A wise sage once spoke, “Always stay a tourist” — for no one is more adept at analysis and explanation than the occasional and casual traveler. Just recently, I spent a half-fortnight in the Atlantic nation of Portugal, and this brief experience has given me an unquestionable authority on the subject. I find it almost comical to believe that my total lack of Portuguese language ability, ignorance about Portuguese history, and stubborn refusal to read academic works on Portuguese society somehow put me at a disadvantage in serving up sharp commentary upon this wonderful land. Conversely, all that knowledge and understanding would only cloud my general perceptions. Who needs to know what someone is saying, when you can feel out their motives and orientations through the power of imagination!
My travels took me first to the capitol of Lisbon — an adorable “big city” overflowing with ancient neighborhoods and beautiful tile work. I would almost go as far to say that Lisbon feels safer than Tokyo: Besides the occasional hash dealer in Rossio, there were few people who even looked suspicious.
No matter how urban the area, communality takes a central position in daily lives. The Portuguese possess something I call superintimacy (short-lived Wikipedia entry coming soon): Despite Portugal’s rapid economic progress in recent years, its citizens have managed to keep their traditional social networks firmly intact. Whether they walk around the block or take the #33 bus up to the castle, they greet and chat with their neighbors both known and unknown, as if nothing has changed in 1000 years.
How is this possible in the 21st century? The Portuguese are guided by an ancient religious tradition called Catholicism, which dates all the way back to directly after the death of Christ. Unlike the ideological bickering of Protestantism, Catholics value stability, family, order, and ritual. And now with their growing economy standing firmly upon this spiritual base, the Portuguese enjoy something like a socialist capitalism where everyone instinctively helps out everyone else. Furthermore, inter-generational conflict is relatively marginal, thanks to the Catholic rituals of “baptism” and “confirmation” that turn young people into valid members of the community at a relatively early age. And in the spirit of the Eucharist tradition, large families dine together every night — something unthinkable in economically-obsessed nations like Japan.
As we traveled from Lisbon to the walled village of Marvão to the stunningly-preserved Évora, we couldn’t help but think that Portugal has handled modernity far better than its neighbors: McDonalds are rare, and other chain restaurants barely exist. The Portuguese have limited the existence of crass global commercialism to the Algarve beach area — outlet mall hells brought forth by the pasty-white Brits and Krauts living there in retirement. Portugal shames the U.S. and Japan through its careful protection of local culture and traditional architecture. Only the occasional earthquake is allowed to erase the past.
Portugal does not just provide an alternate take on the process of modernization — a brisk stroll into the future while maintaining the “slow life” of the past — but the one-and-only correct take on modernism. With a history of pacifism and a monolinguistic multi-racial harmony, Portugal may just be the most progressive country on the planet.
We Protestant individuals may scorn the communalist Catholic way of life, but Portugal’s existence shames all of us from the Post-Industrial countries. As the inheritors of the Earth, we are failures, and we must embrace the progressive Catholic post-modernism before it is too late.