Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Finnish Lesson

In Europe Finland came very close to refusing the bailout of Portugal, a package of around $115.5 billion (€78 billion). On April 17, the True Finns won 39 seats in the 200-seat Finnish Parliament (third in size). The party, while left-wing, is nationalist, anti-globalist, and culturally conservative. It’s only been around since May of 1995. With the party’s sizeable gain in seats came buzz that Nazism was back in Finland and comparisons of True Finns to the U.S. Tea Party came instantly as well. The party polarized the Finnish population on the subject of the Portuguese bailout and hence has been denied a role in a governing coalition. Just how stable the Finnish government will be hereafter is another matter.

Now, mind you, Portugal is in the ditch and Finland is among the leading economies of Europe. Just a few weeks ago Brigitte and I marveled at some tables obtained from the European Central Bank showing that in crucial measures of competitiveness, only Germany topped Finland’s performance in recent years. But huge economic meltdowns always hurt an element even of the best-off populations. And it is this element—the people who are hurt—who undoubtedly formed the energy behind the rise of the True Finns. We work like crazy, we’re disciplined, and then some careless, free-spending, indulgent people, far away, Greece, Portugal, whatever, get themselves in trouble, and when it’s time for them to buckle down and suffer the consequence, No, none of that. Here they are at our door and ready to take our money so that they can party on.

Is this a caricature or is this reality? Just yesterday I wrote elsewhere about evil and called it an absence of empathy. This morning’s news brought—if not a corrective to that view then at least a meaningful enlargement of the concept. I learned just how narrowly the EU escaped disaster because the Finnish Parliament narrowly backed the bailout after all. The Finnish lesson for me has been to realize that empathy among people will rapidly thin out if justice is not seen to be visibly applied to all, in like measure, everywhere.

Visible justice. Yes, we need it. When people are hurting, they will balk at pragmatic fixes to collective problems that minimally have the appearance of injustice—and where smoke, there fire. This is certainly the case in Europe where the “union” is new, thin, and where the competent and disciplined are called upon to rescue the apparently neglectful and possibly corrupt. Big mess. And it is precisely in times like these, erupting with righteous rage out of the poorest elements of the population, that ugly political movements rise and sometime, with disastrous consequences, gain the hammer hand.

But the problem of justice, even-handedness, of consistency also arises when we are watching dramatic interventions in favor of political resistance in Libya—but not in Syria. Just to name a single pair. Arises when we watch one or two billionaires tried in the courts but others bailed out with billions of taxpayers' money because they did not technically violate any laws…

Having commented on Swedish influence in Finland in earlier and other contexts, a lighter moment came as I pursued my research. I discovered one of the important party platforms of the rigorously nationalistic True Finn Party. The party’s top cultural demand is the abolition of the mandatory teaching of Swedish to all Finnish pupils from primary school on up to vocational universities. I found this delightfully meaningful, especially that word “vocational.” The lower classes in Finland, surprise, speak Finnish—and nothing but. They must be taught Swedish so that their bosses don’t have to learn Finnish.


  1. What an interesting post. I think you've put your finger on something here with the idea that a sense of justice not being applied equally is feeding these movements that seem so mean.

    And that bit about the True Finns wishing to abolish the mandatory study of Swedish, great catch!

  2. Absence of empathy intrigues me. It implies a strict mono-pathy: only experiencing oneself and not using what are called "mirror neurons" that mirror the actions of others.

    Are people who have no empathy also not able to emulate other people in things like speaking, for example? Are they incapable of imitation?


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