“No one has ever dealt with posmonition, which is also an extraordinary phenomenon. Well, I have this gift, but until now I had kept it a secret, for fear of exposing myself to ironies and mockery”. Always in this disconcerting mood Umberto Eco begins one of his many articles, gathered in the collection A Passo de Crab; hot wars and media populism. Written between 2000 and 2005, they cover a few stormy years at the beginning of this century, marked by 9/11, two wars – the one in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq – and, in Eco’s Italy, the rise of Silvio Berlusconi to power. Although the author confesses that he did not want to update the articles or point out in them some prophecies that later came to pass, many of the writings suggest, if not prophecies, at least some surprising anticipations.
This is how, in the longest essay in the book, he points out the differences between the oldest wars, the paleowars – with well-defined and properly demonized enemies -, and the neowars, in which the identity of the enemy is uncertain, the reasons of state imponderables and, in the face of a globalized world, a frontal war does not actually occur. It is some paradoxes of the 21st century neowars that lead Eco to what he has always done best: reflecting on the mistaken nature of the notion of Peace.
Examining various scenarios of history, the general curve of entropy dominated by conflicts, points only to tiny islands of peace – which only existed because they were maintained by numerous local paleowars. Here, ethical arguments prevail over geopolitical ones, and Eco seems to agree that chronic antipathies are inherent in human nature: without something to hate, we would lose the very source of thought and action. We even renounce the external display of brutal violence, but we are unable to abandon the essence or principle of hostility. Looking at the current scenario, the false joke of postmonition – which basically consists of being able to look in the rearview mirror of history – becomes almost a subtle prognosis.
A prediction that reappears in another article about the “loss of privacy”, which doesn’t even seem like it was written twenty years ago, since Eco reconstitutes the theme with examples that range from the cultural history of gossip to the advent of social networks, with its exponential increase in people’s ability to boast only by producing effects in the eyes of others.; and, above all, in the voluntary renunciation of modesty and reserve, dissolving what has become known as the public sphere.
It is also correct to point out that one of the social tragedies of our time was the transformation of that escape valve, almost always beneficial, which was the gossip. Classic gossip, which took place in the village, at the gatehouse or in the tavern, was an element of social cohesion, since they never intrigued someone to say they were healthy, lucky and happy; the gossip spoke about a defect, mistake, or wrongdoing in another person. In doing so, however, the scheming somehow participated in the gossip’s misadventures, for gossip does not always imply contempt, it can also induce compassion.
It only worked if the victim was not present and when she became aware of the gossip (and could no longer pretend that she did not know), the scandal took place in the public square: “Linguguaruda of a figa, I know you’ve been saying that…” . After the scandal, the news became public, the victim was exposed to ridicule or social condemnation, and the executioners had nothing left to gossip about. Therefore, in order for the social valve value of gossip to remain intact, everyone, executioners and victims, were led, as far as possible, to maintain a zone of secrecy. Has this zone of secrecy ceased to exist?
Eco did not live to answer, but he shows that history returns to the ambiguous crab step also in “The wolf and the lamb: rhetoric of prevarication”, in which, in a surprising mix of erudition with elements of ancient rhetoric, he compares the fable of La Fontaine with the texts of Mein Kampfin Hitler. Prevaricators seek first of all to legalize themselves – and if legitimation is refuted, they are opposed to the truth not by the precepts of rhetoric, but simply by force and violence. For this, offenders always need a causa belli, invented plots, generating a type of populism that seeks to obtain consensus in the face of a threat that comes from outside or from internal groups. Prevaricators are also the biggest inventors of fake news (when Eco wrote in 2004, fake news was unusual).
MussoliniHitler or Stalin, were not the last to take advantage of this conspiracy syndrome – and, as Eco points out, Berlusconi was nothing more than a pale repeater. It is difficult, however, to establish a boundary line: there are cultures and countries where power is based on consensus, and in them techniques of persuasion are used, and there are despotic countries where only the law of malfeasance and force is valid, and where it is not absolutely necessary to convince anyone. But things are not so simple, so the essay on the rhetoric of malfeasance is still (unfortunately) quite current.
Eco always said that the virtue of occasional writing is that it does not oblige originality at any cost, but rather aims at entertainment, both for the writer and for the reader. Thus, most articles begin (or end) almost always on a humorous note, capable of inducing the reader to the distance provided by irony or, as Eco says, to the exercise of “preventive satire”. So much so in the incredible essay on the historical inconsistencies and errors of the Da Vinci Code (best seller at the time) and in the reflections and examples contained in the incredible article “On the politically correct”.
Already at the time when Eco writes, the climate of “political correctness”, that obsessive attention to the use of words, often relapsed into censorship hysteria. Not to mention the hypocritical veiling of periphrases and euphemisms, which Eco enumerates in a laughable list: instead of “mass layoffs”, better say “business optimization”; “closing and transfer of the company abroad” became “relocation of the company”; “garbage worker” becomes “sanitary operator” and, instead of writing “civilian victims of military action”, it is better to speak of “collateral damage”. But in the (not always) amusing list, Eco cannot resist including Berlusconi himself as “vertically disadvantaged” – still imagining a politically correct and fictitious title for several fables, such as, for example, Snow White and the seven vertically disadvantaged men.
Eco goes far, however, from obscurantist criticism – the one that dismisses political correctness as simple hypocrisy – assuming the progressive nature of criticism that, after all, fights a fair battle in the name of freedom of expression and criticism. Freedom that contributes to the construction of an articulated and non-oppressive public opinion – because common sentiment is not built “by decree”, but thanks to a free and open cultural debate, which takes a long time and on which we must work incessantly.
In any case, the fundamental principle remains that it is human and civilized to eliminate from current language the terms that make our fellow human beings suffer: it is necessary to let others be called as they want – and if the new term still disturbs them in some way, it is up to accept it. the proposal of a third term. In the end, evil and misfortune do not disappear with a simple dip in the waters of euphemism; on the contrary, they often serve to hide unresolved social problems. Premonitory or not, Eco’s articles are always reminiscent of those old messages in bottles thrown into the sea. Fortunate will be those who manage to find them.
The Crab Step. Hot Wars and Media Populism.
trans. Sergio Mauro. record,
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