The New Finnish Political Carnival

My native country is not mentioned in world news that frequently. It was all the more refreshing to see Finnish clowns recently enjoy a moment in the international limelight — even though the story itself is nothing to laugh about.

When I moved to New York in 2004, I was already following American politics closely. This is not unusual: most Europeans seem more clued into what is happening across the Atlantic than in their own backyards. This is particularly bizarre, and frustrating, when the EU or various European governments pursue the same exact agenda as the US, but their citizens’ ire is still directed against the damn Yankee. Think of, say, the wars of recent decades, the CIA’s torture flights, or, to a lesser extent, secret trade deal negotiations.

I came of age in a country that was politically boring. Government worked on a consensus basis, with power divided between a few major parties — all of them more or less as good or as bad, depending on your outlook — and labor unions. The press was homogenous and somewhat self-censoring, though less so than during our time as neighbors with the Soviet Union.

(Side note: browsing through Hillary Clinton’s recently released emails, I came across a fascinating diplomatic cable from 1987, declassified in 2013, that describes this “unusually high degree of consensus in policymaking”, and goes on to list influential Finns “who spend a lot of time sauna-ing, hunting, fishing and skiing at various company facilities in Finland, [and] represent a curiously Finnish alliance of left-wing politicians and right-wing businessmen working towards common goals”.)

As an expat with strong ties back to my native country, I made it a point to keep following its politics while living in the US. It hasn’t always been easy. Listening to Finnish parliamentary sessions, with the opposition chiming in with their contributions as to what to do about the dwindling salmon population, could sometimes be almost therapeutic. Perhaps best as therapy for insomnia, though.

American politics, on the other hand, is disturbing, infuriating, dirty, full of drama. Like a car crash you can’t stop rubbernecking, it’s hard not to pay attention, even for someone painfully aware how little impact public opinion and elections have on American policy. And despite that fact, a single party primary debate is bigger news internationally than actual elections in most other countries. This contrast was encapsulated in one of my favorite sarcastic headlines of all time, from a short article in The Economist in 1999: “A Finnish Election: None Dead”.

But Finland has begun to deliver greater entertainment value over the years, as the country gradually assimilates more elements of American-style politics. We now have think tank “experts”, guns-for-hire who shill for corporate interests, aggressively shaping public discourse. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, a multimillionaire former CEO with assets stowed away in tax havens, invokes fiscal sustainability as the bogeyman to justify cuts to services. Currently, funding for Finland’s prided education is being slashed, universities are forced into en-masse layoffs, and a concerted effort is underway to put an end to free higher education altogether.

And quite like in the US, immigrant bashing has become acceptable in polite company. One major shift happened in 2011, when the True Finns Party (nowadays going by the less obviously populist “Finns Party”) swept into power. After the initial disdain and resentment, the establishment has welcomed them into the fold. This political climate, predating and coinciding with the influx of immigrants, has caused other worrying symptoms: repeated violent attacks on refugee centers, and self-appointed xenophobic street patrols appearing in several Finnish cities — metastasizing from Finland around Europe, according to some reports — who call themselves (in all seriousness) the Soldiers of Odin.

This has sparked a creative counteraction: Loldiers of Odin, the clown patrol trailing behind the street patrols, with the mission to combat intolerance and hate through ridicule and humor.

The country sank to a new low last month when President Sauli Niinistö of the conservative National Coalition Party gave a high-profile address to the opening session of parliament. Following the example of a government wary of alienating elements of the public with clearly-worded condemnations of racism, the president resorted to the weapon of false equivalence. Public discourse is too polarized, he lamented. “We have bad-mouthed both the tolerant and the intolerant.” Clowns on either end of the divide were treated to the same fatherly reprimands: we are gravely mistaken “to monitor each other’s actions and words, to examine them in detail, making everything into a big number and cause for ridicule.”

In this narrative, on one extreme are those who spew hateful speech while Molotov cocktails are thrown at refugee centers; on the other, those who forcefully condemn or make fun of them. But “people of sanity”, the president teaches us, form a “silent majority” in the middle. Emphasis on the adjective: in the face of a spreading hatred towards minorities, sanity equals silence. This rhetorical device, too, is familiar from American politics, championed by faux progressives like the recently retired Jon Stewart, who infamously held a “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington DC. In Stewart’s opinion, on one extreme are war criminals (“technically” speaking), on the other, those who call them war criminals. “It’s a conversation stopper,” he explained.

Most chillingly reminiscent of post-9/11 America, though, were Niinistö’s caveats concerning international law. “I am sure that if international treaties were formulated today, their content would be considerably stricter,” he declared on immigration and asylum. “At some point, someone has to fess up to the fact that we cannot, in this present situation, fulfill all our international treaty obligations.”

A young up-and-coming Finnish politician recently wrote on her Facebook page: “Remember the time when people complained that politics is boring?” With its parade of clowns of various stripes, the new Finnish political carnival has me glued to the computer on a daily basis. It is addictive and increasingly toxic. If the American circus is any indication, the more engrossing it gets, the further removed it will be from the wishes and wellbeing of the people, and from truth.

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