About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 17, 2006

When it gets personal

I pride myself on being relatively well informed on what goes on in the world. I read or listen to various media sources (chiefly the New York Times, CNN, BBC, the Guardian, some Italian newspapers and magazines), I read as many books on current affairs and international politics as I can stomach (it ain’t easy), and I have ongoing conversations with friends scattered throughout the world. And, of course, I learn amazing things from readers of this blog (I didn’t know that in Brazil they have a “let’s beat up Judas” day before Easter!).

Nonetheless, it is astounding to realize how little I actually know of some pretty important events, until my nose is rubbed into them. A current example is the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, and in the neighboring West African nation of Chad. Yes, I have read Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed pieces about Darfur in the New York Times, and – following Kristof’s advice -- contributed money to one of the charities that deal with that region (SaveDarfur.org, although see also the International Rescue Committee). I think it was safe to say that I knew (and in fact, even had done) more about Darfur than most Americans. I felt pretty good about myself, until last week.

What happened last week is that someone I care for went to aid the relief effort for the tens of thousands of refugees that crossed the border from Sudan into Chad. Given that now the problem had become personal, I started paying significantly more attention to the problem, learning more about the background of the situation, its history, geographical - political - economic underpinnings, all the while being glued to the United Nations’ web site on Chad for the latest news updates.

Most Americans don’t event know where Chad and Sudan actually are (south of Lybia and Egypt, north of the Central African Republic; why there is a problem (a complex mess caused by an ongoing ethnic strife in Sudan, pitching various Arab and African groups against each other, oil in Chad, a generally economically and culturally depressed area, assorted dictators and war lords, etc.); what the world is doing about it (not much, except for several Non-Governmental Organizations and the United Nations aiding the relief effort); how many people have already died as a consequence of it (more than 200,000 according to UN estimates); how many refuges are in precarious conditions in Chad (again about 200,000); or even, probably, that Darfur is a (vast) region, not a city.

So you see what happens when things get personal: people care more. This is natural, and I am certainly not suggesting that we should get personal about every disaster or problem affecting humanity: there are too many of them, and there is only so much emotional strain and financial or time effort any one individual can muster. But when things are on the scale of the Sudan/Chad calamity, it would be nice for us to celebrate Easter or Passover or the Spring festival or whatever by doing something more than engaging in egg hunts and overstuffing ourselves at the dinner table. Just a suggestion, nothing personal.


  1. Contrary to popular belief, guilt is not all bad. So I don't think that you need to back off of or lighten the impact of statements like this.

    You're no coward, M, and neither is most of your readership.

    If we're not touched to our core by the struggles and deep needs of other people, what on earth is learning and achieving good for anyway?

    Far as I'm concerned, not a single thing.

    Without meaningful (others-centered) objectives as the end result, all the achieving in the world could amount to something like "engaging in egg hunts and overstuffing ourselves at the dinner table". It merely has a different form that it assumes when it sucks up our time and energy.


  2. Colin Powell once called the situation in Darfur a 'genocide', but that language did not last long in the administration, and little has been done. At least the UN will become more involved soon, and next week, a 'range of options' will be presented to the Security Council. But, sadly, the UN again has not acted expeditiously in supporting the AMIS troops there. The massive deathtoll makes Darfur the greatest crisis on the planet currently.

    I quite understand how it would take something personal to really pay attention to the situation. Staying informed is only a first step towards action. Reading your post has finally tipped the scale for me. Searching the Human Rights Watch website, I found a page entitled, "What You Can Do About Darfur", and I have every intention of following much of their advice. So thanks for bringing it up.

    BTW, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya shortens to 'Libya'. :^)

  3. Hm, so you don't have the "Judas beating" in Italy either... I guess it must be Portugal's fault then - that little country is smaller than my home city, but has got some angry people for sure. Not like Spain, but... (as one of my late grandma was an example of) Oh, well. How many stereotypes can I put in a paragraph anyway.

    The personal bias in perception (and action) is what worried me during that debate about home schooling/ decay of public education a while ago. When it's not about you and yours, you don't get really involved. As Massimo, and probably everybody at some point, experienced.


  4. I have to admit that I personallly shrugged Dafur as something I did not have time to pay attention to, until I read your origional post. Since then I have been following more closely. I will pray for a safe return for your friend. What a true hero!

  5. Jim,

    It's wonderful that Massimo accepts this as a personal responsibility for individuals to take on. But, mind you, this is not normative behavior for persons who hold socialistic views.

    ..."And that is why the citizens of less socialist -- and more religious -- America give more charity per capita and per income than do citizens of socialist countries. That is why Americans volunteer time for the needy so much more than citizens of socialist countries do. That is why citizens of conservative states in America give more charity than citizens of liberal states do. The more Left one identifies oneself on the political spectrum, the more that person is likely to believe that the state, not fellow citizens, should take care of the poor and the needy.

    Under socialism, one is not only liberated from having to take care of oneself; one is also liberated from having to take care of others." - Socialism makes people worse
    by Dennis Prager



  6. Jim,

    thanks for the comment, and I do agree, my friend is a true hero. On the other hand -- and I really don't mean this in a flippant way, despite my posting for today -- could you send some money to the IRC on top of praying for her? It would help a great deal...

  7. Cal,
    I agree with you. That is why I applaud M for making personal contributions. But I do agree with the overall impact of a religous conservative vs. liberal socialist to society, favors the religous conservative. I am curious? what about my post made you think I felt differently?

  8. Massimo,
    I apologize but My wife and I are in the middle of fundraising for a March of Dimes (a cause personal to us, as we have our own little heros)walk on April 30th. Our donation cap is already been reached for this month. I understand that you dont agree with prayer. When I say I will pray for your friend, I do that out of respect to you and your friend. I am not asking you to believe in anything. Rather than trying to redirect my efforts, perhaps just accept them as a wish for good will.

  9. "I am curious? what about my post made you think I felt differently?"

    Nothing. Just a reminder.

    Call me bit of a nit picker, but I firmly believe that social actions are more aptly or effectively inacted by good motives. Meaning that, it may be misleading for someone to believe that being socially consciences automatically makes a person "good".

    I don't think that is necessarily true

    What if, for instance, I was doing 'good deeds' because I didn't like the way someone else was handling a particular social issue? Is my good deed still truly a "good" deed? Is my long term impact on that situation (via my contributions) really going to be a peaceful, harmonious one?

    Likely not.


  10. hey massimo,
    among the things being pushed aside here is that we're looking at the potential for continent-wide war in africa. sometime in the future people will be asking, "how could we have ignored it for so long?" but that will, de facto, be too late. the answer will be that we were distracted by iraq, by bin laden, by china and france and mexicans. that we were too busy fighting over who could marry who. it won't be a very good answer.


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