Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: "Turning Back the Clock"

Umberto Eco's latest translated collection of essays is Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism (Harcourt, 2007). Loosely connected as a reaction to some of the leaders (Bush, Blair and Berlusconi) and events (terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, &c.) of the first years of the present century and the media's involvement in those events, Eco's essays are all thought-provoking and make for fascinating reading, even if all of his conclusions might not be what we want to hear. Some of the selections seem a bit dated or rather parochial (a few deal solely with Italian political campaigns, which while interesting didn't seem timely at this stage), but on the whole this volume is highly relevant. Typically even when Eco's making a point about Italian politics it's perfectly reasonable to extend it to American life, so even if you don't recognize the names, pay attention to the message.

In "Some Reflections on War and Peace," Eco makes the point that a truly global war in this day and age would be utterly disastrous for every culture, while adding that a truly global peace is as unlikely now as it's ever been. Our only hope for any lasting peace, he suggests, is to focus on making local peace and slowly extending it outward. "Enlightenment and Common Sense" is a fascinating look at the legacies of the Enlightenment based around the fundamental assumption of that movement: "there is a reasonable way to reason."

Eco takes on cellphones in "From Play to Carnival" and expresses his concern at what he calls "the joyous renunciation of privacy" so many of us have allowed ourselves to become a part of. I found his views on political correctness rather useful: "Let us stick to the fundamental principle that it is humane and civilized to eliminate from current usage all those words that make our fellow beings suffer" seems a good rule to live by to me. I also quite enjoyed his take on what he sees as Americans' "tacit rules for coexistence," including our extreme patience with waiting in lines and our assumption that everyone's telling the truth (except advertisers).

"Back to the Seventies" was one of my favorite essays included here; in it Eco reacts to what he calls the "dangerous principle" that "Because terrorists exist, anyone who attacks the government is encouraging them." This is "moral blackmail, holding up to civic disapproval all those who express (nonviolent) disagreement with the government." We don't have to look far to see this in practice every day, and I agree wholeheartedly with Eco that it's a terrifically dangerous thing.

Always witty, with some of the best analogies and pithy comments in the business, Eco's pulled off another win with Turning Back the Clock.

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