Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism


"The spirit of enlightenment breathes through the writings of Umberto Eco... [he] is an urbane, genial writer who brings calmness and clarity to every subject he treats." — Los Angeles Times


The time: 2000 to 2005, the years of neoconservatism, terrorism, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the ascension of Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Umberto Eco’s response is a provocative, passionate, and witty series of essays—which originally appeared in the Italian newspapers ...

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"The spirit of enlightenment breathes through the writings of Umberto Eco... [he] is an urbane, genial writer who brings calmness and clarity to every subject he treats." — Los Angeles Times


The time: 2000 to 2005, the years of neoconservatism, terrorism, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the ascension of Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Umberto Eco’s response is a provocative, passionate, and witty series of essays—which originally appeared in the Italian newspapers La Repubblica and L’Espresso—that leaves no slogan unexamined, no innovation unexposed. What led us into this age of hot wars and media populism, and how was it sold to us as progress? Eco discusses such topics as racism, mythology, the European Union, rhetoric, the Middle East, technology, September 11, medieval Latin, television ads, globalization, Harry Potter, anti-Semitism, logic, the Tower of Babel, intelligent design, Italian street demonstrations, fundamentalism, The Da Vinci Code, and magic and magical thinking.

The famous author and respected scholar shows his practical, engaged side: an intellectual involved in events both local and global, a man concerned about taste, politics, education, ethics, and where our troubled world is headed.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Internationally renowned novelist and philosopher Eco (Foucault's Pendulum; The Name of the Rose) delivers a provocative and enlightening ride in this collection of essays first published in two leading Italian newspapers. He delves deeply into such subjects as Mideastern and European politics, myth, prejudice, globalization, The Da Vinci Code, magical thinking, rhetoric, religion, intelligent design and Harry Potter. The friction between his imagination, interpretation and reflection makes for pyrotechnic prose, springing from abundant facts and carefully constructed theories. He dissects war as a bloody game where "we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their goals," proclaiming that "neowars" like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be won by the military. While the flow of his reasoning can be serpentine, Eco challenges us to reconsider the power of the media, the right of privacy, the sometimes disturbing manners of foreigners, the poison of anti-Semitism and September 11. The resulting book details fresh approaches to wrestling with some of the most complex issues of our time. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

"Sometimes we write articles in order to know what to think," says noted semiologist and fabulist Eco. And what a lively thinker he is! In this collection of recent writings that originally appeared mostly as editorials or op-ed pieces, Eco argues his positions with no holds barred, but he accepts that negotiation is a necessity in our multiethnic society in which neighbors differ on critical values: we must analyze "our own superstitions as well as those of others...reject black-and-white crusades and cultivate . . . the capacity to make distinctions." Like the Enlightenment forebears he admires, Eco preaches that "there is a reasonable way to reason . . . Even in philosophy you have to pay attention to common sense." This means that "man must negotiate goodwill and mutual respect . . . [and] subscribe to a social contract." The subjects of these essays roam widely, but common preoccupations emerge: the unwinnable nature of modern-day war, the corrosive effect of the media on domestic politics, the importance of "cultural thinking" in understanding our enemies, and a plea for tolerance across ethnic and religious boundaries. There is also a very funny essay on political correctness. Recommended for all larger collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
—David Keymer

From the Publisher

"A collection of charming, bite-size missives . . . Turning Back the Clock is among the season’s sprightlier works of nonfiction."—The New York Observer
"One of the most influential thinkers of our time."—Los Angeles Times
"Eco combines scholarship with a love of paradox and a quirky, sometimes outrageous, sense of humor."—The Atlantic Monthly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151013517
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/12/2007
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 9.32 (w) x 6.36 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco

UMBERTO ECO is the author of five novels and numerous essay collections, including The Name of the Rose, The Prague Cemetery, and Inventing the Enemy. He received Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Strega, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

Read an Excerpt

Some Reflections on War and Peace 
In the early sixties I contributed to the establishment of the Italian Committee for Atomic Disarmament and took part in several peace marches. I declare myself to be a pacifist by vocation and am to this day. Nonetheless, here I must say bad things not only about war but also about peace. So I ask the reader to bear with me.
           I have written a series of articles on war, starting with the Gulf War, and now I realize that each article modified my ideas on the concept of war. As if the concept of war, which has remained more or less the same (aside from the weapons used) from the days of Ancient Greece till yesterday, needed to be rethought at least three times over the last ten years.1
From Paleowar to Cold War
In the course of the centuries, what was the purpose of that form of warfare we shall call paleowar? We made war in order to vanquish our adversaries and thus profit from their defeat; we tried to achieve our ends by taking the enemy by surprise; we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their ends; we accepted a certain price in human lives in order to inflict upon the enemy a greater loss of life. For these purposes it was necessary to marshal all the forces at our disposal. The game was played out between two contenders. The neutrality of others, the fact that they suffered no harm from the conflict and if anything profited from it, was a necessary condition for the belligerents’ freedom of action. Oh yes, I was forgetting; there was a further condition: knowing who and where the enemy was. For this reason, usually, the clash was a frontal one and involved two or more recognizable territories.
           In our times, the notion of “world war,” a conflict that could involve even societies with no recorded history, such as Polynesian tribes, has eliminated the difference between belligerents and neutral parties. Whoever the contenders may be, atomic energy ensures that war is harmful for the entire planet.
           The consequence is the transition from paleowar to neowar via the cold war. The cold war established what we might call belligerent peace or peaceful belligerence, a balance of terror that guaranteed a remarkable stability at the center and permitted, or made indispensable, forms of paleowar on the periphery (Vietnam, the Middle East, African states, and so on). At bottom, the cold war guaranteed peace for the First and Second Worlds at the price of seasonal or endemic wars in the Third World. 
Neowar in the Gulf
The collapse of the Soviet empire marked the end of the conditions of the cold war but left us faced with the problem of incessant warfare in the Third World. With the invasion of Kuwait, people realized that it was going to be necessary to go back to a kind of traditional warfare (if you recall, reference was made to the origins of the Second World War: if Hitler had been stopped as soon as he invaded Poland, and so on . . .), but it immediately became evident that war was no longer between two sides. The scandal of the American journalists in Baghdad in those days was equal to the (far greater) scandal of the millions and millions of pro-Iraqi Muslims living in the countries of the anti-Iraqi alliance.
           In wars of the past potential enemies were interned (or massacred), and compatriots who from enemy territory spoke in favor of the enemy’s cause were hanged at the end of the war. You might remember John Amery, who attacked his country on Fascist radio and was hanged by the English. Ezra Pound, thanks to his renown and the support of intellectuals of many countries, was saved, but at the cost of a full-blown mental illness.
           What are the characteristics of neowar?
           The identity of the enemy is uncertain. Were all Iraqis the enemy? All Serbs? Who had to be destroyed?
           The war has no front. Neowar cannot have a front because of the very nature of multinational capitalism. It is no accident that Iraq was armed by Western industry, and likewise no accident that Western industry armed the Taliban ten years later. This falls within the logic of mature capitalism, which eludes the control of individual states. And here it is worth mentioning an apparently minor but significant detail: at a certain point it was thought that Western aircraft had destroyed a cache of Saddam’s tanks or aircraft, only to find out later that they were decoys produced and legally sold to Saddam by an Italian factory.
           Paleowars worked to the advantage of the armaments industries of each of the belligerents, but neowar works to the advantage of multinationals whose interests lie on both sides of the barricades (if real barricades still exist). But there is more. While paleowar enriched arms dealers, and such gains compensated for the temporary cessation of certain other forms of trade, neowar not only enriches the arms dealers but also creates a worldwide crisis in air transport, entertainment and tourism, the media (which lose commercial advertising revenue), and in general the entire industry of the superfluous—the backbone of the system—from the building sector to the car industry. Neowar brings some economic powers into competition with others, and the logic of their conflict outweighs that of the national powers.
           I noted in those days that neowar would typically be short, because prolonging it would benefit no one in the long run.
           But if individual states must submit to the industrial logic of the multinationals, they also must submit to the needs of the information industry. In the Gulf War we saw, for the first time in history, the Western media voicing the reservations and the protests not only of the representatives of Western pacifism, the pope first and foremost, but also of the ambassadors and journalists of those Arab countries that supported Saddam.
           Information services continually permitted the adversary to speak (whereas the aim of all wartime politics is to block enemy propaganda) and demoralized the citizens of the combatant countries with regard to their own government (whereas Clausewitz pointed out that a condition for victory is the moral cohesion of a country).
           Every war of the past was based on the principle that the citizenry, holding it to be just, were anxious to destroy the enemy. But now the media were not only causing the citizens’ faith to waver, they also impressed on them the death of their enemies—no longer a vague, distant event but an unbearable visual record. The Gulf War was the first one in which the belligerents sympathized with their enemies.
           In the days of Vietnam, some sympathy was evident, even though it took the form of discussion, held on highly specific, often marginal occasions by groups of American radicals. But we didn’t see the ambassadors of Ho Chi Minh or General Giap speechifying on the BBC. Nor did we see American journalists transmitting news from a hotel in Hanoi the way Peter Arnett did from a hotel in Baghdad.
           The media puts the enemy behind the lines. The Gulf War established that in modern neowar, the enemy is among us. Even if the media were muzzled, new communication technologies would maintain the flow of information—a flow that not even a dictator could block, because it uses minimal infrastructures that not even he can do without. This information carries out the functions performed by the secret services in traditional warfare: it rules out any sneak attack. How can you have a war in which you cannot surprise your enemy? Neowar has institutionalized the role of Mata Hari and thus made “enemy intelligence” generally available.
           By putting so many conflicting powers into play, neowar is no longer a phenomenon in which the calculations and intentions of the main actors determine the issue. This multiplication of powers (which actually began with globalization) means that their respective influence was unpredictable. The outcome may prove convenient for one of the contenders, but in principle neowar is a loss for everyone involved.
           To state that a conflict has shown itself to be advantageous for someone at a given moment suggests an equation of the momentary advantage with the final advantage. You would have a final moment if war were still, as Clausewitz put it, the continuation of policy by other means—that is, the war would be over upon the attainment of a state of equilibrium that permitted a return to politics. But the two great wars of the twentieth century made it clear that postwar politics always continue (by any means) the premises posed by war. However the war goes, because it causes a general reorganization that does not correspond fully with the will of the contenders, it must be extended by dramatic political, economic, and psychological instability for decades to come, a process that can only produce the politics of war.

© 2006 RCS Libri SpA/Bompiani-Milano

English translation copyright © 2007 by Alastair McEwen

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/ contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

Steps Back     1
War, Peace, and Other Matters
Some Reflections on War and Peace     9
Love America and March for Peace     31
The Prospects for Europe     37
The Wolf and the Lamb: The Rhetoric of Oppression     44
Enlightenment and Common Sense     66
From Play to Carnival     71
The Loss of Privacy     77
On Political Correctness     89
On Private Schools     97
Science, Technology, and Magic     103
Chronicles of a Regime
For Whom the Bell Tolls: A 2001 Appeal for a Moral Referendum     115
The 2001 Electoral Campaign and Veteran Communist Strategy     121
On Mass Media Populism     128
Foreigners and Us     157
Revisiting History     166
The Revolt Against the Law     180
Pasta Cunegonda     190
Chronicles of the Late Empire     195
The Return of the Great Game
Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia     201
Words Are Stones     214
Back to the Seventies     224
Kamikazes and Assassins     229
The Return of the Crusades
Holy Wars, Passion, and Religion     235
Negotiating in a Multiethnic Society     247
The Taking of Jerusalem: An Eyewitness Report     253
Beauty Queens, Fundamentalists, and Lepers     260
What Are We to Do with the Pre-Adamites?     263
The Summa and the Rest
The Roots of Europe     269
The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs     272
On the Soul of the Embryo     277
Chance and Intelligent Design     281
Hands off My Son!     284
Those Who Don't Believe in God Believe in Everything     288
Relativism?     309
The Defense of the Race
Are the Italians Anti-Semites?     313
The Plot     317
Some of My Best Friends     320
Some of Her Best Friends     323
The Twilight of the New Millennium
A Dream     329
On the Shoulders of Giants     334
On the Disadvantages and Advantages of Death     355
Index     363
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