The NYT's Idiocratic Interviewer: Deborah Solomon
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Deborah Solomon has established a popular weekly feature in the New York Times in which she snarkily interviews somebody much smarter than herself. The secret to her success: being ignorant and surly. Here's part of her interview with Umberto Eco (with Solomon in italics):

Q: Although you’re known best as the author of the highbrow murder mystery ”The Name of the Rose,” you’re also a prolific political commentator whose essays have now been collected in a book, ”Turning Back the Clock,” in which you warn against the dangers of ”media populism.” How would you define that term? Media populism means appealing to people directly through media. A politician who can master the media can shape political affairs outside of parliament and even eliminate the mediation of parliament.

Much of your book is an assault on Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy who used his media empire to assist his political ends. From ’94 to ’95, and from 2001 to 2006, Berlusconi was the richest man in Italy, the prime minister, the owner of three TV channels and controller of the three state channels. He is a phenomenon that could happen and is maybe happening in other countries. And the mechanism will be the same. ... So why would any country besides Italy be at risk of having the media takeover you describe?

Obviously, Putin has been imitating Berlusconi's path in Russia, and Chavez has been trying, less effectively, to do something similar in Venezuela.

Eco's answer sets Solomon off on an exchange that Fred Willard would be proud to have improvised in a Christopher Guest comedy in one of his roles as a smugly clueless media personality:

One of the reasons why foreigners are so interested in the Italian case is that Italy was in the last century a laboratory. It started with the Futurists. Their manifesto was in 1909. Then fascism – it was tested in the Italian laboratory and then it migrated to Spain, to the Balkans, to Germany.

Are you saying that Germany got the idea of fascism from Italy? Oh, certainly. According to what the historians say, it is so.

Maybe just the Italian historians. If you don’t like it, don’t tell it. I am indifferent.

You’re saying that Italy was a trendsetter in both fashion – or art – and fascism? Yes, O.K., why not?

Earth to Deborah Solomon: trust Umberto Eco, the Italian polymath born in 1932, on this, not your own store of knowledge. See, there was this guy named Mussolini. Hard as it may be to believe, he came (as the narrator of the Time Masheen ride in "Idiocracy" says) before "the year 1939 when Charlie Chaplin and his nazi regime enslaved Europe and tried to take over the world... But then an even greater force emerged, the U.N. [pronounced "un"] and the U.N. un-nazied the world - forever."

Eco goes on to correct Solomon's somewhat less idiocratic misapprehension of which of his bestsellers was the inspiration for The Da Vinci Code:

I am wondering if you read’s ”Da Vinci Code,” which some critics see as the pop version of your ”Name of the Rose.” I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, ”Foucault’s Pendulum,” which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel. No, in ”Foucault’s Pendulum” I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.
Here's my 2006 posting on "The Da Vinci Code versus Foucault's Pendulum."
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