Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gaining perspective by crossing Canada

My wife and I recently drove across Canada on our way to Hawaii. Having visited all fifty US states, we thought it time to explore Canada more fully. Decades ago, we had camped in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and sometimes bought gas in Woodstock, New Brunswick, when we lived in northern Maine.

Times have changed. Instead of near parity, the Canadian dollar is now worth substantially less than the US dollar. Gas is now somewhat more expensive in Canada than in the US states we have traversed on this trip.

Most of the time, we traveled on two lane roads because Canada has few true, controlled access motorways. Initially, we were concerned that the lack of motorway driving would greatly lengthen our trip; in time, we realized that traffic usually flowed smoothly and at speed.

We mostly encountered better drivers than in the States and saw far less traffic. Canada's population density is approximately one tenth that of the US, having 34.5 million people (that's less than the population of California) inhabiting a geographic area larger than the US. Over half of Canada's population lives in just 20 cities. Consequently, Canada has many wide-open spaces even in its lower tier of provinces that abut the US.

While driving, we saw elk, deer, bison, and even a black bear that loped across the road in front of us. Although we saw dozens of signs warning about moose, we did not see any – our biggest disappointment, wanting to compare them in size to the Maine and Alaskan moose that we have seen. We also saw some spectacular scenery, most especially in the Canadian Rockies.

The drive gave me a fresh appreciation for the spirit of adventure and ambition that must have motivated the first settlers who crossed the continent, traveling by foot or horse. Thinking about those pioneers and the Native Americans (or first nations, the Canadian term) also highlighted the importance of self-reliance, interdependence, and trust –themes that I occasionally emphasize in Ethical Musings.

Unlike in Europe, in Canada most of the people we met working in service businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.) were native Canadians. The few non-Canadians were from Western European nations, e.g., The Netherlands.

We saw very few beggars, and then only in large cities such as Montreal. My guess is that Canada has an effective social safety net and a climate that makes living rough unattractive. In contrast, every street corner in San Francisco seems to have a beggar, presumably living rough, who has claimed the spot as his/her own. Cursory observation suggests that most of these people have significant mental health (a category that includes addiction) problems, a poignant reminder of gaps in our collective commitment to care for our neighbors.

I did see more road construction and repair in Canada than I have ever seen in the US. My guess is that this not only reflects Canada's prosperity but also that Canada spends a much smaller percentage of its Gross National Product on defense than does the US (1% vs. 3.5%). Government spending on high-tech weapons that the US will probably never adds economic value only when the procurement dollars are spent; in contrast, government expenditures on infrastructure (roads, bridges, utilities, etc.) adds economic value as long as the infrastructure is used.

The vistas in Canada were often sweeping with striking blue skies. However, we saw clear photographic evidence that the glaciers were receding. And, as we neared the border between British Columbia and Washington, the skies became more overcast. The officer at the border control point warned us that forest fires had closed some of the roads that we might want to take on our way south. Several times, we passed signs indicating the closure of particular roads because of fire, e.g., the northern access to Crater Lake and a road from I-5 to California 101. We saw lots of smoke, lots of ash, and lots of burned areas but thankfully no fires. Our trip provided a first-hand, even if anecdotal, reminder of global warming.

Based on observation, probably half of the tourists I saw during my visit were Chinese. A majority of the rest were from Europe. I saw surprisingly few US license plates in Canada, especially given the number of Canadian license plates I have note in Maine and Florida. We US citizens would make better neighbors if we made more of an effort to visit and to understand our Canadian neighbors. For example, visiting Canada helped me to appreciate why Canada often feels dwarfed by the US economically (e.g., many of the businesses and industries we saw were US owned or franchised) and politically.

Finally, my visit also left me questioning the value of guarding the northern US border. In the early 1980s, when I lived a couple of miles from the Canadian border, crossings were mostly unguarded and unregulated. I even had parishioners who lived in Canada. Today, the border is vigilantly patrolled and policed. Yet Canadians are as concerned about terrorism as is the US. They have as much to lose from terrorism as does the US. My bet is that a cost-benefit analysis would demonstrate that both countries would be safer if they returned their border controls to what prevailed before 9/11, devoting the personnel and other resources thereby freed to stopping illegal entry and smuggling from other directions.

Robert Frost was only partially correct. Good fences can make for good neighbors, but only when neighbors also have mutual respect and trust.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Musings about baptism

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An Ethical Musings’ reader asked me for my thoughts on the Episcopal Church’s Baptism liturgy, which is found in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on p. 299. The reader had found an essay by Debra Cole, Her Holiness posted at the Bitter Southerner’s Folklore project, troubling.

Cole expresses affection for the Episcopal Church. She thinks that most Episcopalians are reasonably well educated and appreciates the honesty of Anglican history, although she rightly dislikes both Henry VIII’s gluttony and domestic violence. Significantly, Cole has no intention of joining us but believes that we tend to be “relatable, aesthetically minded and intellectually tolerant.”

She did contemplate having her daughter baptized at the Episcopal parish in Atlanta that she occasionally attends. One obstacle to proceeding with the baptism was her realization that she would prefer a cake for the post-baptism festivities with a question mark instead of the more traditional “God bless.”

Then she read the baptismal liturgy and discovered that it posed what, for her, were insurmountable obstacles. If I understood our liturgy as Cole interpreted it, then I too would find it deeply disturbing. Needless to say, my interpretations differ substantially from Cole’s at several critical points.

First, she objects to the renunciation of Satan, initially suggesting that the word Satan may metaphorically connote evil and then deciding that the Episcopal Church takes the word literally. Evil is real; Satan is not. Some people find personifying evil as Satan or the devil spiritually helpful. In contrast to prior generations, relatively few twenty-first century Episcopalians (an opinion that reflects my bias) take that image literally.

In other words, our rich liturgical legacy, like many legacies, has both positive and negative aspects. The positive explicitly links us to the great cloud witnesses who have preceded us; the negative is that we must cope with words and ideas that we understand very differently than did our predecessors. The baptism liturgy is a also poignant and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the reality of evil, an important counterpoint to those Christians and others who would prefer to gloss over inconvenient or negative aspects of existence.

Second, Cole finds the idea of putting her whole trust in Jesus’ grace troubling. She notes that even with a video of Kennedy’s assassination and eyewitness statements taken within hours of the even, people are uncertain about exactly what happened. How can anyone know for certain what happened at the end of Jesus’ life in the events central to historic Christian theology, i.e., Jesus’ trial, death, and alleged resurrection?

Nobody can know the facts. People who claim to know have substituted their opinion for demonstrable fact. Perhaps some opinions are correct. Certainly, some opinions are more correct than other opinions. Yet, no basis exists by which humans can determine which of the gamut of opinions about Jesus are more or most correct. As I have repeatedly emphasized in Ethical Musings, the Bible offers little help resolving this historical problem because the text consists of human words arranged by human authors to tell a story that the author found important. (Perhaps knowing the historical facts is far less important than our making the Biblical stories our stories, if doing so enables us to live abundant, loving, fulfilling lives!)

The Christian tradition began with multiple Christologies. Some Christologies depicted Jesus as human but with a divine message and perhaps divine power, others saw him as entirely divine but manifest in human form, others sought some middle ground between human and divine, and yet others attempted to formulate a theory of Jesus as both human and divine.

Through mandatory allegiance to the Creeds and other theological formula Christianity has sought to enforce a normative theology. In actuality, that effort never fully succeeded; at most, it simply created a façade of theological uniformity that glossed over considerable diversity of belief. Nominally acceding to the established forms was far less costly (think of all the heretics burned at the stake!) than honestly expressing one’s opinion. The amount of evidence of disparate Christologies from the last twenty centuries in spite of Christianity’s diligent and unrelenting efforts to enforce orthodoxy emphasizes how unpersuasive many Christians in all generations found the Creeds and doctrinal orthodoxy. Diversity of thinking in the contemporary Church is strong – think of Bishop Spong, for example. Someone who today openly frames her own understanding of Jesus is in good company. Christianity is much more about the journey than theology.

Third, Cole interprets the phrase There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism as an affirmation of Christian exclusivity. Historically, that phrase emphasized the Church’s unity. Indeed, the idea of one Baptism has pointed toward Christian inclusivity: anyone baptized using the Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was considered to be a Christian. Recently, this teaching led to the Episcopal Church insisting that Mormons are Christian precisely because they have been baptized using the Trinitarian formula even though normative Latter Day Saint Christology is radically different from the Christology of historic Christianity. Furthermore, a close reading of the Catechism (pp. 845-863 in the Book of Common Prayer) shows that while the Episcopal Church proclaims salvation in the name of Jesus the Church proffers no judgment on the fate of people who follow a different path.

In short, Cole reads and understands the baptism liturgy through the lens of the mild fundamentalist that she once was. Her interpretation makes me personally uncomfortable. I’m thankful that the Episcopal Church is intellectually tolerant, extending its aesthetic beyond buildings and music to include the language of our liturgy. We have lots of room for Debra Cole. She is right. Nobody needs the Church to be a good person or a good parent. Nevertheless, for many people the Church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, offers a supportive context for living a more abundant, loving, and spiritually fulfilling life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Evidence of globalization

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While in Florence, I ate at a small trattoria (restaurant or bistro, in English) at which I had eaten several good meals when I was in Florence five years ago (not the place shown in the photo).

The restaurant, located near Florence’s Cathedral and in the heart the tourist district, had changed. Five years ago, a mixture of locals and tourists ate at the very popular trattoria. It served excellent, traditional Italian fare at reasonable prices. Knowing restaurant Italian was very helpful in perusing the menu, which was printed only in Italian. The owner was generally present. He often sang while cooking in a kitchen separated from the dining area by a counter or, as time permitted and the spirit moved, strolled around the restaurant serenading guests.

Now, the restaurant is still popular and the prices are still reasonable. The menu, however, lists dishes by their Italian name and has English subtitles/explanations. The wait staff greets guests in English; presumably they would switch to Italian if the guests did not speak English. The clientele were all non-Italians, at least while I was there. And as I watched, many consulted their smartphone or pad, confirming that this was the place that they had located using TripAdvisor, Yelp, or another internet review service. The food is no longer as traditional and the portions, if anything are larger (the staff expected that diners would often want to share an appetizer, pasta, or secondi – something that I have not observed in Italy until this trip).

I’m not surprised that the restaurant changed. Five years can be a long time in the restaurant business.

I was mildly surprised that the internet apparently plays such a central role in the success or failure of this trattoria, and of many other places at which I ate during this sojourn in Florence. Some proprietors and wait staff openly solicit diners to write recommendations on various websites; decals advising prospective diners that the establishment is reviewed on TripAdvisor are now frequently posted alongside the menu on an exterior window.

I was disappointed that the restaurant had changed its business model from catering to a mix of locals and tourists to focusing primarily on tourists. I don’t visit Italy for a taste of Americana with Italian seasoning; I visit to experience Italy and the Italian culture. This move toward homogenization is a downside of globalization.

In addition to dining out, my partner and I have had some meals in the apartment that we rented for the month. We buy bread at a shop less than a block away. The small shop – about the size of a living room – primarily sells fresh bread baked in the back room that day. I’ve see two different women at the counter. One speaks no English and the other speaks only a little English. Most of their customers speak fluent Italian and appear to live locally. The bread is excellent!

I wonder how much longer the shop will survive. Both women are middle aged; the man who bakes the bread, visible from the sidewalk through a large door left open to allow ventilation, is also middle aged. Their breads are inexpensive to buy. My guess is that the next generation has little or no interest in taking over what seems to be a profitable family owned business that requires long hours and much hard work.

Outside the shop’s front door, a man from Senegal daily spreads his wares on a small cloth that is maybe three feet square. His wares vary a little from day to day. Presumably, he manages to sell enough to keep him alive. I don’t know if he qualifies for welfare or has anyone else to support. He is friendly and unobtrusive. He speaks almost no English.

During the course of a day here, I’ll see many such vendors. A few, generally in areas packed with tourists, push their wares. Most are more laid back and wait to speak until a passerby takes an interest in an item for sale. All appear to be from Africa.

This is probably one visible tip of Italy’s immigration problem. I admire the vendors’ entrepreneurial efforts to get ahead. Selling stuff is certainly preferable to begging. A higher percentage of beggars than of these vendors seem aggressive in their solicitations.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Not missing Starbucks

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A cappuccino at the bar (think small restaurant or café, not what the word connotes in the US) nearest the apartment I rented in Florence costs 1 euro, i.e., a little more than $1.10. Not only is it about a third the price of a Starbucks’ cappuccino, they serve it in a ceramic cup and with better coffee and foam than at Starbucks. Admittedly, it’s smaller, though I suspect that the shot of espresso is the same size in both places.

After having walked dozens of miles in Florence, I have yet to see a single Starbucks or other American restaurant or coffee franchise. There are US retail outlets as well as retailers from elsewhere in the European Union. I don’t know if there are legal barriers to entry that keep non-EU food franchisees out. However, if such legal barriers exist, I doubt that they are necessary. I don’t know why anyone would want to spend more and get less.

Vienna has lots of US fast food outlets and several Starbucks coffee shops. I ducked into one of the latter for a brief look. My impression is that most of the customers were tourists, especially from the US, willing to pay exorbitant prices for the familiar. I did not buy anything, having discovered that Viennese coffee was both better and less expensive.

Traveling without experiencing the local culture seems a waste of time.

Florence has an extensive system of parks. Sadly, the parks all need more attention. The government that could afford to build the parks can no longer afford to maintain them (or, alternatively, the government that built the parks could not really afford to build them, much less to maintain them).

The park system here reminds me of the transportation and utility infrastructure in the US. The governments that built what were often the best roads, bridges, parks, utilities, airports, ports, etc., in the world no longer properly maintains those facilities. Unless the US substantially increases its infrastructure investments, the US will continue to lose its global economic competitive edge and suffer from a diminution in quality of life. The first signs of the latter are already evident: bridges with warnings about diminished load capacity, parks with closed or inadequate facilities, unrepaired pot holes, etc. In other words, US roads may begin to resemble Italian sidewalks!

Instead, the US spends exorbitant sums on national defense. In fact, much of the money is wasted, either purchasing advanced weapons systems that the US will probably never use in combat or funding operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere that have little realistic chance of success. Terrorism poses a real, but limited threat. Unfortunately, US counterterrorism efforts are generally ineffectual and unethical (to read my proposals for effective, ethical counterterrorism against non-state terrorists, read my book, Just Counterterrorism, available through Amazon).