The politics of difference

17 June 2011 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Right or wrong, my country? Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Big electoral turnouts are generally considered a good thing. But, writes columnist Jyrki Lehtola, in Finland the fact that the vote went up in the last Finnish general election caused a revelation. Educated urbanites and the media (perhaps near enough the same thing), are shocked by how 20 per cent of their fellow Finns think – and the ramifications caused tremors all across Europe

Listen up. Diversity is a resource. Except of course if it’s the sort of diversity that is a resource for the wrong people.

That sort of diversity isn’t the least bit nice. In Finland in the spring, we ran into the sort of diversity that even got the rest of Europe to start worrying. Out in the thickets and forests, diverse people had been springing up in secret, people of whose existence we urbanites were entirely unaware.

And they threatened to bring Europe down. Europe. Which was a bit much.

They wanted out of the European Union. They did not agree with helping those European countries that were groaning under the weight of their economic problems. They were True Finns, not Europeans. And Europe was worried: what if these few forest folk were to make Finland do a U-turn in its European policy? In Finland, backing a loan to another country demands a parliamentary decision. What if the other parties were to follow these forest folk? What if Europe were to be destroyed by the fact that a few True Finns would prefer to be by themselves rather than have a relationship with the rest of the world?

Before, those people had hidden their ideas on lavatory walls and Internet chat boards. On those infrequent occasions when they did come out, they had learned to remain quiet and politically correct, to accept that it wasn’t wise for them to speak of things they didn’t necessarily understand.

Then they suddenly opened their mouths, and those of us in the media down here in the South said in horror: Can you say that? You can’t.

And everything began with such an insignificant thing as their concept of art.

Perussuomalaiset, the True Finns, is a Finnish party born out of the protest spirit of those previously shut out of the political conversation. They received 20 per cent of the vote in the spring parliamentary elections, which has resulted in the unfortunate fact that now we have to get acquainted with the dispossessed among us instead of being able to assume that they must think about the world the same way we do. What kind of a nutter wouldn’t?

Before the elections, the True Finns prodded at the political elite with their folksy, anachronistic view of the world. They had different ideas about abortion, refugees, gays, and nature than us here in the liberal, urban media.

That didn’t really trouble us much yet. But then they published their election platform, which took on art. It was absolutely horrible: forest people mucking about with things that weren’t any of their business.

They hated contemporary art. They called it ‘postmodern fakery’, which the state shouldn’t be supporting. For them, true Finnish art was somewhere far away: in works that depict the Kalevala or Finland’s wars.

And thus began our media storm in a pipette. Facebook filled up with groups making ironic comments about the True Finns’ concept of art; arts pages weren’t able to discuss anything other than that there were people whose concept of art was a throwback to another time; columnists got stuck in place for a month like columnists do.

The anger of the elite towards the True Finns’ concept of art was something that could only result in one thing only: the part of the country who thought they were being discriminated against, began to despise the elite even more.

How could they fall to pieces over such a small thing? How could they react to one wrong idea with such frenzy? There were other things in the True Finns’ party platform, but this, their concept of art, is what you waded into. What’s wrong with you?

As a result of all of this, the True Finns were the indisputable winners of the elections.

Then life became even more confusing. They rolled into the capital. True Finns. Here they came on the train from their thickets, walking past the fashionable postmodernist facade of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. How dreadful.

We just had to set upon them. To interview them, to run around after them, marveling at how exotic these primitives were.

Then one of them, a regular guy from the country who wasn’t used to sitting in big conference rooms full of stylized period furniture opened his mouth, and all sorts of things unfit for media consumption spilled out. He gave his opinion about refugees. He used the phrase ‘old negro’. He had exactly the wrong idea about everything.

We just had to attack him. To dig up all the information we could about him and question all of his ideas just because he had the temerity to say them out loud.

In Finland the leadership was trying to put together a government under difficult circumstances, but that was not nearly as titillating as one True Finn MP, a country boy, who had behaved improperly in the halls of power, without hiding behind silence or euphemisms.

It was utterly inappropriate. Uncouth, thoughtless, stupid in a sort of lazy way, but – please excuse me – so what?

Surely it’s OK to be stupid in your own way here? To think and speak the wrong way? To think just what you please about art, not necessarily knowing anything about it other than that everything was probably better in the past.

Yes, in a democratic country you should be able to think the wrong thoughts; that shouldn’t destroy our self-respect or image of our nation.

True Finns who shun refugees, gays, and the wrong kind of art do not necessarily approach diversity with the sort of understanding and tact we would hope. However, the problem for our southern elite appears to be that we can’t seem to handle the fact that there are people in our own country who think a different way than we do, and that now they have been given a voice.

How terrible.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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