April 29, 2020

The other pandemic

Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Umberto Eco was a brilliant thinker who is probably best known for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, which became a popular film. Aside from that bestseller, he wrote many works of fiction, criticism, and philosophy. His specialty was semiotics, which has been defined as the study of signs symbols and their interpretation.

Eco was born during Mussolini's fascist rule in Italy and remained fascinated with--and opposed to--that kind of political movement. He was also fascinated with conspiracy theories (a theme in his baroque novel Foucault's Pendulum) and the potential role of new technology in creating post-modern authoritarian political movements. Here's an interesting article on what Eco saw coming, including his 14 characteristics of fascism.

Some items on his list hit pretty close to home these days, including an exalting of traditionalism (often imagined), rejection of modernism and Enlightenment values, cult of action for action's sake, viewing disagreement as treason, fearing differences, contempt for the weak, social anxiety and frustration (usually of the middle class) as a driver, an obsession with plots and conspiracies, selective populism, a cult of machismo and weaponry, and Newspeak as in the distortion of language to impede critical thought (fake news!). There's more as listed in the article above.

He pretty much nailed it. The rise of the internet and social media, with all its positive features, provides a perfect environment for this kind of thinking to grow, especially in times of anxiety and frustration.

His views of how this plays out on social media were particularly scathing:  “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community  . . . now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.” I think it's actually darker than that, given the deliberate use of misinformation for political purposes by people--and algorithms--who/that are very good at it.

Eco seemed to retain a faith in reason and the self-destructiveness of the fascist mentality. 

We'll see.


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