neljapäev, mai 24, 2012

nothing's shocking

Ritual de lo habitual
The most shocking thing about the Reform Party's financing scandal, is that nobody is shocked by it. The Estonians around me believe that the giving of party contributions from unnamed or unknown sources to circumvent laws barring corporate donations to parties has long been an "open secret." So, I suspect another game is being played out behind the awesomely named* Silver Meikar's display of "honesty" -- an internal one among members of the Reform Party.

But nobody is shocked by it. My impression is that the majority of citizens living in Western democracies have an unwavering belief that their political institutions are corrupt, perhaps not as corrupt as in our "large neighbor to the east," but corrupt nonetheless. In the US, it is a variety of monied bogeymen, from the Koch brothers on the right, to George Soros on the left, who are seen as the puppet masters of policy. The UK scandal embroiling Rupert Murdoch's media empire has not shocked us either. In fact, I suspect a great many people believe that the phone hacking scandal is just cover for some deeper injustice committed in the name of wealth and infotainment. The only thing that shocks is how blatant the corruption has become.

What is interesting to watch in Estonia is the degree to which the popular media has covered the scandal, and it has received a lot of attention. My sense is that the popular media is to a large extent in at least covert support of the ruling establishment, which has been, for the past 13 years and in various guises, the liberals and the conservatives. As the first Laar government of 1992 to 1994 established the economic and social outlook of the state, this perspective has come to be seen overtime as the "Estonian" perspective, that is that Estonia by nature supports liberal economic policies and has a conservative national identity, and to question these policies and viewpoints is to, in some way, become opposed to the Estonian ideal.

A critical dilemma has developed in recent months for the status quo. The Estonian Social Democratic Party, led by Sven Mikser, has become the most popular party in the country. This was unthinkable years ago, when the very word "social" would induce Communism-scarred Estonians to nausea. SDE was historically the third or fourth party of Estonian politics, after whatever incarnations the conservatives and liberals found themselves in (Reform, Pro Patria, Res Publica, Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica) and Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party. But financing scandals in the "green monster," as Centre is called, plus internal divisions have torn apart the party, especially this year when many significant members resigned their membership. Centre has never gotten much love from the Estonian media, anyway, which is one of the reasons why Savisaar attempted to build his own media operation. The Centre Party "refugees" have not aligned themselves with any political party since, but SDE has become the only game for anyone who disagrees with the ruling coalition.

With SDE as the rising in Estonian politics, the Estonian media faces an interesting decision. Will it support -- between the lines, of course -- the emerging power, or will it continue to support the status quo, the coalition of the liberals and the conservatives? Will it make a financing scandal surrounding the elite a big deal? Could it use such information to drum up enough opposition to send the leadership into opposition?

As a journalist, I can tell you, it does not hurt to be in the good graces of the regime. You have articles to write, they have messages to send: it's a mutually dependant relationship. I have watched other journalists try to take down the authorities mano-a-mano, but they fail, because one semi-alcoholic reporter is no match for a mayor or minister with an army of salaried henchmen. Even the vaunted Woodward and Bernstein had their whistleblowing "Deep Throat," and so were part of an internal struggle taking place within the Nixon Administration. Yes, they were acting on a mission to "serve the people," but, as journalists, they still became soldiers for the faction that was disgusted with the nation's leadership.

That's why I find this scandal and the attention it has received interesting. Why Silver Meikar? Why now? What else is going on behind the scenes? That's what I want to know.

* Silver Meikar must have one of the best names in Estonian politics, right behind Andrus Ansip, also known as "Undress, Unzip." For those who don't know, it is pronounced "Sil-ver May-kar," which sounds like "Silver maker," as in, "Here is a man who will make you silver," a sort of Bond villain a la Goldfinger. But English speakers unfamiliar with Estonian pronunciation might read the name as "Silver My-kar," as in, "My car silver, you want go for ride?" Either way, a cool name.

teisipäev, mai 22, 2012


His master's voice.

Each morning, my daughter and I pass this statue of August Maramaa and his unnamed dog. My daughter is four years old and very curious and she knows that Maramaa is dead, so she always asks me how he died. Maramaa was mayor of Viljandi in the 1920s and 1930s, and had great plans to turn Viljandi into a summer resort, some of which were realized. But, oh, you know the rest. Do I really have to tell you how he met his end? Fine. Maramaa was arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he died in a prison camp near Kirov, on the day after Christmas.

How to explain this to a four year old? I told her that he was sent to a prison camp far away, to Siberia (the very word sounds remote and ominous, even to a child's ears). "But how did he die?" she inquired. The answer to this question, I honestly do not know. Was it disease? Probably. My impression is that the men in the camps were worked to death, that is that they did not receive adequate nourishment for the work they were assigned to do, and thus quickly dropped, like flies, as they say. Maramaa was 60 years old when he died. A man of that age cannot expect to last very long in a Siberian prison camp in winter.

My poor daughter. She doesn't know who the Soviets were, she knows nothing about class struggle or Nazi racial theories, or Estonia's first president Konstantin Päts, the "father of the nation," the attempted 1934 rightwing coup that led to his rule, and the subsequent liquidation of the state in 1940. How am I supposed to explain any of this to her? Fortunately, she only asked one more question.

"How did the dog die?"

"The dog died happy," I said. "He lived a long, fulfilling life."

"He?" she raised an eyebrow. "Don't you mean she?"

"Yes, I meant she."

"Yeah, I thought it looked more like a girl dog than a boy dog," she said. "I could just tell."

teisipäev, mai 08, 2012

book of the dead

Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey
"I have some sad news." "What?" "Mart Laar had a stroke last night." "He did? Is he alive?" She nodded. "He's in the hospital."

And has been ever since. My wife is the bearer of bad news. I've gotten used to it. "Michael Jackson died." "Oh, really?" "The Polish president's plane crashed." "Jesus." "Bon Jovi died of a heart attack." "That's weird. Last time I saw him, he was in pretty good shape." I spent half of that morning adjusting myself to a world without Bon Jovi, only to learn later that it was a hoax when a dated photo of the rocker surfaced holding a sign, "Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey."

I've gotten used to digesting bad news. I just sort of let it bang around my head like a pinball for a while. Then it dissipates or hides itself somewhere in the folds of my brain. I forget about it. Sometimes though it nags at me. It won't go away. After the 9/11 attacks, it took me a good week until I had a regular morning. When a childhood friend committed suicide, it took about three gray days of living his last moments vicariously in my imagination before I told myself it was his choice and I had to move on. But when I received news of Adam Yauch's death this week, it chilled me to my core.

A lot of this resonance is contextual. Yauch, as rapper MCA of the Beastie Boys, emerged from the barren, broken cultural landscape of the 1980s, a sort of Mad Max-like universe of passe musical trends and hairstyles. He was the scuzzy, uncouth youth with a two-day old growth on his chin, a "beard like a billy goat." His life apparently consisted of drinking "brass monkey" (a blend of orange juice and malt liquor), girls, skipping school, smoking reefer and playing video games. In short, he was like pretty much every person's older brother on the block.

When he experienced some kind of spiritual awakening in the early 1990s, the audience was perplexed. The inside sleeve of their 1992 album Check Your Head was a psychedelic pastiche of faces and objects. I would sit in my room and stare at it. All of a sudden, 13-year-old kids everywhere had to learn how to pronounce, "Namaste." (Is it 'nam-ast'? 'Nam-asty?') The Beastie Boys turned post-everything junk culture on its head. They sifted through the garbage, found precious relics and cleaned them off, restoring their meaning. By the time Ill Communication came out in 1994, we became used to samples of Buddhist monks chanting. One track on the album was "Bodhisattva Vow." Can you imagine, millions of American youths listening to a song called "Bodhisattva Vow"?

The West was no stranger to dabbling in Eastern philosophies but their local messengers were less convincing. At that time, America Gigolo actor Richard Gere was better known for awful rumors involving rodents than any search for enlightenment.Yet here you had a gentleman who wanted to call the Beastie Boys' first record Don't Be a Faggot! organizing Tibetan freedom concerts. And the people followed. One of the most active student groups on my college campus was Students for a Free Tibet. Ask yourself, would any of those people had been there if it hadn't been for Yauch's very public awakening? Would Estonian rocker-turned-activist Roy Strider be out there in the hills of Nepal surveying the hills of Tibet from afar?

I saw Yauch speak once. It was not what I had expected. While he was passionate about music and religion, he came across as aloof, even shy in a public speaking role. He was prematurely gray, of slight build. I had the impression that all the fighting he did for his right to party in his youth had worn him thin. Or maybe it was the vegan diet. People loved him though. At the end he came out and held his two-year-old daughter and waved to the crowd and smiled and everybody cooed. I recall I saw the late Senator Paul Wellstone speak around that time. He was passionate. Now they are both gone. One died of cancer, the other in a plane crash. Stupid deaths for inspiring people.

On its face, fate seems ridiculous. These are alternate futures that were not supposed to happen. It reminds me of a "choose your own adventure" book where you wind up facing almost certain doom at the end of one chapter and have the option to go back to an earlier chapter and start all over again. But we don't have that option. These past few days I have found myself pondering Yauch's untimely demise, and his spirituality, even more. It bugs me and it won't go away. Did he really believe in that Tibetan Buddhism stuff? I wonder. Can one really trust in the universe when it continues to bombard us with such awful news?

reede, mai 04, 2012

joo, joo, joo

Ma tean miks välismaa mehed meeldivad eesti naistele. Nad ei joo. "I know why Estonian women prefer foreign men. They don't drink." So professed an older woman to me yesterday morning. I wondered, was it really true? Those who have known me know that there are two Giustinos, one who is sober 99 percent of the time, and the other who is trashed 1 percent of the time. But that 1 percent is bad news, it's self perpetuating, it's a real Mr. Hyde kind of situation, once I get going ...

Then when it's all over I swear never to drink again, which is why the bottle of Bailey's my sister-in-law brought me for Christmas is still sitting on the kitchen shelf. I may imbibe some limoncello from time to time, but for the most part, I put most of my wine in the tomato sauce. "I don't drink because I don't have time," I told the older woman. "Well, see," she said. "You foreign men don't have time to drink."

I don't think she's right. I know plenty of relatively sober, responsible local males. But it's true, I don't drink that much. This is probably because, as I have aged, I have witnessed the deleterious effects of alcohol on fellow human beings. Some have real health problems, others just balloon up. Either way, it's pretty obvious that it shortens one's lifespan. Public authorities alert us to this all the time, but we tend to ignore it, look right past those signs that say, "Drinking is bad for your health." But it is! Those signs are actually correct!

I am not going to start any temperance campaigns here in Estonia. I have already pissed off enough people. But that impulse is there. Driving my niece home one morning, I passed a group of men sitting outside a supermarket drinking beers. "Oh look, the drunks are already out ..." I said. "What makes you think they are drunks?" she asked. "They are men drinking beer outside a store at 10:30 on a Sunday morning," I said. "That means that a) they couldn't wait until they got home to drink and b) they couldn't even make it until lunch without a beer. What else do you call such people? They are drunks."

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother's middle-aged bachelor friend about the film Smokey and the Bandit. He has a TV in his car so that he can watch Burt Reynolds (the bandit) escape Jackie Gleason (the sheriff) while he drives around town. In the film, the very cute runaway bride Sally Field hops a ride with Reynolds. "She's so cute!" I told my brother's friend."She's a slut," he answered. "No she's not!" I protested. "She's Sally Field. She's the flying nun. The flying nun is no slut." "Let's get this straight," my brother's friend said. "She's a woman who ran away from her husband-to-be and is now riding around with Burt Reynolds, who is a criminal," he said. They he nodded to himself and repeated the verdict, "She's a slut."

Crass? Sure. Misogynistic? Perhaps. But my brother's friend taught me something that day. Sometimes we have to just call things what they are. And even if they haven't descended to the lowest rung of drunkenness, those guys outside the store are not normal. I wouldn't catch one of the fathers of my daughters' friends hanging outside a store on a Sunday morning drinking. And could you imagine if it was me drinking out there? What would they call Giustino? You know exactly what they would say. He's a drunk!  

I told my niece that morning of my secret plan, to round up all of Estonia's alcoholics and deport them to Piirissaar, that tiny spot of land in the middle of Lake Peipsi. "I will be a bonding experience," I said. "They can all dry out together!" But she spotted the hole in my sinister plan immediately. "But Piirissaar is so small," she said. "I don't think they would all fit."