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A Culture of Violence: Donald Trump and the Politics of Extremism (blog post for John Morton Center for North American Studies, 2016)

Speaking to a cheering audience as security personnel physically ejected a protester from a rally in Las Vegas on February 22, 2016, Donald Trump proudly asserted:

“I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out in a stretcher, folks. Yeah, it’s true. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya…”

What good old days is Trump referring to and how does such spectacle and violence fit into his vision of “making America great again”?

Donald Trump sees violence as being good for his campaign. The act of physically throwing people out of his events is part of the show. However, the violence has been escalating and taking on new forms. On March 9, a white Trump supporter named John McGraw sucker-punched a Black protestor named Rakeem Jones at a rally, later stating, “the next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” Trump addressed the issue by offering to pay McGraw’s legal fees. Most notably, Trump cancelled a rally on Friday, March 11, in Chicago, culminating in violent clashes between supporters and protestors.

Critics argue that Trump is at least partially responsible for the violence at campaign events. Conservative commentators, for their part, blame liberals for antagonizing and taunting Trump supporters and trying to silence their voices. But who exactly is being silenced? Trump’s “silent majority” is largely made up of middle-aged whites without a college education, people who grew up in the 1960s when only 4.7% of the population was foreign born (the lowest proportion ever). Their desire to “Make America Great Again” harkens back to an early twentieth century nativism that is threatening to destabilize the presidential cycle and even democratic society itself. Indeed, the so-called golden age of middle class America in the early 1960s that many disgruntled baby boomers want to return to was only made possible by immigration restrictions that began in the 1920s. That model proved unsustainable, and the nativist rhetoric was no less racist and undemocratic at that time than it is now.

Still, just how new is such violence in mainstream American politics? The best point of comparison is the presidential election of 1968, the most violent election year in recent American history, which saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots, antiwar protests, and clashes between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party was splitting apart at that time and needed to find a new direction. Now, the Republican Party is fighting to hold itself together. In an interview with Rachel Maddow, news correspondent Dan Rather contends that Donald Trump’s political message resonates strongly with that of George Wallace, a third-party candidate (American Independent Party) in the 1968 presidential election. Wallace, a southern politician who supported segregation, appealed to alienated white voters and was known for his angry denouncements of hippies, the Supreme Court, and big government. Still, Trump is not George Wallace. While Trump, too, is a conservative who has said that he would not be opposed to running on a third-party ticket if need be (though this may not still be the case), what is different about Trump is that he is a businessman and not a career politician. He sows political divisions for his own benefit without acknowledging the extent to which such divisiveness threatens to revisit some of the worst aspects of violence in the 1960s. Not having been in politics before, his positions on more complex policy issues are not known. For now, that seems to be an advantage, especially among those always suspicious of big government and bureaucratic incompetence in the public sector.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_Cancels_Chicago_Rally_As_Clashes_Break_Out.webmhd.webm

 

Eight years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on the theme of hope, and yet, now, a sizable group on the political left combined with right-wing anger undermine this message of unity. While is it nothing new that Americans are politically divided and even polarized on many issues, especially during election season, we have entered a phase in which such emotions are erupting in violence. Do such violent episodes help Trump’s campaign and will his campaign evolve into organized violence? The consensus judgment in the media, based on polling and on-the-ground reporting, is that the confrontations last week in Fayetteville, North Carolina, St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois, combined with the most recent angry clashes in the last few days in Utah, Arizona, and New York, may offend some potential voters, but they will excite those already most committed the Trump movement. In fact, Trump’s poll numbers have been climbing of late in direct relation to the harshness of his rhetoric. His campaign has not yet faltered, even as he has insulted Hispanics, Muslims, and other minorities, a Vietnam-era POW, the Bush presidency, and women. Still, the more extreme his base becomes in silencing dissenting voices, the more difficult it may become for him to reach beyond that base in a general election. The climate of heightened tension may in fact help undo his campaign more than anything else.

Seeing Red, White, Black and Blue: The Changing Face of the United States in the Twenty-First Century (blog post for the John Morton Center for North American Studies, 2015)

In a rather intriguing political cartoon, several Native Americans are standing along the shoreline watching a boatload of Europeans approach them, marveling that the immigrants probably do not even have proper documentation. It might be added that they probably would have had no idea about the significance of such a moment in light of future debates on multiculturalism, equality, and belonging, The ninth JMC Current Issues Seminar, “USA Today, USA Tomorrow,” featured three international scholars brought together to discuss illegal immigration, racial violence, and President Obama’s recurring message of “Hope.” The first two speakers, Dr. Jørn Brøndal on “The Immigration Issue and the Future of the Republican Party” and Dr. Jennifer Chernega on “Race and Policing in the United States,” had remarkable historical data and visual images documenting the long history of racism and violence in the United States, while the third speaker, Dr. Albion Butters, focused on “The Last Days of Obama” as a way to explore the tensions surrounding the central themes of hope, division, and disillusionment in the wake of ongoing reports of racial violence and economic disparity.

Brøndal, an associate professor in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, highlighted the fact that in the United States, in contrast to Europe, the immigration debate largely has to do with illegal immigration. Since Native Americans watched the first “illegal” immigrants arrive in the early 1600s, approximately 81 million people have immigrated to the country. Between 2000 and 2009, 10.3 million people immigrated to the United States, 48% of whom are listed as Hispanic and Latin Americans, a somewhat ambiguous category since it includes people who may describe themselves as “white.” Professor Brøndal’s images illustrated in a very powerful way how the debate really revolves around the millions of unauthorized immigrants who have crossed the Mexico–United States border. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has employed a double immigration legislative strategy: 1) border security and demands for toughness as well as 2) amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The Republican base tends to be more skeptical of amnesty. Whereas Republicans say “let’s get tougher and then legislate,” Democrats argue, “but we have been tough and it hasn’t been working.” These differences in approach have recently come to a head. Top Republicans in Congress and 25 states have challenged the legality of President Obama’s decision to ease deportations for children and their families. But, as Professor Brøndal made clear, there have been more deportations (over 2 million) under Obama than prior presidents. So the issue is by no means clear-cut for either party. No major piece of legislation has been passed in decades. The Republicans more than the Democrats, though, need more minority voters to remain viable as a party. Beneath the rhetoric, corporate interests in maintaining the status quo cut across both parties: businesses have lots of cheap labor at their disposal (profit motive). Amnesty would beg the question of paying illegals a minimum wage, whereas deportation would equal the loss of cheap labor.

The issue of race and policing in the United States further demonstrates that targeting minorities is a way to make money. Professor Chernega from Winona State University in Minnesota gave a fascinating talk on the recent media attention surrounding police violence against black men in particular. The reason that the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO ultimately received so much attention is that the body lay in the middle of the street for four and a half hours. Commuters drove past it during rush hour, heightening community awareness. Members of the community organized a candlelight vigil that evening, prompting a police order to disperse. Only then did the media take notice and only then did reporters, too, suffer mistreatment at the hands of the police. Now that the predominantly white media has finally taken notice, stories of police violence against blacks appear regularly throughout the country. In the case of Ferguson, we learn that 86% of all police stops involve black suspects. A town of 21,000 people, Ferguson police have currently issued approximately 33,000 arrest warrants for non-violent offences. Of 16,000 outstanding arrest warrants, 92% of them are against blacks. Though whites are more likely to carry contraband, police target blacks because they have less political power to fight back. Professor Chernega used maps for a number of U.S. cities to show how segregated the country is at this point. The maps clearly identified the relationship between black neighborhoods and low housing prices. Blacks, unable to accrue wealth through housing values, also have limited educational opportunities (since school funding is linked to a neighborhood’s tax base) and less access to good jobs and quality food. Outstanding arrest warrants and resulting jail time, essentially criminalizing poverty, make it even more difficult for blacks to find decent jobs. Sadly, the American public suffers from a vast “perception disconnect” (to use Chernega’s term): whereas only 37% of whites think blacks are treated less fairly, 70% of blacks think they are treated less fairly, and, whereas only 44% of whites think more needs to be done to achieve racial equality, 79% of blacks think more needs to be done. Dr. Martin Luther King (in perhaps one of his less popular quotes among many whites) said that “riot is the language of the unheard.” He knew the truth of the fact that the media pays attention to violence. Professor Chernega ended her talk by speculating on the impact of citizen journalism (taking control of what the story looks like) and the extent to which blacks might also have raised expectations for receiving justice with Barack Obama as president.

Dr. Albion Butters addressed President Obama’s message of hope as a conscious use of metaphor, a carefully crafted visual narrative. For him, “The Last Days of Obama” constitute the third act of a film, a message of change and renewal. Why has the message resonated so deeply? To answer this question, Dr. Butters focused on the religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s notion of the eternal return to a mythical time. Obama has offered a recasting of Dr. Martin Luther King, saying from the outset of his presidency that he is standing on King’s shoulders. Inevitably, though, a sense of disillusionment has set in for many people. But disillusionment with what? For many, the hope was just for Obama to get elected: “Yes We Can” became “Yes We Did.” For others, he never represented hope at all or else just never delivered on it. A racial, economic, and bi-partisan divide has opened up between those who see the hope and those who do not. In terms of race, do we look at Obama as the first African American president or the first African American president to fail blacks? In the face of President Obama’s silence during many instances of reported police brutality against blacks, many are now questioning the transformative nature of his presidency in matters of race and social justice. From an economic standpoint, the shrinking net worth of families, the 6% growth in the number of those on welfare, and fact that the top 1% are only increasing their control (40%) of all wealth has only served to dampen down the message of hope for many workers. During President Obama’s last days, a bi-partisan divide has been hindering government as never before. This has forced his hand. Rather than slipping quietly into lame duck status, President Obama has made a number of unilateral moves — on immigration, on seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, through increased use of his veto power, and through fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by leaving Congress out, a partnership that many fear will promote corporate interests over those of average workers. Such bold moves will help ensure his legacy. But at what cost? How will his actions shape the immigration debate in the future or questions about the shrinking middle class, the disappearing American dream, and whether or not blacks and other minorities will ever have more of a stake in the dream? Nonetheless, even if his hope for a united country (campaigning on the idea that there are no red or blue states, just purple states) has not come to pass, his message of hope and change will continue to resonate long after he has left the White House. All three speakers gave fascinating presentations and it will be an exciting in the next year and a half to see how the presidential candidates address, or try to dodge, each of these important issues.

Indian Summer

On April 29, 2014 the inaugural ceremony was held for the John Morton Center for North American Studies at the University of Turku. The event included a live documentary show by Professor Will Kaufman on “Woodie Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travelin.'” Profoundly influenced by the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, Guthrie traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California, where he met famed leftist writer John Steinbeck, and later to the Pacific Northwest, writing and performing folk songs concerned with the conditions faced by working people down on their luck. Guthrie is best remembered for his song “This Land Is Your Land.” Kaufman, guitar in hand, entertained the audience with some of Guthrie’s more controversial songs about social inequality, including several verses of the famous song that have often been omitted in subsequent recordings. This is a more controversial side of American history than the one often propped up in school textbooks, but Kaufman was quick to note that if anyone were to accuse Guthrie (or him) of being un-American, “them’s fightin’ words!”

The conference, “Bridging North America: Connections and Divides,” organized by the Center (August 28-30), also offered various perspectives on history, culture, and identity in North America, including presentations on travel and migration, ethnic identity, multiculturalism, American folk culture, indigenous voices, borderlands and notions of space, to name a few. All of the talks made valuable contributions to better understanding the rapidly changing economic, political, and cultural landscapes of the different countries. Traveling along the West Coast this summer, and visiting some of the places that Guthrie visited and sang about, like the Columbia River Gorge area (Guthrie wrote 26 songs in one month about the Columbia River; “paradise” he called it), I cannot help but feel that the numerous state and national parks, having preserved the (relatively) unspoiled nature and provided generations of families opportunities to reconnect with stories from the past, are one of the country’s best legacies. Guthrie, though, for all his appreciation of the natural beauty of the region, was primarily in the Pacific Northwest to document the damming of the Columbia River and government efforts to create jobs.

Today, tensions are no less heated than they were in Guthrie’s day regarding the role of government in the economy. Since the Great Recession especially, much attention in the United States has been devoted to the growing wealth gap between the wealthy elite compared to the overall citizenry. The Occupy movement of 2011 coined the political slogan “we are the 99%,” reflecting the opinion that 99% of the people are paying the price for the economic greed of a tiny minority within the upper class. The American popular narrative has always faced an inherent tension between the Horatio Alger myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps on the way to fulfilling the American dream and a darker history of the deck being stacked against minorities and generations of working people. In the current heated political climate, there is also renewed interest in focusing on the bottom 1%, predominantly made up of American Indians, to shed light on reasons for the increasing wealth gap and what can be done about it.

A friend of mine and her entire extended family were recently disenrolled from the tribal register of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon. It is part of a larger debate about who is “Indian enough,” cultural identity, and tribal disputes over money. Having reached epidemic proportions in recent years, it has divided communities and stripped members of payments, health benefits, pensions, and scholarships. Are interracial marriages and moving away from the reservation compromising cultural traditions? It depends on how one defines a sense of community. Since John Collier, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under FDR (1933-1945), first revived the reservation system as part of an effort to preserve American Indian culture and traditional economies, in the process helping to define modern tribes in their essentials and raise questions about the nature of tribal sovereignty and cultural identity, debates have continued over how best to deal with persistent economic inequality and a history of disenfranchisement. Should the U.S. government return stolen lands to Indian tribes, as one United Nations investigator studying discrimination against Native Americans advised the government to do as a way of combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination? Or, does the problem reside in the reservation system itself (the government holds the land in trust while at the same time treating the reservation as a separate nation apart from federal and state law)? The first perspective blames the government for not doing enough, whereas the second blames it for already having done too much in marginalizing Indians and making it difficult for them to fully participate in the market economy.

In my time back in the United States for research purposes, I have been struck by a pervasive culture of volunteerism in which people are looking to their neighborhoods and local schools and organizations rather than the state for solutions to problems. But the issue of disenrollment also highlights the dangers of not having enough legal safeguards at the state or national level, of not having the means to borrow money or acquire and safeguard property, of not having access to basic social services, all issues that Woodie Guthrie would have been familiar with in his sympathy for the disadvantaged.

What would Woodie Guthrie have to say about the recent round of identity politics and accusations of a new war on poor people? Probably a great deal. Fortunately, a new generation of folk singers from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Wilco, from Jerry Garcia to the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, to name a few, have paid tribute to his work and are helping keep his life and legacy alive for younger generations of fans who recognize the power of music in the struggle for social justice.

Heritage on Display

Back in Portland after several weeks of travel in Washington, California, and Hawaii, I have had a chance to reflect more on the ways in which culture, history, and heritage are negotiated and preserved. The biannual Finnish American Folk Festival in Naselle, Washington first began in 1982 as a rather small-scale affair. A quarter century later, Jens Lund, one of Washington’s premier folklorists, described it as “one of two of the most authentic folk festivals in the state” (Kate Giesse, “Release Your Inner Finn,” Coast Weekend, July 26-30, 2008, p. 12). It is related to the  yearly FinnFest USA, also first organized in 1982, both of which have grown tremendously since their early years and which enjoy strong support from third-generation Finnish Americans eager to (re-)connect with their ethnic roots, interested locals, and academics in both Finland and the U.S. The festival in Naselle included, among other things, a kantele performance by Wilho Saari, great-great-grandson of famous 19th century kantele player Kreeta Haapasalo, fascinating photographs from the Appelo Archive Center, a genealogy workshop, a Sami Heritage Room, a large model Viking ship in the courtyard, a tori (market) selling lots of interesting merchandise from Finland and the United States, and even a small log cabin attached to the back of a pickup truck driven around the country by Frank Eld, researcher, author, and lecturer on Finnish log construction. The Finnish-American Historical Society of the West, first organized in 1962, has also turned its attention to preserving The Pioneer Finnish Home and the related emigrant craftsmanship and stories. It works closely with the Oregon Historical Society, which has compiled an emigrant archives that includes a number of Finnish publications and old photographs. Probably the most important aspect of such emigrant/ethnic heritage displays is the way in which they preserve a distinctive story while still making that story accessible and relevant to a broader audience.

What is the difference between history and heritage? Whereas history is the literary narrative of a chronology of events, of change over time, heritage is an inheritance, a legacy passed on to successive generations or, more precisely, what successive generations choose to value from the past as a marker of identity. David Lowenthal, in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge University Press, 1998), notes that heritage can often constitute and define the most positive aspects of culture, while at the same time being a body of historical text subject to various interpretations and easily twisted into myth. The recent obsession with tradition and inheritance can either lead to cultural unity and identity or serve as a reaction against perceived racial, religious, or economic oppression. While on vacation in Hawaii, I saw another example of the positive side of heritage. The story of ‘Ulalena at the Maui Theater in Lahaina is a stage production that begins with the mythical creation of the islands, encapsulates “thousands of years” of Polynesian culture, and “rolls through successive waves of voyagers who have found their way to these shores.” Through song and dance, the play focuses on the multicultural aspects of Hawaii’s history rather than on the more divisive sides of colonialism and disenfranchisement. Is this just a feel-good gesture for the tourists? Perhaps. By focusing on the most positive aspects of culture, are we naively white-washing and side-stepping very real differences and grievances? Finnish culture, too, is rife with class and political differences. How might the story of Finnish culture be performed on stage? The heritage festival in Naselle certainly demonstrated how it, or at least Finnish American culture, can be packaged and marketed for popular consumption.

Maybe an anecdotal story is the best way to conclude this post. While in Hawaii, my nephew saw a local using a boogie board like a skim board (the Hawaiians invented board surfing). He tried it and did pretty well; the Hawaiian told my brother that the kid has real talent. My brother jokingly responded, “not bad for a haole, eh?” (a native term, often pejorative, for a white person). To which the Hawaiian shook his head and said, “none of that matters, it’s all about what’s in here,” pointing to his heart. Heritage, at its best, is inclusive. It cannot replace the injustices of the past (those stories need to be told too), but it can help unite us rather than divide us. Heritage celebrations offer an exciting way to connect with like-minded people who want to prop up and celebrate a very particular story in an increasingly globalized world. It is worth studying in more detail both the cultural and economic aspects of these new transnational connections.

On the Road

Driving north from the San Francisco Bay Area through the northernmost part of California, near the city of Yreka, we see a sign announcing the “State of Jefferson” on the roof of a barn. Huh? Fortunately, the Colbert Report (where I seem to get much of my news these days) explained it for me. A venture capitalist from Silicon Valley has managed to get a proposal added to the 2016 ballot to split California into six separate states, citing improved representation, governance, and competition between industries. There have been more than 220 proposals to divide California into multiple states in the last 150+ years, including at least 27 serious proposals. The State of Jefferson would include parts of northern California and southern Oregon. The name is inspired by President Thomas Jefferson, who sent the Lewis and Clark expedition into the Pacific Northwest in 1803 in the hopes of establishing an independent nation in the western portion of North America. The name is related to a much larger and long-standing independence movement to form the nation of “Cascadia,” which would include Oregon, Washington, parts of northern California, and British Columbia. The main reasons for the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, increased regional integration, and a national government that seems far away and unresponsive to local needs. Also inspired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the movement has been around since the early 19th century but seen renewed discussion in recent years. While I have yet to try Portland’s Secession Cascadian Dark Ale, a trip to Powell’s Books (one of the best bookstores in the world, hands down) has renewed my interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the distinctive regional identity that can be found in the Pacific Northwest.

Inspired by ideas of discovering local heritage, we headed out along the Columbia River towards the Pacific Ocean and the Finnish American Heritage Days Folk Festival in Naselle, Washington. Located three hours from Seattle and two and a half hours from Portland, Naselle and the nearby Grays River area have strong Finnish connections dating back to the late 19th century. Just a half hour drive north of Astoria, Oregon, the area is one of the only parts of the country outside the upper Midwest (and the only area west of the Mississippi River) that has retained such a strong Finnish identity for so long. A walk down the hallway of the high school where the festival was held showed decades of class photos right up to the present with names like Saari and Wirkkala. In contrast, the Finnish community in Berkeley, California had a great influence on the city in the middle parts of the 20th century. But it proved to be a moment in time. Whereas it was still possible in the 1940s and 1950s to frequent a number of Finnish-owned businesses and only speak Finnish, and even though the co-operative movement spearheaded by Finnish immigrants forever left its mark on the identity of the city, the presence of Finns is not so visible today other than at the Finnish Hall on Chestnut St. or the Finnish Studies Program at UC Berkeley. But then California’s story in general has been one of growing too fast, with many fledgling traditions quickly being stamped out or overwhelmed by successive groups moving in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Diversity can be healthy, and the San Francisco Bay Area is truly a unique place (could the hippie movement have happened anywhere else?), one that people from all over the world continue to seek out. Oregon and Washington, however, seem to have retained more of a cohesive narrative stemming from Lewis and Clark, encompassing various regional independence movements, and kept alive through local heritage festivals.

When I think back on Finnfest 1986 (and getting humiliated on the track in a fun run with Lasse Viren) and Suomi Seura activities in Hämeenlinna, Finland in 1988 and in Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1990, I realize how much has changed in the way heritage and ethnic identity are exhibited and negotiated. Even as late as the early 1990s, Finland’s Los Angeles Consulate General said to a friend of mine (after an independence day celebration at the Berkeley Finnish Hall) that she hoped many of the Finnish Americans in attendance never returned to Finland because the Finland they remembered and celebrated no longer existed. Berkeley’s Finnish community was indeed a community divided throughout much of the 20th century, with members of the Finnish white hall not associating with members of the red hall. When my dad one time tried to grow a beard and it came in red, his mother would not let him into the house until he shaved his “Russian” beard. But many of the old enmities that Finns brought over from Finland dividing church Finns from socialist Finns have died out with successive generations. Better travel possibilities and especially the Internet have made it so that Finnish Americans and Finns can meet more easily and trade ideas and stories. I recently wrote an article about how the relief efforts in the years around World War II challenged the long-standing divides between different Finnish emigrant groups and facilitated acculturation efforts and another article about how travel and tourism in the 20th century kept contacts alive between Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians and people in Finland. But in the latter case it was always privileged groups that could make such trips. The festival in Naselle reminded me just how easy it is now to form such transnational connections, with relief efforts replaced by Internet sales and package tours designed specifically for first-generation Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians replaced by a vast array of new personal connections.

Silent Waters Run Deep

Sitting here in Portland, Oregon, it is possible to gain better critical distance on discussions of Finns and Finnishness and my own time in Finland. An episode of Welcome to Sweden humorously showed a Swedish woman studying the apartment block landing through the peephole to find the moment when no one else was outside their apartments and try to make a run for it down the staircase and out into the street. She proceeded to explain to her confused American boyfriend that it is best not to have contact with the neighbors, and that if you do see them in the stairwell, just say a quick “hej” and move on. He refused to believe her and tried introducing himself to the first woman he saw when going down the stairs, much to everyone else’s embarrassment. Michael Booth, in The Almost Nearly Perfect People is highly critical of how rude of the Swedes can be at times. So is this a general northern European phenomenon, one that Americans have a difficult time understanding?

Even still, it is a topic that does touch a nerve with many Finnish people. A flurry of letters to the editor in Helsingin Sanomat have helped keep the debate going in the last week of July. For instance, while one Finnish cultural anthropologist living in California took opportunity to weigh in on the recent flurry of articles and editorials on Finnish silence by saying it is symptomatic of a people who are not very courteous or caring of others, other Finnish scholars have been quick to defend silence as a part of Finnish culture (in fact, as a sign of politely respecting another person’s privacy) and not something that should be changed to suit American tastes. The question was even raised as to whether Finns may not always greet their American neighbors because they are shy about speaking English and not sure how to behave. But this bumps up against another, less friendly, debate about tolerance the reasons behind Finnish insularity.

A new study by business think tank EVA on how Finns characterize themselves found the respondents believe that, in general, Finns are greedy and not particularly generous, wanting mostly to look out for themselves and not help others so much, and that they do not co-operate well with one another or value teamwork. Additionally, respondents suggested that Finns are not very tolerant or open-minded, even compared to their Nordic neighbors. In terms of positive characteristics, Finns work hard and respect basic values. Not an entirely flattering opinion poll. Another study by the University of Eastern Finland found that even with greater levels of internationalism among younger generations, young Finns still have a rigid and restrictive definition of what it means to be Finnish. You need to have been born in Finland, have at least one parent living in Finland, and speak either Finnish or Swedish, preferably (in the minds of most) Finnish. Even groups like the Roma, who have been in Finland for 300 years, are not really considered Finnish. The researcher was in fact surprised by the level of bigotry towards ethnic minorities.

Many Finns have been quick to suggest that this prejudice does not extend so much to Western Europeans or to Americans. But foreigners have not necessarily cut the Finns much slack in this department. Foreign academics, especially those from Great Britain, have for a long time been complaining about discrimination. I know this because I have been reading articles on the problem for several years now in the journal Acatiimi and even Yle news has recently picked up on the story. The nepotism does run deep here. But it works against Finns as well who are trying to move from one region to another or even to a different city. They often get passed up for a job, even when they seem more qualified, because they do not know those on the hiring committee as well as another candidate. The adage “it is not so much what you know as who you know” applies everywhere, but in Finland the idea of six degrees of separation seems to get whittled down to about three degrees of separation. One joke is that Finland comes out looking so good in measures of global corruption because, in order for corruption to take place, money needs to change hands, but in Finland this is not necessary since everyone already knows everyone else to some degree.

Jokes aside, my general concern and interest at this point is in this insularity that Finns exhibit towards outsiders, even people with Finnish heritage living abroad, and how to resolve this to the seeming obsession with being international and with American culture. When mentioning to a reporter last summer that Finns seem to see me principally as American and not as having both a Finnish and an American identity for an article she was doing on me and my family for the tabloid Ilta Lehti, she nodded and said, “yes, you can be one thing or another, but you cannot be both.” So what to make of this since it loops back into discussions of tolerance and openness? Is there such a divide then between the identities exhibited by Finnish Americans (even those who travel to Finland on a regular basis and/or regularly keep in touch with Finnish news and popular culture) and the identities of those born and raised in Finland? I do notice that educated Finns are quite interested in such annual Finnish American festivals as Finnfest. Is there more of a transnational identity that some people can lay claim to? Are such festivals primarily propping up high culture? With such questions in mind, I am eager to take advantage of my time in Portland and reconnect with what Finnish Americans are now saying about Finland. Though a part of the Finnish American community in Berkeley, California while growing up, I have been away from such heritage festivals for a long time (I attended Finnfest in 1986). So I am excited to head up the road tomorrow with the family to the Finnish-American Folk Festival of Naselle, in Washington.

When the Silence is Deafening

Visiting Finland is easy, living in Finland is a challenge. For years now, visitors to Finland have returned home with stories of how charming they found the people. In contrast, foreigners who have stayed for a longer time complain of the rudeness of the people on the streets, on buses, and in stores, and, in particular, the fact that neighbors barely bother to say hello to one another. Usually Finns who have lived elsewhere in the world empathize with such complaints and only add that “it is not you, it is them,” meaning that the Finns don’t talk much to each other either. Just a few days ago, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published an editorial by a Finn who had lived in Australia talking about how his American neighbors were returning to the States after 3 years. They complained that the other neighbors would still not greet them. The author’s question: why is a custom that is viewed as so normal in other “Western” countries so alien to Finns? In fact, questions about Finnish silence and what it means have given rise to a veritable cottage industry of articles and classes on cross-cultural communication between Finns and foreigners. I know that the day-to-day challenges of trying to talk to (or, at worst, avoid) my neighbors (especially the older Finnish men) and my complaints about it has been one of my biggest sources of frustration and culture shock. My own neurosis aside, other foreigners, especially American friends, have noticed that a certain number of Finns can get rather cagey when they enter a room and not want to talk with them. Whether this is an example of general reserve, a lack of experience with foreigners, prejudice, or something else is open for discussion.

Nonetheless, most foreign writers have adopted the word “shy” to describe Finns and treat it as a negative, as a problem, a form of low self-esteem that hinders Finns in business and in marketing the national brand, despite recent reports of Finland being such a great place to live. For all his other insights, Michael Booth in The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (Random House, 2014) also adopts the word shy in his obligatory chapter on Finnish silence. He discusses it in relation to the rudeness epidemic and social problems plaguing urban cities throughout Scandinavia. While it was good to read that prolific swearing and anti-social public behavior are not unique to the streets of Turku, he all too easily uses the words “reticent,” “taciturn,” and “shy” to make sense of such behavior, though not before speculating on how Finns abroad who go about bumping into other people without offering a word of apology or who rather directly and abruptly state what they need without a offering a smile or hint of small-talk might leave a good number of bemused and offended people in their wake. He also offers the rather thought-provoking final insight that the silence may once again be symptomatic of the negative aspects of Finnish society — the depressiveness, the violence, the historical scars.

That said, Finns too have often contributed to this image of shyness. Finland strikes me as a bit unique among countries in that Finns make the jokes about themselves, usually pertaining to their supposed shyness and low self-esteem. Definition of a Finnish extrovert: the one looking at the other person’s shoes. Did you hear about the man from Kerimäki who loved his wife so much he almost told her?! Michael Berry, an American academic who has lived in Finland for more than 30 years and teaches at the Turku School of Economics, has gone in the other direction and claims that Finnish silence can in fact be golden, something to be treasured. He dismisses notions of low self-esteem and even use of the word “shy” to describe why Finns are more silent than others. He mentions positive and active silence, Finns demonstrating interest via the lost art of listening rather than by talking (unlike Americans). Taken to an extreme, I have even heard it said that Finns do not always greet their neighbors because they are respecting their silence and waiting to see if they seem inclined to speak. But I disagree. The lack of easy conversation between neighbors is a problem. Berry never explicitly denies this point. As a historian, he does note that Finnish silence dates back to pre-industrial times (when it was more important to get the job done than engage in idle small-talk) and has only been adapted to fit a modern urban context, albeit one that is constantly changing (as evidenced by the fact that the younger generations, influenced by Hollywood, are in general more demonstrative and talkative than older generations). Berry has received a great deal of attention for these ideas in the Finnish media and also presented his ideas at our Turku International Rotary Club last year.

But not everyone is convinced. It can also be argued that Finnish silence is linked to the urbanization process that accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s and to the fact that recent migrants from the countryside (who actually outnumbered existing urban populations) were loath to open their mouths and risk getting laughed at for their particular dialects and seemingly crude “bumpkin” ways. Rather than behaving badly or incorrectly, they chose not to behave at all. Keep your head down, put your game face on (meaning: don’t smile), and take care of business. But Finnish friends are quick to point out that not all Finns are created equal when it comes to questions of silence. People in Turku and southwest Finland have a reputation for not being particularly friendly or talkative. In contrast, people in eastern Finland (Savo and Karelia) are known for being talkative and tell that socializing was strongly valued even in pre-industrial times (Matti Sarmela, 1994). I have heard from friends that in smaller towns in Ostrobothnia, it can take upwards of 45 minutes just to run to the local store for milk because of all the small-talk. I also found the people in Lapland to be quite talkative and open. The bottom line though is that Finns are rather silent and reserved compared to people in many other cultures in the world. Some of it stems from a general sense of wanting to listen, take things in, and calmly reflect upon what they are seeing or hearing. Some of it may be because urbanization occurred relatively recently (after all, sodbusters and other settlers of the 19th century American West are not necessarily remembered in the archives for their scintillating conversation). Some of it can be chalked up to regional differences. And some of it may just be because it is easier to talk to a tourist or your summer cottage neighbor in the warm July sunshine than it is to talk to the people on your block or that you see in town during the cold and dark winter months. Regardless, discussions on and debates about Finnish silence are by no means over.

The Almost Nearly Perfect Country

I just finished reading Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth Behind the Nordic Miracle (Random House, 2014) and figured it is as good a place as any to start writing a blog/series of reflections about life in Finland as a researcher, teacher, and editor. Booth is a British journalist living in Denmark and he uses the English speaking world’s recent fascination with all things Nordic as a point of departure for unpacking the reality of life in the far north. Finland, for example, has in recent years been rated the best country in the world to live in by Newsweek magazine, the best country in which to be a mother, the country with the best educational system, the least corrupt country in the world, and the country with the most livable city in the world (Helsinki). Building on this hype, a recent article in Washington Monthly admonished Americans that if they want to find the American dream these days, they had better go to Finland. For their part, the Finns have also recently been ranked the second happiest people in the world, most notably because of the security provided by the comprehensive social welfare system. But no sooner had Newsweek released the results of its study than the Finnish media claimed it had crunched the numbers incorrectly and that Switzerland was in fact the better country. Ah, self-sabotage. A quality that fits well with Finland’s own admitted national inferiority complex. Many other Finns also took issue with the study, claiming that the numbers did not take into account the high levels of depression, violence, and alcoholism, the long, dark winters, and the famed Finnish reserve bordering on antisocial behavior. Booth humorously notes in his introduction that bookstore shelves are buckling under the weight of memoirs about time spent in Greece or Provence, but asks where are such titles as A Year in Turku? Indeed, few Brits or Americans can even find Finland on a map, let alone ask informed questions about Turku or Tampere.

The Finnish reaction to attempts by outsiders to draw conclusions about Finland or the character of its people highlight the problem of how to truly know a country famed for its insularity. One of Booth’s main informants in Finland is academic Richard D. Lewis, author of Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, a chronicle of how Finland’s ‘lone wolf’ policies helped it transform itself from a poor, war-torn nation to one of the world’s most highly developed and successful countries. That is the successful part of the story. But it is too easy to move from there to a list of generalizations about national character traits. To his credit, Booth is one of the few outsiders to hint at the darker side of Finland’s complex historical relationships and its social costs. He notes that a people famed for its reserve could not easily have found a safe space to talk about wartime traumas, especially the men. It took Finland 50 years to come to terms with the Civil War of 1918 between Reds (communists) and Whites (capitalists), not least because of the compounded effects of the Winter War and the Soviets breathing down its neck and influencing policy for the better part of the 20th century. The Finns have also struggled to find their place in the world amidst shifting historical ideas about East/West, European/Asian, Caucasoid/Mongoloid, and Communist/Capitalist, cultural lone wolf notions aside. Caught between great power conflicts since the 12th century, Finland’s geopolitical balancing act has both defined its strengths and given rise to a national psyche riddled with deep-seated taboos. One recent psychological study found that the Finns have more taboo subjects than any other people in the world. While lists that rank people and countries as best or worst/most or least are notoriously problematic, the point still stands that Finnish silence is not so much a matter of shyness as something else. For a nation known as one of the most homogeneous places on earth (along with Quebec, Canada), the Finns are extremely divided by competing attitudes of being interested in and prejudiced against the very peoples and countries that have influenced them the most — Sweden, Russia, and the United States — not to mention strong regional divisions. Booth wonders if many of the most distinctive hallmarks of Finnishness — the drinking, violence, reticence, and even the sauna — are symptomatic of a people defined less by what is said than by what is unsaid. This, set against the fact that the future has in fact never looked brighter for Finland, makes the country an interesting and challenging place to live. Though an outsider, I will strive to provide insights into these challenges, both good and bad, by drawing upon my years of experience and discussions with a wide range of people.