Cooks and Capitalism

There’s always a risk people in a democracy might actually choose tyranny. For various reasons people hold beliefs or vote against their own self-interest. In 2009 I was part of a group of people working with the homeless in Washington, D. C. I met some interesting individuals through that work, e.g. a former professor of computer science who lost his job and all of his books because of mental illness; a seven foot tall African-American man aptly nicknamed “Too Tall” who was HIV positive who liked to sing an x-rated version of When the Saints Go Marching In for money; a number of veterans and families living in their minivans; and the former cook of the Nixon and Carter administrations. The conversation I had with the white cook, more than any other, stuck in my mind for some reason.

The former White House cook was battling both cancer and diabetes. He explained to me he had a pension but it wasn’t enough to cover his medications, an apartment and food. So his money went to purchasing his medication/apartment and he begged for food. I asked him about the election of Barack Obama and the new president’s proposed healthcare reforms. I explained the system Obama proposed was similar to what we had in Canada and that he likely wouldn’t have to choose between food, shelter and medication any longer. He was adamant any change to America’s healthcare system would bankrupt the country. He didn’t consider the possibility that by removing the insurance companies from the equation healthcare would actually end up costing less (because of less un-necessary bureaucracy). I responded by asking a straight-forward question, “Wouldn’t you favor reforms to that healthcare system if that meant you could afford your medicine and have a place to say and food to eat?” He remained opposed. Here was a person afflicted by two major diseases and he was opposed to reforms which would benefit him, and millions of other Americans, concretely.


The fact many people support policies against their own self-interest speaks volumes about the propensity of people to be more or less driven by emotion and shaped and molded by the propaganda mill. This goes for both people on the left and right of the political spectrum. For example, on the political right a conservative might have unqualified acceptance of “trickle down economics” as the best approach the country can take towards economic growth; while on the left, progressives might, also without qualification, support political correctness. In both instances are some obvious problems with the logic involved that gets short shrift, e.g. in the case of trickle down economics, or this notion cutting taxes for the wealthy that the rich will spend, rather than hoard, that money to encourage economic growth is demonstrably absurd, e.g. since the time Allan Greenspan and President Reagan sold that myth to the American People in the 1980s more wealth has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; this wouldn’t be so problematic if capitalism, the very thing Greenspan and people of his ilk were trying to defend, didn’t depend so much upon mass consumption and wealth being not in fewer hands but in more hands (traditionally called the middle class); and in the case of political correctness, the political left has lost its way because in an effort to generate greater awareness around sensitivity (which is important) it has virtually abandoned its fundamental role to act as a counter-balance to corporate control of the Congress; the political order is now almost entirely controlled by the political right while the left is busy worrying about whether or not it is appropriate white college students should be allowed to wear Pocahontas costumes. Not a good trade off in my honest opinion.

In the great scheme of things, I think we are seeing the end of capitalism as you and I know it. I’m not anti-capitalist by any stretch. But I think Marx was at least partly correct when he observed unregulated capitalism was truly revolutionary. I think he should have used the word reactionary instead. Unfettered capitalism, by its very nature, favors the pooling of wealth and the maintenance of a small elite at the expense of the majority. Again, for capitalism to work you need consumers; and if the potential consumers don’t have any money then capitalism doesn’t work… Marx figured capitalism would destroy itself and come crashing down under its own contradictions.

President Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that “the business of America is business.” This nod to America’s staunch defense of capitalism is both accurate and ironic, in that, although the United States contends to be a great defender of free market capitalism in theory, in practice corporations receive all sorts of federal handouts contradicting the very notion that companies are competing on a free market. Well competition isn’t entirely dead, e.g. homeless cooks and others of his ilk are expected to live within the bounds of a genuinely free market where there’s little to no government involvement/interference; and that is ironic, in my opinion, because the corporate champions of free market capitalism fight for those public dollars instead of fighting one another on the free market where only those companies who are lean, mean and efficient should survive the rigors of competition. Such a strange situation to contemplate that corporations are treated better than people and that the people themselves, who pay the very taxes which support federal spending on bankrolling corporations like Blackwater, might convince themselves to support policies favoring corporate support programs at the expense of direly needed social support programs.


A Discussion of Heaven & Hell

Jessica is one of the three contributors to the Peasants & Emperors podcast. She had a conversation on heaven/hell with a relative and then asked through Facebook what my opinion was on the matter. The following is a brief exchange which, incidentally, included another friend of mine not connected to this site named Mike. Both Mike and Jessica are former students of mine.

Jessica [to Rick]: I am interested in your thoughts on the concept of heaven and hell—how you understand it based on what you’ve studied or read, what you think of “good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell”. Any thoughts.

And I am asking in a public forum, as I suspect your ideas might be appreciated by others, as well.

*thumbs up*

Rick [to Jessica]: “‘Give me six lines by the most honest man, and I’ll find something in there to hang him” or so observes Cardinal Richelieu.  If I get some time I’ll articulate an answer. What brought this question on all of a sudden?

Jessica: A discussion with a friend today about precisely this topic. Made me think of you.

Mike [a friend chimes in]: My perception of heaven and hell: Both aren’t literal “places”. They are states of mind. If you are someone who loves life, loves people and are willing to sacrifice yourself to help others—you live a Heavenly life. If you are caught up in drama, enjoy hurting others for your own benefit, greedy and immoral then you live a life in hell. It’s a matter of being of service to self or of service to others.

Rick [to Mike and Jessica]: Having no direct experience with either Heaven or Hell I can honestly say I know exactly nothing about them. While I have thought about the possibility of an afterlife my thoughts are just that—thoughts. My imagination isn’t any more useful a tool of discernment than the various books that exist claiming to provide descriptions of angels and other related topics. Books, like the fertile musings of an individual, aren’t without problems, e.g. books range from solid historic or scientific accounts to utter flights of fantasy. Some people believe certain books to be more authoritative than others yet, and this is important, opinions can exist on things that do not.

While I was taking a class on Judaism I asked the professor (a rabbi) whether Jews believed in Hell. He was a liberal-minded fellow I reckon (which in the minds of conservatives might disqualify his opinion as valid). Nonetheless, the rabbi graciously responded to my question saying, “I find it difficult to imagine a God of love would punish someone indefinitely for finite acts.” In other words, he expressed doubt as to whether or not a person went to Heaven for leading a good life or to Hell for leading a bad one. (By the way there exists no consensus view on what either Heaven or Hell is like or whether they even exist. Additionally, the view that most people have of Heaven or Hell is not a Jewish but a Greek view.)

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t desire Heaven to exist. I’d also be lying if I thought I was worthy of going to such a place. Imperfections notwithstanding I would definitely like to be with my mom again if only for a moment. I even have some thoughts on what God might be like. Yet, and yet, I do not mistake my desires or the fruits of my imagination as established facts. I am not in a position—experientially, spiritually or mentally—to be able to see things others cannot. Likewise I am skeptical of those people who claim they possess such powers of reckoning. I am, however, willing to accept my fundamental ignorance for what it is, i.e. I do not know. In the end, I cannot answer the question you’ve raised about going to good places if you’ve been good or bad places if you’ve been bad. I tend to share Einstein’s view though that if people are good only because they fear punishment and “hope for a reward” then we are a sorry lot indeed.

Mike [clarifying]: In simpler terms; neither can be proven nor disproven. It’s all up to the individual to believe or disbelieve what is.

Rick [responding to Mike]: this appears to be the position you are espousing: there’s no proof for or against [heaven/hell] so it’s up to a person to believe whatever they will. I’d rather look at it this way: there’s no proof for or against so the only intellectually honest position to take is agnosticism, i.e. some questions simply cannot be answered and we must remain fundamentally ignorant.

Moreover, belief doesn’t do what some people strangely think it does; that is, while a person can believe Narnia exists this does not mean I can send a letter to or go have a conversation with a benevolent lion at a lamp post. If you want to believe in Narnia go for it. But belief does not create things, e.g. I cannot postulate you in to existence any more than I can postulate [or believe] you out of existence. Belief doesn’t do anything. Zippo. It has the same effect on the physical world as an opinion on art does…none. If God is, well, God is—irrespective of the theist’s affirmation or the atheist’s denial. This is why I made the remark (with particular emphasis) that “opinions can exist on things that do not.”

Jessica [to Rick]: Fantastic reply. Pretty much what I was expecting—and pretty much in line with my own thoughts about it. However, I feel like I have an emotionally charged reaction to any discussion of heaven and hell, because there have been many times in my life when people have firmly stated that my family is going to burn for eternity because my family doesn’t espouse a very particular Christian viewpoint. This always struck me as problematic, because I believe that the people in my family are good people—community builders, loving, compassionate, etc.—and I did not think that their banishment from eternal happiness (or whatever the condemner’s idea of heaven was) fit in with the idea of a compassionate, loving god.

My conversation with my friend (my cousin, actually), was actually less about the potential existence of heaven but rather imagining the nature of heaven–as you said, IF heaven and hell do exist, one could only imagine them. We both were of the mind that if heaven does exist, we like the idea of heaven being not a place with golden streets and angels on clouds playing harps, but rather some kind of space where humans can mend and change the relationships they had in their finite lives, and also to discover/create/strengthen relationship with god. Heaven as relationship as opposed to heaven as luxurious reward, I guess.

Rick: I think there is wisdom to your view of relationships.

Democracy and Climate Change

“Governments might come and go, but the baseline Enlightenment commitment to human progress—to the gathering, interpretation, dissemination, and use of knowledge in the pursuit of more equitable government and a higher quality of life—has been considered sacrosanct for as long as democracy has existed. However powerfully driven by ideology, faith, or a relentless thirst for power, every democratic government must ultimately answer to the same objective truths.”

Chris Turner, The War on Science (Page 108)

Environmentalism is frequently conflated with leftism or a “leftist agenda.” The reality is climate change is neither a left or right issue because regardless of your political persuasion every single person needs the following to survive: clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean energy. We’re dealing with physics and chemistry here and the maxims of right wingers like Allan Greenspan or left wingers like Che Guevera count for nothing.

There has been a fundamental failure on the part of some, and willful blindness on the part of others, to appreciate how dependent we are upon the health of the planet to be healthy ourselves. If we don’t change our path my children and grand-children are going to inherit a very different world; they will inherit a diminished earth because of the failure of my generation to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, and instead of doing something meaningful about it, we are obstructing action to appease our ideologies or we continue electing leaders who deregulate when we should be heavily regulating fossil fuel industries.

And this reminds me of something I read in Naomi Klein’s most recent book This Changes Everything (Page 21):

“…our economic system and our [planet’s] system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

Not the laws of nature…

There are a lot of people who want the Keystone Pipeline project approved so we can get people back to work. I completely understand the need for employment and what it means to working men and women and their families; however, leaders need to properly weigh the consequences of meeting short-term goals like employment at the expense of medium and long term ends; and as much as I’m a staunch defender of democracy the climate crisis provides an insight into one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses; that is, parties get elected based on the promises they make now and not, generally speaking, what they plan to do later. Specifically, there’s never a guarantee that a political party can be in power long enough to be able to enact laws or policies that won’t simply be over-turned following the next election. An excellent example of democracy being stuck in such a short-term cycle is found in Canada in 2016. The Liberals won the most recent election and didn’t waste any time undoing legislation enacted by the previous Conservative government.

So given the gravity of the climate crisis, and the need to think not in terms of election cycles of four or five years (but in decades) we seem to be saddled with a system which isn’t properly responsive; and the crisis is imminent. Looking to the medium and long-term, developing the Keystone Pipeline would be detrimental to the environment imperiling our future as a species; and despite our great technical progress, we are just as likely to go extinct as any other species (again, in the long term) on a planet which becomes increasingly incapable of supporting life, e.g. we are in the midst a great “6th extinction” where life on this planet is disappearing 1000 times faster than it did following the KT Explosion, i.e. when an asteroid struck the earth 65 million years ago killing the dinosaurs and every other creature larger than about 50 pounds.

So here’s the thing: James Hansen, one of the most respected people working in climate science today, has gone on record saying that if Alberta develops the oil sands fully then it will be “game over” for the climate. He is not saying “Canada’s” climate will be in trouble. He is saying it will be game over for the globe. Hansen’s critics claim he is just fear mongering; however, is he fear mongering when and if his predictions have merit? I don’t think so. Further still, a thoughtful person shouldn’t convince themselves that labeling Hansen a “fear monger” necessarily disqualifies his position. On the contrary, this type of name calling just serves to satisfy the emotions of people who have some sort of ideological axe to grind against the scientific consensus.

The increased production of a Keystone Pipeline would push our CO2 footprint beyond the limit of what the planet can deal with (if we want to keep the planet from warming any more than two degrees Celsius…we more than likely will hit this two degree benchmark even if we dramatically cut CO2 emissions). After two degrees Celsius we end up entering the realm of “non-linear” climate change: this used to mean the possibility of the earth experiencing a so-called “run away greenhouse effect” like what’s happening on Venus right now. More recent scholarship has revealed this scenario is unlikely, i.e. we lack the total CO2 necessary to push the earth to Venus-like conditions where you can cook a pizza in 15 seconds on that planet’s surface. Nonetheless, we do have enough potential emissions to make significant changes and warming to the earth’s climate overall.

Here’s my question: if the laws of nature are unalterable, and if our climate’s chemistry is changing because of our industrial activity (which is accepted as fact by the scientific community (a 97% consensus, Google 97% consensus)), then aren’t we obligated to not develop the tar sands? Aren’t we obligated to take immediate steps to address this real and present danger? Energy companies in Alberta certainly disagree. They’ve got capital investments and bottom lines. Bottom lines are real but so are rising oceans. There’s a media blitz underway right now on television where energy companies are attempting to shape public opinion to “quit saying no.” I wish these commercials would present to people precisely why governments are saying “no” to the pipeline…

Given the seriousness of the crisis we are in right now, why aren’t we transitioning more rapidly in to a post CO2 economic system? Think big picture here. Get out of your ideology. And think about the planet your kids and grand kids are going to inherit. A world where moose might be extinct (Google “moose grave yard alberta”) or where there are no more sharks or whales (Google “no life in ocean by 2050”) and eventually….us.

Where the other creatures go we will follow; it is utter hubris to think we are not just as subject to nature’s laws as any other animal; and we are animals—not just speaking figuratively.

For 1,400 Bucks I Can Spy on All of You

Bill C-51 begs the question “who will police the police?” To the credit of the bill’s authors Canada’s spy agencies have to get approval from judges to conduct certain types of surveillance; yet, in the great scheme of things our right to and need for privacy far outweighs the perception of security gained by passing such a bill in to law. Why does the government need to know what websites I visit or the places I visit by utilizing the GPS on my phone? You’d be surprised what you can piece together about a person just by keeping track of these two pieces of data.

Also, in the American context, the mass collection of data hasn’t prevented a single terrorist attack. Not a one. The Americans have a “catch it all” policy (which, mind you, is illegal even according to their own laws like the Patriot Act). When you emphasize everything you emphasize nothing; and a series of Congressional level assessments of America’s ability to prevent terrorist acts through spying has determined massive surveillance doesn’t work. With that said, it might work better than security agencies are willing to admit. Specifically, it is possible the Americans purposely don’t prevent small attacks like those on Paris, Brussels or Lahore, etc. so they can prevent large ones like a “dirty bomb” or nuclear attack on a major city. If this is the case, and the Americans aren’t demonstrating the true efficacy of their spying techniques and technologies, then so be it; however, if this spying actually has no efficacy at all at preventing terrorism then it begs a second question, i.e. why are maintaining these elaborate surveillance systems? The answer might be found in the following dichotomy: while C-51 and the Patriot Act are relatively ineffective at preventing terrorist acts (arguably they don’t discourage it at all), these laws do serve a known and concrete function: they discourage democratic protests and movements from growing in America and other Western countries.

The Patriot Act gave the National Security Agency significant surveillance powers to fight terrorism. That very same police power and information gathering power, however, was used by the FBI in 2009 to identify leaders of the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement emerged in response to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 where a few dozen financial executives from Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, etc. brought the global economy crashing down. The Occupy movement was a response to the economic meltdown and the growing disparities in wealth between the “haves” and “have notes” in the United States (the so-called 99% vs. 1%). The leaders and rank and file of the Occupy movement weren’t terrorists but dissidents; nonetheless, the FBI and NSA used the surveillance powers granted to them by the Patriot Act to identify the leaders of the Occupy movement in order to subdue it. The FBI/NSA used their technology to identify Occupy’s more vocal leaders. Once the leaders were identified they were arrested and charged with conspiracy and threatened with long prison sentences; rather than go to prison in a rigged game these leaders wisely agreed to leave the movement and remain silent in exchange for having the charges dropped.

That happened. But was that what the framers of the Patriot Act intended to happen?

Bill C-51 has the same potential to be used against critics of the Canadian government. By the way, the abuse of surveillance powers is being repeated today as security agencies watch the “Black Lives Matter” movement with interest; that is, when a protest against police violence on African-Americans takes place look up and you’ll find FBI planes circling above outfitted with the latest cameras and IMSI devices.


These IMSI devices are used to identify protesters literally by phone number and name; and these devices record everything coming through it. An IMSI device is basically a “middle-man” router between your phone and whatever cell tower you happen to be closest to at any given moment; and because this device is in the middle it records all communications going through it. They’re pretty cheap, too. You can buy them on the Internet for as cheap as $1,400.00 USD. So assuming virtually every protester has a cell phone security agencies can effectively identify every single person present; and if an individual attends multiple protests, or meets in a smaller group before the protest (a potential meeting of leaders?), a pattern emerges and the affected individual can be “red flagged” as a potential trouble-maker and so on.

If you want to learn more about how IMSI catchers work, click here to see a short video on how the device is currently used to undermine democracy in Great Britain.

Apologists for the mass surveillance system argue that if you aren’t a criminal, you have nothing to worry about; this argument is a Strawman Fallacy. People, wittingly or unwittingly, use Strawmen fallacies like these to divert our attention away from the actual issue being discussed on to a second, irrelevant issue. In the case of C-51, apologists divert our attention away from the problems I’ve just discussed on to a secondary non-issue, i.e. if we don’t break laws then we have nothing to fear. When people are watched or if they know they are being listened to they behave differently. Instead, of criticizing the government or corporate power, the watched person is more likely to fall into line or not attend a protest altogether; instead of considering alternatives to the status-quo and expressing themselves, the spied on person remains quiet and pliant. The modern surveillance state encourages and grooms citizens to become progressively more and more passive; and in the great scheme of things, when it comes to preserving democracy, history demonstrates that where people are passive fascism, not freedom, prevails.

This is the reason you should worry about C-51 and the emergence of the modern surveillance state: democracy isn’t about elections or achieving perfect security or possessing absolute certainty; it is about the right of the individual to be free from government or any other kind of outside interference (within reason); it is about the right to be able to hold and potentially express an unconsidered opinion or one which draws attention to a problem affecting society; it is about peacefully managing the disagreements which inevitably emerge among citizens in any given polity and not trying to stamp them out by silencing dissidents who come to fear/distrust their government or an unfettered corporate order; and at the most fundamental level it is about your right to privacy, and the right to follow whatever course you as an individual want to follow without necessarily guaranteeing that that path will agree with the aims of the state or any individual or group within Canada (short of course of violating the rule of law based on existing laws).

Click on the link below to access a 15 minute long interview Chris Hedges. Hedges is an author, activist, and journalist. He has some important things to say with respect to how we might safe-guard democracy.

Dispatches from Europe

In May of 2015 I led a group of students on a tour of Western Europe. The theme of the tour was Canada and the world wars. We visited a host of cemeteries, took part in a special Remembrance Day ceremony at Ypres, walked on Juno Beach, and visited Vimy Ridge. The following are my thoughts as they occurred to me a couple weeks after returning home a man more appreciative of his country’s contributions to world peace.

IMG_3278Berlin, Germany
Walking in Berlin at midnight alone was an eye opener. The buildings constructed by the Nazis were basic, grey, concrete, imposing structures. I imagined the sound of jack boots echoing on pavement and the sounds of yelling. I actually quite liked Berlin for the most part. I would be more likely to revisit Berlin than Paris. I enjoy walking in new cities by myself; it sort of feels like going on an adventure. I did the same thing in Washington, D. C., Montreal and Ottawa but didn’t get a chance to do it in Amsterdam, Ypres or Paris. I wish I could visit (almost) every city and remote place in the world. There’s so much to see but so little time to do it. I got to reconnect with a former student from Germany who I’ve maintained a correspondence with for the better part of seven years; we went to a café and had a great conversation about life and such; she is a brilliant young lady who can rest assured that her English is still top notch.

I’m not talking too much about some of the historical sites we saw because I don’t want to trivialize them. I will say seeing the poles at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was IMG_3241eye opening. I remember seeing pictures of prisoners hanging from short stocks jutting out at an upwards angle from these very poles. Their hands were bound behind them and they were hung from the ropes, their shoulders dislocated. That was a messed up thing to see along with the actual ovens where bodies in the thousands were burned. I thought I would be more emotionally affected by the ovens, etc. when I saw these particular sites; instead, I was more affected by walking along a simple perimeter road seeing the buildings housing the camp’s SS guards. The SS were bullies. I don’t like bullies.

 Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Dutch whistler. On the train to Holland from Berlin some bespectacled, scarf wearing fashion aficionado kept blowing on my neck while whistling as we stood in line to order food in the dinner car. I would move forward to escape his creepy gale and he’d edge ever closer. I moved so my wife was in between myself and the whistler. I’m not sure how she tolerated it. I chuckled as he kept whistling.

The people in Amsterdam really, really, really, really like their bikes. Pedestrians and cars yield to cyclists. The bikes they rode were of the Wizard of Oz mean lady “I’ll get you and that little dog, too” variety. Functional bikes though ugly.IMG_3316.JPG

Amsterdam was my favorite city that we visited. I will return there someday I think. Lots to see and do; lots of character and characters. The teenage boys in my group were amusing: they innocently asked where the red light district was….you know…so they could avoid it and all. Oh, I got to visit the residence of one Anne Frank and one Rene Descartes. The Anne Frank house presented a meaningful experience. Anne is one of my heroes because she was such an optimistic person despite the circumstances she found herself in (she was also completely brilliant).

Speaking of red light districts I recall hearing how the people of Holland loved Canadians for helping free them from the Nazis during World War II. Yet, not a single beautiful Dutch woman kissed me in thanks. What gives? When I go back I will have to drape myself in a Canadian flag and see what happens. Supposedly if you show your passport at a bar you get free drinks. I didn’t try this. And there were some interesting stores (one of which had the hugest bong I have ever, or will ever, see). I’m so worldly.

Ypres, Belgium
It was interesting to be thrust in to situations where I had to communicate with people who spoke little to no English (I, regrettably, do not speak a second language). In Ypres I went in to a store to buy some gum. I couldn’t find where the gum was kept so I asked the cashier, “Do you have gum?”

An honest enough question; however, he didn’t apparently know any English. So we stood there dumbly together listening politely to metaphorical crickets. I mustered my best French and declared, “J’ameppelle Canadian.”

Not sure what I thought that would accomplish. (I suppose it was better than using my one other fall back phrase I learned from grade six French class, e.g. “Guy va à la bibliothèque.”)

I followed up by making some chewing and blowing gestures. Luckily he figured out what I wanted (fortunate for me because he might have interpreted my blowing gestures in some sort of unintended way…).

IMG_3544Vimy Ridge, France
I took maple leaves from the ground from all of the Canadian battle sites we visited. I am going to combine them with leaves I took from Ottawa during a trip I took last year and make some sort of collage for my boys when they graduate from high school. I also have some sand from Juno beach and a small piece of chalk from the floor of a Canadian constructed tunnel at Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge presented a powerful experience. The cool thing is every member of the group received a Vimy Pilgrimage medallion for going there; and it was a pilgrimage in every sense of the word. I took advantage of a photo opportunity—where everyone in the group was sitting together on the steps of the monument—to explain why the site was and should be considered so hallowed to a Canadian. Vimy was the site where the Canadian Corps accomplished the impossible, i.e. it did what Britain and France failed to do which was to take the ridge away from the Germans. The Germans regarded their position on Vimy as basically impregnable. Canada’s accomplishment gave it international recognition from both allies and enemies. We became a nation on April 9, 1917.

Paris, France
During my final night in Paris, I was walking with the group and noticed some man pushing around someone who appeared to be his girlfriend; it was all quite public. I wasn’t impressed with the man and the lady looked me square in the eye for assistance. My immediate instinct was to embarrass the man by drawing attention to him and/or finding a gendarme. Then I got a weird feeling. She broke his grasp and ran away (but not convincingly).

He sauntered after her catching her near the entrance to an alley. I followed a little ways and they started “fighting” again. Then my spidey sense kicked in. I felt like they were staging the episode and they were trying to lure a Good Samaritan type in to a vulnerable position. I backed off and rejoined the group. I hate the thought of being one of those apathetic people who stand by and do nothing; then I reminded myself I wasn’t in Kansas (so to speak). Paris is as dangerous a city as any and the couple just seemed to be pretending.

IMG_3882The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris was a sort of intellectual home coming for me. The bookstore has been around for nearly a century and many intellectuals and writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Elliot, Hemingway, Ezra Pound) and philosopher types (Sarte, de Beauvoir) worked, read, and convened there. This was the one place in Paris I really wanted to see (having read about it in William L. Shirer’s autobiography).

The store had some interesting nooks and corners; people from around the world left notes for other travelers. The notes I read filled me with a great deal of optimism and hopefulness; there are so many bright and beautiful people out there; which makes me wonder: where are they when it comes to religion, politics and economics?

I rummaged through shelf after shelf, floor after floor of old books. I finally settled for a book on neuroscience by Sam Harris. I tried to get in to the antique bookstore adjacent to Shakespeare and Company. I entered this store and was turned away; the store had closed and I left defeated by the clock. I wanted to buy a rare edition of anything. When I go to Italy I will fulfill this need.

Paris is well-known for pick pockets. One of the students in the group was assailed by three Oriental ladies with red gloves who diverted his attention, divided him from his friend, and then quickly fondled him looking for a wallet or some such thing. He wanted to kick the one lady who fondled him down some steps.

The day after we left Paris the police conducted a huge operation arresting a bunch of Romanians who were stealing from tourists and then investing the proceeds in to real-estate at home. The average pick pocket makes about 4,000 Euros a day (this translates to over 4.5k CDN). That is pretty lucrative. So in the spirit of pick pocketry I kept all the students on their toes by pick pocketing them whenever possible; they returned the favor. It was amusing…until it got annoying. I really should think these things through sometime.

I made a good friend in our tour guide (Mickey O’Reiley). His name makes him sound outrageously Irish but he’s actually English. He and I spent a lot of time talking philosophers, history, current events. If for no other reason, I’m glad I went on the trip to get to meet him. He’s easily one of the coolest people I’ve met (funny and intelligent). We laughed a lot. I suspect I found something of a kindred spirit (and when I find such people I tend to ascribe a great deal of value to them). Perhaps I’ll return to Berlin to visit him some day. At least I hope so.