Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sandy Hook

Last summer, after the shooting death of a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater, I decided that such senseless killings on a sickening scale are perfectly “acceptable” to the American people.

There seemed no other explanation for the lack of serious response by the public and politicians. Almost no one dared speak out in favor of restricting access to the type of so-called assault rifle used in the Colorado massacre. Apparently, even that killing spree, and the one at a Sikh temple two weeks later, was too routine to spark any real outrage. It was shrugged off. I found this extremely frustrating and wrote at the time:

“There must be a frequency and scale of gun deaths at which public opinion finally turns vigorously against the gun lobby. What would be that tipping point be?”

Now maybe we know.

The tipping point seems to be the cold-blooded murder of twenty innocent children in a ten-minute rampage in a first-grade classroom in Connecticut. The horror was unimaginable. The grief has been overpowering. And the response – this time – may be different.

There are encouraging signs. A Democratic Senator has vowed to reinstate the assault weapons ban that was allowed to lapse in 2004, and President Obama, who has been mostly silent on the issue of gun control in his first term, has finally promised to do something. He has announced a commission to find solutions to this “epidemic of gun violence”.

Protests have been held outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, the all-powerful gun lobby. The NRA seems to be hunkering down, keeping a low profile in the face of a spike in anti-gun public opinion. It was silent for four days after the shooting, no public statements, no tweets, and its Facebook page temporarily going dark.

At the same time, support for greater gun control is far from universal. The shooting at Sandy Hook hasn’t likely shaken the firm belief of the most ardent gun lovers that the Second Amendment is all that separates them from total annihilation by criminals. Or the Federal government. Or the UN. Or Democrats. Or zombies.

Still, it seems the anguish and outrage over the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary has forced “gun rights” advocates into an even shakier defensive position than ever before.

The takeaway of some religious leaders and conservatives to the tragedy is instructive. Bryan Fischer, who hosts some kind of fundamentalist Christian radio show, blamed the massacre in Connecticut on the fact that prayer was taken out of schools in 1962. I guess the logic here is that God is willing to allow children to die in order to score political points against American liberals. God, how petty can you get.

The notion that God declined to save the children at Sandy Hook because of America’s flirtation with evolution, same sex marriage, secularism, and – I don’t know, maybe even fluoridated water - was echoed by others, including prominent conservative preacher James Dobson, morally bankrupt politician Newt Gingrich, and Erick Erickson, a leading light of the modern conservative movement and CNN contributor.

Erickson in his RedState blog went even further, blaming “the collapse of the American family”, in particular the demise of the two-parent household with “multiple children”. Erickson’s fixation on the presence of “multiple children” in a family (he uses the term repeatedly) as a way of preventing mass killings is odd. Of the nine mass shootings this year (this year alone), only two have been carried out by an only child.

It’s one thing to focus on God’s passive-aggressive behavior or America’s lackadaisical procreation as root causes of gun violence. It’s idiotic, but at least it doesn’t make the situation worse.

That can’t be said for what is emerging as gun supporters’ favorite prescription to the national malaise of mass shootings in public places, namely, we need more guns.

Many conservative commentators, and a few Republican politicians, have reacted to the tragedy last week mainly by agonizing over the fact that teachers at Sandy Hook didn’t have assault rifles of their own.

They seem to be trying to divert attention away from any possible discussion of restricting firearms by doubling down on the idea that while guns don’t kill people, they certainly can be used to kill people who have guns intended for killing people.

A common fantasy among some gun lovers is that when duty calls in a crisis situation a well-armed populace of untrained citizens will turn into natural-born Jack Bauers. I’m skeptical that such a scenario would turn out well.

At a place full of experienced gun users, like an Army base, you might think you could stop a shooter without unintentionally adding more innocent bystanders to the body count. But when an attack occurred at such a place, Fort Hood in Texas, the assailant was able to shoot 42 people, killing thirteen, before he was finally stopped. If that can happen at a place teeming with military, how effective would the armed response of a city street full of overexcited Average Joes be?

In some of the best-known cases where armed civilians were credited with stopping shooting sprees, either the “civilians” were security professionals or the gunman had already stopped shooting.

Another meme on the right is that “gun-free” zones like schools or movie theaters are perfect targets for armed psychopaths precisely because they know no one can shoot back. At least, not before the police arrive.

For this reason, many conservatives are calling for guns to be allowed in schools. Maybe there are countries where it’s normal for math teachers to show up with a sidearm – I’m thinking Yemen or the libertarian paradise of Somalia as good candidates – but I’d hate to think America has come to that. Wait, it already has. At least one school district, in northern Texas, has allowed teachers to carry guns since 2008. If some on the right have their way, many other schools would follow.

What the NRA leadership proposed today, in its rather disjointed and out-of-touch press conference, is that instead of arming teachers themselves, the US should station a police officer in every school, an excellent works program for law enforcement types.

Again, if saturating every public space with firearms would actually deter would-be mass murderers who don’t expect to survive their killing sprees anyway, how do you explain the attack at Fort Hood, which is not exactly a gun-free zone?

But then there’s the case of Kennesaw. This small city in my home state of Georgia is perhaps unique in the nation. In 1982, Kennesaw passed a law requiring all “heads of households” to own a gun. (This was long before conservatives learned to object to tyrannical governments forcing citizens to buy products like, say, health insurance.) The rationale is that if criminals know that every single family is armed, they will think twice before attempting a home invasion.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to this grim calculation. Apparently, Kennesaw has enjoyed one of American’s lowest crime rates since the law was enacted. And, that is a sad thought.

Maybe that’s what it takes in a country like America. In other advanced western nations, people can rely on a peaceful society and rule of law to feel safe, without having to militarize their own homes. But maybe the US is different. Maybe it is already so awash with guns, with fear, with crime and lawlessness, that the “every man for himself” attitude toward personal safety is the only way to feel secure.

I certainly hope that’s not true and that the US won’t go further down that path. How the American people act in the aftermath of Sandy Hook will say a lot about how much of a failed state America really has become.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Holy Socks

I haven’t been blogging much lately, being too busy with other things that someday might lead to something more lucrative than blogging – which is to say, anything other than blogging. We can always hope.

Now that it’s Christmastime, the season when many people entertain at home, I’m reminded of one of the lesser-known customs of the Finns. Soon after coming to live here, I learned that before leaving the house to visit friends you should always check your socks for holes.

Reinos - classic Finnish footwear.
The reason for this extra attention to hosiery is that Finns, as a rule, do not wear shoes indoors at home. That goes as well for guests, and having a hole in your sock is something you can’t easily hide. Holes in both socks are even worse.

I’m not sure if this custom is shared by other Nordic countries, though I imagine it might be. In the case of Finland, it’s probably due to the Finns’ obsession with cleanliness and good housekeeping. Plus the fact that for at least some good portion of the year, the world outside the front door is a vast sea of mud, or muddy slush, or slushy mud. You get the picture.

So, good manners dictate that in addition to bringing a bottle of red or white, guests should avoid tracking unwelcome grime into the house by leaving their shoes in the eteinen (small entryway) when they arrive.

The more fashionably conscious guests, usually women and especially those of a certain age, often work around this shoeless custom by bringing along a pair of dress shoes to change into once they’re inside.

This particular Finnish habit is so ingrained that whenever my children visited my parents in Georgia, they always immediately removed their shoes and left them in a neat row by the front door, a practice that always impressed my mother.

The shoeless custom is also why the only bones I’ve ever broken have been toe bones. Walk around the house long enough in socking feet, and you’re bound to bang your toe pretty hard against something. Repeatedly. Maybe that’s why a few years ago I adopted another local tradition – the Reino. These are the legendary beige-colored plaid slippers that some Finns do wear at home. Reinos have a certain retro appeal that has made them très chic in the last few years. Or maybe that’s just what those of us who wear them would like to think.

While the custom of going shoeless indoors seems completely sensible in this climate, it can lead to awkward situations. Years ago, I attended an epic Friday-night party at a colleague’s small apartment downtown. He threw great parties, and soon the eteinen was overflowing with shoes. Some details of that night are best not dwelt upon, but by Monday morning I had fully recovered and was dressing for work when I noticed one of my shoes felt different, very roomy. It was identical to the other, only a size or two bigger.

Obviously, leaving the party with my facilities somewhat blunted by judicious servings of alcohol, I had picked up someone else’s shoe from the pile. When I arrived at the office, ready to exchange footwear with my colleague, I found that over the weekend he had left for a weeklong business trip to Singapore, obviously with one shoe that was too tight. When he arrived back in Finland, he was still not too happy, but it did make a great story.

At dinner in a restaurant (where even Finns wear shoes) a few months later, I enjoyed retelling the story to some female colleagues visiting from Dallas. At first, I didn’t understand why a story about a shoe mix-up that I thought was quite funny was met with such awkward, concerned looks from my Texan friends. Then I realized they were trying to work out exactly what kind of party this had been anyway, where guests can mistakenly go home with the wrong article of clothing.

I had neglected to mention the key piece of information that people living here take completely for granted – no partygoer should ever be shy about stripping off their shoes. Unless they have hole-ly socks.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Saturday morning brought the news that Barack Obama had won a majority of votes in the state of Florida. That might be the very definition of “anti-climatic”, coming as it does five days after Election Day. Still, for Obama supporters such as myself, it’s gratifying news. Icing on the cake, you might say. An important swing state swung again for Obama.

In an election season filled with drama (or maybe more melodrama), the end itself couldn’t have been more theatrical. The Democrats didn’t just win, they won big. And the reaction from the opposition party was riveting, entertaining and sometimes even tragicomic.

With the tally from Florida finally completed, Obama won 332 electoral votes (62%), well beyond the 270 he needed to win. Speculation until the last minute was that - while Obama would win the Electoral College easily - he would lose the popular vote. He came out ahead there, too, beating Romney by almost three percentage points (50.5% to 47.9%).

In Georgia, naturally, it was a different story. It was Romney who won big in the Peach State (53%-45%), and really big in my home county (81%-18%). My vote was only one of the fewer than two thousand cast locally for Obama.

While the popular vote nationally might have been fairly close, the electoral vote was decisive. Or, in the nuanced, dispassionate terms probably favored by some Democrats, it was an “ass-whooping”.

You can forgive some Obama supporters for a little “ball-spiking”. (I tried my best to restrain myself.) Obama won by a landslide, if you go by the criteria of infamous GOP operative Dick Morris, who had predicted a 325-213 “landslide” for Romney. Not only did the Democrats win the presidency again, they wrecked any Republican hopes of regaining the Senate by defeating 23 GOP candidates and strengthening their control of the Senate by two seats. Tea Party favorites Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were beaten handedly, presumably paying for their sins of gross rape insensitivity.

The sweetest victory was Elizabeth Warren’s in Massachusetts. When Warren, a strong advocate for consumer protection, was denied by the GOP the chance to run the new government agency set up for that purpose, she decided to run for Senate instead. Now, with Warren able to weld the much more imposing power of a US Senator, Republicans might wish they had allowed her to take up the job of a mere bureaucrat.

Besides Warren, eleven other women won their own Senate races (including one Republican), bringing the number of women in the Senate to an all-time record high of twenty, a fact that by itself speaks volumes about the shortage of women in Congress.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Dems won a net gain of eight seats in the House, though this does nothing to change the balance of power in that body. To be honest, the overall balance of power will be practically unchanged in Washington. Despite a welcome re-election, Obama still faces a tough next four years.

That prospect certainly didn’t dampen the ball spiking and waves upon waves of Schadenfreude washing over some rejoicing Democrats. A Tumblr site somewhat snarkily called “White People Mourning Romney” features pages of photos showing GOP supporters on election night looking absolutely glum, downcast, dispirited, weepy, sad, and simply shocked, dumbfounded by the reality that, against all their Heavenly ordained expectations, Romney did not win.

I admit, part of me felt a bit of glee looking at these images - after all, these are doubtless some of the same folks who have been relentlessly vilifying Obama since 2008, often in the worst possible way.

On the other hand, I do feel for them. The people in these photos are having a very bad day. It hurts to lose, and especially to lose badly when any outcome other than winning was simply inconceivable. Not all of them were Tea Party fanatics, and some had probably honestly been voting for Romney and his policies (as misguided and dishonest as they were) and not simply against Obama, or worse against a black man.  

It is a bit unseemly to ridicule such ordinary Romney supporters just because they were shell-shocked by Romney's utter defeat, even if they should have known better. Public opinion polls had been clearly showing Obama likely to win (the New York Time’s sage of statistics, Nate Silver, was giving Obama a more than 90% chance of re-election). But Romney’s supporters, like his campaign itself, dismissed those polls as “skewed”, and preferred the rosier predictions of their own polls.  Reality was a freight train they never saw coming.

While it’s one thing to ridicule some people’s simple heartfelt disappointment over the election, it's fair game to poke fun at the hyperbolic and comical reactions of some other really sore losers. (The hubris of Romney’s hapless campaign, however, and the GOP pundits (read: Karl Rove) who cheered it on deserves nothing but ridicule. Pile it on!)

The prospect of four more years under a Democratic president has provoked reactions that border on the silly and insane. A few widely publicized tweets show just how far around the bend some people have gone:

“A thousand years of darkness begins tonight.”

“I’m moving to Australia, because their president is a Christian and actually supports what he says.” 

(I assume that before this person, a Georgian by the way, actually went as far as booking her flight to Sydney she was told that Australia has a prime minister, not a president, that “he” is a “she”, and that she is well-known for being an atheist. Hope so. The tweeter was a teenager anyway, so maybe we should cut her some slack.)

The most jaw-dropping tweeting came from some the nation's most celebrated (and irrelevant) drama queens.

All-purpose clown Donald Trump: “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!” (He later deleted this tweet.)

“Saturday Night Live” has-been Victoria Jackson: “America died.” and “Thanks a lot Christians, for not showing up. You disgust me.”

Disturbed guitar player Ted Nugent: “Pimps whores & welfare brats & their soulless supporters hav [sic] a president to destroy America”

Plus, you had Glen Beck urging his viewers to start accumulating farmland and ammunition for, well I guess, for surviving the“thousand years of darkness” that’s coming.

Or maybe the ammo's for something else. In some 30 states, petitions are underway for secession from the United States. Secession! Seriously, how many people can there really be who’ve been inflamed by anti-Obama whining to the point of rebellion? In Georgia, that would be the 25,000 people who've signed one such petition so far.

All this because a Democrat was re-elected to the presidency? Even a president who instituted a so-called “socialized” health care program? I have to say, such dramatic overreaction, even if it’s only rhetorical, really is stupid, if not a little frightening.

Some folks, apparently so aggrieved that Romney will now not have the chance to repeal government-run “Obamacare” have threaten to leave the country and move to that Ayn Rand paradise to the north we call Canada. I wonder what kind of health care system they have up there. I hear it’s good.

At least those hordes of Republicans forever disillusioned with America are not planning to  escape to Finland. As far as I know. 

Notice posted by a Tea Party group with a flare for the melodramatic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Home Stretch

Finally, the day has arrived. This time tomorrow, we’ll know who the next American president will be – unless a recount is needed and they have to call in the Supreme Court to cast the deciding vote. It’s happened before.

Something I think non-Americans must marvel at is the sheer length of the US presidential election. Today marks the end of a grueling two years (almost) of campaigning, debating, speechifying, demonizing, and obfuscating (if not sometimes outright lying) by a whole host of political characters. And some were real characters. (Herman Cain, where are you today?) 

No doubt like many others, I feel exhausted just watching the election unfold over the past twenty months or so. I can’t imagine how exhausted Barack Obama and Mitt Romney must feel, here on the home stretch. I also honestly can’t imagine why they would want to put themselves through it all.

In the latest polls, Obama and Romney are running neck-and-neck (you can never overplay horse-race analogies when it comes to elections). They are both showing 49% support nationwide, though Obama seems to be ahead in the only state that really matters, Ohio.

This morning I watched as the first actual votes were counted on live TV in tiny Dixville Notch, New Hampshire – five votes each for Obama and Romney. For the overall results, I’ll have to wait until after the polls start closing at two A.M. Finnish time. I don’t expect to sleep a lot tonight.

To some it might seem that this election has been badly overhyped, portrayed as an epic battle to decide the very future of America. At least the campaigns are happy to put it into such stark terms. As a casual observer, I would have to say:  yes and no. Or maybe.

It’s certainly the bitterest election of my lifetime. That’s a judgment call, of course. The 60s were a particularly politically divisive time, to be sure. But I was a kid then, and there was no talk radio and Internet to give a national forum to every “low information” citizen with a grievance, perceived or real, to pick at endlessly like a festering scab.

Since I don’t live in the States, and especially not in a swing state like Ohio or Colorado, I’m spared the onslaught of TV ads and robocalls flung at the voting public from both sides. Still, I’m feeling election fatigue just from all the political postings that fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds. To be fair, I’ve brought this on myself by choosing to follow certain tireless and prolific political sites. And I’ve posted my own share of unwanted and provocative status updates from time to time.

I’ve noticed that the political postings of many of my Georgia Facebook friends, who seem unanimously to support Romney, have slacked off in recent weeks. Maybe like me, they’re getting tired of it all. Or maybe they’ve become discouraged, as Romney has struggled to pull ahead of Obama. That’s my own spin, of course.

Or maybe they realize that since Romney will win Georgia anyway, and there’s no chance their postings will ever sway those elusive undecided voters in Ohio (the only voters who really count anyway), it’s pointless to publicly declare their strong disdain for Democrat Barack Obama. In Republican Georgia, that’s preaching to a choir that has long packed up and gone home.

It’s hard to ignore how poisonous the atmosphere has become. For example, a phone call a while back with someone in the States ended abruptly when our chat drifted to the rather staid topic of, wait for it, the Federal Reserve. Add “monetary policy” to the two topics that are traditionally too sensitive to be brought up in polite conversation – religion and politics.

Still, the atmosphere is surely nothing like that during the election of 1860, which resulted in half the United States deserting the other half, with the ensuing deaths of some 750,000 Americans. The US is not anywhere near that level of polarization, though some addled-minded blowhard somewhere is surely expecting another round of secession if Obama is reelected. I sure hope he doesn’t have access to guns (of course he has), or his own radio talk show (some have that, too).

Even many apparently sane conservatives are predicting dire consequents for the country if Obama wins. Obviously, I don’t agree. Likewise, some liberals see dark days ahead if Romney pulls out a victory. That’s based, of course, on Romney actually keeping half the promises he’s been forced to make trying to convince the Tea Party Republicans that he’s not, gasp, a moderate. There is still a chance that if he wins, he’ll ditch all that nonsense and govern like a reasonable person after all.

That’s the argument being made by David Frum in his recent endorsement of Mitt Romney. Frum, the George W. Bush speechwriter who so famously coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” in the propaganda campaign leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, is now considered a rare moderate voice in an increasingly extremist Republican Party. My, how times have changed. 

One telling reason for Frum thinking Romney is the better choice is the fanaticism of his own party.

“The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won't reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP — and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment. A Romney election will at least discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013.” (Emphasis added.)

Wow. You could call this the “Mel Gibson ‘Lethal Weapon’” rationale, something like:  “I’m way, way crazier than you are, dude, so you’d better do whatever the hell I say, or we’re both going down together.”

Call me old fashion, but given a choice, I always go with the least crazy bunch of folks. I only hope today that the good people of Ohio do the same. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Minding the Gender Gap

Another one those global rankings came out last week that illustrate why I very much like living in Finland.

The World Economic Forum issued its annual “Global Gender Gap Report”, with the unsurprising result that Finland remains one of the most progressive countries in gender equality anywhere in the world. This year, Finland moved up one spot from number three to be outdone only by Iceland. Ever consistent, Suomi has seesawed over the past six years between either number two or three in this list of some 130 nations. The US dropped to 22nd place, between Canada and Mozambique, from 17th last year.

The ranking is based on measurements of gender equality in four categories related to health, education, employment and politics. And it’s good to keep in mind that the differences between a country and those ranking just above or below it are mostly very small. The big gap comes, as always, between the top and bottom of the list.

Considering the quality of health care and education here, it's no news flash that Finland is ranked number one in both “Educational Attainment” and “Health and Survival”.

What is even more encouraging is that Finland is not alone in achieving near-total gender equality in these two essential elements for a successful life.

Thirty-one other nations (countries as diverse as France, Uganda and Mexico) tied with Finland for the top spot in comparative health outcomes for men and women (score 0.9796). Unfortunately, the US did not quite make it into this group. It was relegated to the next-best ranking (with a very close score of 0.9792). The difference seems to be that in Finland, women outlive men by one year more than they do in America.

In education, 19 other countries, including the US, joined Finland in gaining the highest possible score (1.0000, which represents perfect equality). Before getting too heady about the appearance of progress in this area, however, we shouldn’t forget Malala Yousafzai.

With so many countries (almost a quarter of those surveyed) seeming to agree on the importance of educating women, it’s all the more glaring to realize how this basic right can incite raw hatred in some parts of the world. (Swat Valley, I’m talking about you – but you’re probably not alone.) Just imagine the kind of primitive, dark mind someone must possess in order to justify shooting a fifteen-year-old girl in the head for simply helping to ensure other girls can attend school. Girls in school! What a subversive concept! The fabric of society will be torn apart! Thankfully, such a medieval mindset isn’t shared by the rest of the world, and thankfully Malala survived the attack, as horrific as it was.

Back to the WEF report. The category where the difference between Finland and the US is the widest, big enough in fact to drive a presidential campaign bus through, is “Political Empowerment”. In this category, which is based mainly on the ratio of women in a nation's political leadership, Finland came in second (score 0.6162), while America placed a very distant 55th (score 0.1557), between Israel and Madagascar.

This poor result for America shouldn’t be shocking. Of the 535 current senators and members of Congress only 92 are women (in Finland it’s almost half), and no woman has ever attained the US presidency. If a county has had at least one female head of state, you can tell your daughter that someday she can be president, without sounding divorced from reality. That’s much harder to do in the US.

The only category where the US outperforms Finland is “Economic Participation and Opportunity” (a fancy way of saying “working outside the home”), where it ranked 8th compared to Finland's 14th place. (Mongolia is top of the world in this category – certainly a thing to ponder.) 

Finland’s weak spot here seems to be the relative dearth of female managers (score of 0.42 compared to America’s 0.74). This is based on a reported 43% of American bosses being women, whereas in Finland the share of managers who can boast of two X-chromosomes is a mere 30%.  

I guess I have to take the WEF at its word on this, though my impressions are different, skewed perhaps by my own experience of the Finnish workplace.

In my twenty-plus years of working in Finland, I’ve had a dozen bosses, of which seven have been women. That’s well above 30%, though I can easily believe my work history isn’t typical. In the high-tech electronics firms where I made my living, the documentation, marketing and PR teams I worked in tended to attract the more, uh, expressive sex (there, I said it). Especially in a work environment dominated by no-nonsense mostly male engineers, more gender equality is always more than welcome. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Voting Here and There

I just cast my vote in the US presidential election. For the past two and a half decades, I’ve been voting by absentee ballot from my home here in Helsinki. In the past, I have done this by marking an overlarge stiff paper ballot sent from my birthplace in Georgia.

This election cycle, I decided instead to use the “electronic” option, which is available for UOCAVA voters. (For the record, UOCAVA - a term that could not be more unlovely if it came from the forges of Hell itself - stands for Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.)

“Electronic” in this case means that, as an UOCAVA voter, I can now download my ballot from a website, print it out, mark it, and enclose it in a blank envelope (provided by myself). I then enclose that, with a signed oath, in a second envelope (again, provided by myself – I’m saving the State of Georgia some money here), before mailing the whole thing to my hometown back in Georgia.

Sadly, while I’m doing all this I’m fully aware that my vote will not matter anyway. Not one bit. Zilch. It will be essentially ignored. Still, I’m glad to do it out of principle and a sense of duty. I feel better knowing at least I tried to have my voice heard.

Non-Americans probably don’t realize how voting works in the U.S. Of course, like in most other countries, Finland included, voting takes place locally. I vote in my home county in North Georgia, where I am still a registered voter though I haven’t lived there since I was 18. In theory, I could vote for local offices like the county sheriff or school superintendent. In practice, I only cast votes for national offices (presidency and congress), because I don’t think it’s fair to influence (as if) local issues I really don’t follow. (As a UOCAVA voter, I’m allowed to vote only for national offices, which is fine by me.)

While county-based voting makes supreme sense when you live in the county where you vote, it’s a bit odd for long-term expats who, like me, have only the flimsiest connection with their “voting homes”. I’ll never live in Gilmer County again, but as a voter, I’m stuck there for the rest of my life. That is why my vote will never count.

Finns also vote locally, but those living overseas are not tied to their home piiri. In late 1981, when Finland was preparing to elect its first new president in 25 years, my future wife and I were traveling in Mexico. To ensure she wouldn’t miss her chance to do her civic duty, we stopped by the Finnish embassy in Mexico City so she could vote. She simply showed up there, out of the blue, presented her Finnish passport and voted. It’s not an option enjoyed by us Americans overseas.

The consequence of being forced to vote in Georgia is, I’ll say it again, my vote won’t count. This form of, what you might call, personal voter “nullification” may be unique to America and can be traced directly back to the Founding Fathers.

Since the US Constitution was adopted in 1789, the US has elected presidents through an “Electoral College”, 538 men and women who do the actual voting for president. It is these electors that we mere citizens will technically be voting for this November 6th.

The whole idea is an obsolete holdover from the 18th century. Inserting 538 “middlemen” into the process is unnecessary enough, but it also dilutes democracy. Condensing the preferences of some 130 million voters into only 538 votes that really count doesn’t exactly meet the standard of one-person-one-vote.

What makes the system truly undemocratic, though, is the way the individual states choose those 538 electors. All but two states use the self-described “winner takes all” approach. Georgia has 16 votes in the Electoral College, all of which will go to one candidate. Georgia voters will effectively select 16 Republican electors or 16 Democratic electors, nothing in between. It’s an either/or proposition. No shades of grey here.

Of course, that’s only hypothetical. In reality, Georgia being Georgia, there is only one possible outcome  sixteen Georgians will officially cast votes for Mitt Romney and no one will vote for Barack Obama.

This is because Georgia in political terms is a solidly red state. That doesn’t mean that, as it would in the rest of the world, Georgia stands in proletariat solidity with the likes of Hugo Chávez. In exceptional America, “red” means politically conservative and “blue” means liberal, in other words, Republican and Democratic. The distinction has not always been so stark as it is now.

When I was growing up, Georgia was practically a one-party state, and that party was Democratic. This was a legacy of the Civil War, already a century in the past. The Republican Party had been the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction, so the old Confederacy naturally gravitated toward the Democratic Party, and stayed with it.

One thing that seems safe to say about Southerners is that many of them know how to hold a grudge, especially when it comes to things like defeat on the battlefield and the emancipation of human property. At least that would explain how, in the 25 elections held between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Georgia consistently thumbed its nose at Lincoln's Grand Old Party and gave its electoral votes to Democrats, every single time.

(The exception to this anti-Republican reaction was the half dozen counties in the mountains, including my home county, which didn’t much support secession and after the war voted Republican long before the rest of Georgia did.)

That unwaveringly conservative Georgia could vote unwaveringly for the party that eventually gave us Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been due to the schizophrenic nature of the Democratic Party, which in the past has been happy to accommodate both Northern liberals and Southern conservatives and segregationists. That changed as Democrats started enacting Civil Rights laws and the right wing of the party began defecting to the GOP. Finally, the Republican Party had a chance to take over Georgia, and it did big time.

John Kennedy was the last Democrat Georgia voted for who wasn’t a Southerner (namely native-son Jimmy Carter, both times, and Bill Clinton, but only for his first term). Otherwise, it’s been only Republicans since 1964, except when the Peach State did itself proud by voting for raging, hard-core segregationist Independent George Wallace. Jesus Christ!

This is why, it’s dead certain that Georgia will go Republican again, and why my vote for Barack Obama will count for nothing in the Electoral College.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain, though. Due to the way the Electoral College distorts elections, a lot of Republican votes will also be nullified. For example, Republican voters in Democratic bastions California and New York (together, 84 electoral votes), might as well stay home. The way it adds up in the current election, the quirky math of the Electoral College gives Mitt Romney fewer chances of winning the majority of those 538 votes. I guess we can thank the Constitution for that.

Finland used to have its own Electoral College, which was abandoned in 1994. Elections here are now based purely on the popular vote, which is the most straightforward way to measure the will of the people. That is kind of obvious.

Despite the overall advantage that the Electoral College gives Barack Obama this time around, I would love to see it abolished. If the US had relied on a simple tally of votes back in 2000, George W. Bush would never have been president, and things, well, things might have turned out very differently. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Exotic Leaf Litter

I haven't been blogging much in the last couple of months, because I've been concen- trating on various other "projects" – not all equally useful, I'm afraid to say. One chore that is useful, or at least necessary, is leaf raking, and after putting it off about as long as I could, I braved a gray drizzle today to get busy on the leaf litter in our yard. 

The fruits of my labor.
There is a window of opportu- nity – only a few weeks – between when the last leaves finally hit the ground and the first snowfall buries, some- times until the spring thaw, whatever you haven't got around to raking yet. 

In reality, our leaf raking is not a big job. We have only four big trees (five if you count our neighbor's maple, which drops a good portion of its bright yellow leaves on our side of the line). The other four trees contributing to our leaf litter are our apple tree, two birches and our venerable oak tree. Luckily, the oak is still around. During some house construction a few years back, it was dinged badly by a backhoes digger, and we thought we might lose it. 

I especially prize the oak (tammi in Finnish), because they are rare here. To think of an oak tree as exotic is strange for someone like me who grew up in Georgia, where oaks (at least a dozen different species) are found everywhere. Ubiquitous, you might say. But here in Helsinki, we're right at the northern limit of the one oak species hardy enough to survive the Scandinavian climate. 
The King's Oak.

I live near an area called Tammisto, which means "Oak Grove". Also not far away is "The King's Oak", an ancient tree situated along the original route of the "King's Road", a postal road laid out between Russia and Norway in the 1300s. The King of Sweden himself supposedly planted the oak tree some 300 years ago. Why he would do that, I can't say, as this was way before "photo op" became practically the only part of a royal's job description.   

Our oak is much, much younger than the King's, and with a much less impressive pedigree. But I'm happy to have at least one of its kind in our yard, a small reminder of the more temperate lands where, (in my imagination,  on gray days like today) the sun is always shining.

Friday, September 14, 2012


It’s mid September and the harvest season in Finland is, well, practically over. 

The rye and oat fields at the city-owned farm near our house were shorn already a few weeks ago and left empty for the pigeons, Canada geese, and other birds that often congregate there for pre-winter feasting. The farm’s fields of peas, free for visitors to harvest, have long been picked clean, and now its crop of sunflowers have also now been carried off by the general public. 

Our own private harvest is also almost complete. As usual, we got a few bowls full of strawberries and gooseberries from the bushes in our yard, and apples and cherries from our young fruit trees. 

What's left of our old apple tree.
This was the first year our cherry “crop” was decent enough that we had to fight off the magpies attracted by the reddening fruit. I even went so far as to buy a plastic snake at the local hardware store to scare the birds. 

When I was a kid, my parents did something similar for the cherry tree we had behind our house. I suspect back then you couldn’t buy commercial decoy snakes. In any case, my parents improvised by stringing the cherry tree with short lengths of green water hose. I have no idea whether this worked better than our modern fake cobra, but it couldn’t have worked worse. I’m guessing that, with snakes being so rare here, Finnish birds can’t take any snake in a tree as credible, let alone a species indigenous to south Asia. 

Besides a dwarf apple tree, we also have a full-sized “mature” one, whose crop is still ripening. It’s the last of the three apple trees that were here when we bought the house exactly twenty years ago, and it’s probably not long for this world. At the beginning of August, half of the tree, weakened by rot at the base, crashed to the ground, littering the yard with hundreds of half-grown apples. Even with that loss, there is more than enough fruit left on the surviving branches for my wife to make a lot of delicious pies and apple butter. It was indeed a bumper crop this year, which might have contributed to the tree giving up its fight against gravity.

While our strawberry plants and gooseberry bushes produced at least enough fruit for snacking this year, the crop from our single red currant bush, as usual, was so abundant that we could fill several containers for freezing, in addition to the berries that went straight from the bush to the pie pan. 

Red currants.
Photo: Lukas Riebling.
Currants (in Finnish viinimarja, or “wine berry”), a fruit I never saw growing up in Georgia is extremely common here, unlike our sea-buckthorn (tyrni, a little-known Old World berry). After reaping a big “crop” of these extremely tart and yellow berries a year ago, we harvested only a handful this year. 

Usually, the biggest part of the berries we cache in our freezer comes not from our own yard, but from my in-laws’. They have an old farmhouse where they tend a vegetable garden in summer, plus a patch of potatoes and enough berry bushes to keep them and us well stocked with currants (both red and black) for the winter. 

The urge to grow some of your own food seems to be very typical in Finland, and, of course, not unfamiliar to many Americans, as well. My parents always grew a garden, and my memories of summer meals from my childhood revolve around fresh corn, beans, okra, and other veggies from our garden. 

Sea buck-thorn.
One very noticeable difference in Finland is that here city dwellers also often get into the act. Scattered around many Finnish cities are plots of city-owned land, subdivided into tiny lots that are rented to anyone wishing to cultivate their own slice of earth. Even fourth-generation urbanites can tap into their agrarian roots by nurturing a small crop of vegetables or flowers, sometimes in the shadow of Helsinki high-rises. 

The simplest of these garden areas are made up of dozens of 50- or 100-square-meter plots rented for only about 40 euros ($50) a year. In Helsinki alone, there are nearly 40 of these viljelyspalstat (“farm-plots”) located around the city. 

A step up from these are the larger “allotment gardens”, apparently also common in other European countries, which can even function as small-scale summer homes. The Finnish name for allotment gardens is siirtolapuutarha (“settlement garden”), the word siirtola vaguely referring to “migrant” or “refugee”.  

The name seems to fit. Renters of these 250- to 500-square meter (around 4000 square feet) plots often set up caravan-sized cabins, giving some siirtolapuutarhat the feeling of miniature villages of urban farmers. Many garden tenants spend summer nights and weekends in these simple cabins, escaping from city life without leaving the city. 

If nothing else, the cabins provide gardeners with a quiet place to relax, read the paper or have a beer after the labor of watering and weeding their patch of dill, carrots and rhubarb, carrying on  in a small way  the 10,000-year-old tradition of coaxing a good harvest from plain dirt. 

Some of the garden plots at Vallila siirtolapuutarha
are practicably second homes.  
Chick here for information on Helsinki farm plots and allotment gardens (in Finnish).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Humor of Mitt Romney

Among the many brouhahas, big and small, that have popped up in this election cycle in the US, the most recent is a comment that Mitt Romney made before an adoring crowd in a suburb of Detroit, his hometown.

After taking to the stage, Romney flaunted his homeboy bona fides by reminding the crowd of supporters that he and his wife were both born in hospitals nearby. Then, riffing off the cheers, he went on to say, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where we were born and raised.”

Well, isn’t that nice. Democrats pounced on Romney’s obvious attempt to distinguish himself from Barack Obama. They saw it as a sly nod to the Birthers, those conspiracy cultists who refuse to believe that Barack Obama was born in the USA, and hence isn't eligible to be president.

The Republican spin to Romney’s gaffe was that he was simply making a joke, a bit of humor that Democrats are too tight-assed to appreciate. 

If Romney was making a joke, it was a very inept joke. Then again, he’s not altogether known for his humor. And I think he suffers from poor impulse control when he’s making unscripted remarks. He should bear down whenever he feels a joke coming on. He should fight the urge really, really hard.

On the face of it, the remark was stupid anyway. Why bring up birth certificates to tout the fact that you grew up in the place where you grew up? I suspect that no one in Obama’s old neighborhood in Honolulu ever asked to see his birth certificate, either. Except maybe Donald Trump’s private investigators, if they ever existed at all.  

Even if Romney meant his birth certificate comment to be a joke, he should have realized it’s not a joke he can get away with.

Obama can do it (and I think he has done so), because he’s the one who’s been dogged by the ceaseless requests to produce proof of birth. In that case, the humor’s directed at himself. Romney making a birth certificate joke is like non-Mormon Obama saying, “Somehow, I’ve never been asked how many wives I actually have”.

By stressing that no one has ever doubted his citizenship, Romney does set himself apart from Obama, but not in a positive way. It draws attention to the kind of scrutiny and suspicion that Obama has been forced to endure over his legitimacy, but for which Romney – a white guy from a wealthy family – gets a free pass. It underlines his sense of entitlement.

To send the same message, he could have just as easily boasted to the crowd in Michigan: “I’ve never had trouble flagging down a taxi in the middle of the night.” or “I’ve never been stalked by a neighborhood watchman.”

Oh dear, I think I just played the race card there. No worries. It was only a joke. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Last Place

I’m one of those people who love lists. And I’m not alone, judging by how eager magazines are to entice readers with such rankings as “America’s twenty best companies to work for” or “Hollywood’s 10 shortest leading men”. I saw a recent listing that ranked my alma mater, the University of Georgia, as the nation’s fifth-best “party school”. What’s happened? I thought we used to be number one.

Lists are also a seemingly irresistible tool for the public relations industry, a sure way to generate some attention and spark some debate. When the ranking involves countries, or states, it can even incite some cheap patriotism.

A couple of years ago, Newsweek published a special issue on the world’s best countries, ranking them according such basic criteria as education, quality of life, health, etc. To no great surprise to those of us living in Helsinki, Finland was ranked number one overall. Well, okay, maybe to some surprise.

A map of dysfunction. The Failed State Index for 2010. Courtesy The Fund for Peace. 

The US, sadly, came in at number 11, sandwiched between Denmark and Germany, but much better than, say, Belgium (number 19), yay!

The comparison between Finland and the US was telling: Finland ranked first in education (the US 26th), fourth in quality of life (the US ninth), 17th in health (the US even worse at 26th), and fifth in “political environment” (US 14th). Only in the category of “economic dynamism” did the US (second place) outrank Finland (eighth).

While I imagine most Finns felt some quiet self-satisfaction with this outcome, the reaction among some Americans to NOT being declared number one in the world approached the apoplectic.

Newsweek was derided as a pathetic, leftist publication, not worth the one dollar (literally one dollar) that the company (yes, the entire company) was then being sold for. How times have changed, with the newsweekly now coming under fire from liberals for its most recent cover story, a controversial takedown of Barack Obama. I guess Newsweek is now trying to strike a balance.

Some critics of the “Best Country” list in 2010 cried that the methodology Newsweek used was flawed and biased. For others, it didn’t matter where the data came from or how Newsweek came to its conclusions – they simply “knew” America is the best country and that’s all there was to it. For many it was a classic case of shooting the messenger while ignoring the message. They refused to consider that the study’s picture of the US might actually point to some legitimate room for improvement.

As someone who grew up in America, I can understand this. We are taught that the US is the greatest country on earth, no question, and as most of us never come to know much about other countries, we have no reason to think otherwise.

I'm sure citizens of small countries like Finland also grow up with this kind of patriotic bias – just witness the fervor of Finnish hockey fans, especially when the opponent is Sweden. But being from a small country, Finns can’t help being exposed to other nations that might have it just as good, or even better, than they do. They are forced to realize that in some respects they are not necessary unique or even exceptional.

And don’t get me wrong. I love many things about America. It is a great country, and it's my country. It’s just not the only great country. And I don’t think that recognizing that fact makes me any less American.

Anyway, the Newsweek survey is just one of several similar that frequently place Finland near the top in important national qualities such as education or government transparency. In the future, I’ll use this blog to share some of these lists.

I’ll start off, however, with a ranking where Finland comes in last place, while the number one spot goes to Somalia.

The Failed State Index is published annually by the Fund for Peace, a US-based NGO focusing on developmental and security issues. To compile the index, FFP assigns to each country scores (1-10) in 12 categories related to political and economic stability and security. In other words, it attempts to measure how functional or dysfunctional a country is.

Of course, as with any such survey, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in the nitty gritty details of whether a country deserves a score of 2.0 or 2.3 in, for example, “Legitimacy of the State”.

Still, the relative ranking seems about right, and in any case I’m sure the main point of these metrics, as imperfect as they may be, is to focus attention on the states in most need of help. It is indeed a somber list, with the world's most blighted nations prominent at the top.

Somalia, with a total of 114.9 points, comes closest to a perfect (in a perverse sort of way) score of 120, an indication of the depth of misery that that failed country’s people are forced to endure. Finland, in contrast, scores only 20, a slightly worse result than last year (19.7), when it also came in last place.

The list is another reminder that some of us are lucky enough to live in the least dysfunctional countries in the world. At the same time, you can't ignore the plight of those desperate nations at the top of the list, reminding us here in Finland to not be too smug about our own good fortune.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Formidable Formica

Finland rightly has a reputation for great northern scenery and nature, including some abundant wildlife.

Most people from the temperate world – if they ever have cause to think about it at all – probably imagine Finland to be a land of moose, bears, and reindeer. They might also think of swans and other waterfowl. All of that is true, of course. If forced to consider insects, some people might recall hearing rumors that here be monster mosquitoes. Very true, indeed.

However, there is one very prominent form of six-legged wildlife that most people (myself included, before I came here) would never have associated with this Nordic landscape.

A Finnish anthill, somewhere in Savo.

Ants are everywhere in Finland. That’s no great surprise, since there is no place on earth without ants. (Well, except Antarctica, ironic when you consider that continent’s name. It's  the “arctica” of ants, isn't it?)

What is surprising in the case of Finland is how conspicuous ants are. In subtropical Georgia, you of course see ants scurrying over the ground almost anywhere you want to look. But you don’t normally pay attention to their homes, usually just marked by a sprinkling of dirt surrounding a tiny hole in the ground. They are easy to overlook, at least in North Georgia. In Finland, that is not a problem.

Ant nests are huge here. They can easily be a meter (three feet) tall, rising out of the green forest floor like a brown pyramid covered in thousands of energetic worker ants.

The sheer size of Finnish ant colonies, teeming with hundreds of thousands of the little buggers, means its best to give them a wide berth. Except that some Finns – living up to a certain national character that can only be described as quirky (some might say masochistic) –  make a point of doing just the opposite.

Leaf-cutting ants. Not found in Finland.
Among one of the strangest of strange Finnish “sports” (and there are some strange ones), “anthill sitting” is one whose appeal is probably lost on anyone who is not a Finn (and, to be honest, most Finns as well).

The goal of this contest is to see who can sit the longest on top of an angry nest of ants. Oh, yes, and to give the ants a sporting chance (they are, after all, pretty small), the human contestants do this in the buff. I think alcohol is often involved. I know that would have to be the case for me to take part.

Needless to say, there are better ways to appreciate ants. I once worked for a botanist at the University of Georgia who studied leaf-cutting ants in South America. These ants are famous for snipping off bits of leaves, which they carry back to their nests to use as fertilizer for their actual foodstuff, fungus. It is basically a kind of farming.

I always hoped my boss would need me to join one of his expeditions to the Amazon, but it never happened. I did eventually get to see leafcutters in action, however, when my four-year-old son and I visited the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a patch of tropical forest in Panama City, Panama.

On a Finland-related note: the Parque Metropolitano is used as a study site by the nearby US Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which employs a large construction crane to access the 30-meter-high (90-foot) forest canopy. The crane was, I believe, provided by a well-known Finnish machine company and paid for, in part, by the Finnish government. A surprising reminder of Suomi in the jungle.

Young explorer in Panama.

There, under that tropical canopy, I experienced maybe my only true David Attenborough moment when we happened upon a trail of leaf cutting ants marching in a straight line over the forest floor. As we followed this tiny procession of hundreds of ants, each one holding a slice of green leaf, the line joined with another line of ants, coming from a different direction and all carrying, instead of leaves, some sort of red berries. The converged lines of leaf- and berry-carriers continued together, moving relentlessly toward their distant nest. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the woods.

Still, as we watched this miniature parade, it somehow didn’t occur to me to follow them to their nest and sit on it. Guess I’m not Finnish enough.