War on simplistic populism
Turning Back the Clock By Umberto Eco Translated by Alastair McEwen Harvill Secker, 369pp, $ 55
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.