has not gone un­no­ticed or un­de­nounced, of course. The lo­cal non­fic­tion book mar­ket has been flooded with many earnest tomes, most of them writ­ten by left- lean­ing jour­nal­ists from the US, Bri­tain or Aus­tralia.

The qual­ity of the writ­ing and anal­y­sis in th­ese books has var­ied widely, but even the best have suf­fered from a cer­tain shrill­ness of tone and a lack of his­tor­i­cal, the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal depth. It has taken a con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean writer, the Ital­ian Um­berto Eco, to ar­tic­u­late th­ese same themes with so­phis­ti­ca­tion and pre­ci­sion.

Turn­ing Back the Clock is a dis­parate col­lec­tion of es­says with one over­rid­ing mes­sage. The West must some­how re­claim its ca­pac­ity ‘‘ to make dis­tinc­tions’’ and ‘‘ to con­front its con­tra­dic­tions’’. Th­ese post- En­light­en­ment val­ues are threat­ened by politi­cians and me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions who deal in ‘‘ harm­ful sim­pli­fi­ca­tions’’, Eco says.

Eco grap­ples with many of to­day’s big­gest is­sues: war and peace, glob­al­i­sa­tion, the ad­vances of tech­nol­ogy. He is par­tic­u­larly elo­quent when dis­sect­ing the key is­sue of our time, the so- called clash of civil­i­sa­tions, Chris­tian­ity v Is­lam.

Eco brings to all his sub­jects a deep knowl­edge of his­tory, an­cient as well as mod­ern. Thus, he ar­gues, the in­va­sion of Iraq is best un­der­stood as Amer­ica’s vis­ceral re­ac­tion to the nov­elty of 9/ 11. Pearl Har­bor aside, Amer­i­cans had never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced a for­eign at­tack on home soil.

By con­trast, Euro­peans had en­dured them for 2000 years and had waged many bloody cam­paigns against Is­lamic and other Mid­dle East­ern peo­ples. The Iraqis’ hos­tile re­ac­tion to US oc­cu­pa­tion was, to Euro­peans, en­tirely pre­dictable. Iraq, in Eco’s view, is a sym­bol of two other sad 21st- cen­tury re­al­i­ties.

First, it is a neo- war. In a world in which truly global con­flict — whether nu­clear or con­ven­tional — is now un­winnable, mankind must cope with ‘‘ daily anx­i­ety and con­stant ter­ror­ist at­tacks con­tained through con­tin­ual blood- let­ting via a se­ries of pe­riph­eral pa­leo ( old- fash­ioned) wars’’. In short, skir­mishes in the Third World, usu­ally with ill- de­fined goals, may be the price to be paid for sta­bil­ity in the First and Sec­ond worlds.

Iraq is also an ex­am­ple of war as a me­dia prod­uct. Eco ex­plains how the de­mands of the elec­tronic me­dia af­fect mil­i­tary tac­tics. There is a clever es­say de­scrib­ing the Cru­saders’ siege of Jerusalem in AD999 through the eyes of an embed­ded Fox News- style correspondent. He cheers along the cru­sad­ing ‘‘ good­ies’’ be­fore be­ing mugged by the re­al­ity of car­nage.

As re­gards the war on ter­ror, Eco con­tends the Amer­i­cans’ worst sin was not ex­ces­sive op­ti­mism or even rank in­com­pe­tence, but ar­ro­gant closed­mind­ed­ness. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and many of its me­dia sup­port­ers rou­tinely de­monised dis­senters, both for­eign and do­mes­tic, as cow­ards, de­featists or traitors. Eco, who grew up un­der fas­cism, ex­poses this well- worn tech­nique with ref­er­ence to Mus­solini’s rhetoric jus­ti­fy­ing the Ital­ian in­va­sion of Abyssinia in 1935.

Eco is no left- wing rad­i­cal. He ad­mits to be­ing a paci­fist but in other re­spects he is con­ser­va­tive, even re­ac­tionary. ( Hence the ti­tle of the book.)

While ad­mir­ing the sci­en­tific method, Eco is pro­foundly du­bi­ous as to the worth of a lot of to­day’s whiz- bang tech­nol­ogy. He de­cries many other as­pects of moder­nity, in­clud­ing the ‘‘ vol­un­tary loss of pri­vacy’’, the cor­rup­tion of sport, the ex­cesses of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and the id­iocy of some mod­ern the­o­ries of ed­u­ca­tion. As to the last, Eco cham­pi­ons rig­or­ous ex­ter­nal ex­am­i­na­tions, ‘‘ oth­er­wise we end up with a gen­er­a­tion of ig­no­ra­muses, some from the state schools by now re­served for the lumpen pro­le­tariat, oth­ers from fraud­u­lent private schools for lazy rich kids’’.

This is not an athe­ist di­a­tribe. Through­out the book Eco dis­plays re­spect for and knowl­edge of all the main be­lief sys­tems, es­pe­cially Catholi­cism. He laments wide­spread re­li­gious ig­no­rance in the West, in­clud­ing among nom­i­nal Chris­tians, and ‘‘ the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the cru­ci­fix’’.

Nor is Eco a moral rel­a­tivist, at least in the pe­jo­ra­tive sense of that ubiq­ui­tous term so of­ten bandied about by com­bat­ants in the cul­ture wars. Eco is in favour not of un­ques­tion­ing ac­cep­tance of the very real dif­fer­ences be­tween so­ci­eties and cul­tures, but of free­dom to de­bate those dif­fer­ences in a ro­bust yet re­spect­ful way.

In Eco’s words: ‘‘ The fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that gov­erns — or ought to gov­ern — hu­man af­fairs, if we wish to avoid mis­un­der­stand­ings, con­flicts, or point­less utopias, is ne­go­ti­a­tion.’’

The main charge that might fairly be lev­elled against Eco is elitism. But he wears that la­bel proudly, ob­serv­ing that ‘‘ over the cen­turies, de­spite atro­cious episodes of in­tol­er­ance and state- spon­sored fe­roc­ity, a com­mu­nity of learned peo­ple has sur­vived, a com­mu­nity that has tried to fos­ter un­der­stand­ing among peo­ple of all coun­tries’’. Eco is surely right that ‘‘ to sever this uni­ver­sal bond would be a tragedy’’. Roy Wil­liams’s first book, a defence of Chris­tian­ity, will be pub­lished in 2008.

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