Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nurmo municipality in memoriam

The sorry spectacle of the current local government "reform" has now reached my home town of Nurmo which will be amalgamated with the provincial capital by midnight. An efficient service provider with better performance in every key statistic will join with a much bigger, less efficient and more bureaucratic unit. On the national level this so called reform will certainly achieve bigger service organizations - though in quite random and ragtag fashion - without touching the very heavy structures of the services itself. Some haphazard savings will probably be made but the fundamental issues will be left untouched. This is the democratic political process at its sorriest: every main party was driven by its special interests towards a different overall solution with the end result being even worse than any of the proposed individual schemes.

The process in Nurmo was especially repulsive: a strong and active citizen opinion (almost two thirds in a well attended municipal referendum opposed the solution) was overruled by the morally - one hopes only that - corrupt local council which ended up agreeing with the proposal by one vote majority. The amazingly ugly strong arm tactics led by the leading provincial daily ended up successful. The Burkean in me simply detests abstract, arbitrary principles being chosen over actual historical experience, a deeply rooted local identity. But I suppose our Scandinavian governmental system is one of the least Burkean in existance. From that angle it is inconceivable that local identities would be important as such, that the coats of arms, lines and names on maps, shared historical experiences would be just as important to people as the municipalities' role as social service providers. Any more Burkean reform would have respected and kept these valuable symbolic forms while reforming the substance carefully and effectively. Now we ended up with the worst of both worlds: losing the local rooted identity and keeping essentially in place the top heavy service delivery structures. Oh well, the way of the world...

Postscript in Finnish:

Ilkka-lehden toiminta tässä surkuhupaisassa prosessissa hakee vertaistaan. On toki totuttu melkoisen ruokottomaan menoon sen suhteen, mutta tässä silmittömässä kampanjassa kyllä välillä jätettiin väliin ne alkeellisimmatkin ammattimaisen journalismin periaatteet. Toimituksen johdossa on aktiivisia toimijoita ja vaikuttajia Seinäjoen kunnallispolitiikassa ja journalistiset toimintatavat näköjään alistettiin näiden vaikuttajien henkilökohtaisille poliittisille intresseille. Tätä ei mitenkään lehden kommentti-artikkeleissa edes vaivauduttu peittelemään. Uutisointi oli äärimmäisen värittynyttä ja manipuloitua ja prosessista annettu kuva ilmeisesti aivan tarkoituksellisen vääristynyt. Karua on meno Hokkas-slovakiassa. Nurmon valtuuston toiminta on sitten saaga erikseen - toivoa sopii, että romahdus oli sentään vain älyn ja poliittisen ymmärryksen tasolla. Epäilemättä joka tapauksessa tämän räikeän epädemokraattisen enemmistön kirstuun poikii jatkossa myös maallista hyvää erinäisten postien ja arvonimien suhteen. On ilmeisesti poikinutkin jo: hyvä taito osata nöyrästi kumartaa oikealle ja pyllistää oikealle taholle vaikka sitten tämä jälkimmäinen olisikin se jota vaaleilla valittuna olisi pitänyt edustaa.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Keynesian times

A link to an excellent introduction to Keynes in the context of the present crisis by Skidelsky. Certainly a right person for the task: his brilliant biography of Keynes was my first real introduction to this crazily talented, fascinating 20th century figure. Of course Keynes' economics and his quite crucial role in turning back the left and right radical totalitarian tide are of enormous importance, but I do feel that his relevance extends beyond this. For me it was hugely significant that he was much concerned (as Skidelsky points out in the article) with probability, causality and uncertainty as the context of all social and historical action. In an immeasurably more modest fashion those were the very same themes that I was engaged with when coming to a settled understanding of the study of history, its nature, role and scope. I felt that what Keynes said about economic action was universally true of all sectors of human activity. Our historical stage is a very Keynesian stage. So, for me, it is only in this narrow sense of re-encountering a possibly very terrifying collapse of trust in the economic structures that it could be said that Keynes has again become relevant - he never stopped being relevant.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Like swimmers into cleanness leaping

I only too rarely read Finnish literature. I had my fill of the classics very early on and have barely kept abreast of the contemporary scene. Though those books that have made an impression have made a strong one. I’m now in the middle of Sofi Oksanen’s “Puhdistus”. Grim, grim text – the immediate context being the introduction of Stalinism into a civil society, the violence against women, the horrible scars that history leaves. Amazingly well written, such economical, beautiful language. While reading the first pages I was struck by the universal theme of loss of innocence that also began to emerge from the story.

This is of course something that concerns all of us: we all are hardened, at least to a degree, we all get cynical, at least to a degree, we all get callous, at least to a degree. But beyond this ordinary coarsening in this fundamentally harsh world there are whole categories of experience that we modern Westerners have largely escaped, that we scarcely believe possible. This does not mean that we would be immune to them, or that we, or our descendants would have a guarantee of never encountering them. We have been lucky in the blind accident of our historical moment. That is all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Well, nuncle, this plainly won't do

We would urgently need a coherent theoretical framework to replace the crude market faith that is currently becoming more and more obsolete. Well, actually intellectually it has always been obsolete, it was born obsolete, but immense concentrations of power will support and create belief structures around them. We can see this reflex in the immense cohorts of semi- or partially educated market enthusiasts on the Web. (Not to talk about the hate filled American right wing talk radio whose main role in the world is I guess to keep corporate interests safe, never mind the unborn fetuses or Darwin in the last analysis.) However wrong, power speaks loudly - and in the context of market economy, it is not even completely wrong. Strictly regulated markets do work (and are not too unstable to create overwhelming social backlashes). So, what is needed is a subtle, intellectually flexible approach - a sane middle way. Now should I hold my breath?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Surprised by joy

A striking and pleasant sight on this morning's rush hour train: two high school boys, not more than 16 years old, very obviously more than friends. Nothing particular really one might say and surely even today they were braving something (though certainly not with an air of proving any point, just engaging in private happiness quite unselfconsciously). But I was suddenly struck by the thought of how much more they would have been braving mere 20 years ago (actually the whole scene would have been pretty much unimaginable) - there truly is a strong, forceful wave of tolerance and reason spreading through the younger generations all over the industrialized world. And in that moment I felt - perhaps a non sequitur - that there still is vitality and selfconfidence in the old enlightenment West. The tide of emancipation still is advancing, still alive.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Happy days are here again?

Even two months ago I would not have thought it really crucial which candidate would be elected to be the president of the USA. Two months can be a very long time. I guess it has not been truly realized how tremendous these Wall Street tremors have been. With a less imaginitive and interventionist Federal Reserve we might already been a long way into a global depression. These are very dangerous times, almost comparable to the times of Roosevelt and Churchill - whose election to power was the proof of the vitality and self-confidence of the liberal West. Maybe this decision is a similar sign. So perhaps we would then get the USA back to the serious business of leading the Western alliance - the moment of hyperpowerdom and unilateralist hubris passed quickly but so much damage was made in that short time. Such a disastrous abandonment of wisdom and moderation by the American nationalist right with their aggressive America firstism: no real understanding, no long views. I have now CCR on, the voice of America - such a good feeling to feel the optimism and hope radiating once again from across the Atlantic. One only wonders how long it takes before the freezing cold winds of history will wipe this optimism away. Well, just perhaps not this time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Long eight years

By the year 2000 I had become very distanced from party politics and ideology that once were unreally important and meaningful for me. I had ended up - after all the emotional upheavals and dramatic shifts - liberal, vaguely centre left, ironically quite in bearing with my personal background and the positions that I had originally begun with. But I was very certainly not much interested in concrete centre left politics and parties. I believed that all that was relatively irrelevant and distasteful. I simply - comfortably - assumed that though unpleasant things constantly occurred and unpleasant parties and politicians kept winning offices that social progress would nevertheless continue, not steadily, not overtly but all the while. I also believed that party politics were largely irrelevant to that progress, that the political process would eventually mirror this grassroots advance, maybe not satisfactorily or gratifyingly but nevertheless things would get better, even if gradually, even if messily.

It took the administration of George W. Bush to persuade me otherwise. Suddenly I was re-politized, at times even mesmerized by the spectacular shipwreck of the American (and to a large degree, Western) political process. I’m no anti-American – I have been a steady liberal cold warrior (having doubts only now) and have seen the American leadership and power as essential for our Western civilization and its liberal and humanistic values. I had just not realized how far the corruption had gone, how quickly the enlightenment values of the American revolution were dissipating and the society and politics getting more plutocratic, the citizens more distanced from elite politics and irrational fundamentalism and anti-empirism growing stronger. These eight years have certainly been an education to all of us. Perhaps today will finally mark the turn of the tide. Much is resting on a single, politically enigmatic, relatively inexperienced person faced with powerful structural counterforces and a national moral – and financial – bankruptcy. A task not to be envied.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ayn Rand is not good for you

We have now the spectacle of even Alan Greenspan going for more regulation of the market. O tempora o mores, I suppose. Perhaps this strange sight signals - whatever the level of destruction of this possibly very deep and exceptional downturn - that a return to some degree of sanity has finally begun. It is not that these collapses would not have been foreseen and forecast - they were, by many anxious and worried observers. It is just that reason went overboard with the long bull market, as it inevitably will in connection with any complex large scale human activity, and especially when it comes to the market place. It is self-evidently a feature, not a bug. That is why we desperately will always need balancing forces, safety nets, income transfers, progressive taxation and so on - not only do they keep the society open for fair competition and high social mobility but they also guarantee a certain, basic and crucial level of stability that is inherently missing from raw capitalism. In the last analysis these factors are the fundamental foundation of any effectively functioning and flourishing market economy. It is the very success of social democracy that I guess makes the market enthusiasts so blind to its salutary effects. History, our brutal human history, has a knack though of reminding us of the realities every now and then. Hopefully we will escape now with only a reminder - it seems quite possible that much worse things could be on offer. Interesting times certainly.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Don't let them crash

Periodically capitalism must be saved from itself - the invisible hand is very shaky when left unsupervised. And that's exactly what has been done in these last euphoric and hubristic decades that continued the party, hmm, the orgy that Reagan and Thatcher began. Well, it's hangover time now. Of course things would be fine and capitalism would work smoothly without supervision and regulation if only people would always behave rationally and longsightedly. So would have communism. But we are what we are and will always need checks and balances as long as we stay human. It would be natural in this crisis then to let these arrogant institutions and their once so all-knowing and self-righteous masters fail instead of making them protected state wards. But that would be a mistake - we should never forget that the welfare state and the social democratic compromize worked only because they provided a workable mechanism to harness capitalism for genuine overall good of the community. Without that engine, energy and dynamism it would not have been possible to create a more humane, a more equal society. We are only good in sharing abundance: scarcity will eventually lead to injustice and authoritarianism. So, under proper supervision capitalism can be made work and be made work well. Of course, no-one seems to know how bad things have now gone: it might be possible that even quite apocalyptic changes may happen. But hopefully the governments can once again save capitalism from itself and perhaps remember the lesson better and for much longer this time. This crisis was only too well foreseen and forecast - the hubris and folly was just too strong for reason to penetrate and disinflate.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On social liberalism

I mostly vote for the Social Democrats, occasionally also for the Greens - in the last election in Finland I seriously considered our (very) moderate Conservative Party (Kokoomus) and still remember fondly the Young Finns of the early and mid-nineties (as overly market enthusiastic as they were). But none of these parties correspond very exactly with my own social liberal preferences though you certainly can find bits and pieces in all of them. Social Democracy is of course the closest equivalent with its historical compromise with market economy and its very effective combination of social justice with dynamic economy (that is now under ever increasing threat). Still, the socialist ethos has never felt very close to me with those certain even quite crude anti-elitist tendencies and mindsets of the tradition (the Finnish term is much more descriptive – “herraviha”). Perhaps that also comes from my Southern Ostrobothnian background , the naturally egalitarian and self-confident Province certainly has never felt the need to envy anyone or to harbour bitter grudges over generations…

For me equality is essentially the equality of opportunity. And it doesn’t mean that if one poor child out of a thousand that combines talent with luck succeeds that we would have achieved the equality of opportunity. As we well know, both talent and luck are equally distributed among both poor and wealthy children, so what we need is a fair chance for all poor children. And this then really needs certain strong social democratic structures to be established in the society: significant income redistribution, mixed economy, strong safety nets, progressive taxation, open high quality education and health care systems and so on. But the goal cannot be the forced equality of outcome – we naturally do have different talents, different luck, even different natures and inclinations. A free and fair social competition will produce relative losers and winners – this is both inevitable and beneficial. We need to guard against the elites that will always have the human instinct for monopolies and shutting down of the competition but we also need to guard against too forceful and also in itself elitistic levelling of the society. So, liberty is the highest value for me, not equality (as crucial as it is), but a society cannot be free unless a great majority of its citizens have a level playing field and are free to pursuit success according to their own inclinations and capabilities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Après moi - the government bailout

It has been once again proven in the cause of this present financial turmoil that the modern state cannot allow systemic economical failure. Moral hazard is a feature of the system, not an external bug. Profits will always be for privatization and losses, if big enough, will always be socialized. This empirically proven state of affairs will of course not prevent the adored corporate leaders to lecture about the negative effects of state intervention once the good times have returned. Business has very short and selective memory. So, in the last analysis our modern market economy is founded on the support of the modern social democratic state without which it could not thrive. It desperately needs strict regulation and oversight that guarantee a certain basic stability and predictability. It could not even be otherwise given our shortsighted and greedy human nature. Of course this also provides the assorted libertarians and other free market fundamentalists with a permanent escape clause: the free market will never be completely free, it simply cannot be so - there will never be uncontaminated laboratory conditions for capitalism, so the libertarians will always be able to say that without that contamination of public intervention, the system would have worked "perfectly". Oh dear, how much this intellectual nonsense reminds me of Marxism-Leninism - no falsifiability, pure intellectually immature circular logic supported by ideological fervour and nothing else.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sub specie aeternitatis

Modern Western philosophy has always been a problematic but fascinating subject for me - there has basically been a kind of love-hate relationship. On one hand it is hard to imagine more serious, more worthwhile inquiry but on the other hand you get such a sense of unreality to see these artificial systems of language perform docile logical tricks. That is very strongly put and my capabilities are not nearly enough to see how justified this attitude really is.

It just seems self-evident that we are not - literally - humanly able to ground ourselves universally and timelessly - and this is what the great, original synthesists have tried from Descartes via Leibnitz and Spinoza on towards Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, the usual army of the unalterable law with mad Friedrich jeering on the sidelines and the analytic Anglo-Saxons seeing no point to the enterprise in the first place (having their own impossible agenda). A strange hubristic tradition. Art on the other hand has always seemed more, not less, universal to me, starting from a more particular, more fundamental point, and being then more essentially grounded if less logical, less house trained. So, I would change Plato's order, and see art as essential and philosophy, at least potentially, as distracting us from our serious inquiry...

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Questions of style

It took a long time to get rid of the History Department snobbery concerning biography but in time I have come to realize that an individual person is one of the best angles available for getting an informative look on an era. This notwithstanding all those well known and legitimate enough reservations - you probably can never really capture an individual experience and so all text will inevitably be misleading and inaccurate thus often raising subjectivity to a second degree. So there is no straight line from an individual life to its cultural and temporal context, but then there is none available for any kind of historical study - which is not only a loss, but sometimes a significant gain.

I am currently in the middle of Antonia Fraser's life of Marie Antoinette, which is competent enough, I'm sure at places even a brilliant case for the defence though her approach has never been greatly to my taste. There is one player permanently out of the scene, namely the 99% of French society whose appearance would perhaps go a long distance in explaining the personal tragedy of this largely blameless but very foolish person. Of course, I have in any case very little sympathy for the aristocracy of the ancien regimé, those decadent painted dolls that, yes, were more a concequence than the cause of the universal awfulness and injustice of the time - but other contemporary tragedies were even worse and unimaginably more numerous.

Anyway, this book surely is the one Sophie Coppola read. When her film came out it didn't receive a very warm welcome from the critics. I suppose the general verdict was that it had some style but no substance and gravitas which it should have had given its famous and portentous historical context. Well, I thought it was brilliant. I have some difficulties in seeing film as a great art form, but it surely best achieves greatness when it gets the form right, never mind the content (as far as we can meaningfully make the distinction, which is mostly not very far). That is how my sense of esthetics works: form can be the substance, a frivolous approach can lead to a great virtuosity of skill and thus also to deep meaningfullness.

In the film this strange era is approached from a very eccentric, unreal angle (which is also how the study of history fundamentally works, even if the academia is never as free as art, odd how ashamed historians are of their craft's near relatives...) - and illuminated in a very understated way. It is a very stylish film and thus a very good film. The famous shot of the pair of Nike runners among Marie Antoinette's shoe collection was not frivolous postmodernism for me but a striking statement about our universal experience of being in time (not to mention some more obvious similarities between two epochs of decadence and over concumption). This is to overstate the case, but overstatement is surely a legitimate reading here. An excellent film indeed, unique almost in its capability to express with a sophisticated, light touch certain aspects of history that academic research would have great difficulties in expressing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So be merry, so be dead

For my fortieth birthday this summer I wished for a reprint of Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory. It was such a remarkable, even shattering experience to encounter it shortly after I had begun my studies in Helsinki in the late 80's. Of course, I already then found the idea of Liberal England strangely sympathetic and was aware of its strange death during the nightmares of the 20th century - but Fussell brought that theme to life in a spectacular fashion. I still largely accept his view on the importance of the WW1 to modern experience.

This is not to say that these concepts - like the "strange death" of liberal England - would not be outside impositions, they are, but currently we don't have any other means to bring coherance and life to history which is the challenge that a book like The Great War and Modern Memory so brilliantly meets. It is only too bad that most modern historians seem largely unaware that there even is a problem here - perhaps that is due to the unfortunate side effects of postmodernism. In comparison to the current crew of mainstream historians literary history like it was written by people like Fussell or Bergonzi is sheer intellectual pleasure, such wide range and such intellectual confidence is very rarely seen any more.

Inspired by Fussell, I'm am going round through these by now familiar landscapes. I am currently in the middle of Vera Brittain's classic "Testament of Youth", and no doubt "Goodbye to All That", "Undertones of War" and Sassoon's memoirs will follow later. Strange how this particular loss of innocence seems to echo through the decades for so many people and into so many different circumstances. Of course, it was a very narrow section of people, not very representative in any sense, but for them history had devised a trap the like of which has not often been seen.

They were the fruit of the high, unreal civilization of liberal England, and it is not easy not to be moved by images such as Vera Brittain's visit in July 1914 to the public school of her beloved brother and her gifted fiance - and watching them march in the Officer's Training Corps in the middle of that brilliantly beautiful summer. Surely a strange quietness in the blue sky and in the windless trees there, boys' cries muffled by the still, unmoving air... Much of the modern cynicism, pessimism and despair originated in the mad slaughter of these innocents.

In undoubtedly a very disproportionate way I identified exceptionally intensely with that experience, feeling the loss of a very protected innocence myself and having also a sense of bitter suffering and mute, helpless endurance. Of all the various figures, poets and writers, it is then Charles Sorley that stood out most painfully. His eighteen to my eighteen was a humiliating contrast. I had barely been able to formulate the need for a coherent voice, a coherent person - and there he was in his brilliant letters: a sane, sensitive, balanced, proportionate, authorititave voice. Everything I so burningly was not.

Strangely history echoes through our lives, our experiences. I was of course overly romantic, not making justice to the actual occurrances, the actual persons. But even now Sorley cannot but feel such a rounded, brilliant figure, such loss to the world, his eighteen being easily more than a match to my forty even though the competition is slightly more even now... What would he have done, what would he have written - such irreplaceable loss. Or Rosenberg, or Owen. Not representative people at all, but in their unrepresentativeness surely very crucial to our modern experience. Unmoored as we are, no longer having faith in coherance and progress, in art being the way forward for the whole civilization - lost in no-man's-land. They point, illuminate the way how we ended up there.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

No permanent home here

It is very difficult to describe the atmosphere, the ethos of Finnish Pietism (herännäisyys) to outsiders. Harsh modernity has largely compressed Christianity either to bland mainstream churches going through the motions or to intellectually shrivelled, panicky fundamentalism. Those two versions, competing in shallowness, are familiar to all. Mysticism escapes this fruitless dichotomy, all fruitless dichotomies. Listening to Zion's Songs (Siionin virret), those amazing cadences of folk melodies from the 18th and 19th centuries, one is amazed that there still is, in this ice cold human world, forms of Christianity that can unite esthetics and ethics (almost in quasi-Eliotian way), that can make faith even now, even today, an intellectually relevant position. Incredibly for any human organization, Finnish Pietism has renounced power and manipulation, thus stubbornly maintaining a living connection to that amazing vision of universal redemption two thousand years ago - through weakness and powerless longing towards the true homeland, the loving absolute. Grace is not earned, not conquered, not owned, not maintained by human power, nor mediated by human hands. A beautiful, sad, living vision, a fit philosophy. This comment comes partially from outside, more Athens than Jerusalem surely in me, but a part of me has never left, and never will. Such strange thing, such luck to have encountered a living, credible form of Christianity - so easy to think these sorry days that none exist.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Vita brevis

It is strange to encounter milestones in one's life that so short time ago seemed unimaginable. We begin in timelessness and then are caught by that strong stream that does not remain the same though it keeps the name. I would imagine that we end by returning to a kind of timelessness: the stream goes on but we drift downwards, are left behind, not any more interested in what is to come. In that sense this is the swift mid part with very little time for reflection and distance, being in mid-arc, mid-flight. Earlier one had the illusion of finality, of reaching the finished state - I don't believe that this is so for any person, not for me certainly, and it would surely not be very satisfactory state of affairs, not to change, not to journey on. Our experience here is very strange, concrete and fickle, stable and ever changing, inexplicable at heart.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jam tomorrow

One of the bright spots of this unexpectedly tough spring has been the re-reading of Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Such magnificent voice. He was certainly no saint and had many unpleasant traits (as we all do), many blind spots. No matter: integrity, honesty and tolerance will shine through. We have not seen his like since, not many ages have. Curiously it was his democratic socialism that striked me this time quite powerfully: how decent, how civilized would his ideal society be. Especially in comparison with us: our hedonistic, uncaring, semi-sadistic consumer society based on capital and profit. Surely, if we were better, we would be Orwellian socialists, somewhat austere, tolerant and informal, arguing about gardening and perfect cups of tea over pints of bitter before the last orders - that come early in the evening, then vanishing into the soft English night still discussing in good humour, perfectly equal, perfectly free...

But we are not better, we are what we are, and so the social democrats had to solve the class problem by making almost everyone a part of the middle class by taxation, welfare structures and decent universal education. And when almost everyone became middle class, they promptly shod any traces of socialist inclinations - which is why the democratic left is in such serious intellectual (if not always electoral) difficulties in most of the West. And now that the social democratic balance of interests is slowly but surely eroding in favour of capital and corporations, there is no vibrant intellectual alternative, no credible voice of dissent and progress, unlike in Orwell's own era. I wonder what he would now say? In any case, his proposition I suppose was never really on offer - we are what we are. Having stumbled into the social democratic solution (I am still amazed how well functioning that set of balances were: no actor too strong, no interest pre-dominant) we are now stumbling out of it, irresponsibly speeding ahead towards who knows what further collapses of morality and ethics.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Duty and virtue

Following even distantly the modern liberal democratic political process you are stricken how decadent and corrupt we have become. The impulses of Christianity and the Enlightenment are growing ever weaker. What we mostly have left are possessions, a hedonistic drive towards more and more comfort and entertainment cynically manipulated by the blind, shortsighted elites. The most rapid descent appears to be in progress in the USA: the high enlightened principles of the American Revolution are rapidly vanishing in front of our eyes, the Bush administration has brutally effectively enlarged the realm of possibilities for rolling back the spirit of that great rebellion against the arbitrary power of the executive. This is not to say that there once was a halcyon time when virtue ruled – human governance is inevitably a corrupt process and without a certain earthy sense of pragmatism the results can be quite frightening. But you do have, you must have, countering ideals, high goals, a code of ethics, of morality, a sense of boundaries. Without this counterforce the government, the political process will rot to the core. A healthy balance is needed, but currently the social and economical structures don’t produce responsible politicians and good citizens – they don’t produze citizens at all, they produce consumers. There is no balance.

Every day on this planet is an astonishing collapse of morality. Every week die 250 000 children under the age of 10. Consider that for a moment, the reality of that description. There is a huge, an unimaginable amount of human suffering in the world that we already have the physical means to prevent. If we are lucky, if the civilizational progress will continue (rather debatable proposition at the moment) we will one day be condemned as coldblooded, callous murderers. It is a small comfort that there is a partial defence for this - namely that wickedness is an inbuilt feature of all human organization, that it is does not come from outside and is not in our current power to prevent. From a moral perspective that is no defence. We desperately need ideals, we need a sense of duty, a concept of virtue, an understanding of the necessity of ethical boundaries. Without those influences our existence will become a pointless combination of sadism and hedonism, and eventually a moral collapse will lead to a physical one. We can’t built a lasting civilization on consumption and profit.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

His dark familiar

I have been keeping quality company during my unpleasantly long work trips these last few days: a selection of Orwell's essays and journalism preceded by Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Reading Orwell's heavenly prose is not only a huge pleasure but somewhat challenging too - any personal writing seems especially wooden and clumsy in that particular comparison. There really are few things in the world to compare with good writing, nor many skills that I would rate higher. (Come to think, I can't name one.) Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that I have first encountered too early: I think I must have read it when I was 13 or 14. These added years have added scope and it is strange to find completely new echoes and meanings in that classic text. I don't really know any wider scope than fiction, it is the widest scope, widest, most serious view that I have encountered. Perhaps philosophy would be a contender if someone hadn't absolutely forbidden philosophers to write about the nature and structure of the immediate human experience in meaningful language. (Of course some have luckily disobeyed, like poor Friedrich, for instance.) So, even in the midst of these busy days with their scattered busy trivia I have been able to keep contact with essential matters, the long views - not a bad achievement as they go, as much as one would hope for a much more relevant, essential professional life to accompany a most relevant, essential private life.

Friday, March 14, 2008

From Athens via Jerusalem to the shopping mall

For me history is at the centre - it is the central science, the central study. In comparison physics seems a simple if esoteric field, mathematics a self-evident logical game with only fairly mechanical complexities etc. etc. About the structure and workings of the subject matters of all natural sciences we understand so much more than about our inexplicable human experience in the world. We have next to no penetration of this chaotic process, being immersed in it, seeing only dimly and never far. We have ever more minute comprehension of the nature and dimensions of space-time but have no theory of historical causation. We can explain the physical universe in the language of hard science but can't do the same for the smallest of historical events. Perhaps that is why we have only a very limited perception of the strangeness of our path, of this mad shooting arc that has brought us to this completely unique new society, only mere decades old. One can only wonder what is yet to come - will the explosion into more complexity continue or will it all come to arupt halt at some stage? In any case there is no control of our direction, we ride a huge wild wave without any meaningful way to influence its course.

Monday, February 04, 2008

La trahison des clercs

In the course of the bonfire of decencies that has been the American political process in recent years, we were famously informed that "facts on the ground don't matter". And it has been the bewildered complaint of the derailed progressive forces that this attitude is not only accepted but actively practiced by increasing proportions of the mainstream media. Facts are not reported, controversies are - there are only conflicting interpretations, conflicting languages that are cited, and increasingly few attempts are made to evaluate these often totally absurd claims against reality. No doubt this is largely an economic phenomenon: the modern media is very tightly integrated to corporate structures, to these gigantic, unimaginable concentrations of wealth and power - which of course will inevitably corrupt any intellectual enterprise. But I think the attack has been so deadly because it has been two pronged all the while, and the other thrust has come from the back: the humanities have now been dominated for decades by a very debased form of postmodernity that indeed does replace the words like "facts" and "reality" within quotation marks having no legitimate meaning. In the current academic folk religion in the literature and media departments reality has no substance and fundamentally only power is the meaningful settler of any disputes. Can we then blame the poor journalists for their education?

Now of course we know that nothing that Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault and other captains of the army of unalterable law ever wrote challenged the physical reality in any way. Findings of physics, the laws of mathematics are perfectly, even religiously protected by these texts - physical facts remain as objective as ever and reality as real and robust as it has always been. This has been the correct fall back position of most defenders of this complicated web of continental philosophies. The problem is of course that on the ground this is hardly ever even mentioned as of course it would delegate these much trumpeted findings to somewhat more humble level. Facts are as solid and trustworthy as as they have ever been but there are some great complications in formulating them in human language. And it is these intricate complications that the various streams of postmodern thought have helpfully clarified. Of course, they have done this in as unclear and messy language as humanly possible - and in the process whether then intentionally or not hiding the fact that these new insights are hardly very revolutionary at all. (It is no wonder that postmodern thought has so docilely co-existed with the triumph of free market orthodoxy.) Needless to say these complicated philosophical insights have virtually no importance to the mundane every day process of reporting and analysing events.

So, progress is currently bogged down in two front war (and not doing particularly well in either). Just when facts are crucially important, when truth should be spoken to power, we discover that "facts" are irrelevant and "truth" is an oppressive, anti-pluralist concept. Progress itself is seen as a dangerous, hegemonic concept and a direct cause for the calamities of the 20th century - from Kant and Mill you somehow get straight to Auschwitz (as nonsensical as it is to think so). One should not wonder that the chief beneficiary of this collapse of selfconfidence are the modern, atavistic conservative forces supported and created by the blind and self-destructive structures of capital. Of course we are now seeing many signs of waning of the force of this great bundle of theories: scholastism has been quite exhausted by now -the seats of power have been conquered but hardly anything else very meaningful. All that needed to be written and what was intellectually valuable was essentially said already by the late 1970's. What we now have in humanities, three long decades later, seems to be a gigantic cul-de-sac, a huge waste of intellectual energy, the main legacy of which seems to be only the undermining of enlightenment values and all faith in political progress.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beautiful lofty things

It is curious how often it seems necessary to hold a one sided, impossibly rosy view of the human nature in order to have progressive views of society and history – and how often it is seen reasonable that just to show otherwise is enough to disprove this progressivism. Certainly there is much else in us than just pure drives towards understanding, harmony and reason: there are dark, atavistic, animal impulses in the depths of all our minds. A large part of our integral experience is completely amoral. Our conscious being is ephemeral, disjointed, our experience far from unified, we exist only partially and are only too often panicky, fearful and aggressive, powered by ancient reflexes for flight or fight. There are grasping, ugly creatures within all of us, waiting for their chance to emerge and take control.

These instincts can’t be denied or willed out of existence (and it would be disastrous to even try), but all the same, their mere existence is surely no argument. We do have countering forces, intelligence, will to meaning and understanding, instincts for protection and solidarity, for beauty and truth, moments of coherence. We remain poised, seeing far beyond the prison walls, a kind of experiment: what will once emerge out of these disjointed beings? I would not think that this disharmony, this uneasy equilibrium would be satisfactory as a permanent solution, as much edge as it does give to our wild, untamed lives.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Time present and time past

The grandparents of my parents were children of the last great famine in Western Europe. In the late 1860's several concequent bad harvests led to widespread starvation and disease, and almost 10% of the population of Finland died. It can be said that I have been largely formed by people in whose immediate historical memory this disaster was. There is thus a tenuous living connection that undoubtedly will no more be carried over to the next generation. Our son was born ten months ago into a dynamic, postmodern and cosmopolitan high-tech society that is busily consuming and being amused by the global entertainment industry. He will have no real connection with that passed away rural civilization.

It is in fact almost inconceivable to think that this land of brightly lit shopping malls and cutting edge mobile techonology was starving to death by the roadsides only mere five generations ago. Certainly this is not much thought about now: we occupy ourselves almost entirely with the present and the near future. The speed is too high, too dangerous for any meaningful reflection. So much has changed so quickly. I myself - as can be seen so clearly in retrospect - witnessed the ending of the last remnants of the rural Ostrobothnia that was still the unquestioned mental and cultural background of my parents. This huge change happened with astonishing speed largely only after the Second World War with the social change skipping industrialization and shifting the emphasis directly from agriculture to services in one generation. I still believe that I have the feel, the texture of that rural civilization that now has vanished. It is a wild ride we are on, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

Many believe that there is no use in remembering even this quite recent past, only the previous half hour in historical terms - certainly such remembrance can sometimes hinder finding new perspectives and new solutions to largely unprecedented social situations. Still, without this long view we would surely get a wrong understanding of our position (on the crest of a huge wave racing towards an unknown destination), we would see the current moment out of all proportion, one-dimensional and shallow. It is hard to believe, even if civilization will eventually persist, that we are now done with all collapses and calamities. There is too little behind us though to know anything for sure: this mad, chaotic progress is only a few centuries old - there is no way of predicting how this process will continue or whether it will continue at all.

In any case it is difficult not to feel half-nostalgic about those times and meanings that were once so real and immediate and which now seem unimaginably distant and strange. I suppose it is more the fact of passing than the content of what has passed: most things are much better now. But so much has so easily vanished from living memory, and this is what will happen to our moment too - hard to imagine though that anyone would feel any nostalgia about this society but that no doubt also depends on what's to come.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The great tradition

I was recently reading a biography of George Eliot and was much struck by the majesty of the turn of the British non-conformist intellectual elite towards political liberalism, agnosticism and progress during the middle part of the 19th century. Yes, this great shift surely was absurdly highminded, demanding impossible moral and intellectual rigidity (and frigidity) from people, expecting things not remotely possible in this fallen world, doing not only much good but also much harm in the process. This said, compared with the contemporary high Tory wallowing in the miserableness of the human condition, there is a tone of great human decency in this partly absurd wish to create (and the expectation of seeing) a new Jerusalem on Earth. They were momentous times indeed and we still do feel the impact of this great hope for improvement and progress - even if it is ever weakening, being gradually drowned by the current Western orgy of consumerism and materialism. Of course, coming from the liberal Christian background of modern Finnish Pietism, there is much that is familiar with this peculiarly Protestant form of secular longing for a proper home in this world. There is an unmistakeable continuum of thought originating both in the sources of the Reformation and in the Reformation itself that is still supporting progressive political structures around the world - surely, naturally, getting gradually fainter as is any faith in conscious progress.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The winged chariot sung

It was on remarkably many levels that the news of the death of Jaan Kross were felt. Such an irreplaceable loss. Being an Estophile his unique broad perspective on his native country has of course been hugely influential in forming a personal understanding on Estonian history and culture. Still, I did not read him for information but for art: the excellent Finnish translations brought out the majestic rhythm of the language, the intricate beauty of the sentences. The texture is dense and deep - and the interplay between theme and language is mostly flawless. The result is a slow, universal, almost a mystical beat behind the surface action that the reader becomes only gradually aware of: a huge canvas is painted with sparse, understated strokes. The themes themselves were mostly Estonian but his was a universal Western voice, concerned with our particular modern predicament of unmoored individuals in time, at the mercy of history. There are not many such writers in any generation and it was quite a miracle that such an authoritative Western voice would be coming from such a small nation - quite like the improbable emergence of Sibelius from the nationalistically awakened and in many ways narrow confines of Finland. Such a body of work, such a life - we can only be grateful and priviledged to have been able to share even if only partially this majestic, polyphonic historical and cultural perspective.