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First Columnist

September 30, 2009 Leave a comment
Simeon the Elder

Simeon the Elder

Bill Safire’s death on Sunday has brought a a wealth of obituaries (NYT) and reminiscences (Maureen Dowd in today’s column). I chose not to read his NYT column for years, but eventually I came to appreciate him through his On Language pieces in the Sunday Magazine and began to peak at the occasional column.

Andrew Sullivan had a post this morning pointing to a guest article by Safire in April 2008 at Anatoly Liberman’s Oxford Etymologist blog in which Safire attempts to determine whothe first blogger is. I now read Liberman’s blog regularly, but I didn’t at the time, so I missed this wonderful Safire piece. Safire fails to reach a definitive conclusion on the first blogger, but he has no trouble identifying the first columnist:

His name is Simeon Stylites the Elder. According to the OED, a stylite was “an ascetic who lived on the top of a pillar”. (Greek “stylos” means “pillar”.) The sainted Simeon the Elder took up residence atop a column in Syria in AD 423. He remained atop that column and others for 37 years, each loftier and narrower than the preceding; his final column was 66 feet high.

Simeon the Elder stood day and night, leaning on a rail, dependent for food on what his disciples (and presumably the Younger) brought him by ladder. He preached sermons to those gathered around his column, who then went out and spread his pastoral teachings. Other columnists took up his technique and were also called stylites.

Clever guy.

Categories: History, Journalism, Language

Empathy, Compassion, Sympathy, Pity

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment

ageempathy

That’s a mouthful. So here’s a question. How do you use these words? Do you carefully distinguish different shades of meaning? If so, can you express what these shades are, or can you give examples of each that delineate these shades?

Language is an especially powerful tool when we can wield it to separate closely-related concepts. Of course, this only works if the community within which we employ the tool has a shared understanding of the subtle differences at stake and the words that articulate the differences. I always wonder, when I read about wine, if there really is a community that uses the same words to distinguish among the subtle flavors that their trained palates allow them to recognize. My point is, each wine sophisticate may well be noticing a certain set of flavors, and may well employ a rich vocabulary in a consistent way to describe these differences. But are these sophisticates really talking to each other? Do they make the same distinctions and express them with the same words? Beats me. Same goes for colors. Mauve? Ecru? If it weren’t for crosswords, I wouldn’t use these words at all. Vermilion. Ochre. And on and on. So many words. But is there actually a community of users that shares an understanding of how the words match up with actual colors?

Which brings me to the title of this post. These four words can’t mean the same thing. If they did, that would be a wasted opportunity. Better to reserve each one for its own purpose. But do we agree on what these purposes are?

This question arose when I read the review by Andrew Stark in today’s Wall Street Journal of Frans de Waal’s new book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Read more…

Categories: Animals, Books, Language

Iran Sanctions

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment

irannuke

Moments after writing my last post, in which I made passing reference to some people’s arguing for war with Iran, I read Daniel Larison’s latest post at The American Conservative, which addresses the issue of Iran hawks. I’ve missed reading Larison. Something went wrong months ago with how my news aggregator — netnewswire — handled his blog Eunomia‘s RSS feed. But since updating to the new netnewswire last week, I’ve had no problems.

Larison is opposed to sanctions against Iran. In his post, he makes the important point that much of the debate on sanctions races past the larger issue of whether we should be trying to punish Iran at all. What he says strikes me as common sense at its best:

One of the reasons why I take such an absolutist position against sanctions is that I object to a policy debate in which the main points of contention concern the means to be used to pursue a fruitless and futile goal. We have seen all of this before with our policies towards Iraq since 1991. Sanctions did not “work” to topple Hussein’s government, and they imposed a terrible cost on Iraqis in the process. Perversely, it was pro-war figures who exploited the inhumane nature of the sanctions regime to justify invasion. After all, they said, you don’t want these terrible sanctions to continue indefinitely. This was one of the bogus “humanitarian” rationales for attacking Iraq. If we continue down the path towards more severe sanctions, thereby conceding that the Iranian government is doing something unacceptable for which they must be punished, we will be hearing the call for military intervention a few years later, and no doubt hawks will claim that they are supporting such action for the sake of the Iranian people whom they will have been happily impoverishing for years.

Sanctions will not “work” to compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, but the more important point … is that our Iran policy ought not be concerned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions at all. Cutting off gasoline imports won’t be “successful,” just as a number of other possible sanctions will never gain enough international support to be economically punishing on the regime, but we shouldn’t be trying to find mechanisms with which to coerce Iran into abandoning a nuclear program that two of its close neighbors and several other major powers already have. While it is important to stress that neither sanctions nor military action will change Tehran’s behavior, those are merely pragmatic arguments. They are valid and useful as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. The crucial point that cannot be emphasized too much is that we should not be trying to change Tehran’s behavior, or at least we should be thinking far more creatively about how to relate to Tehran without falling back on using different kinds of coercion.

… Once you buy into the idea that Iran’s nuclear program is “unacceptable” and must be stopped for the good of all, you have already given the hawks everything they need to keep ratcheting up the pressure until the “inevitability” of war has become the consensus view. Why not start instead from the assumption that war with Iran is the unacceptable outcome and change our behavior towards Iran accordingly?

The essential flaw in our Iran policy is that it defines as “unacceptable” something that we cannot prevent by any means available to us. Having set an impossible goal (short of a major land war involving hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Americans), the debate over the efficacy of different forms of coercion is practically useless.

Categories: Politics

Yom Kippur Reflection

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment
UN Headquarters, New York

UN Headquarters, New York

Yesterday was Yom Kippur. Along with millions of other Jews, I fasted and spent time in synagogue.* The holiday runs from sunset to sunset, so the fast begins before the opening sunset and, in principle, concludes well after the closing sunset. One has to be sure the sun has set before eating, and the best way to do that is to wait for first stars to appear. That’s the tradition anyway. But Reform congregations don’t bother with that. The opening service might start as late as 7:30, rather than before sunset, allowing for a later pre-fast dinner. And the closing service might end by 6:00 the next day, or even earlier, allowing for an earlier break fast. In my case, my fast might have fallen a bit short of 24 hours.

Anyway, the point of this post isn’t how heroic or non-heroic my fast was. Rather, I want to say a few words about peace. The service that concludes Yom Kippur, the Neilah service, is a beautiful one, brought to an end by the blowing of the shofar. Many Reform synagogues use a prayerbook for Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur called Gates of Repentance. Two pages into the text for Neilah is a passage, to be read aloud by rabbi and congregation, that begins as follows:

Grant us peace, your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its borders, health and happiness within its homes.

This passage set me to wondering what a stronghold of peace might look like, and how we might be its advocate. My guess is that we’re failing as a nation. This failure is at least in part due to Jewish political and journalistic leaders — Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Tom Friedman– who eagerly argued for war with Iraq, and some of whom are now ready to take us to war with Iran. They don’t seem too interested in the words of Isaiah that follow a few pages later in the Neilah service. You know, those words about beating “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor ever again shall they train for war.”

*I realized at one point that yesterday’s fast was my 45th in a row. No big deal. It seems to get easier by the year, perhaps because as my cumulative lifetime eating continues to grow, missing a day becomes less consequential.

Categories: Politics, Religion

One Detroit House

September 28, 2009 1 comment

detroithouse

[Photos from the Wall Street Journal]

Can a house’s history tell the tale of an entire city? That it can is the premise of a fascinating front page piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. (See too the accompanying slide show.)

The city is Detroit; the house is 1626 W. Boston Boulevard. It “has watched almost a century of Detroit’s ups and downs, through industrial brilliance and racial discord, economic decline and financial collapse. Its owners have played a part in it all. There was the engineer whose innovation elevated auto makers into kings; the teacher who watched fellow whites flee to the suburbs; the black plumber who broke the color barrier; the cop driven out by crime. The last individual owner was a subprime borrower, who lost the house when investors foreclosed.”

I’ve written several times about Detroit, first following two trips there last winter and most recently in my post on Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. I believe that Detroit’s fate will continue to provide important clues about our country’s society. The WSJ article is a good short introduction to where Detroit is today and how it got here.

In the rest of this post, I’ll review some of the highlights of the article. If you have access to the article, skip what follows and read it instead. Read more…

Categories: Culture, History, House

Hamburger Guide

September 27, 2009 Leave a comment
Megaburger

Megaburger

[Megaburger photograph from Mallie’s Sports Bar & Grill]

Every so often — too often! — I read a blog post that makes me realize how futile my blog-writing efforts are. I came across such a post yesterday (thanks to Andrew Sullivan.) It turns out that there’s a blog called A Hamburger Today: Burgers, with Ketchup, Mustard–and Opinion. As I look now, its latest post is on banana cream cheeseburgers: “If you ever wondered what a burger made of mashed banana and mint on top of a layer of cream cheese (with a side of pineapple “fries”) might look like, there you go.”

The post I so admire, now over a week old, is the absolutely essential AHT Guide to Hamburger and Cheeseburger Styles, written by AHT’s founder (and my newest idol), Adam Kuban.

Sample entries include pub burgers, fast food burgers, sliders, mini hamburgers, steakhouse burgers, deep-fried burgers, pimento cheese burgers, and butter burgers. Under another category, Kobe/Wagyu Beef Burgers, Kuban explains that “a Kobe burger is always, always a bad idea. When cooked rare to medium-rare, as most chefs who put these on their menus usually recommend, the texture inevitably renders as mushy. It’s like moist cat food on a bun, with the meat oozing out the sides and back as you try to eat the burger. Why turn a glorious piece of beef into minced meat?”

Read it all. There’s so much to learn. Then let’s go grab a megaburger.

Categories: Food, Restaurants, Writing

Vermeer at the Met

September 27, 2009 Leave a comment

vermeer1

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibition through November called Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid. It consists of The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, complemented by the Met’s own Vermeers and some of the Met’s paintings by Vermeer contemporaries.

I don’t anticipate getting to see the show. I never seem to get to the special Vermeer exhibitions that take place from time to time in New York or Washington. I desperately wanted to get back to DC in the winter of 1995-1996 to see the big Vermeer show at the National Gallery. The only saving grace was that had we gone, we might have fallen victim to the museum closures that occurred as part of government shutdowns during the show. (Some background on that show is here. It had 21 of the 35 known Vermeers. The shutdowns were a product of the Gingrich-led Republicans in Congress fighting the Clinton administration to a stalemate in their unwillingness to pass a budget.)

Though I won’t see the show, yesterday I finally got around to reading Peter Schjeldahl’s review of it in the September 21 issue of the New Yorker. I realize Schjeldahl is one of the great art critics of our time, but I usually have trouble getting through his articles. Not this one. He does a superb job of catching what makes Vermeer so special. I’ll quote one passage, though in doing so I’m omitting its context, a passage from Proust that Schjeldahl discusses in opening the review. Schjeldahl writes that

a little patch of lapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing the backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher [pictured above],” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could. The young woman is a serene bourgeoise at her morning toilette, easing open a leaded gate window. The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throughout the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into an illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.

New York City is blessed with not just the Met Vermeers, but also the three just down Fifth Avenue at The Frick Collection. My favorite of these is Mistress and Maid, below. How about that jacket? I suppose yellow isn’t my color, at least not since my hair changed from brown to gray to white. But I would happily wear (a suitable re-designed version of) it. Instead, I will be content with the “illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.”

vermeer2

Categories: Art