The Myth of the Rational Voter – Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Dipping into Facebook this last week has been repulsive. The thinly-veiled vitriol from all sides on so-called hot-potato issues like the AHPETC accounts and CPF.

Most annoying of course, is people button-holing you after church or at lunch to talk politics. But when asked to explain their anger about current policies or hostility towards the incumbent governing party (the People’s Action Party), they repeat rather selfish complaints (eg. I want money and I want it now) without any constructive alternative solution to the stated problem (probable failure to save for housing and retirement).

And just asking for more substantial views then gets you the accusatory finger of “oooohhh, someone’s pro-PAP”.

[In the spirit of “no link lei”, here are some gratuitous photos of food.]

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohSo it’s Cooling Off Day. One day to think rationally about the choices we are to make at the ballot boxes for the Singapore General Elections 2015 tomorrow.

Amidst the thick haze, there is a cacophony of noise – and it sounds just like lemmings running at full tilt, blinded by biases:

anti-government, anti-authority bias

  • we are unhappy. Therefore, something, or everything!, about the government is making us unhappy.
  • we don’t have the power the government has. Therefore, they are oppressing us and we are marginalised (or we will find people who look like they are victims – single mothers, singles, self-identified LGBT, minority races, low wage earners). They are arrogant and out-of-touch, we are the people who really know what’s going on.

We find it easy to love those who are worse-off than us; who, conspicuously, have less power or money. For no substantial reason, they seem more authentic.

This is why José Mujica, the last president of Uruguay, acquired some international fame as the “world’s poorest president”. His austerity has been an inspiration to a world so engorged with possessions that “de-cluttering” is one of the newest fads. But governing a country requires more than that. New Republic tried to find out if he actually improved the lives of the Uruguayans, and discovered some disappointment. So Eve Fairbanks reflects, philosophically:

It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short…

We’re searching for the one figure who can break the binds. We want someone simply different enough to plot a new direction for a world that often feels full of deadly momentum toward existential decay and harder to steer than the hurtling Titanic.

Because actual experience tends to reveal the limits of candidates’ power, we’re also drawn to heroes with less and less experience, blank slates onto which we can project our fantasies for change.

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi, once the icon for a liberal marketing basket of peaceful demonstrations, democracy, human rights, progressiveness etc? Now that she’s got some political power, the junta smirk as she too has been coming under fire – in the last few years, for her silence about the plight of the Muslim Rohingya in West Burma. Her halo has slipped, tarnished, said some. She’s acting just like a “any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy”, say others. Oh and why not just accuse her of bad faith and say she’s “taken advantage of the perception of her as an unerring statesman and humanitarian and chosen to collude with tyranny against the people who need her most”.

Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan states four other major biases that affect the electorate’s rationality and critical thinking faculties. Courtesy of The Economist:

  • anti-market bias

People don’t understand that the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits. There is the tendency to underestimate the benefits of the market economy.

Most people fancy themselves to be victims of the market to be preyed on by corporations (the “greedy monopolists”), rather than as they really are – participants in the market.

When asked why petrol prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Yet economists nearly all attribute it to the law of supply and demand. If petrol prices rise because oil firms want higher profits, why would they sometimes fall?

  • anti-foreign bias

People underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners. They tend to see foreigners as the enemies.

“Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do. People understand that the local hardware store will sell them a better, cheaper hammer than they can make for themselves. Yet they are squeamish about trade with foreigners, and even more so about foreigners who enter their country to do jobs they spurn. Hence the reluctance of Democratic presidential candidates to defend free trade, even when they know it will make most voters better off, and the reluctance of their Republican counterparts to defend George Bush’s liberal line on immigration.”

black pepper crab, Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

    • make-work bias

People equate prosperity with employment rather than production.

“The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” For an individual, the make-work bias makes some sense. He prospers if he has a job, and may lose his health insurance if he is laid off. For the nation as a whole, however, what matters is not whether people have jobs, but how they do them. The more people produce, the greater the general prosperity. It helps, therefore, if people shift from less productive occupations to more productive ones. Economists, recalling that before the industrial revolution 95% of Americans were farmers, worry far less about downsizing than ordinary people do. Politicians, however, follow the lead of ordinary people. Hence, to take a more frivolous example, Oregon’s ban on self-service petrol stations.”

    • bias towards pessimism

People tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are.

“The public’s pessimism is evident in its belief that most new jobs tend to be low-paying, that our children will be worse off than we are and that society is going to hell in a variety of ways. Economists, despite their dismal reputation, tend to be cheerier. Politicians have to strike a balance. They often find it useful to inflame public fears, but they have to sound confident that things will get better if they are elected.”

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohAnd what does this all translate to at the ballot boxes on polling day?

Caplan says:

“Since delusional political beliefs are free [ie. cost them nothing], the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

“The same people who practice intellectual self-discipline when they figure out how to commute to work, repair a car, buy a house, or land a job “let themselves go” when they contemplate the effects of protectionism, gun control, or pharmaceutical regulation.”

Is a democracy (however defined) better than an authoritarian regime? Is living under an elected government better than being ruled by a sovereign?

At the end of the day, one thing is clear – we are all sinful people (voters, politicians, government types, rebels) who must try to regulate our societies the best we can under the circumstances of this fallen world. But even in the midst of the frustration of it all, we look forward to a day when the whole world will be ruled by Jesus who is God himself, who is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly wise, and to whom we can submit wholeheartedly.

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

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Mom! Slavoj Žižek’s Demanding the Impossible!

Ah, Slavoj Žižek, the delightful pop critical theorist, the “Elvis of Cultural Theory”. In our world of short attention-spans, he still manages to rock it like…err…Madonna?… Causing constant controversy either in misreading other philosophers or in being deliberately offensive (oh, being critical) or in just plain plagiarism, the sweaty-haired pepper-bearded one manages keeps us entertained.

If you were keen on giving him the benefit of the doubt, you’d say his philosophy was complex; if you were critical in the way he proposes, then you’d say he was fluffing.

Regardless, it’s always fun to find gems in his many talks/rambles that incorporate all manner of pop movie and contemporary-event references. 🙂

Slavoj Žižek's Demanding the Impossible, Baguette, comte

Today in Demanding the Impossible:

    • …just as in more confused times, like today, we don’t just need experts. We also need people who will think more radically to arrive at the real root of problems…I believe this may be the main task for today: to prevent the narrow production of experts…Let’s look at [an] example from ecology. When the oil spill in the Gulf Mexico unfortunately happened in the summer of 2010, people quickly needed experts to deal with the animals and other sea creatures. No, that’s not what we need. Indeed, what should be raised here is a much more fundamental question about such problems, problems for all of us which potentially shatter our commons:”What are the risks if we have to keep the oil drill?” “What kind of industry can replace it?”
    • …look at the proletarian position on the internet. It’s clear who will control the internet. What is really worrying, with so-called cloud computing, is a massive reprivatization of global spaces…I think the key is to prevent these clouds from being privately owned. This is not a technological problem; indeed, it is a purely ideological economic decision.
    • …now something new is emerging that I cannot but call “private public space.” When you chat erotically on the internet, even showing our photos or whatever, you feel like you are in contact with the global world, but you are still isolated in a private space. It’s a kind of global solipsism.
    • …when intellectual property is appropriated by private property we have a new enclosure of the commons.
    • Another thing that worries me is the reason why China weathered this financial crisis much more easily than elsewhere. The great danger is that all of a sudden, because of its virtual nature, crisis erupts. What is needed more and more are big radical decisions. In the democracy we have now, it’s difficult. You have to go through all the mechanisms. But I read a book on China…when the fiasco happened in 2008, the banks generally put a limit on borrowing because people were not paying back loans, and it was this that eventually pushed the economy further down. but in China, the communist political power bureau gave an order:”No, you should give people even more credit.” And it worked perfectly. It is somehow very sad to discover that authoritarian power is much more efficient in these conditions. [Comment: well, then it should show that your theories don’t work as you want them to work…or wait, what theories…]
    • …I wonder if this so-called “capitalism with Asian values,” a Chinese-Singaporean authoritarian capitalism, is not a new form of capitalism, which is economically even more dynamic. It’s productive and it functions even better. But it doesn’t generate a long-term demand for democracy. Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken. [Comment: well, if the evidence doesn’t fit the hypothesis…]
    • Somehow all these civil society movements should think not just about organising a big demonstration once a year in Trafalgar Square or wherever, but about engaging in a more active cooperation.
    • Revolutions sometimes do happen maybe in times of chaos. But they usually happen when there’s neither a war nor chaos. Revolutions happen under two conditions: in times of poverty, and when justice breaks down. Yet the two are not necessarily connected. Usually in order to realise that your situation is unjust, you must a least experience a certain ideological freedom. Because the first step toward freedom is to becomes aware of your situation – the situation of injustice and unfairness.
    • I think it’s too easy to say that state power is corrupted, so let’s withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power, etc. But here I’m almost a conservative Hegelian. How many things have to function in order for something to be done? Laws, manners, rules: these are what make us feel truly free. I don’t think that people are aware of this fact. That was the hypocrisy of many leftists there: their target was the whole structure of the state apparatus of power. But we still need to count on all the state apparatus functioning…I think that the left should drop this model of immediate transparent democracy.
      The Stump Jump GSM Wine
    • I think today that the discourse of victimization is almost the predominant discourse when it says that everyone can be a victim of smoking or sexual harassment. today we have an extremely narcissistic notion of personality.
    • …what I don’t like is that you often find an aspect of satisfaction in saying: “Oh, poor Russia. But we know….” I always find it suspicious that, when you sympathise with freedom fighters in other countries, the conclusion is usually like this: “Look at those poor guys, but with us everything is okay.”…I just don’t like this liberal superiority.
    • Walter Benjamin already said: “Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.”
    • As Hegel already know, “absolute democracy” could only actualize itself in the guise of its “oppositional determination,” as terror…So when Naomi Klein writes,”Decentralizing power doesn’t mean abandoning strong national and international standards – and stable, equitable funding – for healthy care, education, affordable housing and environmental protection. But it does mean that the mantra of the left needs to change from “increase funding” to “empower the grassroots”,” one should ask the naive question: How? How are these strong standards and funding – in short, the main ingredients of the welfare state – to be maintained? What would “multitude in power” (not only as resistance) be? How would it function?
    • In his unique book of dialogues, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, Rousseau deployed the wonderful idea of distinguishing between two types of egotism – amour-de-soi (that love of the self which is natural) and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself over others in which a person focuses not on achieving a goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it…a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others.
    • …in France where, you remember, there were car-burning rebels in Paris about three years ago. This I think is a model of today’s form of revolt: a bad one…It was a kind of pure protest without a program. It was, quoting Roman Jakobson in linguistics, the notion of “phatic communication.” The goal is not to pass information but just to signal,”Hi, I’m here.” The point is just to tell you this. There was no positive message of wanting more justice or dignity. It was a big explosion of violence…It is a dangerous situation when young people just have this abstract discontent. [Comment: like all sorts of ego graffiti.]

Interesting critiques, but what would the Lord of the Universe have to say to this?

The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor

The Porosity of Borders, Myth of the Country, and International Student Ministry

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia)

Photograph Kronvalda Park, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Countries. States. Nations. The myth of borders. The conflation of cartography with reality. The assumption of fixed geography separating distinct genetics, cultures, practices, languages, thought-patterns, worldviews.

These folk ballads of uniqueness are what undergird much nationalism, nativism, anti-immigration policies. But how firm are these foundations?

  • first, as political entities, nations are particularly fragile. Any flip through the history books tells us that much;
  • whether co-cumbent with politics or not, the lines that delineate the state too are morphous and its edges, even in times of political stability, fairly vague.
  • thirdly, with international or cross-border trade inevitably comes the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and even cultures. And in this day and age of the internet,
  • And what of the practice of endogamy, enforced by political powers in various places in history? What if no person was truly local?

I was telling a Latvian the names of two guys I knew – Martins and Miroslavs. “Miroslavs” is not Latvian, he’d sniffed, that is a Russian name with an “s” stuck at the end to make it seem Latvian. But poor Miroslavs had been born and brought up in Latvia and called it his home, knowing no other. Would he be welcomed as a local if he’d merely changed his name?

What can Americans mean by being against migrants when most of them (other than American Indians) only arrived on that continent a few generations ago? The same question can be asked of Australians (other than the Aboriginal people), and of the citizens of many countries clamouring for nativism. In fact, if we backed up far enough in anyone’s family, we’d find that they weren’t always living in the same geographical area, and even if by some small chance they were, that little patch of land would not always have been within political boundaries of the same homogeneity.

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

These mittens say they have been “lovingly hand-knit by Latvanian grandmothers”, scoring high on fuzzy authenticity. But what if I told you though the experienced hands that manufactured these were local, the mitten patterns were designed by a Japanese lady living in England, based on Latvian and Scandinavian patterns? Would that make them less authentically Latvian? If you wanted to “buy Latvian”, would these make the cut?

Photograph poster for the performance of Reinis Zariņš, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

You say “čaikovskis”, I say “Tchaikovsky”. And what about “classical music”? One cannot say it is authentically Latvian, though neither can one identify it as the music of Austria or Germany or Italy.

And what of imported authenticity? That is, authenticity that isn’t locally traditional (if that can ever be defined) but is part of an internationally recognised conceptual package?

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

The third wave, specialist coffee movement is a good example. in most countries, it can be in no way authentic in relation to its products: coffee beans being commercially grown in only a few countries. Yet all across the world, these places sell authenticity – back-to-basics, grassroots, homemade, vintage, unprocessed comfort.

Whne came upon Miit Coffee (facebook, Lāčplēša iela 10), it seemed terribly familiar. The coffee counter (with its uncommon Opera coffee machine), the bicycles hung precariously on grey walls, the plaid shirt and beard and thick-rimmed glasses combo, the denim aprons with their assymetrical leather straps, the vegetarian/vegan food menu, the brewing options (espresso, in milk, Chemex, V60, Aeropress), the coffee beans identified by their varietal and place of origin. (The beans were bought from Andrito Coffee Roasting which was founded by former Latvian Barista Champion Andris Petkēvičs. The fact that there was even a barista championship of course indicated the pervasity of this non-Latvian culture.)

Photograph Miit Coffee, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

L the Latvian was amused. E the Singaporean was delighted at the prospect of “normality”. I, not having eaten anything since that bowl of soup a few posts ago, was just plain ravenous. That plate of vegan food was mighty fine as was the coffee, but hey I could be biased.

Now how about international student ministry or international ministry within a church?

To the Galatians, Paul wrote:

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

  • There is an equality amongst Christians that is more than political-correctness. It is an equality because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and all have been saved by the death of his Son.
  • Why is there a tendency then, especially in U.K. churches, to separate the foreigners from the locals if they can all speak the same language? And how would you define someone as foreign or local – by citizenship? By skin colour? If so, would you direct a black American to “the international group”?
  • If it is because of different practices that they are split, then doesn’t God’s word advise that these are all opportunities to show love to each other?
  • How would this church tendency entrench prevailing attitudes of people seeing another with a different accent or skin colour as the Other, the altern?
  • And, in any case, how would this cohere with what has been discussed above?

(About a month ago. a curate from London was a visiting speaker in Singapore. While we were having tea, he pointed to the thick toast we were sharing and asked,”Where did you get bread from? Is it from the Brits?” This was as if I’d gone to London and asked if they’d gotten their tea from the Chinese or Indians. It was probably mere small chat, but it hurt because the mere assumption of alien-ness reinforced the gulf between us, when we should have been brother and sister. I probably didn’t help much, being sarcastic in my reply and mentioning “colonial masters”.)

Photograph breakfast at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph dinner at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px That night, we were hosted by L’s grandparents. Her grandmother prepared a feast for us, then she and her husband retreated to the kitchen. No, no, they wouldn’t want to eat with us – they didn’t understand English, so they would eat, standing up, by the cooker. Much as I appreciated her embarrassment, this was also one of the few times in my life that I’d been starkly reminded that I am first and foremost an Outsider, a Stranger, a Foreigner, an Alien.

Photograph Latvian grandmother's flower arrangement by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

CityNightLine CNL 472 Sleeper Train from Amsterdam to København (Copenhagen)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland ->Amsterdam ->

Photograph piano at the Amsterdam Centraal Train Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
A guy with his hair in a man-bun was on the free piano, masterfully entertaining passengers waiting for their train at the Amsterdam Centraal Station. He was, of course, being recorded from all angles. I watched (and captured) the spectacle for a while before stocking up on food for the CityNightLine CNL 472 sleeper train from Amsterdam to København (Copenhagen).

Photograph Smullers vending machine, Amsterdam Centraal Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
The Dutch love their fast food automatieks (vending machines), the perennial discussion amongst fans is whether FEBO or Smullers rules the day (and more likely, night), with a comparison of their products being couched in such terms as a battle of croquettes.

Photograph tracks, Amsterdam Centraal Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
Down by the tracks, none of the screens listed either the train number nor the correct destination. I was rescued by a kind white-haired man and his Girl-With-A-Dragon-Tattoo deadringer companion. Neither spoke English so there was alot of emphatic gesturing. Turns out the screen listed where the train was coming from (Praha) rather its destination.

Photograph CNL 472 from Basel to Copenhagen by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Safely on board and having shared a bit of banter with two Brit boys next door, got myself ensconced in the top bunk of a 6-bed compartment before we stopped at Emmerich, Germany. The German border police were a fierce lot and hauled a man out of the carriage with his luggage.
Photograph border check at Emmerich by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph CNL472 from Basel to Copenhagen by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
In the morning, I had acquired two compartment-mates, and the passing buildings assured us we were in Denmark. We were an international bunch: one man was a German working in Denmark, and the other, a Dane working in America. The German, even though living in Europe, felt the xenophobia quite keenly. He pointed out a poster of a representative of the Danish People’s Party and spoke of how even Danes with foreign spouses (that is, anyone who wasn’t a Dane, even if they were within the EU – English, French etc) were falling foul of tightening immigration policies.
Photograph compartment mate by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

This was the last CNL 472 service, someone along the corridor said.

All around Europe, the lights are going off on inter-city sleeper trains, and the borders are closing against outsiders.