Thursday, June 4, 2009

From Disney to Dickens

It used to annoy me that the venerated New York Times seemed capable of only one type of article about Estonia—painting Tallinn as a medieval Disneyland with cobblestone streets and attractive wench-waitresses. Now, seeing what they’ve done to Latvia, I’m far more grateful than annoyed.

The last several Times articles I’ve seen used photographs shot from inside Soviet housing developments—light peeking at the end of a dark corridor, silhouetted subjects resembling heroin junkies in a urine-stained hallway. It might as well have been Baghdad. In addition to the photograph, the journalist Carter Dougherty employed the word “Dickensian.” In a publication as respected as the Times, it’s hard to imagine worse than Dickensian.

True, Latvia brings most of the bad press on itself. Their government has historically been so corrupt that even your average foreign businessman can be impacted by it in some way. And Riga is a town well known for tourists being subject to both credit card fraud and what my Latvian friends call “face beatings.” Even Bloomberg News, when writing about economics, makes reference to the price of Latvian prostitutes. Latvia is, sadly, one big train wreck of a country.

Latvia’s problem runs far deeper than bad press. Many Latvians I know suffer from a profound lack of self-respect and a sense of resignation that their country will always be the bad apple of Eastern Europe. A Latvian friend used to be fond of telling me that “Latvians are the niggers of Europe.” I used to think that was simply one man’s problem, but the more work I did in Latvia, the more I came to see Latvians as a people determined to see themselves as victims. Too many of them had a “niggers of Europe” story to tell, where The Man just wouldn’t give them a fair shake. Latvia is a nation, in certain ways, bent on its own destruction. And the New York Times isn’t part of the cause: they’re only here to record it.

But Dickensian? Is that really fair? Is Latvia really a land of bombed-out buildings where “normal” people live in pestilent squalor? I know a few Latvians who are having hard times, but so far they haven’t resorted to stealing cars or snatching purses in the Old Town. I even know a Latvian who lost his home to the banks. Had the New York Times been there to record moving-out day, would the photographer have been tempted to provide a cart pulled by an ox to carry the man’s possessions down the road behind him?

Even being the butt of quotes like: “…nobody has turned out as bad as Latvia” (Lars Christensen, chief analyst at Danske Bank in Copenhagen), Latvia surely has bigger worries at the moment than how the western press portrays them. But as their northern neighbors—even though a popular Estonian video refers to Latvians as “six-toed”—we probably ought to lend them a helping hand. And I don’t mean money. Estonians could show them how to charm journalists, how to direct them into your Old Town where they’ll write Disney instead of Dickens.

Why should I give a shit about Latvia? If you spend much time there, you’ll likely agree that in many respects it really does live up to the worst Eastern-European stereotypes. And it’s true that somebody has to finish last. But Latvia happens to also be my neighbor. I have Latvian friends. And, most selfishly, I don’t like my western friends opening up the Times to read about “…a two-room shack heated by a crude metal stove down a dirt road outside Riga.” The Baltics are not the Balkans, dammit. And even the Balkans are no longer the Balkans.

Oh, my dear Latvia, why do you do this to yourself?