In defense of extreme, unbalanced rationality

Ovi Magazine has published a thought-provoking and, to be honest, remarkably annoying three-part article written by Emanuel L Paparella titled "Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity" (link spotted on Nosemonkey / Europhobia).

Paparella starts off by writing about the importance of Humanism, especially Levinas's humanist philosophy, for "the emergence of a renewed European identity", an event which he for some reason considers to be desirable. He writes that "talk of a 'democratic deficit'" in the European Union has been caused by "confusion in the area of cultural identity" due to a battle between Renaissance Humanism and Enlightenment Rationalism. (He uses phrases like "the modern European identity", "the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity", and "the authentic cultural identity of Europe" without ever really explaining what the bloody hell they're supposed mean.)

Now, I always thought the talk of a democratic deficit was caused by things like the splintered European media markets which don't report on EU politics nearly as much as on national politics, EU citizens not paying much attention to EU politics even when the media reports on it, and the design of EU institutions. Perhaps those things were caused by the conflict between Humanism and Rationalism in some manner I don't quite understand, but I'd like the author to spell out his case.

As the argument progressed, I got the feeling that the point lurking in the background is that Europeans just need some religion in their lives. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right. According to Paparella, "an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster." From the context I gather that this observation is supposed to have something to do with Nazism, but the Nazis had loads of imagination and extremely strong feelings about a great many things. When I think of cool and rational thinkers, Hitler doesn't come readily to mind.

In the third part the link between the Holocaust and rationalism is made explicitly, when Paparella summarizes Berel Lang's argument in Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide:

His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered 'irrational.'
That strikes me as a spectacularly misguided conclusion. Nazism was founded in a pre-Enlightenment source of particularistic identity, namely the "Aryan" blood running in German veins. Sources of particularist identity don't get much more pre-Enlightement than that sort of tribalism writ large. The problem with Nazis wasn't that they considered rational ideals universal and hated the idea of anyone having a particularistic identity (like, say, being German). The problem was that they were murderous racists.

But suppose for a moment that the Nazis did hate the Jews because they thought the Jews didn't accept universal rationality. Does that mean that we shouldn't accept universal rationality? The Nazis also hated the Jews because they thought the Jews were greedy and untrustworthy. Should we therefore consider greed and untrustworthiness to be positive traits?
This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called 'enlightened' era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?
Religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, of course. Duh.

I'm not sure what specific outside source of light Paparella envisions here, but it's worth noting that religion has a damned poor record in the field of preventing mass slaughter. 1930s Germany was a predominantly Christian nation, but that didn't inoculate Germans to Nazism. The Bible contains appalling scenes in which the Israelites at the behest of God wipe out opposing tribes. Further examples aren't difficult to find.


World's most important movie

While looking for comments on the Fradkov visit, I noticed that Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen had written a little review (fi) of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on his blog. Vanhanen watched the movie when it was recently shown on Finnish TV and provides prime blurb material in his blog post: "I saw it now for the second time and still consider it the world's most important movie." Let this be a lesson on what sort of things to say for all of you who are interested in picking up that cute blond Green MP.

Russia's Fradkov meets with Vanhanen

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov met with Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen yesterday. It didn't go too well. According to Fradkov, Russia still intends to greatly increase wood export duties. Vanhanen, for his part, "feels that the moves violate conditions for membership with the World Trade Organisation", which from a Finnish politician is the equivalent of declaring a country a member of the Axis of Evil. Fradkov didn't have much sympathy for the Finnish company that has been (literally) fighting Russian officials over the use of a container terminal in Kronstadt, near St Petersburg.


Top 100 Finnish films of all time

Helsingin Sanomat held a vote (fi) on the top 100 Finnish films of all time. Here's the full list (fi). In the top ten, we find the following flicks:

  1. Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier), Edvin Laine, 1955: Continuation War is hell, machine gun unit finds.
  2. Komisario Palmun erehdys (Mysterious Case of the Rygseck Murders), Matti Kassila, 1960: Rich layabout dies in odd circumstances. Grouchy police lieutenant and dopey assistants investigate.
  3. Kahdeksan surmanluotia (Eight Deadly Shots), Mikko Niskanen, 1972: Stressed-out farmer goes amok. Hilarity doesn't ensue.
  4. Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man without a Past), Aki Kaurismäki, 2002: I can't remember anything about it.
  5. Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Here under the Northern Star), Edvin Laine, 1968: Finnish Civil War is hell, a hard-working crofter family finds.
  6. Jäniksen vuosi (The Year of the Hare), Risto Jarva, 1977: A regular guy drops out, makes friends with a hare.
  7. Valkoinen peura (The White Reindeer), Erik Blomberg, 1952: Sexy witch causes havoc in Lapland.
  8. Arvottomat (The Worthless), Mika Kaurismäki, 1982: Yeah.
  9. Kulkurin valssi (The Vagabond's Valse), T.J. Särkkä, 1941: Pretty people fall in love, overcome obstacles in a historical setting.
  10. Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds), Aki Kaurismäki, 1998: A couple lose their jobs, which is a bummer.
Director-wise, Edvin Laine and Aki Kaurismäki have two pictures each featured in the top ten. The by-decade distribution is fairly even, if only thanks to the efforts of the Kaurismäki brothers. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have two films each; the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, and so far 2000s have to make do with one. There's a noticeable literary bent to the list: #1 and #5 are based on Väinö Linna's novels, #2 is based on a detective novel by Mika Waltari, and #6 is based on Arto Paasilinna's story.

The winner was a predictable choice. The Unknown Soldier has historical significance as a cultural phenomenon and is a good movie besides. The dialog is excellent and there are some genuinely moving scenes in there, above all when Finlandia kicks in at the end. The movie is shown on TV every Independence Day, which is a huge advantage in a public vote. Having a Palmu film at number two is more surprising. It's an entertaining movie with colorful characters and a wonderfully nostalgic feel, but genre films don't usually do well on lists like this one.


Economic mobility

A bunch of US policy institutes put their heads together and came up with a report (PDF) on economic mobility in the United States. Page seven shows an international comparison based on the relationship between parents' and children's incomes. The Nordic countries and Canada do well by this measure, Britain and the US poorly. Finland is third after Denmark and Norway, with 2.6 times more mobility than the US. I'd guess that the results are mostly down to income equality and the level and cost of education.

(Via Kevin Drum.)

Russian police arrests gays for getting beat up

This is a terrible story and the footage is shocking, yet according to the organizers, this time protesters faced less violence than at a similar event last year. Somehow I still hesitate to call it progress.

In a piquant detail, the only Russian MP that was present to support the gay rights activists was a member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party.


Budget planning

According to budget plans released this week, increases in pensions, student aid, and single parents' child allowance will be implemented during the next year and a half. The government also wants (fi) to cut state dept by 1'145 million euros. And about those tax cuts... They're still coming, but you may have to wait a while before they get here. Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen (National Coalition Party) cited fears about economic overheating as the reason to move them to the end of the government's term.

The opposition has focused on on the government plan to do away with free full-time daycare for low-income parents. The Green League appears to have gone wobbly on that point. Freshly reelected (fi) party leader, Labor Minister Tarja Cronberg claimed that no decision has been made. Parliamentary faction chair Anni Sinnemäki went further, saying (fi) that the Greens don't accept the planned changes. Katainen has defended the plan, noting that part-time daycare will remain free and describing the new fee as small. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) promised on Saturday that the issue will be examined further.


Tattletales for totalitarianism

Aapo writes about Culture Minister Stefan Wallin professing ignorance of author and translator Matti Rossi's past as an informant. Ben Zyskowicz, an influential National Coalition Party MP who has been fighting the good fight against domestic communists since the 1970s, has taken issue (fi) with Rossi receiving a state literary prize for translators because Rossi had reported Hungarian author Dénes Kiss's low opinion of communism to the Hungarian authorities in 1975.

(As terrible as Rossi's act was, I have to disagree with Zyskowicz. Rossi got the prize for, among other works, translating Shakespeare into Finnish. Even state literary prizes should be about literary merit, not whether a prospective recipient did something disgusting in the 1970s.)

Rossi's stunt reminded me of an anecdote that deserves repeating from Vaarallinen Suomi - Suomi Eestin Kommunistisen Puoleen ja Neuvosto-Viron KGB:n silmin ("Dangerous Finland - Finland in the Eyes of the Communist Party of Estonia and Soviet Estonia's KGB") by Mati Graf and Heikki Roiko-Jokela. In a memo to Soviet Union's and Soviet Estonia's foreign ministries, one P. Mozhajev of the Soviet Union's main consulate in Turku wrote:

R. Nummelin turned to the main consulate and said that the members of tourist group 5-46701, while staying in Tallinn from August 7th to August 10th 1984, were puzzled by the behaviour of Estonian guide Sirje (he couldn't remember the last name). According to Nummelin, the guide repeatedly criticized repeatedly the level of Russian culture, the quality of Soviet goods, she also presented single thoughts in favor of founding an 'independent bourgeois republic'. To Nummelin's and his wife's, who were both members of [the communist] Finnish People's Democratic League, attempts to make counterarguments and prove to the guide she was wrong, she answered pointedly.
The authors found the guide, Sirje Rumvolt, who said that while discussing the differences between Estonian and Finnish squirrels, she had told a joke, "Question: what are lizards? Answer: crocodiles under socialism." She said to the Finnish tourists that maybe the squirrels have poor fur because of socialist conditions. "Later this answer probably turned into an argument for founding an independent Estonia."

I wonder if people like Rossi and Nummelin ever considered what their actions said about the regimes they supported. Imagine the reverse situation: A Finnish communist author travels to 1970s Hungary and makes comments disparaging capitalism. A Hungarian capitalist - just go with it - hears his comments and reports him to the Finnish consulate, expecting them to... do what? That difference should have given pause even to a committed communist.

Yes, I love polls

MTV3 has released (fi) Research International's latest poll:

Centre Party 23.4
National Coalition Party 23.3
Social Democratic Party 20.8
Green League 9.6
Left Alliance 9.0
Christian Democrats 5.0
True Finns 4.4
Swedish People's Party 4.1
The Centre is at the top after two second places, but the Coalition is essentially tied for the lead. The Greens are also doing rather well, so although the Swedish PP is slumping somewhat, the government parties together poll at a healthy 60.4 percent. The Social Democrats' doldrums continue with another poor-for-them result, but the Left Alliance is up for a change.

In other polling news (fi), Suomen Kuvalehti reports that nuclear energy is more popular than ever in Finland. In a poll conducted by Taloustutkimus, 57 percent of respondents favored increasing the use of nuclear energy, with 35 percent opposed. 80 percent of Coalition supporters are in favor, but even among Green supporters 30 percent are fine with more nuclear energy.


Bunch of dirty hippies charged over Smash ASEM

86 smelly troublemakers, including Left Alliance vice chairman Paavo Arhinmäki MP and a press photographer from the Suomen Kuvalehti magazine, have been charged for offenses allegedly committed during last autumn's Smash ASEM demonstration. "Charges range from violent rioting, violent resistance against an official, illegal use of a mask, as well as weapons offences."

The prosecutor is worried (fi) about where he's going to find a big enough courtroom to fit all the unkempt defendants: "Certainly, the Helsinki Court House has spaces large enough to accommodate all of the [filthy dropouts]. However, these spaces are not actual courtrooms." We can only hope that the justice system is able to sort it out.

24 of the unhygienic punks may face a suspended prison sentence, but the rest of the scruffy anarchists risk only a fine. Arhinmäki and the photographer are among the latter. Arhinmäki wrote about the charges on his blog (fi); the phrases "show trial" and "political display" were mentioned. He also linked to a video of his arrest. He wanders into the frame about one minute from the end, wearing a grungy Adidas jacket and wielding a camera phone.

Seriously, though, I hope that the Suomen Kuvalehti photographer is acquitted. If you announce publicly that you and your friends will gather in the city centre to do some damage, as the would-be ASEM smashers did, you're liable to receive some close police attention. Nevertheless, the photographer had a good reason to remain at the scene even after the police told onlookers to leave. Members of the media should be able to document demonstrations like this without being fined.


Low-carbon energy strategies

The British government is considering replacing at least some of their aging nuclear plants with new ones. Since Finland is the only EU country in which a nuclear plant is under construction at the moment, the Finnish experience is being used as an argument by both sides of the British nuclear debate. From a Finnish perspective, some of argumentation is a bit curious. For example, John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, wrote in the Guardian:

[T]he move appears to be undermining alternative low-carbon energy strategies. After falling in 2001 and 2002, Finland's carbon emissions are now rising. Measures, promised in a 2001 climate report, such as energy taxation, have not been implemented. According to Finland's former environment minister Satu Hassi MEP, once the decision was made to build the new reactor, the country lost interest in alternative energy sources.
I'm not sure where Sauven gets his data on carbon emissions. According to Statistics Finland, carbon dioxide emissions increased in 2000-2003, but dropped in 2003-2005 to end roughly at the 2000 level. The decision to build a new nuclear plant was made in January 2002 and the building permit was issued in February 2005.

Satu Hassi (Green League) resigned as minister over the decision to build that new reactor, so it isn't surprising that she is still fundamentally opposed to it. I have to say, for a country that has lost interest in alternative energy sources, our politicians spent a lot of time going on about the topic during the election campaign.


Satin Pajama Awards

David Weman was nice enough to pop over and post a link to the Satin Pajama Awards, which have now reached voting stage. This blog was nominated in the Most Underappreciated Weblog category, which means that it's now over-appreciated and thus bound to lose. Personally, I voted for Kosmopolit.

100 years of Parliament

Today marks 100 years since the first session of the Finnish Parliament. In honor of this veritable institution, I've compiled a list of every party that has been represented in the Parliament. The years indicate the elections in which the parties received seats. The translation in parentheses are literal and don't necessarily correspond with the official translations I've used elsewhere on the blog. When a party has disbanded and another party has been founded in its place, I've marked the different incarnations in separate entries.

Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue 1907-... (Finland's Social Democratic Party): One of three parties that have been represented from the start, the Social Democrats have more often than not been the single biggest party in the country.

Maalaisliitto 1907-1966 (Rural League) a.k.a. Keskustapuolue 1970-1987 (Centre Party) a.k.a. Suomen Keskusta 1991-... (Finland's Centre): Where agrarian parties in other countries have fallen on hard times, the Centre has grown from humble origins to become this decade's biggest party.

Ruotsalainen Kansanpuolue 1907-... (Swedish People's Party): They must be doing something right to retain the support of a large majority of Swedish-speaking Finns for 100 years.

Nuorsuomalainen Puolue 1907-1917 (Young Finnish Party): The brasher of the two major Fennoman parties suffered from division, but was central to the constitutional struggle that defined the pre-independence 20th century.

Suomalainen Puolue 1907-1917 (Finnish Party): You got to admit that it was a truly inspired name for a party.

Kristillinen Työväenliitto 1907-1911, 1916, 1919 (Christian Workers' League): Social democrats who believed in God, basically.

Kansanpuolue 1917 (People's Party): The first of several small parties with a similar name, this one was founded to bring Fennomans of all stripes together. It failed.

Kansallinen Kokoomuspuolue 1919-1948 (National Coalition Party) a.k.a. Kansallinen Kokoomus 1951-... (National Coalition): From conservative monarchists to free market enthusiasts, the Coalition has defined the mainstream right in Finnish politics.

Kansallinen Edistyspuolue 1919-1948 (National Progress Party): This liberal party punched far above its weight for most of its existence.

Suomen Työväen Keskusvaalikomitea 1922 (Finland's Workers' Central Election Committee) a.k.a. Sosialistinen Työväen ja Pienviljelijäin Vaaliliitto 1924-1929 (Socialist Workers' and Small Farmers' Election Alliance): Hey, it's the Communists!

Ruotsalainen Vasemmisto 1930, 1945 (Swedish Left): Despite the name, this was a centre-right party formed by republicans from the mostly monarchist Swedish People's Party.

Suomen Pienviljelijäin Puolue 1930-1936 (Finland's Small Farmers' Party): Economic woes in the early 1930s gave birth to a number of new parties, including this would-be rival to the Agrarian League.

Isänmaallinen Kansanliike 1933-1939 (Patriotic People's Movement): Homegrown fascists who continued where the Lapua Movement left off.

Kansanpuolue 1933-1936 (People's Party): This iteration was a peasants' protest party.

Pienviljelijäin ja Maalaiskansan Puolue 1939 (Small Farmers' and Rural People's Party): Yep, this is yet another peasants' protest party.

Suomen Kansan Demokraattinen Liitto 1945-1987 (Finland's People's Democratic League): Hey, it's the Communists again! This time around there was no banning them, thanks to help from the Soviet Union.

Ålands samling 1948- (Åland's Coalition): Behind the name, Åland actually has a left-wing party and a right-wing party.

Suomen Kansanpuolue 1951-1962 (Finland's People's Party): The less successful successor of the Progressives was basically a slightly more liberal version of the Coalition.

Sosialidemokraattinen Oppositio 1958 (Social Democratic Opposition): Social democrats who liked Communists better than Social Democrats.

Työväen ja Pienviljelijäin Sosialidemokraattinen Liitto 1962-1966 (Workers' and Small Farmers' Social Democratic League): This small group of socialists was mostly in league with the People's Democratic League.

Vapaamielisten Liitto 1962 (Free-mindeds' League): For the people for whom the People's Party wasn't libertarian enough, this party's only MP was Erkki Tuomioja's father Sakari Tuomioja.

Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue 1966 (Finland's Small Farmers' Party) a.k.a. Suomen Maaseudun Puolue 1970-1995 (Finland's Rural Party): These populists represented the "forgotten people" and berated corrupt officials.

Liberaalinen Kansanpuolue 1966-1983, 1991 (Liberal People's Party): The result of a merger between the People's Party and the Free-mindeds' League, this was yet another liberal party that didn't garner much support.

Suomen Kristillinen Liitto 1970-1999 (Finland's Christian League) a.k.a. Suomen Kristillisdemokraatit 2003-... (Finland's Christian Democrats): If you think abortion and homosexuality are sins, these guys have got your back.

Perustuslaillinen Kansanpuolue 1975 (Constitutional People's Party) a.k.a. Perustuslaillinen Oikeistopuolue 1983 (Constitutional Right-wing Party): Former Coalitionists who were particularly disgusted by Finlandization.

Suomen Kansan Yhtenäisyyden Puolue 1975 (Finland's People's Unity Party): The majority of the Rural Party MPs got fed up with its leader and eloped to form this short-lived party.

Vihreät Yhteislistat 1983 (Green Common Lists) a.k.a. Vihreä Liitto 1987-... (Green League): Socially liberal environmentalists, is the general idea.

Demokraattinen Vaihtoehto 1987 (Democratic Alternative): This party wasn't democratic nor much of an alternative, but hardline Communists instead.

Vasemmistoliitto 1991-... (Left League): When the Soviet Union collapsed, Communists became democratic socialists. Hey, it's a clear improvement.

Ekologinen Puolue Vihreät 1995 (Ecological Party Greens): Pertti "Veltto" Virtanen - rock star, psychologist, beret-wearer, MP - take a bow.

Nuorsuomalainen Puolue 1995 (Young Finnish Party): Not to be confused with the original, this free market liberal party was founded in response to the early 1990s recession.

Perussuomalaiset 1999-... (True Finns): The successor of the Rural Party has developed in a more urban, though still resolutely populist direction.

Remonttiryhmä 1999 (Renovation Group): Risto Kuisma left the Social Democrats for the Young Finns and then moved on to his own centre-right party.

Looking at the list, I realized that if we make it to 2011 without an election, we'll have gone longer than ever before without a new party gaining representation. Is that a good or a bad thing?


Election funding figures released

This Monday was the deadlines for MPs to file declarations detailing where they got their election funding. The declarations can now be accessed online (fi). In theory it's a beautiful thing, but the rules allow MPs to keep their sources of funding pretty well hidden if they wish. The main loophole is that the donors give the money to some association which forwards it to the MP, and only the name of the association then appears on the declaration. For another thing, if the donation is under 1'700 euros, the donor's name need not be made public.

Something the declarations do tell you is how much money each MP raised in all. In general, candidates spent about 20'000-50'000 euros. Comparing the parties, MPs from the big centre-right parties, the National Coalition Party and the Centre Party, put the most money into their campaigns by a considerable margin. Eero Lehti (Coalition) spent the most, 119'336 euros. Two other MPs spent more than 100'000 euros: Sauli Niinisto (Coalition) and Paula Sihto (Centre). Pirkko Lerner-Ruohonen (True Finns) got through with the smallest budget, 1'835 euros, largely thanks to being on the same list as party leader Timo Soini.

The government is talking about introducing more transparency to the system, although what that may entail isn't clear at this point. The Centre and the Green League are reportedly the most enthusiastic to shine more light on the funding - and good on them. The Coalition Party and the Swedish People's Party are less inclined to make changes.

Parenting is gay

I do believe this is the worst post on Finland for Thought since Finnpundit went on a hopefully permanent hiatus. In reaction to an article stating that Culture Minister Stefan Wallin (Swedish People's Party), whose portfolio also includes equality affairs, will launch a project "aimed at encouraging parental leave", guest blogger Kristian writes:

[T]he issue centers around gender identity.
Which is blatant nonsense. The linked article says, "The aim of Wallin's project is to promote awareness of parental benefits that already exist. This would mean that fathers would also be allowed to use them more." The question is to what extent men participate in raising their children, not what gender they consider themselves to be. At a stretch the issue has to do with gender roles, but that's very different from gender identity.

As for the accusation of social engineering, parenting decisions can't be made independently of the environment in which the parents live. Therefore, any set of laws on parental leave you wish to construct, or even the lack of such laws altogether, will influence parents' decisions.

Kristian brings up evolution to argue that encouraging fathers to take parental leave is unnatural. I guess cavemen weren't aware of what parental benefits they were entitled to, but I'm not sure what that says about the desirability of such policies in today's society.

The post takes a turn for the bizarre when Kristian somehow - I'm not quite sure how it happens - moves from addressing the issue of parental leave for fathers to offering his opinions on sexual minorities. Apparently he was surprised to find out that there are such things as sexual minorities in the world and that they're born that way. No, I don't know what that has to do with parental leave for fathers, either.

For my money, the low point of the article comes in this entirely logic-free snippet:
Although we might surmise that those who support government initiatives to correct such perceived inequities would like to see their own gender identity issues legitimized, I won’t speculate on any possible gender identity issues concerning our Swede [sic], Mr. Wallin.
The title of the post is, naturally, "Does Stefen [sic] Wallin have gender identity issues?" But Kristian won't speculate. Good grief.

PS: The post's URL contains the string "cross-dressers-nancy-boys-stefan-wallin", which may give an idea of its working title.


Right-wing parties enjoy a post-election boost

Helsingin Sanomat released a new poll (fi) by Suomen Gallup that supports the trends seen in the recent Taloustutkimus poll:

National Coalition Party 23.3%
Centre Party 22.8%
Social Democratic Party 21.1%
Green League 8.9%
Left Alliance 8.4%
True Finns 4.9%
Christian Democrats 4.5%
Swedish People's Party 4.3%
The Coalition has never before ranked first in Suomen Gallup polls. The True Finns haven't been this high since they were called the Finnish Rural Party. The two traditional left-wing parties combine for 29.5 percent, which is an abysmal result. Even if we include the Green League included, the left is at 37.9 percent. The government parties have 59.3 percent of the support, compared to the 58.5 percent in the election.

The article warns that it's customary for parties that did well in the election to receive a temporary boost in support. It says that the effect should dissipate during the summer. We'll see.


Semi-presidentialism versus parliamentarism

A long-standing question in Finnish politics is whether to move from semi-presidentialism (PDF) to parliamentarism. Despite occasionally despairing with the arguments of supporters of parliamentarism, I have some sympathy for the position itself. In theory prime ministers should be more responsive to the public opinion than presidents, as the parties on which they rely for their parliamentary majorities always have to consider the next election. Since prime ministers don't serve for fixed terms, they can be ousted from office at any time for political misjudgments. Removing a president from office would require impeachment. A purely parliamentarian system would remove the possibility of a clash between two institutions with popular legitimacy derived from elections.

The historical record is mixed. There are times when having a semi-presidential system has served Finland well, e.g. after the war conservative presidents Gustaf Mannerheim and Juho Kusti Paasikivi kept the military out of Communist hands. It's difficult to evaluate how much of that was down to the constitutional arrangement, though. The dangers of including the Communists in government coalitions would have increased without a powerful presidency safely in non-communist hands, but it's possible that the non-communist parties would have put more effort into monopolizing the cabinet portfolios that are important for national security. On the flip side, while I believe that Finland's political life in the 1960s and 1970s would have been healthier under a parliamentarian system, the big flaws revealed in the system during Urho Kekkonen's presidency have already been fixed by introducing term limits and sharply reducing the president's influence over the process of forming governments.

Although this is an important question, it's not one on which many people have heartfelt preferences. The power political considerations tend to define various parties' positions more than the principle of the thing. Back when the semi-presidential system was introduced in 1919, the Social Democrats supported a purely parliamentarian form of government, believing that presidents were likely to come from the non-socialist majority. Nowadays they've provided the last three presidents and mostly want to retain presidential powers. The National Coalition Party had originally wanted to establish a king with considerable powers as a bulwark against socialism, but when monarchist parties were defeated resoundingly in the 1919 parliamentary election, they switched to demanding strong presidential powers. Today the party hasn't had a president since the 1950s and supports pure parliamentarism.

A considerable difficulty in moving to parliamentarism is that the president's cooperation is required and presidential candidates have every incentive to oppose the move. Not only do they hope that they get to use the president's powers, but reducing the president to a figurehead is not a popular position and thus would hurt their chances of being elected in the first place. For example, Speaker Sauli Niinistö, the Coalition's presidential candidate in 2006, is one of few prominent Coalitionists who support semi-presidentialism.


Putin's stab in the dark

The BBC quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying, "They (Estonian police) didn't just disperse demonstrators. They killed one demonstrator. We demand that the criminals be brought to account."

It's an extraordinary assertion and one for which no evidence has been presented to the best of my knowledge. To the contrary, it was widely reported the man died of a stab-wound, which is hardly consistent with the theory that he was killed by the police. No one, least of all a person in Putin's position, should make such unsupported accusations at a time when tensions are still running high.

Here's what the victim's mother had to say:

At the funeral in Mustvee yesterday of Dmitri Ganin (20), the man stabbed to death during last week’s riots in Tallinn, the mother of the late Mr Ganin made a plea to the Russian Consul, members of Nochnoi Dozor, Russian TV-stations, and those present at the funeral not to use her son's death for propaganda purposes.
No sale with Vladimir, I guess.

It's tough to meet new people

The reporting on President Tarja Halonen's trip to the United States took a turn from ridiculous to sublime when it was revealed that she had inquired about the possibility of meeting two leading Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of whom were too busy doing other things. Since Pelosi and Clinton presumably aren't offended by Halonen's outspoken opposition to the Iraq war, there's now a tiny chance that Finnish media figures who criticized her for not securing a meeting with President George W Bush will admit that the reason these get-togethers ain't happening is that Finland is really frigging insignificant.

On the bright side, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger invited Halonen over for a visit, but apparently a trip to the West Coast would have taken too much time. (Arnie's reaction: "NOOOOOOOH!") Also, one person who did meet our fearless leader was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Apparently Finland wants a seat in the UN Security Council starting in 2013. Then they'll have to talk to us!

Update: Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva said on Lauantaiseura, a topical talk show on YLE, that Halonen and Clinton had agreed on a meeting, but the time clashed with the Ban Ki-moon meeting so it had to be canceled. Considering that "[s]cheduling problems are routinely invoked in international diplomacy to turn down a proposed meeting," this clearly shows that Clinton's relationship with Finland is problematic.


Holiday! Celebrate!

Here's a pretty chart on how many paid vacation days people get annually in different countries. It shows Finland and France tied at the top with 30 days each, but that's a simplification. The report (PDF) says, "In Finland, annual leave rises from 24 working days to 30 working days after the employee's first year, and public servants with at least 15 years of tenure receive 36 working days." It totally doesn't matter, though, as we blow the Frenchies away in paid public holidays nine to one. Suomi! Suomi! Suomi!


Worst argument for parliamentarism ever

I'm definitely picking low-hanging fruit here, but what the heck.

Iltalehti, the sleazier of Finland's two major tabloids, yesterday argued in its editorial (fi) that since President Bush declined to meet President Halonen, the Cabinet should start running Finnish foreign policy No, seriously. The editorial really argues that a) the US President declining to meet with the Finnish President is a big problem, which b) should be solved by changing Finland's foreign policy leader.

For giggles, I translated parts of the editorial, with certain marked substitutions for effect:

If the President never meets the [leader of the Soviet Union] and negotiates with him, it's difficult to imagine how she could lead Finland's foreign policy in relation to the [Soviet Union].


Everyone knows that the [Soviet Union] is particularly important from a Finnish point of view regardless of what sort of politics it practices globally or in certain vulnerable areas of the world. We must continuously maintain a high level connection to it. The most important thing is that the state leadership's confidential relationship with the [Kreml] works if crises occur near Finland.


Now would be a time for conclusions. Finland's and the [Soviet Union's] relations at the highest level are not in order. The problem is probably mutual.

For Finland the solution is found in that the Cabinet starts to lead traditional foreign policy too, as the new constitution requires, because it alone is also responsible for it in front of the Parliament.
NB: The new constitution requires no such thing.

Aside from what a horrible idea it is to let a foreign head of state decide who leads Finnish foreign policy, the lack of logic on display is staggering. If there's some reason why Finnish prime ministers are bound to get along better with US presidents than Finnish presidents do, Iltalehti sure doesn't mention it. Presumably if a Prime Minister fails to secure a meeting, Iltalehti will advocate for putting the Speaker of the Parliament in charge of foreign policy, then the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and so on.

50 years of peace

An argument presented many times before and after the European Union's recent 50th birthday is that the EU should be credited for maintaining peace within the union. The Independent offered an example of this in their list of the EU's achievements:

1. The end of war between European nations

While rows between England, France and Germany have been a feature of EU summits, war between Europe's major powers is now unthinkable. The fact that the two world wars that shaped the last century now seem so remote is, in itself, tribute to a visionary project that has permanently changed the landscape. As the EU celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome it is clear that while the detailed topography will always be difficult to agree, it is an extraordinary achievement that we are standing on common ground.
We can't really say that the EU has kept peace in Europe, since wars have been fought on this continent during the past 50 years, and we can't really say that EU members have been at peace for 50 years, because many of them have taken part in wars fought in other people's soil. However, it is indeed true that there have been no intra-EU wars, even though member countries have long histories of fighting each other. That's unquestionably a positive development. Another matter is who deserves credit for it.

The thing is, the claim that this newfound peaceful coexistence should be credited to the EU confuses cause and effect. Member countries' desire to cooperate peacefully was a necessary condition for the EU's creation, but the EU didn't create the circumstances in which that condition was met. The EU didn't destroy large swathes of Europe and in the process ram home the point that wars between modern armies are hugely destructive. The EU didn't invent nuclear weapons to raise the stakes of armed conflict between major powers even further. The EU didn't bring democracy to (West) Germany and Italy. The EU didn't end the competition for overseas colonies among European countries. The EU didn't create an external threat in Eastern Europe that helped to unite Western European countries. The EU didn't form NATO, which has greatly increased the risk involved in invading its European members.

The claim that further integration is needed to maintain peace is even weaker. Without ever closer integration, the argument goes, the EU will disintegrate; and once countries cease to be members, they'll go back to fighting wars; but this is founded on a number of questionable assumptions. Why would further integration necessarily protect the EU from falling apart? The less veto rights member countries have, the greater the likelihood becomes that some majority decision will be so unacceptable to some member that it chooses to resign from the club. Further, why would former member countries go back to fighting wars? It's more likely that former members would be about as hostile toward each other as notorious non-EU warmongers Norway and Iceland. (I would have mentioned Switzerland as another example, but there was that invasion of Liechtenstein.)


Russia to hike up wood export duties

Currently Finnish forest industry imports about one fifth of its raw wood from Russia, but Russia plans to more than double wood export duties. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) has expressed his worry that the increase will put an end to wood imports from Russia. Karelian timber companies, which export a lot of wood to Finland, concur.

The government didn't pursue the matter in a EU meeting on the agenda of the upcoming EU-Russia summit. Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva's (National Coalition Party) explanation, that "the problem was already well known by all sides", is strange. Known problems need solutions, too. Opposition leader Eero Heinäluoma of the Social Democratic Party, for his part, called for bipartisan talks. Apparently no one has faith in the EU's ability to help.

The official reason for the increase is that the Russian authorities want to encourage wood processing inside Russia. A competing theory - I'd credit the author but I forgot where I read it - is that the idea is to temporarily stop exports, so that the price of forests plummets and land ends up in the hands of the right people at a discount. Once the sales have been made at a cut-rate price, export duties will be lowered to normal and exports will commence again.


Helsingin Sanomat on Halonen's trip to New York

President Tarja Halonen is traveling to New York this Wednesday. The five day trip is built around annual gala dinner of the American Scandinavian Foundation which she will attend on Friday, but it will also include, among other things, a meeting with United Nations secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Apparently the foundation always invites one Scandinavian head of state to attend the gala dinner, but since this year no proper Scandinavians were available, they had to make do with a Finn.

It seems like a perfectly boring little trip, but today leading broadsheet Helsingin Sanomat breathlessly reports that US President George W Bush has turned down our dear leader's offer to meet with him for - get this - scheduling reasons. Do you feel your pulse quickening? You should. "Scheduling problems are routinely invoked in international diplomacy to turn down a proposed meeting," the article hints at darker reasons that lurk beneath the surface. It is also sure to include the fact that Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt managed to schedule some face time with Bush.

Helsingin Sanomat has deep and abiding interest in the frequency of meetings between Finnish and American presidents and assorted ministers. My theory is that it's tied to the paper's open support for NATO membership. It painstakingly highlights every little snub - real or imagined - because it wants to demonstrate a need to improve relations. Its preferred way to improve relations, to get a seat at the table, is of course to apply for NATO membership. I hope I'm wrong, because having your news section serve your editorial line in that manner is a bit shabby, but the paper's behavior is quite difficult to explain otherwise.

Speaking of NATO, according to a poll released today (fi), 63 percent of Finns oppose membership and 27 percent support it. Of the major parties, Centre Party supporters are opposed 69-23 and Social Democratic Party supporters 73-20. Left Alliance and Green League supporters oppose it in even greater numbers. National Coalition Party supporters are a clear outlier; they're 55-39 in favor of membership. 78 percent think that membership should require a referendum. The previous poll, from last November, indicated a 59-24 split so the parliamentary election and the Estonian statue controversy have not caused any major changes in the figures.


Lumbering mutant Canucks cheat to win (again)

Sunday's Ice Hockey World Championship final between Canada and Finland prompted me to dig up something I wrote after the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Lumbering mutant Canucks cheat to win

Yes, it's true. Friends, humankind's last line of defense against the ungodly Canadian hockey horde has failed. Canada's route to victory was shameful, paved as it was by favoritism, dumb luck, and sabotage. Frequently officiated by Canadian homer referees, Canada's games were an exercise in giving them all the breaks they could possibly get. And last night the evil Canadians tragically captured the World Cup of Hockey by defeating brave, plucky Finland undeservedly 3-2 in a sham of a final played at the soulless Air Canada Centre in disreputable downtown Toronto.

The odds were always stacked against the intrepid Finns. The abnormally musclebound Canadians played every single game in front of their rabid home audience, which consisted of perverted mounties, suspected lumberjacks, and various Celine Dion soundalikes. Favored by the organizers - hell, they were the organizers - unsporting Canuckistani power-brokers arranged that the games be played according to inferior North American rules in abnormally small rinks to favor the unskilled, slow, but frigging humongous Canadian hockey "players".

Even before the game began, the Canadians had fully justified their reputation as a nation of scumbags. The previous night Canadian hoodlums, allegedly hired by Team Canada figurehead Wayne Gretzky, set off the fire alarm at the hotel in which the Finnish squad was staying. Forcing the Finnish players out onto the street at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. betrayed how frightened the Canadians were of being showed up in their own tournament. Perhaps their previous game against the Czech Republic - in which they scraped through despite an obvious skill-disadvantage due to help from referees Paul Devorski of Guelph, Ontario, and Stephen Walkom of North Bay, Ontario - had given the Canucks pause for thought.

The game itself featured one sublime piece of play, which occurred in the second period when Finland's brilliant Tuomo Ruutu hoodwinked three hapless Canucks before firing the puck past Martin Brodeur to even out the score at 2-2. This rightfully canceled out a fluke goal by Canada in which Scott Niedermayer's sloppy shot inexplicably got past the normally excellent Miikka Kiprusoff in Finland's goal. Alas, in the beginning of the third period Canada once again took the lead after a bad man-marking error from the Finnish defenders and never relinquished it, packing its own end for the rest of the game to grind out a result in a typically boring Canadian fashion.

Folks, the Canadian hockey player is a curious beast. These sluggish behemoths are isolated from their families as youths by the Soviet-style Canadian government. They're sent to well-guarded camps in the Canadian tundra where they wrestle on ice and hit each other with sticks while fat, white-haired men with red noses shout at them in the ugly Canadian dialect. Bred on a diet of moose meat, barley, little pink pills, and Timbits, they grow up to be dumb, sluggish, angry monsters with no concept of love, kindness, and the alphabet.

One only has to gaze at hulking, vicious numskulls like Joe Thornton and Shane Doan to realize that the current squad lives down to the stereotype. This army of 'roided-up automatons was backstopped by Martin Brodeur, famed in Canada for committing adultery with his sister-in-law, and led in attack by the veteran pairing of the loathsome Joe Sakic and the ancient Mario Lemieux, who was perhaps the only player in the team to have puck skills. Rumors abound that Lemieux obtained his stick-handling ability by sacrificing baby seals to Satan.

Fresh from their World Cup triumph, for their next move the new Canadian national heroes plan to deprive their country of NHL hockey due to their excessive greed.
A lot of it applies also to the tournament in Moscow, although an updated version would contain less complaints about home field advantage and more insults directed at Rick Nash.


Bronze Soldier polls

I know I've posted a lot on the Estonian statue controversy, but I'm a sucker for polls, so here we go again.

In a recent poll (fi), 54 percent of Russians supported economic sanctions against Estonia and 74 percent considered Estonia a hostile nation. However, only seven percent agreed that Estonian authorities were supporting fascism. Considering how prominent that theme is in the comments from Russian politicians, the number can be considered quite low. One percent supported war against Estonia and four percent wanted to close the Russian-Estonian border, so I guess that's something.

In Finland, public opinion is just the opposite. The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) released a poll (fi) according to which a majestic four percent of Finns think Russia has acted correctly in the statue controversy. 73 percent disagree with Russia's actions and 24 percent don't have an opinion. With regard to Estonia, 51 percent think Estonia has acted correctly, 23 percent disagree, and 27 percent can't say.

Of special interest to political junkies are the party figures (fi). National Coalition Party supporters most clearly side with Estonia, Left Alliance supporters are more critical of both Russia and Estonia than average whereas Social Democratic Party supporters are more positive, and Centre Party voters pretty much reproduce the national average.


The Lavrov letter in full

Yesterday I wrote about a letter sent by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to several EU countries, including Finland, at the height of the Estonian statue controversy. Tampere newspaper Aamulehti has now published it (fi) - i.e. the version that originally appeared in Eesti Paevaleht. The Baltic Times and the Finnish News Agency (STT) carry some quotes in English, but as I have been unable to find a complete English translation on the Web, I thought I'd provide one:

I turn to you on the basis of the worrying development regarding the Liberator-soldier memorial. Its effects can reach further than the relations between Russia and Estonia.

The situation in Tallinn is about to come to a very bad turn. The police breaks up demonstrations by those who have protected the monument. Due to excessive use of force by Estonian authorities, tens of civilians have been hurt. One Russia citizen, a permanent resident of Estonia, has died. The society is disintegrating.

We asked Estonian officials repeatedly that they would take no steps to remove the monument and would not remove the remains of Soviet soldiers. Those soldiers gave their lives to liberate the world from fascism. Similar appeals were made to Estonian authorities also by the relatives of the soldiers buried near the monument. Regrettably Tallinn did not listen to these appeals.

It is our opinion, that Estonia's sacrilege and glaring acts pose a challenge to the whole world's democratic community, undermine the basis of humanism and morality, and defy all values on which the modern way of life is founded.

Similarly deeply worrying is the fact that a whole group of countries that are proud of their own democracy and tolerance treat positively the Estonian authorities' actions, understanding the current situation primarily as a factor in bilateral relations. They have given their silent approval to the interpretation that by equaling the heroic acts of the liberator-soldiers and the crimes of Nazis and their henchmen, the Estonian authorities try to rewrite history and reevaluate the role of the anti-Hitler coalition in the victory over fascism in the Second World War.

History teaches us that allowing the presentation of neo-Nazi feelings in certain countries can turn into a global tragedy. Regardless of what sort of evaluations of history this or that politician gives, or what sort of quarrels historians have, the memory of the fallen is sacred. Even more - heroes that gave their lives for the happiness and freedom of future generations can't be the victims of political games. It is our duty to defend those who can no longer defend themselves from all sorts of gravediggers.

We expect that especially Estonia's partners in Europe and in transatlantic organizations, as well as in the European Council and OSCE, give an appropriate assessment on the Estonian authorities' activity.

Russia, which has paid a terrible price for the victory over fascism, can't remain indifferent to development in which sacred historical memory is taken as hostage by current political demands. The events in Tallinn have started severe waves of protest and have been condemned at all levels of the Russian society, and it can influence our relations with the European Union and NATO in the most serious way.

I believe that the European Union will turn to the means at its disposal to convince Tallinn that the injustice committed by Estonian authorities should be stopped.
Keep in mind that the contents have been translated several times over, so arguments relying on exact wording should probably be avoided. The general meaning of the letter should come through, I hope. The bit about countries giving their "silent approval" for an "interpretation" that Estonians are revisionists is just as illogical in the Aamulehti version.

If the letter had been written by a blogger, it would be easy to dismiss as an ill-informed rant. Coming from the foreign minister of a powerful country, it's quite worrisome. I can't imagine that it was meant to convince recipients of the righteousness of Russia's cause. Maybe it was intended to keep them silent, lest they find themselves at the receiving end of a similar barrage. This time the toxic language can't be explained by saying that it was intended for domestic consumption, because the letter was sent to foreign governments and was not made public by Russia.


They get letters

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has sent a letter to Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva re the Estonian statue brouhaha. Hans Schumacher, the German ambassador to Finland, characterized the contents of said letter as "rather stern".

Before you read too much into it, be advised that the same letter was also sent to a bunch of other EU countries, including Germany and France. It was not, I think we can safely conclude, inspired by anything Kanerva has said.

There's no word on just how harsh Kanerva considered the letter's wording to be, but he did describe it thusly:

Mr Kanerva told STT that the letter mostly contained an account of how Russia had experienced the row with Estonia over the moving of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn. Mr Lavrov also hoped in the letter that EU foreign ministers could make Russia's views known in Tallinn.

Mr Kanerva added the letter did not contain anything else of importance.
So apparently Lavrov didn't suggest military consultations, which is always a plus.

Update: Estonian daily Eesti Paevaleht got hold of the letter and published it. Quotes are available here. I'll comment more later.

Obligatory Eurovision blogging

While I maintain that the title of this blog is ironic, I suppose it obliges me to offer some trenchant commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest.

The greatness of the format is that it combines a talent show with nationalism to give everyone a rooting interest. Sure, what we have in offer is mostly terrible and entirely lacking in good taste besides, but that just means that our entry - a brilliant distillation of all that's good in popular music every year, of course - has a shot at winning.

The big weakness is that there are just too many songs taking part. There are only so many cheesy techno pop tunes and hideously bombastic ballads one person equipped with any taste in music can take in one go. I'm not sure what the limit is, but I know both the semi-final and final cross it. Someone please put Yugoslavia back together, is what I'm saying.

Also, everyone should go back to singing in their own languages. The English language has the odd quality of making the most inanely insipid lyrics sound merely normal. Having the words delivered in some language I don't understand and thus being forced to rely on Finnish subtitles, on the other hand, brings out their stupidity in all its glory.

Based on the semi-final, Georgia and Hungary must be complimented for sending entries that resemble music. Both were rewarded with places in the final. Croatia and Austria sent inoffensive rock songs, which means that they were better than your standard Eurovision fare, but they didn't make it to the final. The rest of the songs were not very good.


One party rule rules

A fun aspect of the recent British regional elections was observing people accustomed to plurality elections come to grips with proportional representation. Seeing commonplace, accepted features of our political system like coalition governments and post-election negotiations to form a government program assailed as strange and counterproductive showed just how different political cultures can be. Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the Guardian, produced a heated example of the genre.

It turns out that sometimes parties don't even announce what sort of a coalition they'd like to form after the election, thus removing "the outcome of an election from the hustings to the private deal of corridors, cabals and careerism." The poor electorate is kept in the dark as party leaders go as far as to offer cabinet posts to potential coalition partners. What's even worse, because pluralities of the vote well short of 50 percent don't routinely amount to majorities in the legislature, proportional representation almost always leads to power sharing among parties. This in turn leads to a "diluted, unstable, and unaccountable" executive. It's clearly a terrible way to rule a country. I wonder how we've managed to sustain it for 100 years.

For once I'd like pieces assailing proportional representation to survey how the various election methods known by that name perform in practice. Given that proportional representation is more common than first-past-the-post, there isn't a shortage of data to study, but the only examples that are used with any regularity are Israel, post-war Italy, and Weimar Germany. Those three don't exactly amount to a representative sample.

Incidentally, first-past-the-post was considered in Finland when it came time to pick an election system. It was proposed by the Finnish Party. They wanted 160 single seat districts with a set majority of the seats being located in the countryside, where they were the most popular party at the time. The proportional system was picked in part because it was thought to better guarantee representation for minorities, i.e. give seats to the Swedish Party. This was somewhat illogical, I think, as single member constituencies tend to help regionally based parties.

The results of first-past-the-frozen-post would have been interesting. The Social Democratic Party would have persisted as the left-wing alternative and the Swedish (People's) Party would rule the Swedish-speaking areas, I would say. The pressure on the Fennoman parties to merge into one, which was considerable even under proportional representation, would increase further. But what would have happened to the Communists electoral prospects? (My guess: they would have tried to take over the SDP with unpredictable results.) Would the Fennoman parties have merged? (Yep.) If so, would they have split again? (Yep.) Would the new dividing line have been rural/urban, liberal/conservative, or right-wing/centrist? (A bit of each.)


Halonen on NATO and the media

Yesterday saw a Presidential Forum on foreign policy and security policy, a partly televised discussion event organized by President Tarja Halonen (Social Democratic Party) and attended by Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva (National Coalition Party) in addition to various foreign policy worthies. Halonen took the opportunity to reiterate her oft-stated position that no decision on joining NATO has been made.

Halonen also dabbled in media criticism (fi). "I would really hope that someone would make a report on how the Finnish media have in comparison to other media approached for example questions like Iraq or this bronze soldier." She said that the media "campaign" by looking for differences of opinion in foreign policy decision making. "Whenever several people are involved, it's possible that they disagree slightly. It shouldn't be prevented; it's called democracy."

I have to take issue with Halonen's critique. The most important thing may well be that the government and the president can arrive at a common decision, but surely disagreement during the decision making process is precisely the sort of thing the media should report to the best of their ability. Also, while I believe that the statements made by Halonen, Kanerva, and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) re the Estonian statue controversy can be combined to form a coherent whole, they did approach the issue from different points of view. Raising questions about how their comments should be interpreted is well within the media's purview.

Finally, asking for a comparison to foreign media speaks of a thin skin, I'm afraid. The Finnish media are in my opinion quite reserved in their speculation and respectful of official figures like Halonen compared to the foreign (English language) press I follow.


Resign from the church

Finland is an example of a country in which a large majority of the population belongs to a state church, in our case the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, but comparatively few believe what the church teaches. The website Eroa kirkosta (fi) ("Resign from the Church") is a creative reaction to this state of affairs. Set up by a freethinkers' association from Tampere, it allows people to resign from the state churches - the Finnish Orthodox Church being the other - by filling out a form online. According to the website, in 2006 well over 70 percent of all resignations from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland were made through the website. The service is especially popular with young people: roughly 4 percent of 18-year olds resigned from the church in 2006 through the website. The church income tax is one significant driver for resignations. There's a fun chart on the website which shows that there's a big spike in resignations in November and December. The church tax need not be paid for the year if the person has resigned before New Year.

It's interesting how important to church membership even relatively minor changes in how convenient it is to resign. The website carries a short history (fi) of resigning from the church, which notes for example the importance of the way in which the church tax is collected. Up to 1960 it was paid in one go at the end of the year, but after that year it has been collected directly from the salary. The result was that resignations more than halved from 1959 to 1960. Other big jumps occurred in 1969 when you could resign without talking to a priest and in 2003 when you could do it in writing, without talking to anyone at all. Now, merely by giving an easy and an impersonal way to resign, this website has put a significant dent in church membership. It's almost as if the state churches had a lot of members that weren't very serious about religion...

Personally, I think the French and the Americans have the right idea on the need for a state church.


Zhdanov on the Zinoviev letter

Recently I read Jukka Nevakivi's very entertaining book Ždanov Suomessa ("Zhdanov in Finland") about Andrei Zhdanov's time as the head of the Allied Control Commission in Finland. Nevakivi describes a discussion on January 23rd, 1945, in which Zhdanov instructed Finnish Communists in the art of election propaganda. One of the examples he used was the Zinoviev letter. The interesting thing is that according to Zhdanov, the letter was of Soviet origin, but intended by them to hurt Labour. Nevakivi quotes Zhdanov thusly (my translation): "Before the election we published the forged 'Zinoviev letter' and because of this forgery, Labourites lost a part of their votes to the Conservatives..."

I haven't seen this theory in British sources. The general opinion seems to be the one from the linked article: that a few British intelligence agency officers were behind the letter's release, but that its forger is unknown. In theory Zhdanov's claim remains a possibility. On the other hand, in late 1924, when the letter was published in the Daily Mail, Zhdanov was a local official in Nizhni-Novgorod, so presumably whatever he knew about the topic he heard second hand, after the fact. The claim that the Soviets published the letter is questionable, as we know that it got to the British press from British intelligence, but it can be interpreted loosely, I suppose.


Election day in France

Here are a few random thoughts on today's French presidential election:

I watched parts of the televised debate on TV5 during commercial breaks. Based purely on the candidates' body language, as I barely understood a word they were saying, I got the impression that Sarkozy was winning. The next day some newspapers praised Royal for going on the attack, but I thought she was quite obviously overdoing it, to the point where a neutral viewer's sympathy would go to Sarkozy for having to deal with her constant interruptions. I'll note that polls taken since the debate have mostly shown Sarkozy increasing his lead.

Having a political system where everyone pretty much gets along with everyone else may be a bit boring, but it sure beats a situation where one side can credibly warn of security problems if the other side wins. Former Interior Minister Kari Rajamäki (Social Democratic Party) hinted at that direction (fi) before the parliamentary election, but that was very vague and easy to laugh off besides.

Jacques Chirac may have been an oily old crook, but at least he was an entertaining oily old crook. Do we have any idea about what the candidates think of Matti Vanhanen's sex appeal? What are their thoughts on Ilkka Kanerva's competence? How about Finnish food? (And don't answer, "No thanks.")

It's difficult to figure out what outcome the Finnish government would prefer. Probably the most important issue to them that will be influenced by the result is the EU constitution. Sarkozy's likely victory would be a boost to the mini-treaty camp, which is not the camp in which Finland currently resides; Royal has promised a new referendum on whatever the result happens to be, which is a risky proposition, and would probably want to insert some left-wing stuff in there. Both are cold on Turkey's EU membership, although Royal would shunt the responsibility for closing the door on the French public, proposing another referendum. Again the Finnish government is in the other camp. Neither candidate elicits much enthusiasm in Vanhanen and company, I would wager.

The English language press is often highly condescending toward the French. It's almost as if there's some past history there...


Stratfor on Finnish and Swedish NATO prospects

Stratfor, a well-known private security consulting intelligence agency, has published an article of Finland's and Sweden's approach to NATO. The direct link asks you to register, but you can access it without registering by going through Google News.

The aspect I found most interesting is their analysis of Finland's and Sweden's motives. For Finland, they write, joining NATO would be a way to obtain closer political ties to Western Europe. For Sweden, it would be a way to remain a regional power. I partly disagree with their assessment on Finland. It's true that a common refrain from Finnish NATO enthusiast is that Finland needs to be represented in all the clubs through which Western powers cooperate. However, that argument alone isn't good enough. "But mom, everyone else is doing it!" just isn't very convincing. There needs to be a consensus - if not among the people, at least among the leaders of the big parties and the president - that joining will improve Finland's security.

The article notes that Finland and Sweden have agreed to consult each other before taking the step to join. This, according to Stratfor, raises the possibility that "Finland would not join NATO unless Sweden does as well". That is going a bit too far, I think. The idea is not that either side has veto over the other's security policy, but that any decision one country makes will not come as a surprise to the other. It's possible, for example, that Finland joining will push Sweden to do likewise. Giving advance warning of such intentions is beneficial for long-term planning.

PS: Stratfor says Sweden has "a stellar defense program". What's that, the Finnish military? (Zing!)

The Coalition takes the lead

Taloustutkimus, the polling company used by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), has come up with a new poll (fi) on party support, the first one I've seen since the election. The National Coalition Party has taken the lead with 24.1 percent. The party's best parliamentary election result ever is 23.1 percent from 1987, so they're flying high indeed. The Centre Party follows in second place at 23 percent and the Social Democratic Party are third at 20.7 percent. Behind the big three, the Green League has passed the Left Alliance, 9.4 percent to 8.2 percent, and the True Finns are up to 4.5 percent.

The figures suggest that the new government is enjoying something of a honeymoon with the voters. This applies especially to the two new government parties, the Coalition and the Greens, which are also the two parties the opposition has criticized the most. Apparently the criticism hasn't had much of an effect, at least for now. The Centre in particular has received remarkably little flack from the opposition considering their leading role in the government. The appointment of Paavo Väyrynen as Foreign Trade Minister was widely attacked, of course, but that mostly came from the media, not opposition politicians.

YLE and Taloustutkimus have discussed (fi) how to improve on the results of previous polls, which have been criticized for underrating the Coalition's support. According to Taloustutkimus, the problem was the Coalition's unusually low support in the 2003 parliamentary election. My understanding is that pollsters don't generally trust that their sample of respondents is truly representative and therefore adjust the figures in various ways. The idea is to use the turnout from previous elections to build a turnout model that tells the pollster which respondents' answers to emphasize. Taloustutkimus's turnout model was bad because they didn't account for the increase of enthusiasm amount certain types of voters who favored the Coalition.

The problems with the previous results shouldn't be exaggerated. In absolute numbers Taloustutkimus's estimate of the Coalition's support have mostly been passable - within the margin of error in the recent election. The issue was that the difference was large enough to relegate the Social Democrats to third place and raise the Coalition to second - and into government. Had there been a similar error which didn't affect the the parties' order, it would have hardly caused any consternation.


The 500

May Day is a traditional speechifying date in Finnish politics. This year the number one topic were the prospects for the next comprehensive incomes policy agreement. By most accounts the prospects are quite slim; labour unions and employers' unions are quite far apart in their wishes. The left-wing opposition blames the government's insufficient willpower. The government, while vowing to work toward an agreement, blames the other negotiating parties for not agreeing.

An added twist is an at-times heated debate over what precisely did the right-wing National Coalition Party promise in its election campaign when it talked of a special equality incomes policy agreement. I realize that the "shifty politicians betray their promise to nurses" is a better storyline (fi) than "politicians try to do what little they said they would". Nevertheless, for the sake of accuracy, the National Coalition Party is correct when they say that they didn't promise to raise nurses' salaries by 500 euros.

The Iltalehti tabloid asked all parties about the statement "Nurses' basic monthly salary must be raised by at least 500 euros". Representing the Coalition, party secretary Taru Tujunen answered yes, but explained that this can't be done in one go. Such a promise doesn't mean much - if we wait for an arbitrary amount of time, of course nurses' salaries will go up by 500 euros - but that really is what she said. Asking about it from the party's parliamentary faction chairman, Pekka Ravi, who apparently knows very little (fi) about the topic, doesn't change the facts.

Having written all that, I do understand why there is debate on the matter. The Coalition didn't try very hard to make clear what it is they were actually promising. If you bothered to look, you could figure it out, but I bet many people were under the impression that the Coalition would raise nurses' salaries no matter what the result of the incomes policy negotiations. Whether that was an intended consequence is more difficult to judge.


I hate Moscow Oblast Nashis

So... a "pro-Kremlin youth group" called Nashi continue to carry out some sort of quasi-siege of the Estonian embassy, try to attack the Estonian ambassador to Russia at a press conference but get maced for their troubles, and damage the car of the Swedish ambassador to Russia for having the temerity to try to visit the Estonian embassy.

This is pretty worrying behaviour, I would say. The European Union has "strongly urged" Russia to protect the immunity of the diplomats. Russian cops seemed quite effective in breaking up an opposition rally in St Petersburg a short while ago. One wonders why they can't seem to bring this youth group under any sort of control. If one were cynical, one could arrive at the conclusion that they don't want to.

Russia is also thinking about various means to put economic pressure on Estonia. A boycott of Estonian products by individual consumers would be relatively benign, but "maintenance" on a railway grid putting a stop to oil deliveries to Estonia would be more serious.

Then there are the attacks on Estonian government websites. Estonia's Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said that some of them had come from Internet addresses registered to the Russian government. If Paet is correct, it raises the question of why Russia can't find competent 'Net hooligans.

On the Finnish front, President Tarja Halonen broke her silence on the matter. She pretty much repeated what Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva had already said, but it's still a welcome move.

Deadwood appreciation

Last night the final episode of Deadwood aired here in Finland. This post is slightly spoilerish, so if you intend to watch this wonderful show in the future (which you really should, if you haven't already), you may want to skip it.

Damn, that was one fine television show. It struck a wonderful balance between emotionally gripping drama and visceral, often suspenseful action, while providing more laugh-out-loud moments than most comedies. The visual aspect of the show was beautiful in all its ugliness. The acting was top notch with Ian McShane's performance as Al Swearengen of course being the star attraction. The language was a delight, veering wildly from flowery theatrical monologues to extremely crude but inventive insults. It even managed to be intellectually stimulating, showing modernity arriving in lawless camp in the form of a police force, a bank, a school, government, politics, and big business.

The only disappointment was the abrupt end. A fourth season would have clearly been in order - and possibly a fifth one, depending how quickly the central storyline of Swearengen versus a changing world was moved along. I studiously avoided spoilers while the show was still on, so I'm only now catching up on news about the making process. Based on the what I've read, I have to question the wisdom of canceling a show that was HBO's second-most popular and so very good besides.


Global Press Freedom Rankings 2007

Having done my bit to enforce rigid standards of political correctness in the media, it behooves me to highlight that the Freedom House has published their annual Global Press Freedom Rankings for 2007. Here's the top three:

1. Finland 9
= Iceland 9
3. Belgium 11
= Denmark 11
= Norway 11
= Sweden 11
How do ya you like 'em apples, Belgium?! Suomi! Suomi! Suomi!

Freedom House now rates all EU countries as "free". Italy was the last holdout in the "partly free" category, but according to the by-country reports (PDF) "[w]hile the private broadcast media in Italy is still concentrated in the hands of the Berlusconi-dominated Mediaset, the public broadcaster, RAI, is no longer under his control."

On the negative side, quoth Freedom House:
The study also noted a longer-term trend of press freedom decline or stagnation in a number of crucial countries and regions, particularly the Americas and the former Soviet Union. In assessing country trends over the past five years, the survey found that Venezuela had suffered the largest single decline in media independence. Other important countries which registered major declines were Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, Argentina, Ethiopia and Uganda. [...]

The five worst-rated countries continue to be Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. In these states, which are scattered across the globe, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the ruling regime, and citizens' access to unbiased information is severely limited. The numerical scores for these five countries have barely changed in relation to the previous year, reflecting a level of extreme repression and stagnation for the media.
So that's a bummer.

Sexist politicians must go

The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) has a computer-animated political satire show called Itse valtiaat (fi), featuring familiar politicians taking part in alleged comic hi jinx. It has long been criticized for lacking any form of political content, instead opting for a character-based humour popular with young viewers. The breakout character among the pre-teen set was former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, presented as a grouchy and almost ape-like but ultimately kind-hearted. Lately the show has acquired a new political edge. Shows are actually topical and characters discuss current events in a satirical fashion. It has never been worse.

The problem is that the newfound topical content has come at the prize of hiring Aarno "Loka" Laitinen, a long-time Iltalehti columnist, as a writer. Laitinen has succeeded in inserting political rumours and such into the scrip. He's also succeeded in making all male characters sound like himself - hidebound chauvinists, that is - and the female characters have lost what little intelligence they used to have. His abysmal columns are quite idiosyncratic in their bitter sexism and it's supremely irritating to have the same retrograde screed coming out of the mouths of every frigging male politician on the show. They should go back to doing a children's show. The program still wouldn't be any good, but limiting people's exposure to Laitinen would surely be a positive thing in itself.


The Reds were wrong

Looking at the calendar, this seems like a good day to write something right-wingish.

Matti Viialainen is the deputy director of the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK). He's a former Communist who has nowadays become a right-wing Social Democrat and a notable supporter of uniting the Social Democratic Party and the Left Alliance. Last week he made some interesting comments (fi) on the Finnish Civil War.

The two issues that received most prominence are his call for the labour movement to apologize to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland for a handful of murders committed in 1918 and his opinion that said events can be properly called a rebellion. The former I believe to be a well-meaning attempt to build bridges between SAK and the church - Viialainen made these comments in an interview given to the religious Kotimaa magazine - but considering the magnitude of death and destruction in the war, I'm not sure why the church of all entities should receive an apology at this late date. The latter is pointless given how entrenched the name Civil War is at this point. Both names are defensible, as the rebellion turned into a war, but I think the term "civil war" better encompasses also the rebellion than vice versa.

Viialainen's greater point, and one that has gone without much comment, is a good one: namely, the Reds' decision to rebel was a mistake with terrible consequences. Viialainen describes it as the labour movement's most tragic decision. I'm hard-pressed to think a decision with more ruinous consequences in the history of independent Finland. The Social Democratic Party could have implemented many of its demands by simply cooperating with centrists and liberals in the Parliament. After all, it managed to do that even after the war, which had driven a big wedge between it and moderate non-socialists. There are some things in the Reds' stated goals (fi) that they didn't achieve later through parliamentary means: bank capital and the industry were not nationalized and the judiciary remained independent. Most social democrats these days seem to agree that this state of affairs is for the best.

Is there any point in discussing this almost 90 years after the fact? Red nostalgia isn't quite as common as, say, the disgusting Confederate nostalgia in the United States. Revolutionary socialism has lost its luster both in voting booths and on the streets. However, analysis of the events sometimes overemphasizes the pox-on-both-their-houses angle. The recognition that this was a rebellion against a democratically elected government that resulted in nothing but misery can be lost in cataloging the entirely understandable reasons for why it started and what awful acts Whites and Reds did to each other. The whole sorry event could and should have been avoided and one side bears the greater responsibility for that not happening.