neljapäev, oktoober 27, 2011

the chosen people

How do I make myself clear without slipping into 19th century racial theory? Somebody in the Estonian woodpile had very high cheekbones.

I know the people of this land like to fancy themselves as northern Germanics, a sort of cross between Hans Brinker, Heidi and the von Trapp Family Singers, but when I look at my daughters, all three of them, I'm seeing Genghis Khan.

Not that they have mustaches. Or swords. But those impossibly high cheekbones! So high. We're talking K2, Mount Everest! Several people have commented already that the newest addition to our flock resembles a small Chinese girl. Väike hiinlane they call her. Which she doesn't at all, but for the eyes. The eyes, the eyes, it's all in the eyes. And if the Estonians are somewhere genetically between the Latvians and the Finns (like it should be), then where does the Mongolian aspect kick in?

Those are looks, but how about temperament? I've been back a week or so, and I've run into people in public who I have sworn to myself are distraught. Women who look like they are about to burst out into tears. Men who look like they've been constipated for ages. Children who look like they've been freed from the frozen carbonite on Jabba the Hutt's wall. But the thing is ... there's nothing actually wrong with them. They just happen to look miserable all the time. It doesn't mean that they are miserable.

That's a minority though. Most people have a sort of stern, business-like quality to them, and then there are even the few jolly old fellows with the mustaches who wear blue overalls every day of the week and cry out, "Tere!" at every opportunity. But, for the most part, smiling is not part of the average Estonian's repertoire of facial expressions. And so I have made it a point now of smiling in the direction of every miserable or stoic person I meet.

I'm like a miracle worker, I tell myself, a healer. I'm like a leather-jacket wearing Christ, the Joel Osteen of Estonia, except instead of turning water to wine, or making every day a Friday, I am making Estonian bank tellers smile. Incredible. All you have to do is make sure to be as pleasant as possible and show joy at every turn. "Ah, I have to sign my name here? How lovely." Maybe they are laughing at me, not with me, but at least they don't look like they're sitting on a spike anymore. Sooner or later they will all come around with a little sunshine. The country will fall to me, one by one, each miserable, mopey-faced Finno-Ugric is going to be a little happier if I have to slip something in their kama.

That's not everybody, of course, not at all. But most male conversations are as abrupt and monotone as possible. I walk around wondering, what happened to these guys? They seem so ... hopelessly lost. People famously complain about the stoic, quiet Estonians, and when they do, they are talking about the men,  and they are telling the truth. And does anybody have a real job here? Most of the guys I know are employed doing odd jobs. A little construction here, a little IT work there, plenty of time for home improvement here, some forestry there ... don't you have an office to go to, or some product to produce? You're putting me to shame by hammering stuff all the time. I can't keep up!

Basically, what I am getting at, is that I have decided not to integrate. You don't want to talk, that's too bad, because I want to talk. You want to spend your free time building another house in a land full of empty buildings, go ahead, but don't expect me to follow suit. You don't want to smile? Well, that's too bad too, because I am an American and I feel like having a nice day. It's my birthright. The descendants of prewar Estonian citizens get their passports and the Israelis get their Holy Land. I get my white t-shirt with an obscenely yellow happy face on it.

esmaspäev, oktoober 17, 2011

when greed became ungood

Sometime in the past few years people went from admiring to loathing the ultrarich. It may have coincided with the economic crash, boom, bang of 2008, or may have preceeded it, or may have just dawned on the many right now. But most people no longer admire and seek the emulate the excesses of the wealthy: they ridicule them.

The "Greed" era is over. It has been for some years. Some are waiting for it to return, and they keep waiting, believing that by trimming some taxes here or regulation there, it will be 1984, the "Year of the Yuppie," all over again. That was the at the dawn of the boom, but this is the bust, and it will continue to be one until society arrives at a new social contract.

I am writing mostly about the US, my country, here, but this has implications for small, northern European economic "speedboats," as Marju Lauristin referred to countries like Estonia and Iceland, Latvia and Ireland, as opposed to the heavy industrial freighters of Germany and Sweden. Growth in Estonia has returned thanks to austerity measures that the public was willing to swallow because its choices were the smartly dressed neoliberals or a cranky, washed up demagogue who stands for nothing or everything or anything. But most agree it will never return to boom levels, and if it does, it is unlikely to be fed by the same crass speculation in real estate.

It is interesting that I am actually old enough to remember life before the Era of Greed. When I was a very small person, the rich were almost universally Old Money, reared in educated in luxury, private and exclusive. If you want a TV reference, go take a good look at Mr. and Mrs. Howell from Gilligan's Island. They wore ascot hats and hung out at yacht clubs and smoked pipes. They were the upper class and always had been and always would be. Until the nouveau riche built a McMansion next to their family estate on Martha's Vineyard and buzzed the ancestral compound in their helicopters.

For a long time, people worshipped the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But after the crash and, especially, once it became clear that taxpayers would be footing the bill for the irresponsibility of the private sector, that adulation reversed. Hence you have protests on four continents against "corporate greed," which only the most marginal of leftist students rose against years ago, at a time when they were universally cast aside as misguided and irrelevant. Now Occupy Wall Street and its imitators are frontpage news, with plenty of institutional backing, unions, media. What do they stand for? What does it all mean? Would I seem like a cynical f*** if I told you that it doesn't really matter what they want or what it means? What matters is the following:

The General Social Survey, administered by the National Opinion Research Council, has asked Americans about their confidence in banks and financial institutions since 1973. Between March of 2006 and March of 2010, the percent of Americans with a great deal of confidence in banks and financial institutions plummeted 19 percentage points, from 30 percent to an all-time low of 11 percent. According to a similar trend from Harris Interactive, the percent of Americans with a great deal of confidence in the people running Wall Street had already reached an all-time low of just 4 percent by February of 2009.

Most Americans have lost confidence in their banks and financial institutions. The protests against "Wall Street" are just a manifestation of that loss of confidence. Sure, plenty of of those in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are Che Guevera-adoring leftists with barbarian-grade understanding of market economies. But others are middle class kids who accrued a lifetime's worth of debt with the widely held but utterly naive belief that there would be a pot of gold waiting for them at the end of the tunnel. There is a vast swath of highly educated, formerly upper middle class youth now entering the lower class. Not a recipe for national success.

Of course, there is an Estonian angle in this -- there always is. The head of Adbusters, the Canadian media group that instigated Occupy Wall Street is Kalle Lasn. He was born in Tallinn in 1942. I wonder if an Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana is in his future. he is certainly influential and one cannot accuse him of lacking self promotion skills and motivation. As I have remarked before, these Estonians, or at least a very capable subset of them, are doers.

Will things ever again be business as usual? They will, but it will take a long time, and at the end the idea of what "business as usual" will have taken on new meanings, lost old ones, and will have wider backing in multiple strata of society. Only then will we have a new social contract. By that time, people will look back on days like these as the Era of Negotiation.

kolmapäev, oktoober 05, 2011

planet putin

The further the Soviet Union recedes into the mists of antiquity, the more outlandish its perceived successes become.

For hundreds of years the Russian Empire spent fortunes in blood and treasure to maintain some semblance of control over its vast real estate holdings, putting down Polish rebellions here and Chechen uprisings there. The USSR was just about as lucky, spending local and foreign lives like an Atlantic City casino addict.

Its high was a stretch of 30 years between the death of Stalin and the rise of Gorbachev, half of which is now known as the period of stagnation. This just so happened to be the period of time into which its current ruler Vladimir Putin was born and raised. Putin was born in 1952, which means his worldview is restricted to some kind of glossy, wood-paneled 1970s time capsule. People pore over biographies trying to understand why Putin is the way he is. But there is one simple answer: he's just an old fart.

Hence, the "Eurasian Union," the returning president's "new" idea to rebuild some kind of superpower on the sun-bleached bones of the Soviet corpse. Or as Putin put it in an Izvestiya article, "a great inheritance" of "infrastructure, specialized production facilities, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space."

This new union would comprise the Russian Federation at its core, of course, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan poised to join at a later date. Interesting that more bitter pills to swallow, such as Ukraine, where there are scary nationalists, and Uzbekistan, where there are scary Muslims, were left off the immediate agenda.

Still, according to the once and again president, all of the former CIS countries have "spiritual threads that unite their peoples." Trying to create an entity as glorious as the USSR would be a "naive" attempt to "restore or copy what is already past," he said. The Eurasian alliance instead will be based on "universal principles of integration, as an integral part of greater Europe, united by common values of freedom, democracy and market laws."

Which sounds like complete bullshit to me, but ... who's asking?

The Baltics have been left off the Eurasian Union map for now. Most writers have called the idea of their reorientation from the European Union to the other EU "unimaginable." And, at face value, one could argue that Russia's suggestion could work. Didn't the German-dominated EU make similar overtures to cooperation, democracy, freedom, market laws, peace and understanding when it "enlarged" into Central Europe, the Baltic Rim countries and, especially, the Western Balkans? If Russia was actually a free country with a functioning democracy and obeyed market laws, the Eurasian Union might make some sense. But because it isn't, it only scares people, almost as much as a shot of the old Soviet fart in Siberia with his shirt off.

I'll only remind you that when the Estonian puppet government "applied" for membership in the USSR in 1940, it was done explicitly to protect Estonian independence from the dangers of a Nazi-led, federated Europe. The Estonians would have more freedom within the USSR than outside it, argued its Soviet-picked leaders. According to this line of thinking, a vote to join the USSR was a vote for Estonian independence. Terrific.

I don't know how seriously to take the Eurasian Union. Those who adore the Russian ruler and believe him to embody all good things will likely be warm to this new and brilliant idea -- I mean, what good does a wholly autonomous Tajikistan do anybody, huh? Those who see him as the reincarnation of Stalin, albeit with a mustache-devoid upper lip, will cite it as another example of Putin's power lust and innate evil. Some people just think that the man is trying to seduce Russian voters with big ideas ahead of his reinstatement in March. They're probably right.