January 26th, 2010

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the really bad relationship between TTC users and employees

The picture on the left, taken around 10 pm on the 9th of January, got quite a lot of attention.

Rider Jason Wieler took the photograph on his iPhone around 10pm on January 9th at McCowan station and tweeted the image Thursday along with the caption “Yup, love how my TTC dollars R being spent …”

So far, more than 10,000 people have viewed the image on Twitter and many have left scathing comments on Twitter and local blogs.

In an interview with Torontoist, the photographer claims he posted the image with the intention of sharing it with friends, but added he also had the recent fare hike in mind. He also told the local blog he never intended to get anyone in trouble.

Wieler claims he stood by for about five minutes as the TTC employee slept in his booth and some riders passed through the turnstiles without paying.

Hours after posting the picture, Wieler followed up with the facetious tweet “So much 4 keeping a low profile. I guess there’s no hope of me getting a free TTC Pass now.

The image has been widely reproduced indeed, copied from Wieler's Twitter account to addresses all over the Internet, including my own Flickr page. The leader of the sleeper's union, Bob Kinnear, has criticized the photographer for not checking to see if the worker was OK, and it has turned out that the employee has a heart condtiion that apparently contributed to his sleepiness, but still.

This picture went viral because TTC users have tended increasingly of late to see TTC employees as bad employees, as overpaid and underworked people who are quick to be rude and unhelpful to customers while they seek outrageous job perks even as the city's budget strains to cover basic services. That's true to an extent, honestly: Bob Kinnear's seen--rightly, I think--as an arrogant man insensitive to user needs, while the recent recruitment of outside consultants to improve customer service does speak to a real problem. Then again, TTC employees also have a right to feel secure that isn't necessarily being met. In the end, everyone's perceptions are based on their onw limited recall of exceptional events in the employee-user relationship, I suspect, forgetting moments of good or at least neutral exchanges while ignoring the big picture of budgetary pressures that truly hinders the TTC, making it not as enjoyable or productive a service as it perhaps could be.

[LINK] "Hey, remember Richard Colvin?"

CBC's Kady O'Malley writes about what's been happening lately with Richard Colvin, the Canadian diplomat whose information about the possible torture of Afghans detained by Canadian soldiers following their transfer to Afghan government may have precipitated the suspension of Parliament.

Turns out that he hasn't been having much success in getting around what his lawyer, Owen Rees, describes as "the significant obstacles that the Government of Canada has put in Mr. Colvin's way in accessing independent legal counsel and obtaining the legal indemnification to which he is entitled as an employee of the Public Service of Canada."

In a letter filed with the Military Police Complaints Commission earlier today, Rees reveals that the government has "failed to even respond to [their] client's request," which is "a matter of grave concern for Mr. Colvin, as its "continued inaction ... is impeding [their] client's ability to participate as a witness before the Commission with the assistance of independent legal counsel, which is appropriate and necessary given the complexity of the legal issues raised, including the Government's claims of national security confidentiality."

Given all that, Rees writes, Colvin has been left with what seems a not unreasonable conclusion, under the circumstances:

Coupled with the Government's public attacks on Mr. Colvin and his testimony before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan (the "Committee"), our client is left with the reasonable belief that the denial of further legal indemnification is a reprisal for his participation before the Committee and the Commission.

The full text of the letter can be found under the jump. As for what it all means, well -- we might have a better idea of what lies ahead for Colvin, not to mention the currently chair-less MPCC's investigation into the Afghan detainee issue, later this week, when his lawyers will file submissions on the "privilege asserted by the Government of Canada."

Grand. "O Canada" indeed.

[LINK] "The spirituality of Avatar"

I watched Avatar with Jerry last night and, while noting that the perspectives noticed by other bloggers that revealed the story to be substantially a retelling of Pocohontas are most correct, I did enjoy the film: the plot with its science fiction trappings interested me, and the visuals were spectacular. The Search's Douglas Todd has written an interesting essay about Avatar's relationship with the religious philsophies of our own early 21st century Earth.

[Protagonist Jake] Sully learns that the Na'vi practice forms of telepathy and sacred bonding, with both fellow Na'vi and phantasmagoric animals. A Na'vi tells the increasingly wide-eyed ex-marine that there is a "flow of energy" that inhabits everything.

Within this spiritually interconnected eco-system, they reveal the goal of the Mother Goddess is not to "take sides" in any war, but to "protect only the balance of life."

This does not do full justice to the many spiritual themes developed in Avatar, including the Christ-like role eventually taken on by Sully and the Na'vi belief that all people must be "born twice."

But I hope it provides enough background for a debate on whether Cameron is, indeed, promoting pantheism.

Pantheism is taken from the Greek work, pan, which means "all," and theos, which means "God."

It is a doctrine that declares nature and God are identical. Pantheism is sometimes equated with animism, which is often described as the belief that not only humans, but trees and animals, have souls.

I can see why people argue that Avatar preaches pantheism, since the Tree of Souls does serve a god-like purpose and the Na'vi's forest is suffused with spirit.

But it is also quite possible Cameron is trying to develop a more sophisticated metaphysical worldview.

It's one which many Jewish and Christian theologians, and even some scientists, call "panentheism."

Panentheism is a challenging concept. It includes aspects of pantheism, but goes beyond it.

The respected Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology defines panentheism as:

"The doctrine that all is in God. It is distinguished from pantheism, which identifies God with the totality or as the unity of the totality -- for panentheism holds that God's inclusion of the world does not exhaust the reality of God. Panentheism understands itself as a form of theism, but criticizes traditional theism for depicting the world as external to God."

In other words, panentheism rejects a classic church belief that God is a distant, unchangeable Supreme Being, like a monarch. Instead, it teaches that God is in all things, but also transcends all things. Panentheists believe the early Christians were panentheists, in part because they thought Jesus illustrated how God is "incarnated" in the world (which is the definition of the Hindu word, "avatar").

Go, read the rest of the essay and the comments.

[LINK] "Romanian prostitutes flee to Western EU to escape tough laws"

This Times story, while describing a story that's sad in its own right, also speaks directly to prostitution laws which target prostitutes and not their clients, even though the prostitutes themselves are much the most disadvantaged participants.

A survey by Tempep, an EU-funded network of sex industry health agencies, found that one in eight foreign prostitutes in Europe was Romanian, replacing Russians as the main nationality since the previous assessment in 2006.

Speaking from Bucharest, where she recently returned, Ana-Marie said: “The fine for prostitution in Romania is €120 \[£105\] and I would get one almost every night standing on the street. I had no chance of paying the fines and paying the rent and feeding my child. I would have ended up in prison ... In France I can get free condoms and methadone, I can also complain to the police if something happens instead of being harassed by them.”

This week Evenimentul zilei, a Bucharest newspaper, under the headline “Romania top exporter of prostitution”, wrote: “Barely three years after its accession to the EU, the country can lay claim to yet another lofty distinction.”

The newspaper called for a fresh debate on calls for prostitution to be legalised, in line with a proposal by a presidential commission four months ago. That was blocked by an alliance of civic and religious groups including the powerful Romanian Orthodox Church. The result of Europe’s strictest anti-prostitution laws, according to sex workers, is that prostitutes are regularly sent to prison while their clients are hardly punished.

[LINK] "The next stop for the Roma: Canada? "

Reporting from the Hungarian village of Tatarszentgyorgy, the Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders writes about the vicious anti-Roma bigotry in Hungary that seems set to start a mass migration of Hungarian Roma to Canada. If the Canadian governments permits this migration, of course, which, it seems, it won't.

Once or twice a month, three-year-old Mate Csorba disappears from his family house on the edge of a Hungarian village. When his worried relatives find him wandering in the forest, he tells them he is searching for his father and his older brother, who are out hunting.

That is, after all, what his grandmother told him one morning a year ago, after a midnight blaze of firebombs and gunshots destroyed their house on the edge of a rural village, and black-clad gunmen chased the boy's family through the woods and killed Mate's father and five-year-old brother, both named Robert.

“Little Mate had been sleeping in my house when I heard three shots and a window smashing in their house next door,” his grandmother, Erzsebet, said as she surveyed the burned-out ruins. “I heard a car driving away fast, and then saw my daughter-in-law standing and screaming outside, with burns all over her, beside the body of little Robert. I couldn't tell Mate the truth.”

[. . .]

“You can't imagine what it's like when it gets dark here,” Erzsebet Csorba says. “My 14-year-old son sleeps in my bed, he's so afraid of ending up like his brother.” She plans to stay put in Hungary, in defiance of the right-wing militia known as the Hungarian Guard that likely carried out the killings. But many of her neighbours are considering another, increasingly popular tack: Fleeing Hungary, very often to the safety of Canada.

That is why this Hungarian murder spree, and its aftereffects, have become a matter of deep concern in Ottawa, where officials say they are likely to impose visa restrictions this year on Hungarian visitors.

After the killings gained attention last year, Canada began seeing a sharp spike in applications for refugee status from Hungarian Roma families visiting Canada. Hungary is now Canada's third-largest source of refugee claimants, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The Harper government is likely to require Hungarians to make applications for visas at Canada's consulates in Hungary, an expensive process that could draw waves of protest from the sizable Hungarian-Canadian community, many of whom arrived as refugees after the 1956 Soviet invasion.

Officially, the government has no visa plans, but aides said restrictions are likely to be imposed after Hungary's April election, in order to avoid providing ammunition to extremist anti-Roma parties.

[. . .]

In the first nine months of 2009 alone, after the murders in Hungary began, that number increased almost fivefold, to 1,353 applications – and the numbers for the past four months are believed to be even higher. All of the 2009 asylum applications have been rejected. Canadian officials argue that Hungarian citizens are free to live in any of the other 26 EU countries, so are not considered legitimate asylum claimants.

[LINK] "Rising Price of Faith in France’s Shrinking Parishes"

Writing from the French village of Gesté, John Tagliabue explores the various dynamics--falling religiosity, economic hard times, government policies--leading to the demise of so many of France's rural churches.

The soaring steeple, airy flying buttresses and steep slate roof of the 19th-century parish church that dominates this town in western France is — like many other village churches in France — scheduled for demolition, a victim of its size, its condition and, ultimately, municipal budget concerns.

Although the church, dedicated to St. Peter, is arguably the sole architectural jewel in this town of 2,400 people, the town has decided to tear it down and replace it with a new one that will be far cheaper to keep up.

Erected in stages to accommodate 900 people, the formidable stone building has stood sadly empty since 2006. Completing the picture of dereliction, it is surrounded by a wire fence to protect visitors from the very real threat of crumbling stonework.

[. . .]

Across France, villages are being forced to ask hard questions about their churches, many of them deteriorating, as the number of parishioners and priests dwindles and the cost of upkeep mounts.

Béatrice de Andia, the founder and president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, in Paris, estimates that there are about 90,000 church buildings in France, of which about 17,000 are under government protection for their historic or architectural value, giving France the greatest density of religious buildings of any European country. About 10 percent of the protected churches are in perilous condition, she says, because of a lack of government financing for their preservation, as are a far larger percentage of the remaining churches.

“The Church may be eternal, but not the churches,” said Ms. de Andia, a retired government cultural official who founded the observatory in 2006 to raise awareness of the parlous state of the country’s religious heritage. “In the past, these buildings were sacred, but today there is no sense of the sacred.”

[. . .]

The struggle over the future of village churches coincides with a national debate on the issue of French identity, which is taking place against the backdrop of large numbers of Muslim immigrants. And it is complicated by a 1907 measure — when anticlerical government leaders were trying to rein in the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in France — that made all the country’s churches and cathedrals the property of local governments.

[. . .]

The Rev. Pierre Pouplard, 69, pastor of Gesté’s parish church, disagrees. “I see no connection,” he said. “People cling to their church here. Church attendance here is very strong.”

Yet Father Pouplard spoke in the rectory of a neighboring town, which is also part of his parish. For the last 12 years he has been responsible for four village churches, in addition to Gesté, because of a dwindling number of priests. France counts only 9,000 priests today, compared with 40,000 in 1940. He supports the destruction of the church in Gesté and its replacement.

All this might well be particularly notable in France, but the abandonment and physical decay of religious buildings in societies grown increasingly non-religious is hardly unique to France. I wrote in October about this phenomenon here in Canada, and indeed, not a few days ago, blogTO posted a collection of photos about the abandoned Anglican St. John's Convent here in Toronto.