I can’t help returning just to let off steam about something very sad that’s happened in Helsinki while I’ve been away. The Usual (4.5.2010) found it appropriate to publish a cartoon strip by someone calling themselves Fingerpori portraying a shop in Nazi Germany with some peculiar reference to free range Jews. It makes fun (as it were) of a genocide that happened here in Europe within living memory. It wasn’t critical of religiousness, it just seemed to think that millions of dead was somehow humorous. Enough said.
It left us baffled as to what the “joke” or the “critique” implied in the strip might have been. From our insider-outsider perspective on Finland though, the strip is hurtful, shocking and reflects extremely badly on Finnish culture, but it’s also akin to puerile and unreflecting banter of a racist, demeaning and uneducated kind, that’s not that exceptional. Perhaps not having had to learn to be sensitive to the tragedies and losses suffered by victims of genocide (like the folks I bump into all the time in London whose lives are still shaped by those events), even privileged Finns (professors, businessmen, doctors) say racist things that their counterparts in the UK or the USA would never even think of let alone utter out loud. Often, if they are challenged and quite frequently even before, they’ll counter by asking why is it that some groups of people are out of bounds for critique or humour.
Basically, it’s been kind of OK to be a little racist in Finland and maybe it’s been understandable too. But the world changes and the injustices of discrimination in a highly unequal world have become an everyday preoccupation in Finland too. Maybe I’m a bit patronising, but I see a need for education about the wrongness and the hurtfulness of this “humour”. But it’s appalling but unfortunately not entirely surprising that Helsingin Sanomat should be publishing anti-semitism in 2010 while around it and in it are developed forms of bilious resentment shaped by contemporary racism.
Meanwhile there is a Council for Mass Media (Julkisen Sanan Neuvosto) who do put out guidelines:
26. Jokaisen ihmisarvoa on kunnioitettava. Etnistä alkuperää, kansallisuutta, sukupuolta, seksuaalista suuntautumista, vakaumusta tai näihin verrattavaa ominaisuutta ei pidä tuoda esiin asiaankuulumattomasti tai halventavasti.
26. The human dignity of every individual must be respected. The ethnic origin, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, convictions or other similar personal characteristics may not be presented in an inappropriate or disparaging manner.
Meanwhile not all Finns are suffering this deficit of sensitivity or imagination. It was a thoughtful and appropriate gesture of the City of Helsinki to name the square outside Kamppi Narinkka-tori (market market) after the Jewish traders whose place of work it was in until about 100 years ago. And people are interested in ethnicity as a complicated and enriching aspect of human existence. I’m thinking for instance about a fabulous documentary, Daavid (scroll down to find it), by Taru Mäkinen some years ago, about the ways that Finnish Jews (or were they Jewish Finns and did it matter?) complicated matters for the German military by being human beings, allies, and of superior military rank all at the same time, and whom the Finnish political establishment were (mostly) committed to treating as fully Finnish citizens.
At least one person was as shocked and baffled as us as reflected in the letter to the paper’s editor today. If it were a British paper publishing stuff like that, a chief editor even might lose their job.