Thursday, December 26, 2013

Solidarity Forever?

These days, so many right-wing governments are making attempts to take power away from unions, supposedly to save money and give businesses more flexibility in difficult economic climates.  While the political right has never been greatly interested in the rights of workers or the strengthening of the lower middle class, it is interesting that the idea that unions need to be curbed is getting more traction in the general public - even among those who are not wealthy themselves.  Are people simply more gullible or has something actually changed either in society or in the way unions function?  And are unions still important or relevant in today’s society?

Before we get into this, there is an additional matter where I suppose I should have to tread carefully.  I am currently working full time and my workplace is not unionized.  I want to make it clear from the start that anything I say about the benefits of having unions or exploitation at non-union workplaces has nothing to do with my own experiences, as I actually have a very responsible employer that treats employees very well.

Back to the questions, I would actually answer “yes” to every part of those questions.  While I don’t really think people have become stupider or more naive, the news sources upon which people rely have become more partisan and less honest.  Of course the prime example is Fox News.  They have a ridiculously obvious political agenda that influences every thing they broadcast and for some reason some people still trust them as a news source.  How else does one explain that a majority of people claim to be against ObamaCare but are in favour of everything it does?  So in this environment, if a broadcaster such as Fox News says that unions are destroying America people seem to believe them.  Now, they may claim that while their opinion and commentary shows may have a particular political viewpoint, their news is still fair and unbiased as all journalism is supposed to be.  But any serious media watcher will see that the choices of what to cover and the language used in the coverage are clearly designed so that the viewer will draw a particular conclusion.  And that is even more dangerous since the viewer will be more likely to believe the news to be trustworthy and unbiased.  So a news story about a union dispute that puts all the focus on increasing demands from the union against financial hardship of the company may be a very selective reading of the situation but will draw a viewer to an inevitable conclusion of who is right and who is wrong.  This is incredibly dangerous for the credibility of the news and journalism, but that is another topic in its own right.

To the next question, has society and/or unions changed? I believe it has, but that may simply be a matter of time and short memories.  But I think an important factor is the virtual disappearance of employee loyalty to a company.  It used to be a person would work with the same company from graduation until retirement.  During that time they would receive a series of promotions and a secure pension on retirement (often owing much to union involvement).  In exchange for all that expense, the employer would have exclusive access to the skills of that employee.  Now jobs are far more transient.  An additional side effect of this is that very few companies want to put significant time and money into training, especially since those precious resources they invested in will in all likelihood leave in a few years and join their competitor.  There is so much more to this issue, but this will get me too far off track.

Have unions changed?  Once again, yes.  Unions began due to concerns for worker safety and basic compensation and human rights.  Horrific industrial accidents in overcrowded factories were commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generating public desire for an organized labour movement.  With the factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, we see this very scenario at work 100 years later in the developing world, that now seems to do all the manual labour for those of us in the west (and that is where all the union jobs went).  It was very hard to get unions going, almost everyone involved was accused of being communist (not that many in the labour movement weren’t in fact communists) and violence and intimidation were incredibly common tactics to discourage unionization.  And about the presence of Communists, a lot of that can be attributed to the intimidation and use of force weeding out all the moderate labour organizers leaving only radicals, many of whom were communists.  But once unions became a reality, things did change a bit.  To safeguard the gains that were so hard-fought, union leadership sought control of the political process, to make sure they had a government champion just like the employers.  By the time a large proportion of workers were unionized, the biggest unions had tremendous amounts of money from union dues.  Of course these are needed in case of large, extended strikes which would need a war chest, but when the reserves get so large, it attracts the interest of big greed, and, more problematically, organized crime.  Even without this issue, there are additional reasons unions have been associated with greed when their initial purpose was to stand up against greed.  It likely again comes down to substantial union dues that are collected as unions merge and become larger.  You now have union presidents and other executives within unions that are extremely rich individuals.  Some even become involved, like executives in other fields, in corruption and greed.  This gives the impression that unions are no longer true to their original purpose.  Furthermore, the “unions” that represent professional athletes that make millions going on strike to get more money from billionaire owners hardly generates sympathy or support for the union movement as a whole.

But now to the final question:  are unions still relevant or useful?  Absolutely.  And this does not only apply if you ascribe to socialist ideals about even distribution of wealth as the benefits of unions are not limited to increased compensation for the working class.  And there are benefits even to those workers who do not work in a unionized environment.  That is because one of the great successes of the labour movement was, as I mentioned above, more progressive and humane labour laws and increased regulation related to worker rights and safety.  After disasters like factory collapses, there have historically been increased demands for union representation, so if there are company-wide issues, a worker can have a group that represents every employee make the complaint, rather than raise it individually at risk of their job.  Often union-based campaigns for better condition extend beyond the immediate company in the form of legislation that affects other workers as well, whether unionized or not.  And of course if a large segment of an industry is unionized and thus likely receiving higher pay, competition will likely push non-union wages higher as well.

Also, when employees have better benefits and working conditions, they are likely to be happier and, as a result, become more productive generating more income for the organization.  Now good employee morale and resulting high productivity can occur outside of a union environment, but such a situation is out of the control of the worker;  the conditions of work are entirely dependent on the goodwill (or lack thereof) of management.  Good management will create a strong company where people are paid well, have benefits and have good morale without needing a union.  An example of such a company is Canada’s second airline, WestJet, where the employees are not unionized.  Instead, all employees receive shares in the company and thus are all part owners.  In contrast, their competition, Air Canada – which was once the national airline – has mainly unionized workers and there has been one labour dispute after another and morale is generally understood to be somewhat lower.  Yet there is little discontent at WestJet.  Another strong, though smaller, non-union company, is the one I work for.  They really seem to care about employees, the benefits are certainly acceptable, and there are opportunities for advancement.  However, in another situation workers may be exploited at every turn if a union is not behind them.  Usually this scenario does not create a strong company, but they can still be successful based on factors other than their workforce.  Walmart is the prime example.  Their mistreatment of workers is legendary by now, yet the company is a remarkable success, mainly due to their supply chain and the low prices they can offer as a result.  I have so many issues with Walmart it could fill another full post (maybe I’ll write it) but in terms of labour, this would seem like a situation where only a strong union could improve things, since management is not inclined to provide anything not required by law (and even then sometimes not).  Also their workforce is so large that only a single organized unit could be an effective influence on the company to actually provide any more to their employees.  If a few workers at a few stores (or even all of one store) were to walk off the job, they could easily be replaced.  But if all of them act together as one, that might bring some concessions.

So where are we?  It seems, unfortunately, that we may almost be back to where we started in some industries, where there is great hostility to unions but a great need out there, due to poor working conditions.  To make matters worse, the unions that are established have in many cases apparently lost touch with their overriding purpose and seem more interested in consolidating power, both financial and political.  Also, as unions have traditionally used seniority as their guiding principle instead of merit, many employers – and workers – see a union workplace as one where inertia and incompetence are rewarded.  When unions get large, the bureaucracy also increases, leaving a situation where some workers feel they can get more effective results by approaching the employer directly than by going through the union, especially since some may actually see the employer as more understanding and responsive than the union!  Clearly something has gone wrong in this scenario – the whole point of a union was supposed to be to look out for the needs of the workers.  When the union is no longer doing that, their perceived usefulness is severely limited.  Even worse, this disinterest in union representation can play right into the hands of greedy business operators who can convince their employees that they don’t want a union and then proceed to cut away pay, benefits, and opportunities to air grievances.

Obviously something needs to be done, but what?  Regular readers of my blog should know by now that I’m not one that provides that many answers.  I blog about topics where I have questions myself, so it is a bit much to assume that I can also provide answers to the questions in my own mind!  What I might suggest is that unionization really does need to come back, but I think it has to be a rethought and renewed movement that takes into consideration the priorities and values of modern workers, and also is able to adapt to the present day economy, where there is less manufacturing and more service-type employment.  The trend of more temporary and contract work should also be addressed, perhaps as a union dedicated to those workers or as a force trying to reverse the trend.  Again, I don’t really have answers and even the suggestions are very general and not fully formed, but this is a complex issue.  What do you all think about this?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On Forgiveness, Part 3

And, now as promised, the remainder of my reply to The Sunflower and my analysis of forgiveness.   Where we left off, I had finished explaining there is really no way that the dying Nazi can be forgiven, as murder is unforgivable and there might be good reason to doubt the sincerity of his remorse.  Where we left off, I was explaining how deathbed pardons seem insincere and inappropriate to me. 

Why then is this sort of pardon considered acceptable by some?  This seems to be something found often in Christian tradition, where deathbed confessions and conversions are frequently performed.  There also seems to be a popular mythology in Christian traditions that one does not lie when about to die, so confessions made at that time are bound to be honest and come from the heart.  I would firmly disagree with that notion.  Death is something many are greatly afraid of, especially if one believes in an afterlife where God will judge their actions in life.  If what they have done will be likely to lead to eternal condemnation they will want to do anything they can to improve their standing, even though when death was not staring them in the face this was not considered a priority.

Christian traditions also seem to explain why many think this Nazi should have been forgiven.  In this area I do not have as much expertise, but I think this stems from the teaching that forgiveness is the greatest virtue that every Christian should practice.  In general, I do not disagree, but this leads to something more problematic.  People are extolled as highly virtuous for forgiving the most heinous of acts, as though the ability to forgive the worst atrocities shows how pious they are and how good a Christian they are.  This happens often in the absence even of a request for forgiveness from the guilty party, let alone true evidence of atonement.  This generates the notion that forgiveness is an act that only has impact upon the victim – it is a way for them to heal and move on with their lives.  If you look at the comments on part 1, I believe this is what Scottie and Randy are referring to when they speak of forgiving.  Not forgiving is not the same as holding a grudge.  Carrying the hurt around can absolutely be emotionally and psychologically damaging, but it seems here the beneficial forgiveness that must occur is completely internal – you must forgive yourself for whatever perceived sins you may have internalized.  When you are blaming yourself there is no other injured party (except perhaps loved ones who must put up with you) so this process would not involve another party.  I think this is of particular benefit in the case of a victim of abuse.  There is often a great deal of internalized guilt and self-blame for any number of reasons, which also sometimes manifests itself as hatred of the abuser (or abusers in general).  This is damaging in so many ways and the process of forgiveness is probably a good way to heal from this kind of damage.  But this has nothing to do with forgiving an external guilty party.  They must come to you of their own accord, sincerely request forgiveness, make restitution, and show at least an indication that they have truly changed and would act differently in the future.  The case in The Sunflower completely lacks the latter two elements, and even for the first part, there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of the remorse.

And then there is the very act of relating this litany of horrors to Wiesenthal, an inmate of a concentration camp who had every reason to expect he would soon be killed in such a manner as Karl describes.  Karl’s description of the scene was very detailed and vivid.  As the story was being told, Simon was reminded of a boy he knew in the Ghetto, who had managed to keep himself alive for some time but, in the end, eventually was seen no more and was almost certainly killed too.  It almost seems a form of torture in these circumstances, as several of the published responses have noted.  Wiesenthal is already in a struggle just to stay alive – is it fair that he now be subjected to another graphic account of the horror waiting for him and then be asked to forgive this – or bear the emotional burden of not forgiving and then later doubting himself.  Or possibly even fear the consequences of a refusal.  The confessor is a Nazi in a Nazi hospital and Simon is a Jewish prisoner.  If Karl had asked to have Simon killed, it would have been done.  This too casts doubts on the sincerity of Karl’s remorse.  Can he truly understand the gravity of his crime and be fully remorseful if he does not seem to acknowledge the position in which he places his confessor?  Some have even suggested this is yet another sin being committed as he asks for forgiveness of another.

So this is why Karl cannot be forgiven and, in general, why certain crimes are unforgiveable.  But at this point you may ask:  it all seems quite logical, but isn’t this just a bit too harsh?  What about compassion or sympathy?  Well, thinking of the paragraph just before this, is putting a person in such an awkward and potentially dangerous situation in any way compassionate, and thus merit some compassion in return?  Aside from this though, I did say at the beginning of this long essay that I would get to the issue of sympathy and compassion and how that is different from forgiveness.  Actually I have been talking around that topic for the last few paragraphs, but never directly to the issue.  Those alternate notions of forgiveness I was picking apart also seem to meld forgiveness, compassion and sympathy into one all-purpose “right thing to do”.  The reality is these are all different things, and The Sunflower actually shows how each one of them is separate and, while Wiesenthal does not provide the former, he does provide both compassion and sympathy, on different occasions.  With the dying SS man, Karl, he doesn’t have much sympathy for the man – this is one of his tormentors after all.  Yet he most certainly shows ample compassion.  A fly was buzzing around the dying man’s blinded face, and Simon shoos it away.  Despite the emotional pain this is causing him, Simon still hears Karl out.  And it seems this alone was of benefit to the man, as the next day, when the nurse told him that solider had died, she presented Simon with Karl’s effects, as that was Karl’s wish.  Later, when meeting Karl’s mother, Simon shows sympathy in this instance.  He does feel and understand the genuine pain the woman was feeling and genuinely did not want to do or say anything that would cause her additional hurt.  Here there was compassion too, and one gets the impression that compassion is simply one of Wiesenthal’s traits – he was a very compassionate human being.  So to review, compassion is to treat people with kindness and gentility, and provide assistance, sympathy is to commiserate and to share in the feelings of another, but forgiveness is to actually absolve another of sin or to declare that no further atonement is necessary.  No preconditions are needed to be compassionate.  To be sympathetic, usually some sort of common ground or understanding is needed, but not much more than that.  But since forgiveness is more definite, and more official, there are many preconditions, and the SS officer meets very few, if any, of them.

So this turned out to be longer than many of the submissions to Wiesenthal’s symposium.  But some of the offerings there were quite long as well, and there was a lot to say.  I had it in my mind to write a post about the Jewish view of forgiveness almost since I started this blog more than three years ago.  And it has been two months since I promised part two (or as it turned out, parts 2 and 3) to follow up the book review.  I still don’t know if I’m fully happy with it, but I am glad to have finally written it and to have it posted.  Scottie and Randy, I appreciated your comments on part one and hope you will be able to get through this long piece as well, as it does give my perspective on the issues both of you raised.  It seems now every time I post, I once again promise to post more, and then have another very long delay before the next post.  However I have more ideas now and hopefully more posts will be on the way.  And I got two out of this one so that’s a start!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

On Forgiveness, Part 2

In the last post, I examined the dilemma posed by Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower and suggested that, in my (unsolicited) response, I would explore the Jewish idea of forgiveness, what it is, what it is not, and how it may differ from other conceptions of forgiveness.  I will start with the simpler, easier, answers before moving on the deeper stuff.  Also, my post will be split into two parts so it isn't so much to read all at once.

To answer Wiesenthal, first I respond to the direct question – what would I have done?  Like some others have stated in their published replies, I will not answer, because I have no answer.  That is part of what is so compelling about The Sunflower, the situation Simon is placed in is truly incredulous.  It is almost impossible to imagine oneself accurately in such an extreme situation.  To flesh this out a little more, I can’t answer because I truly have no idea of how I would be thinking if I had gone through what the Jews of the Holocaust went through.  I grew up in an entirely different environment, with little to no discrimination, much less brutality.  I do not know what it is like to be constantly expecting to die in some sudden violent manner.  What I do know is that, if I were face to face with someone who had tormented me and this person asked forgiveness, I would find it quite hard to be charitable.  But even this is not the situation at hand.  This is a person unknown to Wiesenthal but is merely a member of the same group of people who were systematically killing the Jews.  So perhaps I might be able to feel sympathy but, as I will explain shortly, that is not at all the same thing as granting forgiveness.

Moving on, I will briefly discuss the interaction with Karl’s mother.  Wiesenthal wonders if he was right to not tell her the truth about her son, to let her continue believing the lie that he was not a murderer.  I believe he was right in this.  She had lost her entire world, her family, her faith in her country.  To take away her last pleasant fiction would just be cruelty and perhaps more than she could bear.  There is one reasonable counter-argument to this though.  If we extend the principle further, and say in general we should let the “good” people continue believing in the supposed innocence of Nazis who committed atrocities, we are minimizing and excusing, perhaps even denying, what happened and are creating conditions where such evil can reoccur.  To me though, the mother’s situation is a special case.  It was too much too soon.  Also, she had tried to teach her son right from wrong and, from some of the things she said to Simon, one gets the impression she suspected he was not quite as innocent as she hoped.  Perhaps, if the meeting had happened many years later, or if her husband had not been killed too, maybe the circumstances would be different and it would have been the right thing to tell her the whole truth.  But at that time, sitting in the ruins of her bombed out home, with nothing but the memories of her family left – even her family was stolen from her –  and still coming to grips with the extent of the evil done by her country, the truth would not likely have done any good and could have done harm.

Now with the easy stuff out of the way, we move on to the deeper question.  Was Simon’s choice the correct one?  By that, I mean based only on abstract principles, taking what he had written to be the full complete and exact facts of the matter, was he morally correct in not granting forgiveness or would it have been appropriate to grant Karl’s wish?  All the commenters, even those who thought forgiveness should have been granted, take pains to point out this is in no way making a judgement on Simon’s character or questioning the appropriateness of the decision, especially given the circumstances involved.

Based on my view of Jewish traditions and assessment of the purported facts, Wiesenthal was right not to grant forgiveness.  In fact, it would have been incorrect for him to grant it.  It is for a reason mentioned even in the text of the story.  One of his friends back in the camp pointed out that these crimes were not committed against him, and Jewish tradition holds very clearly that one can only forgive sins committed against you.  You are only permitted to forgive in your own name, not in anyone else’s.  From this, the logical extension is quite obvious, and Jewish teachings confirm this:  murder is not a sin that can be forgiven, under any circumstances.  The reason is really quite simple:  the victimized party is deceased and is thus unavailable to hear, much less grant, a request for forgiveness.  As death is the definitive result of all murder, there are no circumstances where murder can be forgiven.  An interesting sidebar here is that Jewish teaching holds that there are in fact two – and only two – sins which are unforgiveable:  murder and lashon ha-ra, a term referring to the spreading of malicious gossip (other scholars have defined this sin as destroying someone’s reputation).  The reasoning why this second sin is unforgiveable is also another reason why murder cannot be forgiven.  That is because, just as one cannot raise the dead, damage done to a reputation cannot be undone.  Why this permanence is important we will see later.

But what about remorse?  Does it not count for something if a murderer is sincerely sorry for all the hurt he or she has caused, to everyone affected?  Yes of course it does, but it does not count for everything.  Without that remorse, forgiveness is never possible but, by itself, that is not enough.  Jewish traditions have a very well established process of forgiveness, called teshuva.  To start with, the approach to forgiveness depends on the sin.  There are two types:  sins against God and sins against people (traditionalists would say “against man”).  Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.  It is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the day when Jews ask God for forgiveness of sins committed against Him.  But the thing about sin is quite often one action would be a sin both against a person and against religious law (i.e. God).  So in the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to atone for all the sins they committed against others, make amends and gain forgiveness, if possible.  Because it is said God does not forgive the sins against Him, until the sins against man have been made right.  With this in mind, even suggesting the SS officer beseech God for forgiveness might not be of much use, as no atonement has been made for the human sins.  And at any rate, this person is not Jewish, so any claim that he may be asking for a religious type of forgiveness is doubtful.  He was raised Catholic, so if that were his aim it would seem confessing to a priest would be more appropriate.

In any event, I’m really more interested in sins against people.  I’m not entirely sure I believe in God and, even if He (or She!) does exist, I believe that interpersonal relations have far more importance as far as morality is concerned.  We have to live with each other, so it is important we do so on the best of possible terms.  The process of teshuva here is well established.  The first step is admitting the commission of the sin to the injured party and expressing remorse.  But the most important part is still to come.  Teshuva means “to make right”.  This quite clearly means that the sin must not only be regretted, but concrete action must take place to correct matters.  If money was stolen, it must be repaid.  If one showed rudeness, one must now show kindness.  If there was an injury, assistance should be provided, as appropriate, in the healing process.  Some form of appropriate restitution is necessary.  Finally, the individual must find him or herself in the same situation and this time choose the correct course of action, and not repeat the same mistake. 

With those steps and requirements in mind, it is easy to see why the Nazi can not achieve forgiveness.  Since restitution, in the sense of undoing the damage, is critical, it is clear that this can never happen in the case of murder.  Try as one might, there is no repair of the damage done.  The only possible form of forgiveness conceivable in the case of murder is to seek forgiveness from the victim’s family and friends – not for the murder itself, but forgiveness for the emotional harm to loved ones this crime has caused.  This is nowhere close to a complete forgiveness but is a possible saving grace attainable by at least atoning for a collateral sin committed as a result of the other, unforgiveable one.  Another mark against the SS officer is that there is no way he could be tested in the final stage of teshuva, not repeating the action in similar circumstances.  As he is about to die, there will obviously not be the opportunity for this occasion.  Because it is never known whether a particular circumstance will ever arise again in one’s lifetime, this final step of teshuva is not necessarily essential to be forgiven, but it is necessary for complete atonement on the personal level.  Put another way, it is acceptable for an injured party to grant forgiveness without this final stage but the sinner would not be considered completely atoned until that final test is passed.  In the SS case, it may seem a non-issue, since this last stage is not essential to the request and there are many other reasons why it cannot be granted.  However, it points to another reason why this request for forgiveness is not appropriate.  Since the full process of forgiveness would require this evidence of changed behaviour, deathbed requests for forgiveness are thus highly dubious and not in my mind appropriate.  While as I just mentioned, it cannot be known whether the opportunity to test resolve will ever arise, if one asks forgiveness when one knows they are about to die, it is a certainty that the last condition will not be completed as it is abundantly clear there would be no time to do so.  It calls into question the sincerity of the remorse, since the sinner knows there is no way their change of heart will ever be put to the test.  And, as with the case we are examining, why was the request not made earlier?  The murders Karl confesses to were committed a year prior and there was no thought of remorse or forgiveness until he is about to die.  

There is still quite a lot more to this post, but I will end it here, since it is already quite a lot to digest.  But this time when I say the conclusion will follow shortly, I really mean it since the second part is already written.  Expect the post in a week from now or possibly sooner.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Forgiveness Part 1

Towards the end of a long ago post about justice, I briefly touched on the concept of forgiveness.  This is a topic I have been meaning to address for some time, dating back to last year and, really, almost back to the beginning of the blog.  I never got around to it then, but I would like to do it now, as it is now the High Holidays and it seems like an opportune time.  This also serves as a review of the book The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, as this book is centered around the nature and limits of forgiveness.  I believe that most people misunderstand what forgiveness actually is and I will attempt to address the issue.  This post will be written in two parts:  the first is the book review, which will lead into my thoughts on forgiveness in the second part.

Saturday September 14 is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, considered by religious Jews the holiest day of the year.  It is described in English as “the Day of Atonement” where Jews ask God for forgiveness for their transgressions in spiritual matters.  But how does this relate to asking forgiveness from other people for transgressions against them?  And how does one respond when someone who harmed you (or someone else – an important distinction) asks you for forgiveness?  And do Jewish and Christian (and other religious and/or secular) views of forgiveness differ?

This is the central theme of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal.  The book (really a non-fiction novella followed by a series of responsa) provides a variety of views and attempts to answer the essential question Wiesenthal poses in the story.  This was originally written in the 1970’s and refers to events in the 1940’s but the themes remain relevant to this day.  A revised edition with new responses was published in the 1990’s.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, Simon Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust and devoted his life afterwards to locating escaped Nazis and bringing them to justice.  In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal recalls an incident while in a Concentration Camp in 1943 when he was assigned to be part of a work detail for a few days cleaning a German army hospital.  In that hospital there was a Nazi soldier near death from his battle wounds.  Apparently he was aware that Jewish prisoners were at the hospital that day and requested to speak to one of the Jews in private, it just so happened that Wiesenthal was the one chosen.  The soldier was obviously severely wounded and had also been blinded.  He was also well aware that death would come soon.  The soldier proceeded to describe an incident a year ago when he participated in the slaughter of a Jewish family by burning the house and shooting anyone trying to get out.  He also vividly described the child, as that image continued to haunt him.  And why was he telling all this to a Jew who was already well aware of these brutal methods and had already suffered greatly and would soon suffer even more or be dead himself?  Well, the soldier new he was about to die and now his conscience had finally re-emerged – or perhaps he was concerned that he would not be heaven bound as a result of this great sin.  In any event he claimed to feel great remorse for what he had done and asked Wiesenthal – as a member of the Jewish people – to forgive the Nazi for this sin.  Wiesenthal was shocked and somewhat disgusted at that request.  At the time, Wiesenthal said nothing and he returned to his work detail and managed to survive the Holocaust.  But this incident continued to bother him.  He wondered if he had done the right thing.  The man seemed to be genuine in his remorse – so shouldn’t he have forgiven him?  After the war, he was able to locate the dead soldier’s mother and went to visit her.  He saw that this man apparently had a moral and religious upbringing and, as far as his mother knew, her son had been involved only in the war and had nothing to do with atrocities.  Wiesenthal ended up not telling her what the soldier told him, leaving her in the dark.  This caused him more psychological disturbance.  Was this the right thing to do?  Was it right to allow her to continue to believe her son was not involved in genocide?  Was this the humane choice or is this dishonesty?  But the final question he poses to the reader is:  should he have forgiven the man?   And what would the reader have done in that situation?

As many of the respondents to the symposium that follows were writers, several stated they would have been pleased to offer a literary criticism of the book, but what he had asked was actually far more difficult.  Wiesenthal’s challenge puts the reader in the very difficult place to imagine oneself in a situation so horrible as to seem unfathomable to many (and for survivors to relive the most horrifying and traumatic time of their lives) and then respond to a request that seems unfathomable.  On top of that they are to critique the actions of someone who found himself in that singular situation.  Quite the task, but the revised and expanded edition contains 53 responses, of which only a selection of the first edition responses are included.  There are Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, and secular commentators.  Many are academics, in theology or secular disciplines such as the Humanities, others are authors.  Others are religious leaders:  rabbis, priests, and even the Dalai Lama.  Most of the Christian commentators are Catholic, in large part because this was first published around the time of the Second Vatican Council, which had a focus on Christian-Jewish relations, and also because Karl, the SS officer in the story, was raised a Catholic so his request for forgiveness came from the viewpoint of a Catholic.  A great many agree Wiesenthal’s decision was the correct one, though sometimes for different reasons, while others believe forgiveness should have been granted.  Others seem to skirt this issue, by evasion or explicit refusal to answer, and instead address another aspect of that central theme.  A very notable contribution that must be mentioned was written by Albert Speer.  Speer was a high-ranking Nazi and a minister in Hitler’s government.  At the Nuremburg Trials in 1946 he was one of the very few to plead guilty and perhaps the only one to publicly acknowledge responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.  He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and, after serving that term and after reading the Sunflower, began a correspondence with Wiesenthal, eventually resulting in a lengthy face-to-face meeting.  In part, his response is a thank you for that meeting, praising Wiesenthal’s remarkable compassion, both towards Karl and later to Speer.  As for forgiveness, he expects none, from Wiesenthal or even from himself.  He acknowledges these crimes are unforgiveable; the best he can advocate is sincere repentance with the hope of receiving understanding and compassion, with no expectation or request of forgiveness.

There are so many big questions raised in this work and are open for commentary.  One of the biggest issues raised is whether Wiesenthal has any right to forgive, as the crime confessed was done to someone else, now dead, and not him.  Can one forgive on behalf of others?  Is forgiveness based on a deathbed confession too easy, a form of “cheap grace”?  And is Karl truly reformed and sincere, and thus potentially deserving of forgiveness, or do his actions still show an unchanged callousness right to the end?  Finally, what of the mother?  Was Simon right to withhold the truth of her son’s activities?  Was this compassion, as most agree, or was it irresponsible?  Stepping away from the incident itself, what, if any, are the limits to forgiveness?  Is there such a thing as collective guilt (such as the guilt of the German nation for Nazi crimes)?  And if so, can this collective guilt ever be forgiven?  Is there a difference between forgiving and forgetting, and can one exist without – or with – the other?  So many different questions and so many views on each question.  It is a general pattern that Jewish respondents tend to say he shouldn’t forgive while more Christians say he should.  Although my views will come next time, I want to note here that this pattern appears have much more to do with different approaches to and definitions of forgiveness between the two religions than from personal or emotional responses.  I will attempt to address a few of these questions, based on how interesting the answers are and how much time and space I want to devote to this.
The Sunflower is a rather intense and thought-provoking read.  To begin with, reading a first-hand account of a concentration camp experience can be difficult and emotional, especially when the writer is as gifted with words and mental imagery as Wiesenthal, since he can actually put you in that awful place.  The book also serves as a partial and limited biography of the author’s life (he wrote a more complete account of his life and work in a later memoir) which gives some context to his decision to bring Nazi war criminals to justice (not to get revenge, as I mentioned in that earlier post).  Next comes his challenge to the reader – what would you have done?  Finally, though his story is now finished, the book is nowhere near its end.  Such a diverse collection of commenters are featured it makes for very interesting reading.  It is virtually certain a reader will strongly disagree with at least some of the opinions expressed, while most likely there will be others that fit perfectly with your views.  Naturally, the cover gives top billing to the more famous, household names that are featured, such as the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu.  However these replies are among the shortest and least involved essays, especially when there are far more detailed offerings from others that truly address the core of Wiesenthal’s question.  There is even another entry that gives a reply from the Buddhist perspective that is more detailed and nuanced than that of the Dalai Lama.

Again, my discussion on forgiveness will come in the next post, but my very short response right now, is that from my view of forgiveness, Wiesenthal was completely correct in his actions, both regarding what he did and did not do.  It is entirely consistent with an appropriate approach to forgiveness and being a compassionate person, despite the unimaginable circumstances.  More details to follow.


A postscript.  In a future post you will see something most interesting in this blog.  It occupied a fair amount of my non-work time this summer and is one reason for lack of posting.  I wrote an article based on the report of my final research project at school and will be published very shortly in an industry magazine.  After waiting a certain required time after publication, I will be able to share it here with you.  So stay tuned.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Restaurant Review – The North Restaurant

This is the fanciest dining restaurant in Barrie and, yes, probably the most expensive. Naturally that made it irresistible to try, even in my financial position.  But I justify it in that I hardly ever eat out so, when I do, I can spend more on that dining experience.  In fact, over my stay in Barrie, I ate twice at the North, and I think the differences between the two experiences, as well as what was common to both events, say something about the restaurant.

I ate at the North at the end of last December, and again in mid-April, as I was getting ready to leave Barrie.  On both occasions I opted for the 7-course tasting menu as, in a high-end restaurant with a top-caliber chef, the tasting menu is the best way to see what a chef truly has to offer and to try the most variety off the menu.  As far as I can tell, the North is the only Barrie restaurant with a true tasting menu.  Other places may have something they call a tasting menu, but is usually a “table d’hote”, a fixed price specials menu, that is often lower priced than the a la carte menu.  The price, at $70, may be steep for a restaurant meal for one but is actually quite a reasonable price for a 7-course menu, as long as the food is sufficiently elevated and the portions are of appropriate size.  In Toronto, you would expect to pay quite a bit more for a chef’s tasting menu.  The two tasting menus I tried of course were different, as the menu changes seasonally and a tasting menu changes often on a nightly basis.

The first menu, in late December, could be best characterized by (almost) flawless execution, excellent flavours, but lacking in cohesion, both within each course, and in the flow of courses.  The first course was bits of beef tenderloin with asparagus.  It was somewhat of an odd choice as a first course and, while good, was not especially memorable.  Next came a trio of carpaccios.  I believe the meats involved were kangaroo (?), bison and kobe beef.  The kangaroo, if that is what it was (it has been a while) was the best and very well suited to both the carpaccio preparation and the garnishes, with the kobe unfortunately being the weakest element.  The third course was a trio of shrimp, each with their own sauce.  The only one that sticks out for me today was the one with a coconut milk and lemongrass sauce, probably the best single bite of the entire evening.  All the shrimp were perfectly cooked, but only that one was accompanied with a truly great sauce.  Up to this point, all courses were very small – only a few bites.  Now tasting menu portions should always be small since you have more of them (we’ll talk more about this later), but to have not increased portion size slightly by the third course is a bit problematic.  The fourth course though certainly was a bit larger.  This was at least the size of a full appetizer (if not a bit larger) and was a sea bass rolled around shrimp and lobster puree, served on lobster risotto.  The bass was very nice and the skin was especially tasty.  I’m not sure the lobster was necessary here, as the shrimp overpowered it, but everything was correctly cooked and was very flavourful. 

 The fifth course was the intermezzo, a small palate cleanser, most often a sorbet, that prepares you for the main course.  In this case it was an apricot sorbet, which I am pretty sure was made on premises.  It was an extremely good sorbet, but not sure it was the most appropriate for the purpose.  Having chunks of fruit in a sorbet is great for a sorbet served for dessert and makes the overall product much better, but may not be the best choice for cleansing ones palate.  Finally the main course was a full size main course, which was necessary given the small size of most of the other plates.  This was beef tenderloin with veal sweetbreads.  The beef was cut a bit strangely, which did not make for the most even cooking, but the sweetbreads were good and the sauce was very tasty.  Finally the dessert was actually quite memorable.  This was banana sushi.  Yes, banana sushi.  This was a cold preparation with nori wrapped rice with banana in it.  There was also a thick chocolate sauce smearing the plate which was a good match, but what made the dish was a small sprinkling of sesame seeds, which reinforced the sushi aspect and actually did match with the chocolate and banana (a classic pairing on its own).  

 This was a Sunday night the day before New Year’s Eve, so the chef was off that night and the sous-chef was in charge.  I did get a chance to meet the sous-chef and talk with him for a bit.  I discussed my impressions of the menu and mentioned in particular the apparent lack of a clear progression to the meal – there should be a logical flow from course to course that makes the entire tasting menu a cohesive meal.  Another issue I had with the entire meal was a noticeable overuse of reduced balsamic vinegar.  This intense sweet and sour syrup made by boiling down balsamic vinegar and (usually) adding sugar is meant to be an inexpensive substitute for true aged balsamic, which ages for decades and reduces naturally through evaporation.  Since the taste can liven up many things, and it looks striking when squiggled on a plate, chefs have been known to overuse the stuff.  This had clearly happened here.  It showed up in places it had no business being, like the carpaccio dish, even a few dots on the plate on that shrimp dish.  And in a dish where it was appropriate, like the main course, they used a substantial amount, probably too much.  This was another issue I discussed with the sous-chef.

If I were to have written the review based on this dining experience alone, I’m pretty sure the impression I would have left would be somewhat negative, which is unfair as I actually did like the food very much.  By most standards this is an excellent, sophisticated restaurant with exceptional food.  However, since they offer a full tasting menu, I judge them by considerably higher standards, as they are now placing themselves in direct comparison with top restaurants in Montreal and Toronto.  So on my last evening in Barrie before coming back home, I returned to the North.  This was a Saturday night in April, and both the chef and sous-chef were in the kitchen.  This time the experience was quite different.  These descriptions will be more detailed as this was more recent.  Starting with the first course, right away the portions were larger.  While I did feel the portions last time were slightly small, they may have gone too far in the other direction. 

 The first course was prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with pesto and a napa cabbage slaw, which worked very well, especially considering wrapping seafood in prosciutto can make it difficult to eat, but that was not the case here.  Like my previous visit, very well executed – but this time there was something noticeably lacking from my earlier visit: a logical progression to the meal.  Lighter courses were served before heavier ones.  I do not recall precisely the second course (possibly scallops? – I took pictures throughout this meal.  They have served nicely as a memory aid after all this time but I forgot to take a picture of this one). 

Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with napa slaw

 The third course was something I feel is almost an essential for a top tasting menu – seared foie gras.  Foie gras is often paired with something sweet, like dried fruit.  The pairing this time was a bit more unusual but still very effective.  It was served on a base of lobster risotto and topped with caramelized onions.  A little excessive to be pairing rich with rich but somehow it worked.  The peas in the risotto were especially helpful providing that necessary sweet element.  Next came the fish course, sea bass served over citrusy lentils, with asparagus.  Once again, the bass was expertly cooked, but the citrus flavours actually made the lentils the star of the dish, playing perfectly off the fish. 

Seared Foie Gras with lobster risotto
Sea Bass with citrusy lentils

 As before, the fifth course was the intermezzo, that same beautifully made apricot sorbet, this time served on a plate drizzled with fruit coulis topped with dusted cocoa powder.  While fruit coulis would not normally be smart for an intermezzo (too sweet) the bitterness of the cocoa powder cancelled that and actually contributed to cleansing the palate.  The one improvement would have been if the earlier courses were a little smaller.  As you can see, this fish course was pretty much a full serving.  The result was that, by the time the main course arrived, I was pretty much full.  This was quite unfortunate as the main was, for me, a real prize.  This was a wagyu beef striploin steak (wagyu is the breed of cattle used to produce kobe beef – the difference is these cattle are raised in North America and do not get quite the same over-the-top treatment as in Japan.  And in keeping with the large portions this was a full main course size.  As one would expect, this steak had a lot of fat in it, but the beauty of this type of beef is that it doesn’t taste like you’re eating fat; it tastes like an explosion of juices and richness.  If I had not been as full, I would have been able to finish it all at this perfect state of doneness.  Still, I was able to take it home and it made quite the decadent breakfast the next day.   

Wagyu striploin - so good!

After taking some time, I was however able to finish dessert, though I didn’t think I would be able to.  This was helped somewhat by the fact the dessert was on the lighter side, mostly mousse and custard based.  There was a mini banana cream pie (they like bananas here!) served in a crispy phyllo cup topped with bruleed banana (very good).  In the middle was their version of tiramisu.  The coffee-infused whipped cream was very nice but overall that did not quite work in its miniature format.  But the biggest problem with this element was the pulled sugar garnish.  Sugar decorations should be delicate and brittle, but this had the texture almost of taffy – it had probably been sitting around in the humid kitchen for some time after being made, reintroducing moisture.    Though somewhat heavier, the best of all was a spiced fudge cake.  Very rich and smooth with the spice provided a much needed lift.

left to right:  fudge cake, tiramisu, banana cream pie

Once again, execution was again very close to perfect and the flavour combinations were well thought out, exciting and bold.  I was also impressed to see the use of the previously ubiquitous balsamic reduction was much more restrained; it was only used on those dishes that could genuinely benefit from its presence.  The same sous-chef was there again that evening but, this being a Saturday night, the chef/owner was there as well, though he was not in the kitchen the whole time.  He spent part of the time entertaining some friends and/or colleagues and part of the time supervising the kitchen staff.  His presence likely meant he had set the tasting menu, whereas it was probably up to the sous-chef last time, and the difference showed in the thoughtfulness of the progression.

Though the food is the centre of the dining experience here, the other aspects should be addressed as well.  When dining alone, I often sit at the bar.  This is what most restaurants prefer as any of the tables can accommodate at least two people and seating a single diner there represents loss of revenue.  I like to do this anyway as it allows for more observation of the service, since ordering stations are often in the area and servers have to go to the bar to get their drink orders.  At the North there is an additional benefit, as the bar is next to the kitchen, which is open on the side adjoining the bar, so I have not just a view into the kitchen but also an unobstructed view to the line, the actual cooking space.  

 The overall ambience is refined and very nice as well.  It used to have a corner lot in a somewhat bad area of town.  They had recently moved (though only to next door) onto the intersecting residential street into what probably used to be a (possibly) historic house.  Their old premises are still standing and I think they use it for storage and it is clear the atmosphere there was less refined than their current surroundings.  Even the move of just a hundred metres or so took them off the main street and thus reducing the perception of a “bad area”.  A refined restaurant must have refined service.  On my first visit service was very friendly but slightly lacking in polish, especially on the part of the bussers (the person who most often brings the plate to your table – if it is not your server it is not a waiter at all).  Yes this was a tasting menu which changes daily and it was a slow night, but the busser could not fully explain the elements on the plate, a must for complicated presentations with unusual combinations.  I even asked what fish was used on the fish course (the primary item on the plate) and she had to go back to the kitchen to ask.  She was probably inexperienced and, since I had no such issues on the second visit, this was either an isolated instance, or an issue that has since been resolved.  The wine list is fairly good with a reasonably wide selection of wines by the glass, both imported and local (by which I mean from Niagara.  There are no vineyards in the Barrie area).

While I have discussed many things that could be improved and found fault with several things, I want to stress that overall I was very pleased with my experience and would recommend this restaurant without hesitation.  It is just that this is a high end restaurant which, for me, comes with some more demanding expectations.  And given that they come close to the quality of a big-city restaurant tasting menu, $70 is exceptional value for money, especially in a menu that features foie gras and wagyu steak.  Also, I shared my criticisms with the kitchen on my first visit and noticed a marked improvement on the return visit, so likely they will continue to improve and already great restaurant over time.

The North Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Spaghetti Bolognese

I can’t believe the blog has gone on this long without posting this recipe, the very first savory meal I ever made by myself.  I don’t actually remember when that would have been but somewhere around age 12, possibly a little later and definitely before I was 14.  And this is a dish I have made ever since.  It was my mother’s specialty but now when we have this meal as a family (and I am at home) I am always the one who makes it (which isn’t usually the case for other family favourites I now make myself).  This is likely a dish most home cooks make with at least some regularity, especially if they are cooking for children (what kid doesn’t like spaghetti?).  But I really think mine is better.  Like many of my dishes it does take some time to make but, like many of the dishes I post here, it is not all that difficult or particularly time consuming.

3lbs ground beef
2 onions
Olive oil
1 head of garlic (you can use a little bit less)
1 green pepper (optional)
Mushrooms (optional)
Carrots (very optional)
2-3 cups tomato sauce (or 1 can San Marzano tomatoes)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tbsp rosemary
2 tbsp thyme
2 tbsp oregano
2 tbsp basil
1 tsp cayenne (or to taste)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp cinnamon
1 piece parmesan rind (or about ½ cup grated parmesan)
½ cup red wine
Spaghettini or Spaghetti

There are many options possible for this recipe.  One thing I have done at times is to add some bacon to this.  When I do, I add about ¼ cup of chopped bacon to the pot at the very beginning and cook until the fat is rendered out, then use the bacon fat in place of some of the olive oil and proceed with the recipe.  Also, there are many vegetable options that you can use, just keep in mind this is not a vegetable-based sauce, so the vegetables should only be an accent.  Aside from the onions, none of the vegetables are actually required and others could be used instead.  If I happen to have mushrooms and green pepper in the house I will usually use them in this.  I know that carrots are very frequently used in Bolognese style sauces, but they would need to be diced very fine or grated in, and I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.  Zucchini might be another good option here.

Dice the onions and mince the garlic.  Saute the onions on medium heat in olive oil, along with the green peppers, if using.  When the onions have softened, add the mushrooms and continue to cook until mushrooms have cooked.  Then add garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant.  Then add the beef and brown/cook it (in most pans, with the quantities in this recipe, the meat won’t really brown – too crowded – but that doesn’t really matter here, you just need to get the meat cooked).  When all the meat is cooked, add the tomato sauce and paste, mix well.  Then add salt and all the herbs and spices (I typically use dried herbs for all the herbs called for here.  Yes, I realize many, if not most, chefs consider the use of dried basil to be completely unacceptable, but in this case I disagree.  It does have enough flavour.  If you have fresh basil absolutely use it, the sauce will be even better, but dried works fine.  The same goes for all the herbs with the possible exception of oregano – even with fresh you should still use some dried).  Make sure to taste for seasoning and balance here.  Herbs and spices vary in strength and they can lose their strength over time.  Next add a piece of parmesan rind.  The way to get this is, once you have finished grating all the usable cheese off a piece of parmesan, keep the rind – in the fridge or the freezer – until needed.  If you don’t have a piece of rind available, just use grated parmesan.  Then add the wine and simmer on low with the lid on for at least ½ hour – if you have more time even better. 

 Meanwhile prepare a large pot of water for the pasta.  Make sure the water is salted generously, as this is the only opportunity to actually season the pasta.  In my view, there is no real benefit to putting oil in the water – if you use a pot that is large enough, the water will not boil over, and the oil will definitely not transfer to the noodles on draining.  When the water is at a full boil add the pasta, making sure to stir it occasionally so it does not stick.  Cook to al dente, most package directions are actually not too far off so if you start checking it maybe 2 minutes before the package says, it should be done.  Drain the pasta right away but DO NOT WASH IT.  Many chefs now tell you to save some pasta water and mix it with the sauce.  While this is generally good advice, this is in no way an authentic Italian pasta sauce.  The proportion of sauce to noodles will likely be way off and a chunky sauce like this is actually not the best type of sauce for spaghetti anyway.  This is really a recipe for meat sauce with pasta.  For that reason, adding pasta water won’t help you much in this instance.  Anyway, put the drained pasta back in the pot and toss with olive oil.  Serve the sauce with the pasta, and garlic bread if you like.

Garlic Bread
While there is some halfway decent garlic butter available in stores, I think it is still worth the effort to make your own.

Fresh herbs (I suggest parsley & thyme)
White wine
Parmesan cheese

Chop the garlic and mix it with melted butter.  Cook in the microwave for a minute or so, then add salt, herbs and wine.  Don’t add too much wine, but it is there to add some acid and some water to soak into the bread and help infuse the garlic.  Use a crusty Italian-style bread – Ciabatta works very well as it bakes wide and flat.  When split, it is perfect to hold plenty of garlic butter.  Brush the garlic butter onto the bread, top with the cheese, and broil with the broiler set to low.  Watch the bread carefully and you may have to rotate the pan, move pieces around, and remove some pieces earlier, to make sure everything crisps nicely but does not burn.  Serve immediately.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Here we go Again…

I know you haven’t heard from me in quite a while, but school had taken every bit of my time and even more of my energy.  So even when I had a little downtime, the desire to do more writing was not there.  Also, some events in the surrounding blog community had some influence as well – specifically the disappearance of Amar’s World.  On my list of links, I have added a link to a mirror site set up shortly after Amar went offline.  I have been reluctant to encourage this, since there may have been a reason Amar’s World was taken offline rather than continuing to stay up with no more posts.  But the overall good the site has done outweighs the other concerns, especially since nobody has requested this site be taken down.  The posts are a great source of hope and possibility so I continue to provide this legacy link.

The academic portion of my studies are now complete and I have begun my internship (a paid one!) in Toronto.  To save money (and quickly get my debts paid off) I have moved back home with my family again.  What this means though, is a very long commute to work every day.  However, the good side of this is that I have three hours sitting on the train every weekday.  I think this is a good opportunity to add writing time back into my schedule, so I will now try to restart the blog.  Just so everyone is aware, one thing you will not see here is anything about my work.  The company I work for has many clients with strong privacy requirements and my employer takes privacy and security very seriously.  My supervisors are also aware of my blog so it certainly can’t be hidden (in fact I used one of my posts as a writing sample during my interview!).

As before, I do not know how frequent my posts will be, or even if this new dedication to my blog will continue, since I have made similar promises before.  And of course I have no idea how frequent the posts might be, so we will all have to just wait and see.

I wonder how many of my old readers are still here and even no I am writing again?  Amar’s Brotherhood used to be my largest reader base and that source has been cut off, in addition to my not posting for 6 months.  Yet my daily hit totals are not much below what they were last year, so I wonder who my readers are.  Regardless, I will continue to write primarily for me as opposed to for whomever I believe to be reading.  Stay tuned for more posts…I hope.