Saturday, June 18, 2011

One Voice

“One voice can change a room. If it can change a room, then it can change a city…can change a state…can change a nation…can change the world.” Call me an idealist, but I believe it.

True, humanity may be doomed, but since you can’t sleep 24 hours a day, you might as well do something useful with your time. And trying to change the world is far more challenging than, say, real-estate development.

I’ve always wanted to be a speechwriter, and so I’ve drafted this one for President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. I invite other writers to do the same and publish the results in newspapers and websites around the country. Because once voice…

Commencement address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves to the graduating class of Tartu University, June 2011.

As I look out at your young, somewhat bored faces, I see you are expecting the usual pablum from a commencement speaker. It would be tempting to trot out the platitudes about how you are different than those who have gone before you and the great successes you will enjoy. But since that would no doubt bore us both, probably me more than you, and since your rector and I just shared a case of beer in the shade of a large oak, I have decided to spell out for you exactly how things are. [Note to self: Loosen bowtie; gaze thoughtfully over crowd.]

The usual commencement speech would entail me telling you that you are the future of Estonia, and that I am comfortable handing over the country to you. You would recognize the former to be a fact, and you would suspect the latter to be idle flattery. You would be right.

Quite frankly, some of you, despite your very good educations, scare me. If we cannot stop people of your age from driving cars into trees, if we cannot stop the spread of AIDS in our country, if we cannot find a solution for people of different ethnicities to live in productive harmony on this one small patch of earth, then there is not much hope for our future. I wonder whether you are up to this task.

Without boasting I will tell you my generation has accomplished a great deal. In a few short years, the names of my peers will be given to streets and public buildings. In this way, history will celebrate the problems we have solved more than the ones we will leave to you.

But since you are, like it or not, our future, I would like to remark briefly about the past and then offer a few words about your future, which is indeed the future of Estonia.

Most of you are around 20 years old. You have only heard stories of the period of history which ended with Estonia’s re-independence in 1991. And you may not be intimately familiar with the history of the last 20 years, as you have been busy — and rightly so — being young. But you have now reached the age where it is time I spoil your fun.

This first period I speak of, 20 years prior to your birth, was spent by many working for an independent state. The second 20 years after your birth were spent, so to speak, arranging a seat for you at the Big Table.

Since the year of your birth, Estonia has made the necessary sacrifices and changes to ensure our security through memberships in elite western clubs.

The list is long and impressive: The UN, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the EU, the Schengen zone, the OECD, and the Euro.

Estonia has been admired by and praised by the west for our significant achievements. We have been, in a way, the absolute best Boy Scout, earning every merit badge there is to have.

But I would remind you that many of these achievements were within an externally-prescribed context. We were given no guidebook, but the goals were clear.

The meaning of this is that Estonia is now an equal: no more and no less than our western allies. We worked 20 years, one might frame it, to arrive at the starting line. We “got to Denmark,” to tamper slightly with Fukuyama.

Some may hint that my generation of leaders, having achieved all there is to achieve under this merit-badge like structure, is now confused and adrift. Joakim Helenius has pointed out that to be among Europe’s five richest is not a vision. The Economist has noted our Prime Minister is "a manager, not a visionary." I would argue, however, that what Estonia has most needed was a highly disciplined manager. And that is what we got.

My generation’s work has laid the groundwork for you. We have brought you a stable, independent state, a state with a seat at the world’s table. But what will you do with it? Have you any idea?

I will suggest to you that the hardest work (and perhaps the most interesting) is still ahead: We are entering the era of original thinking.

This new era will require an entirely different type of change, a type which no external body can prescribe.

In 2010, Chris Patten outlined in the New York Review of Books what he thought Europe’s role in the world ought to be. As far as I am aware, such a thoughtful look at Estonia’s future role in Europe (and the world), has not been so cogently articulated by our statesmen. But maybe you ought to consider it.

So what can you do? [Note: Untie bowtie now — let it hang around neck.]

Start by ending the practice of constantly reminding ourselves that Estonia is small. This too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I cannot imagine that citizens of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Liechtenstein so often begin their sentences with the words “Our country is so small…” One is as big as one imagines. Let us right here and now agree to repair our imaginations.

End “semu kapitalism.” A country with such scarce human resources as ours has no room for anything but a meritocracy. To compete in the world only our very best will suffice. Our partners in every walk of life must be selected on the basis of merit and experience alone, and there is no place to wonder “Kas sul on oma jope seal?

Smash the glass ceiling. As Vello Vikerkaar has written, the best man for the job is a woman. Let key decisions be made around the conference table and not in the sauna or bordello. Our nation cannot afford a good ol’ boys club and must take talent where we find it.

Stop eating our own. It is entirely true that an Estonian’s favorite breakfast is another Estonian. You may laugh, but you should cry. Because this is not at all funny. It is rather a very telling statement about our self-esteem. The only solution is an Estonian-free diet.

Beware the communal ego. The Estonian media, though heavily criticized, devotes inordinate amounts of space to atta-boy articles celebrating how clever we Estonians are. Too much of this puts our culture at risk of indulging in the celebration of mediocrity. As the eminent professor Jack Gladney has noted: “We’re all brilliant…You call me brilliant, I call you brilliant. It’s a form of communal ego.”

Despite the advertising, our image abroad is not often “positively transforming” but rather one associated with crime, AIDS, or the grey pall of Eastern Europe. It is not always fair, but it is reality. Let us recognize it as such and begin to change it.

End the brain drain. Our talented doctors, scientists, and tech minds, as well as our qualified skilled laborers, are exiting the country faster than replacements enter. If this is not somehow reversed — perhaps by ending the bureaucratic water-boarding of our own Estonian companies who wish to employ foreigners – Estonia will continue on its path toward being nothing but the most distant suburb of Helsinki.

To make Estonia a viable employment market, our educational- and health care systems must rival any in Europe. Nobody, least of all Estonians, wants to be a citizen of a backwater nation.

Our “talendikoju” call has gone largely unheeded, perhaps because of young people’s proclivity for adventure, perhaps partly because an older generation’s call to a younger one is often naturally ignored. And while I recognize that an education abroad and a little bit of foreign work experience may not in themselves produce change in our country, these bring with them higher expectations for ourselves and others. These we desperately need.

After 50 years of forced separation from Europe, it is more contact with the world that we need, not less.

And last but not least, we must embrace the Russian-speaking population of Estonia as our own. I have been partly at fault here, I admit. I recognize that I am also the president of 400,000 Russian speakers. I recognize that they are not occupiers, nor are they representatives of occupiers. Perhaps what Russians know best, something we modern Estonians might remind ourselves of as we chase the Almighty Euro, [Note: Look directly into TV camera] is Не имей 100 рублей, а имей 100 друзей.

And as poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remarked in 1993 at the University of Chicago: "We need to teach tolerance from childhood. The future for all of us is patriotism for all mankind."

Thank you.

[Note: In event of ovation, throw bowtie into crowd.]

Get more would-be speechwriting here.