Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Doctor Will See You Now

Geert Wilders
Originally uploaded by dmatsui
Having met several Dutch friends over the last two days, there´s been one issue popping up in every chat: the success of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders and his party PVV. The question is what explains his growing success and what is the needed response.

In the European Parliament elections Wilders´ PVV grew into the second biggest party winning certain key areas such as Rotterdam and The Hague. These are also the cities with some of the highest numbers of people of non-Western descent. His party has now 4 seats in the European Parliament, which is one more than the Greens, the Social Democrats or the two Liberal parties. He is serious business.

His biggest target are the Muslims in the Netherlands. He has has for instance suggested a 5-year ban on non-Western immigration. He has publicly confessed a hatred of Islam.
Wilders´ agenda is largely similar to many other populist parties. His party is basically built around him as the undisputed leader, he makes a clear distinction between himself and "The Hague elite" and says the country has drifted into an "anything goes" sort of cultural relativism. He calls for tough measures and wants the country to declare openly an Judao-Christian value basis.

In the discussions I have had, I have heard different analysis of his support. I find all of them intriguing as they call for different solutions. As one knows from medicine, one needs to identify the illness correctly to ease the pain. There´s no need for surgery, if the problems are psychosomatic.

Analysis 1: The people voting for Wilders are ignorant and only if they would understand that immigration is beneficial for the Netherlands, we would all be better.
Solution: Isolating Wilders from the other political parties and increasing contact between groups.

Analysis 2: Wilders´ support builds on disappointment on one´s fellow citizens. The people voting for him feel like they have been left behind not only by the government but also the people who are doing better.
Solution: The elite needs to sharpen up and use emotional strategies to build a sense of belonging stressing to themselves and to the disappointed people that we are a whole and that we have responsibility for each other.

Analysis 3: We are in a culture war. Wilders represents a different society model, which gains support from a large part of the society. Similarities can be found from the US on issues such as euthanasia, abortion and race.
Solution: Both sides need to sharpen up their argumentation. Wilders´ great challenge is creating an intellectual basis for his policy as the party matures.

I don´t want to take a stand on the matter apart from ruling out number one. I sense an undemocratic flavour in it and find it disturbingly arrogant. I am all for increasing contact but it cannot start from the notion that the other side is seen as a victim of false consciousness.

In some ways I find the emotional aspect quite appealing. A lot of people are feeling scared even when they cannot actually give the fear a name. And for a person in panic, the newcomer is an easy scapegoat. Large parts of the population feel a risk of losing all their life is based on. We as a society need to take these fears seriously. Fear needs to be tackled not only with rationality but with emotion.

This situation should be seen by all parties as a possibility to be clearer on what kind of future you are fighting for. If we really are in a culture war, it is time for everyone to get more clever, sharper and more active. The good thing is that at least until now this dissent on the current rule is channelling largely through elections.

Despite which explanation one follows, one thing remains. It is all about bringing politics back to politics.

Monday, June 22, 2009


The newspaper has been taking a bad beating lately. On Twitter I get daily tweets on this and that more or less informed thinker stating that in a couple of years the US will only have 2 newspapers left or that the medium as a totality is already beyond saving. It is time to pull the plug, they say.

I understand that argument to a certain extent. Newspapers as they are now are terminally ill. They have allowed themselves to turn into public broadcasters and forgotten that they have a role and responsibility in supporting, inspiring and building a community. They´ve turned into broadcasting media when people want largely the opposite. They have by and large raised themselves above the readers and cut down the return channel.

Building a community does not mean cutting down on journalistic standards. It also does not mean becoming more entertaining or shallow. It means having greater understanding on the people you are serving. Yes, I think journalism largely is a service job. This means newspapers need to take a fresh look on the competencies needed within their staff. Delivering the requested amount of characters on time is just not enough.

Unto Hämäläinen from Helsingin Sanomat has been lately an excellent but rare example of what being a good journalist today means. Whilst writing in-depth, well researched articles for the printed paper, he has hosted a popular yet analytical blog around elections which has gathered a constituency of commentators ranging from the Prime Minister to MPs or regular citizens. This has allowed the newspaper as well its community to gain a better understanding on the various sides of politics.

I would wish that newspapers would take use of the more emotional aspect of why we pay the annual fee. We buy a membership in a community and we wish to be recognised.

I would love them to emphasise that in the era of immediate TV and online coverage, the printed papers do not compete with being fastest but being the most complete and the most reliable. They are like that professor in our family who can explain a complicated subject in a coffee table. They can paint the big picture, show links and the people behind the actions in ways that most media is unable to.

But even more importantly, they have a role in setting the discussions at work, in the families or in the parliament. They introduce subjects to their community - often ones that the community is not expecting. A good newspaper surprises you daily when you find yourself reading something that you did not know that you were interested in.

I mean just from yesterday: ´diversity of Finnish forests´ would not have never emerged to my Google search bar.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Shaken, Yet Still Standing

Yesterday´s elections were quite exciting, I have to say. It is always fantastic and good for democracy when things get shaken. Here a few observations:

- True Finns: Most of Finnish media is making the wrong analysis on this political party. Putting the party leader Timo Soini and his folks in the same category with the Dutch islamophobe Geert Wilders is a misrepresentation of the truth. The policy and popularity of True Finns works much more on the anti-establishment card than on xenophobia. This is quite obvious when you listen to them in debates. The party has a natural attraction amongst poor pensioners or unemployed youth - people feeling abandoned by the illusion we call the welfare state. Taking these fears and this anger seriously is a difficult challenge for the rest of the parties.
And let´s face it: how low would the voting rate have been WITHOUT True Finns? The fact that people wish to express anti-establishment sentiments and disappointment by voting is something we should take joy from.

- SDP: That old poster in the picture tells it all. SDP´s slogan: We will make some noise on your behalf. A political party unable to provide a role for the citizen deserves a defeat. As someone wrote on Facebook today: the problems of this party-turned-institution are the same as the Lutheran Church´s. And it is not saved by recycling Blairite slogans from 1997. Defending the System goes down badly at a time when people are seeking for a sense of involvement and belonging. Yes We Can is not only a disguising slogan for old politics, it means that you actually involve people in making change happen. It is a new way of doing politics and calls for a new way of building trust and communities. If they have the courage, this is a great opportunity for Social Democrats: empowering the people in the margins to be change makers in their own lives.
And let´s face it: we have come far from the 1903 goal on the separation of church and state when the leading man of the Social Democrats is a priest who is not even a member of the party.

- Greens: Good tail wind, have to give them that. I am not really interested in the boxes provided by other parties for the Greens: garden party of the right or the new Communists? This discussion does not really solve anything and is purely an intellectual masturbation exercise of political hacks.
If I would be making strategies for the party, I would try to find ways to diversify the party´s image from the current one: an upper middle-class smart party posse setting themselves above the rest of the society. The Greens should listen carefully to the increasing comments on arrogance and inability to understand other view points. Softening of actions, image and policy might be worth considering.

- National Coalition (Kokoomus): Kokoomus is still the biggest party in Finland although they did not make their target of keeping four seats. The party ran a campaign relying highly on the youthful Minister of Finance and the Minister of Foreign Affairs (neither of whom were running). They ran a campaign focusing on good mood, simplifications and happy-happy-joy-joy - an exemplary campaign of the republic of entertainment.
But the party stumbled in the last weeks when some candidates pushed some content to the surface which did not fit the party line. Cartoon TV ads do not explain away candidates calling immigrants social bums or questioning climate change.
This is the destiny of all parties controlled by spin doctors: there comes a point when you need to realise that you just cannot control it all.

All and all, the results tell a good story. The parties which have invested in their local actions and on bringing new people in did well in these elections. The ones at a loss with their objectives were punished by the voters. This is what we call democracy.

Friday, June 05, 2009

It Doesn´t Take A School

Fist of Fury
Originally uploaded by Jam Adams
Today´s visit to Heureka children´s science centre reminded me that many character problems start occurring way before school. It does not take a school to create a bully.

I was playing with these gigantic soft building blocks with my 3-year-old nephew when this approximately 5-year-old kid turned up - with his Mom. He started ripping toys from my nephew, got intentionally on his way in the slide and spent most of his time just beating stuff up.

I gave him nasty looks so he understood to move away but he kept testing the limits. The mother was standing next to this kid, checking her mobile and flicking through the photos on the digital camera. The kid kept running around, jumping recklessly on the pillows and destroying the constructions built by others. The mother witnessed the situation but did not act upon it. The kid had a similar look in his eyes as the jerk sergeants during my military service. He knew he was feared - and was loving it.

I can´t see into this mother´s head. But I can´t accept her actions. Maybe she was just glad of her child not being the "weak" one being bullied. But without intervening she was teaching her son that this kind of action is OK with strangers. She was teaching her son that this is how you get things through.

The situation made me sick and I lured my nephew out of the room with the power of ice cream. The mother was upholding the "boys are boys"/"real men" attitude, which prevents boys from going to hobbies such as dancing, makes them scared of showing weakness or sadness and locks them up in tightly framed expectations where violence is the only allowed method of proving your masculinity.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Connecting The Dots

~ The American Dream
Originally uploaded by Mackeson
Last weekend I met my great aunt for the first time. There is a reason why: she left Finland in 1957 first to the United Kingdom and then continued to the United States. She was telling me how it is still difficult to connect the dots between the Finland then and Finland now. She left a country of muddy roads and arrived to one of Nokia, to put it bluntly.

I was struck by the Finland she was telling me about. She told about a school that did not accept her due to her religion. She left a country traumatised by war and where she was told several times that she did not belong. She left the country and her family for a better life, with no knowledge of English and no relations waiting in the other end.

The reasons for migration have not really changed in 50 years. But it seems to surprise some people here in the receiving nations that millions decide to leave all they have for a chance of a better life. People risk everything they love for some undefined dreams. For a promise with no money-back guarantee. It seems to surprise people even when the story can be found from each family.

It is surprising and - honestly - disappointing how we here, in a country that has transformed from a departure country to a receiving country, have continuing difficulties to comprehend that the people wanting to move to Finland share largely the reasons of those relatives of ours who left for Sweden, Germany, UK or the US. Paradoxically the other group - the ones who left - are portrayed as heroes when the the others - the ones arriving - are characterised as social bums. It is not only my great aunt who has difficulties connecting dots. Making this historical link might help understanding the transformation we are in as nations.

Something else has also stood the test of time: desire. Most people are not striving for something bizarre and condescending like tolerance and understanding. They are seeking for voting rights, good future for their children, a home, a job and some friends. Not tolerance but bread and freedom.

Oops, I think I just defined the American Dream.