Archive for September 29, 2009

Empathy, Compassion, Sympathy, Pity

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment


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


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