Saturday, March 20, 2010

Commies and Commentators

This from a foreign Estonian in Los Angeles calling herself Kairus: “…the only people in Soviet Estonia who spent their summers touring the Soviet Union in Volgas were high ranking KGB and Communist Party leaders, the very same people who kept the country imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain, and directly or indirectly participated in the deportations, executions…”

The quote is from Kairus’ consumer review of my book on, and her conclusions about my wife Liina’s family from a story called “Spoiled Little Soviet Girl.” In the story, I compared the lazy summertime life of Liina in Soviet Estonia versus mine spent on a factory floor in Canada. According to Kairus, Liina’s Volga-driving family is a bunch of commies and murderers. So tell me, Liina. What other secrets are you hiding?

I of course understand that when you publish something, it is only natural to suffer some abuse. Anyone who submits something to the public sphere invites criticism and, for the most part, writers should shut up and not complain. (That’s why we’re paid the big bucks.) As the sometime object of abuse, however, I perhaps pay more attention than most to international dialogue about the responsibility of publications for the comments associated with the stories they publish.

For the Estonian side of the issue, I was intrigued by an interview with Kristjan Tamme published last year in Eesti Ekspress. Tamme is one of the men responsible for reading some ten thousand comments per day on the web portal Delfi and removing anything potentially libelous or offensive. He seemed to handle his job with good humor, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long he could endure the work of reading hundreds of thousands of hateful words on a daily basis. Will he go postal? And when?

The law in Estonia, as Rein Lang would like to have it, would be that newspapers are responsible for what comments their readers write. If the Postimees automotive section happened to run a feature story on the roadworthiness of the GAZ-21 Volga, I personally think it would be rather shameful to hold Merit Kopli responsible for a reader who tries to establish a causal link between Volgas and murderers. And on the US-based, I’d feel equally bad if Amazon were held liable for Kairus’ insult, even though the absoluteness of her statement is factually baseless, and, one might argue, could potentially damage the image of Liina and other Estonians with histories of Volga ownership.

In the United States the debate still rages about whether newspapers are “publishers” or “innocent distributors.” Courts have determined fairly clearly that Google, AOL and the like are "innocent distributors" who are simply conduits and not liable. Although the issue in the States remains muddy and unresolved, many of my American friends in the newspaper business surprisingly tend to support the Rein Langian view. As one of them remarked: “In theory the public square sounds great, but in practice it's a cesspool of hate speech, vulgarity and functional illiteracy. There's just so much noise that real conversation is rare. And virtually every discussion, no matter the subject of the story, eventually turns to race or college football.” Or Nazis.

Godwin’s law posits that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." While the law is popularly used to describe the inevitable deterioration of online commentary, the original version referred to Usenet newsgroup discussions, the academic precursor of the modern-day internet.

My American journalist friends cite a recurring pattern in the comments sections: intelligent, educated, thoughtful people will try to debate an issue. “Then,” a journalist friend writes, “they will be torn down and assaulted viciously by ignorant, ill-mannered rubes. Soon the entire discussion becomes a race to the bottom, and the intelligent, thoughtful participants either give up, or are shouted down. Those who dominate the discussions hold opinions that are based not on knowledge but on faith (not necessarily the religious kind), and so they cannot be swayed. Imagine George Will arguing with a dog. Will would certainly win the argument, but the dog will never understand that it lost. So why bother?”

My French writer friend Guillaume was visiting last summer and posed this question to a table surrounded by international readers: Have you ever posted a comment online? And, if no, do you know anyone who has ever posted a comment online?

Interestingly, if we set aside hobby forums like fishing or photography, no one at the table had ever posted a comment after an online story published by a respected newspaper or magazine. Many testified to regularly using Facebook, but no one would admit to having ever posted a comment on the websites of the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or Le Monde. Who then are these who post vitriolic remarks and vent their spleens online? It’s tempting to conclude they are uneducated, lower class brutes, but given the original version of Godwin’s law, I fear we have seen the enemy and he is us. While I’d like to think of Kairus as a drive by shooter from Compton, there is a reasonable chance she is a community college librarian from West L.A.

Theodore Dalrymple—real name Anthony Daniels; father was a Communist, in case Kairus is reading—recently remarked in an essay that the atheist Richard Dawkins has suffered great abuse in the comment sections of places he publishes. He was recently called, for example, “a suppurating rat’s rectum.” I don’t know about the Estonian language, but an English-language reader who uses “suppurating” and “rat’s rectum” in the same sentence is probably no idiot and very likely someone I would want to hang out with.

Dalrymple advances his theory that “…the balance of the evidence suggests that children who grow up with a mental diet of violence on electronic media are more likely themselves to become violent than those who do not…” which leads him to conclude that “…it seems to me at least possible that easy access to public self-expression tends to make people more bad-tempered and ill-mannered than they would otherwise have been.” Seems quite possible to me. Although I don’t post comments online, I do admit that there was a period in my life that after I’d had a bad day, I would have gladly fired a pistol around in the dark, if there were a guarantee that I could not be held responsible for where the bullets landed.

So I am still left with what to do about Kairus. Going online and posting a book defense—arguing that Liina’s father is not a KGB murderer and that while the USSR was not one big Tivoli, the lives of Estonians weren’t all “utterly miserable,” either—would insult intelligent readers who are capable of making that determination for themselves. Respect for the reader is, after all, perhaps the key characteristic which separates good writers and good publications from the bad.

While I hope he remains unsuccessful in his bid to declare internet martial law, I do have some sympathy for Rein Lang. I tend to think of newspaper editors like party hosts. When I have friends over, I want to promote lively discussion but at the same time keep my guests from fist fighting and breaking things. And so with my blog I delete comments when someone calls me a fuckwit or turdburglar. Pretty much anything else, including Nazi, goes. I’m pleased that I self-police by choice and not because of a law. And while it may be tempting to respond to Kairus’ generalization about Volga drivers with another generalization that all foreign Estonians from Los Angeles are porn actresses, that probably wouldn’t be prudent, either. Amazon’s solution is quite fair, actually: every poster is linked to a real human being via a credit card number, which actually solves America’s debate of the public square. When in history could you walk into a public square, shout epithets repeatedly, and remain anonymous? And so why should we allow it now just because we have the internet? Why do I still allow anonymous posters on my blog? Not a bad question, actually. Maybe my practice should change.


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.
Click here to join the mudslinging in Estonian.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Ketchup Curtain

“You vant ketchup?” Sergei asks, positively glowing in the light of Old Town’s newly-remodeled hipster McDonald’s. Actually, I do want ketchup but not enough to pay for it, so I take my fries without. It’s just too humiliating to pay for ketchup. Because there is nothing which says We don’t trust you, you dirty Eastern European more than McDonald’s selling ketchup. It’s like letting them spit in our faces every time we eat there. Nowhere in the developed world that I’m aware of does McDonald’s sell ketchup. In Helsinki, you can take as much as you want. And they don’t even hide it behind the counter.

I’ve often wondered what McDonald’s thinks I would do with free ketchup. Would I take two thousand packages, open each individually over a sheet-metal funnel in below-zero temperatures, and bleed them for their alcohol to make samogan? Or do they think I’d steal enough to fill a bowl, dilute it with water, and make ketchup soup, the dietary mainstay of American heroin addicts and poor college students too proud to donate blood plasma? What exactly does McDonald’s think? (I wrote them with that very question, but they didn’t reply.)

In 1992, I was invited by a visiting foreign Estonian to dine in Tartu’s Püssirohokelder restaurant. At the time, it still had its Soviet doorman who looked you over to decide whether he would deign to let you in and pay for the food that paid for his salary. We were allowed in, ate a meal that was probably the best you could get in Tartu in those days, suffered through the obligatory varietee show, and finally were presented the bill by the tuxedoed waiter. Jüri, the foreign Estonian, glanced over the check as one would do anywhere in the world, just to make sure it bears resemblance to what you ordered. Eyes halfway down the check, Jüri smiled broadly, laughed, and summoned the waiter. “Butter?” Jüri asked. “You’ve put butter on the check.”

“Yes,” harrumphed the waiter. “Butter.”

“You are charging me for butter?”

The waiter said he was and by the look on his face he saw nothing strange about it.

“Just to be clear,” Jüri confirmed, “you’re charging me for butter?”

“You had butter on your bread.”

“I also put salt and pepper on my food and had sugar with my coffee, but I don’t see those on the check.”

The waiter stared at his shoes. He’d indeed been bested by logic but had no answer for it other than that’s the way things had always been.

Jüri paid the bill, and we walked into the night air discussing how long it might take for things to change enough where restaurants wouldn’t be charging patrons for butter. As far as I know, nobody charges for butter anymore, but I don’t think either Jüri or I could have imagined that almost twenty years after independence, McDonald’s would still be charging for ketchup.

My wife Liina and I often have the discussion about when Estonia will stop being thought of as an Eastern European nation. It won’t likely happen in our lifetimes, but it someday surely will. Norway was once considered a festering backwater, and I can remember having Norwegian friends in the 1970s who had emigrated to Canada to seek better lives. Around the same time period, Finland had such a low standard of living that its citizens were pleased to live elsewhere in Europe. And now it’s Estonia’s turn to rise from the ashes and build a genuine economy which isn’t based on buying and selling real estate to each other. It may be harder to do without Norway’s oil, natural gas, and coal, or Finland’s timber-related industries, but I believe Estonia will do it. If I didn’t, I’d get the heck out of Dodge. There may be no shame in poverty, but it’s definitely not much fun.

I’m not so sure there’s much more Estonia can do as a nation to accelerate growth, which is, once the incentives and structure are put in place by government, largely an organic process. While we have the groundwork laid, what many Estonians lack is a worldview similar to that of their wealthy neighbors. Finland, Sweden, and Norway, arguably having been spared some of Estonia’s ugly history, simply see the world through a different prism. While I don’t know if Estonia will be among Europe’s five richest anytime soon, I don’t believe it will linger long among Europe’s poorest. Estonia’s fix will be a generational fix, and the fruits of a truly free society are already noticeable on public transportation. While the older generation often sits silent, heads locked forward and frowning, the younger generations leap about and talk as excitedly as a busload of Canadians on their way to a hockey match. They seem to be energetic little optimists, and it’s a joy to know they’ll one day occupy the seats of government.

Part of Estonia’s problem, of course, is Russia, and by this I don’t mean Russia’s schoolboyish need to torment Estonia. The problem is Russia’s reputation as a feudal society. “CIA Believes Russian Scientists Have Discovered the Technology of Fire,” read a satirical newspaper headline in the early 1990s. Funny, yes, but it’s also a fairly accurate portrayal of how the world views Russia: a bassackwards place full of peasants who shit where they eat, and corruption so endemic that even native Russians themselves can lose their way trying to figure out who to bribe.

Recently, Russian banker Vladimir Antonov—who wants to own Saab (and probably will own it one way or another)—lamented about that reputation in the New York Times: “It is obvious that European business has strong prejudices against investors from Russia. There is a fear of Russia itself, of the increase of the influence of Russian businesses in the international market place.” Antonov then called on Europe and the world to “trust Russian business.” Trust is probably too much to ask, but Antonov does have a point about how the world sees Russia.

President Medvedev has publicly recognized Russia’s image problem, and so maybe Russia will do something about it. What exactly is hard to say. It’s not like even a well-financed Welcome to Russia advertising campaign would do much good. But if Russia is able to improve its image a bit, then Estonia will surely benefit. Despite Estonia’s EU- and NATO membership, much of the world doesn’t differentiate between Estonia and Russia (does McDonald’s?), and Estonia will benefit from any improvement in Russia. Maybe Medvedev can make the world stop seeing Russians as only either oligarchs or serfs. Probably not, but even a small improvement would be good for all of us.

In the meantime, though, while we’re waiting for Russia to solve her problems, and while we’re trying to leave the future generations a decent structure they can use to build the Estonian Nokia, I think the folks at McDonald’s could end the humiliating practice of charging for ketchup in Estonia.

Tartu’s Püssirohokelder long ago stopped charging for butter. The cafeteria Amps gives away free bread (and butter) with its soup, and I haven’t noticed pensioners sneaking out the door with burlap bags full of dinner rolls.

I have often wanted to mount a dais at the Viru Gate with McDonald’s as a backdrop and utter a challenge to Jim Skinner, the Vice Chairman and CEO of McDonald’s: “Vice Chairman Skinner, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity . . . come here to this gate. Mr. Skinner, open this gate. Mr. Skinner, tear down this wall!” The Wall was dismantled years ago, and the Iron Curtain along with it. Let’s gather our virtual pitchforks, join together, and march on McDonald’s. Isn’t it about time someone tore down the Ketchup Curtain?

P.S. Why not write McDonald’s Jim Skinner and ask him to end this humiliating practice? Contact (cc: Walt Riker, VP of Corporate Communications).


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.
Read it in Postimees, too.