Maple Leafs and Media

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When talking about Canadian politics, it might come as a big shock that MP does, in fact, not stand for ‘maple syrup’ but for ‘member of the parliament’ and that the prime minister of Canada is actually not the head of state –No, that would be the Queen of England; makes perfect sense, right.  In fact, who talks about Canadian politics? Besides Canadians, I’m not sure. Until recently, I haven’t been to many parties where Canadian politics was the hot topic of the night. You just didn’t hear people saying things like “Oh wow, look at what the government of Canada has done now” or “I really think the governor general is doing a bang up job.” The focus was more often on the politics of Canada’s southern neighbor, The United States of America. This seemed to be a part of a general pattern of USA upstaging Canada in just about everything save for ice hockey and poutine. This, of course, might not reflect the true state of things, but for foreigners news from USA just tends to get ranked higher than the happenings in Canada. In consequence, people tend to associate Canada with snow, moose, maple leaves and the syllable ‘eh’ instead of delving deep into the political wonderland of the Great White North.

However, ever since Justin Trudeau was elected as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, a spotlight appeared over Canadian politics. Suddenly international media was jumping at the chance to write about him, social media certainly went nuts, and before you knew it, Canadian politics were being discussed around the globe. So, did people rave about the Prime Minister of Canada being able to appoint ministers, senators, lieutenant governors of the provinces, and Supreme Court judges? Did they discuss political choices, party differences or major conflicts within the country? No, I believe most of the interest revolved around the Prime Minister’s face. It’s pretty you see. And people like pretty things. Oh, yes, we shan’t forget, there was avid discussion about his body as well. People seemed to like that too. And I’m not denying that he’s not hard on the eyes, even our very own BTSB staff agreed that he looks lovely. But an interesting point was brought up, and that was how Prime Minister Trudeau tends to get treated like most female politicians do in the media.

Most news out there, news that reaches Finland anyway, revolves around how handsome Justin Trudeau is, how even Ivanka Trump and Duchess Catherine can’t help swooning over him. Long story short, the main focus is on his looks, not his accomplishments or shortcomings. This is the kind of media representation that is usually associated with female politicians –Or scratch that, actually females in general. The press being more interested in what or who is being worn or how their hair is styled. The media tends to represent women through their looks, not their accomplishments. Let it be said, the focus is misplaced. There are clear double standards in the representation of men and women in the media. But as for Justin Trudeau, a male politician, the Prime Minister of the geographically second largest country in the world, to be more famous for his dazzling eyes, than his work as a world leader, feels kind of dumbfounding.

Just a quick google search of his name shows that after the obligatory Wikipedia articles and official websites, rows and rows of links leading to various online magazines across the world appear with titles such as “Is Justin Trudeau the Sexiest Politician in the World?” and “Pictures of ‘swooning’ Ivanka Trump and Justin Trudeau go viral.” Sure, you can find articles on his election campaign, gender equal cabinet and his meetings with Donald Trump, but let’s face it, they get overshadowed by news focusing on his boxing career and tweets to Matthew Perry.

justin-trudeauNow this is not to say that news on Justin Trudeau should focus solely on political aspects, after all we all love hearing things about politicians that make them seem relatable, more human so to speak. But there’s something to be said when the question “Do you know who Canada’s Prime Minister is?” Is most often answered with “Yeah, he’s the hot one, right?”

There has never been a group more scrutinized for their looks than women. And women in politics get the brunt of it. To say that Justin Trudeau gets treated like female politicians in the media is not an entirely correct statement, because there are nuances in the articles written that differ from positivity to negativity between male and female. But for example, if we were to draw some comparisons, we could say that the media just loves Trudeau’s hair. Trust me; memes have been made over his hair. Hilary Clinton’s hair, more specifically her highlights, also got media attention. Actually her hair has been analyzed in quite detail. Seems a bit redundant politically speaking. Even if appearances are everything in the political world, it’s hardly likely that her hair is pulling the strings. Moreover, it seems silly that a politician’s haircut is considered worldwide news in the first place, as it is very unlikely to affect their qualifications for the job.

Speaking of silly things, women politicians also get media attention regarding their bodies and weight. Off the top of my head I think of Michelle Obama and know that she is an insanely inspiring woman, but I also remember that she has amazing arms. That is because I’ve seen numerous articles talking about her arms, specifically focusing on one body part, emphasising that she is indeed a very fit woman. Some present this as a positive attribute, some as negative. Trudeau has also been praised for his fit appearance and more specifically his backside. Not too long ago social media went bananas over a photo of the Prime Minister in a pair of particularly formfitting pants. And with this aspect we see the nuances of how Trudeau still gets to keep some of his, I don’t know, I guess we could call it ‘male privilege’ when it comes to media attention regarding his appearance. For all the articles I’ve seen talking about his looks, I have yet to run into a negative one. Whereas articles commenting on the appearance of female politicians more often exhibit negative thoughts of their attire, hair styles and body.

So why does the news coverage on Trudeau feel so odd? Why is it strange that talking about a man’s appearance feels silly? It isn’t as if Trudeau has been completely reduced to his looks. Granted, most of the articles can’t help but mention trivial things, but he still gets noted as the Prime Minister who opened up Canada for refugees and the Prime Minister who appointed a gender balanced cabinet “because it’s 2015”. Still, the overpowering flood of news focusing on his looks or charm kind of makes you blind to the other stuff. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to this kind of coverage for women that we insert the same kind of model in action when we read articles about him. It’s like we have been conditioned to think that because women politicians are so often reduced to their looks by the media, there is nothing more to them. The most important thing we need to know is what they’re wearing and whether they’ve dyed their hair. So when we see similar news about a male politician, the model kicks in and we at least temporarily get caught in the frenzy of oohing and aahing over his appearance. Yet it does feel strange, because in society we are told that men are more than just their looks, they’re important, and above silly things like highlights and designer shoes. So when we see another article about Justin Trudeau’s hot bod we’re getting mixed messages. As horrible and sexist as it is, after riding the initial train of giddiness over fluffy news, we recognize that something is out of place here.  And that’s when we realize that we’re not really talking about Canadian politics at all.

Is it an issue then? Is it a problem? If women in politics are reduced to their looks shouldn’t male politicians be treated the same in the name of equality. Why should we care if Justin Trudeau is the shining star of gossip magazines and trashy headlines? Well, we should care because in an ideal world appearance shouldn’t be what people in such important positions are recognized for. And I’m inclined to believe that many people who recognize this kind of messed up media representation when it comes to women politicians fall into the trap of thinking that the fluffy adoring articles on Trudeau are harmless, since they are praising his looks instead of bashing them. But when you think about it, it’s just the flip side of the coin; positive or negative. It’s still one sided, distracting media coverage of a person who is much more than a pretty face and we should be able to recognize that.

Democracy Is In Danger – Let’s Start a Media Revolution

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In the center of Helsinki there is a curious sight. On opposing sides of the Helsinki Railway Square two collections of bedraggled tents face off. In February activists favorable towards refugees and immigration gathered to demonstrate, now still standing their ground in tents on the southern end of the square. Only weeks later “Finland First” tents had sprung up on the northern side of the square to counter-demonstrate despite the freezing temperatures and snow that still covered the square in early March. It’s hard not to see the events as symbolic of the attitude climate throughout Europe as attitudes harden and opinions polarize.

Walking through the square, I also find myself rolling my eyes and thinking scornful thoughts about the slogans of the Finland First group, among them EU critical bits – “Fixit – Finnish Exit from the EU”. Do they really not understand what all the EU has done for us? Stable and global markets? Human rights? Peace? Jobs and careers? Academic cooperation and research?  The list could go on …

But sometime later I ran across a video on the internet that really stopped me. In the video a man from Texas, apprehensive towards blacks, discusses why he feels the way he does directly with an African-American to try and change his feelings. The video illustrated how we all have reasons to feel the way we do and to fear the things we fear. And often that fear springs from a lack of conversation and information between us – a lack of open communication. Labeling this man a racist and telling him to get over his prejudices is not going to change his perceptions or help him get over his fears of others as a threat to his community and to his job.

What if instead of outright scorning the feelings of others, in this case even the quite radical Finland First group, I – we – at least heard what they have to say, even if in the end we don’t agree. What if I initiated a conversation where I really sat down with the people I disagree with instead of blaming, labeling or scorning what they have to say? Especially since the rise of social media, we seem to think that there are certain “bad” people who stand for things that we don’t like or understand, and thus everything that they stand for has to inherently be wrong. Opinions polarize and rational discussion disappears.

To really build a solution instead of dividing people, fears and problems need to be addressed from all sides before a solution can be found. There will always be radicals who are not willing to work towards solutions, and some beliefs may be so deeply rooted that only conversation will not change them. But when the media, our window of society, purports viewing the world objectively (which cannot be humanly possible in a world where we all have some background) we tend to view people and their opinions as static, fixed on certain preconceived notions that cannot be influenced. We understand opinions as simply “being” instead of “forming”, when in reality the majority of us do pay attention and consider our position, if someone also takes a moment to look us in the eye, see things from our side and listen.

Like the huddle of tents opposing each other on both sides of the same square, we are unable to meet each other in the middle to recognize that we both have valid points. If you are refugee and EU opposed, it does not matter whether you are worried about proper health care for your own family or jobs for yourself, you are labeled a racist and ignorant, thus denying the validity of your opinion altogether. If you are favorable towards immigration, you are labeled a hippie and an idealist with no real understanding of society.

We tend stick to our own bubbles of similarity; we interact with those of a similar social status and similar interests. When Brexit and Trump happened, they surprised the majority of the population, who just did not see them coming. Journalists worldwide are concerned about following their ethical principle of reporting neutral and unbiased news, but the bigger problem seems to be not saying anything at all about the problems and worries of underrepresented demographics and challenging the valid “truth” about society.

When I travel outside of the metropolitan area, I notice how much of a bubble we really do live in here with our tight-knit city layout, non-stop public transportation, shops open 24/7, medical care just around the corner, and entertainment facilities available for every taste and location. Meanwhile outside of the city areas, Finland stretches on in waves of green and blue countryside with very different worries and ideals. Each election we all wonder why the results look the way they do, why certain political trends happen without actually turning around and discussing the vantage point of the “rest of the nation”, whether city-dweller or country-lover.

Our modern understanding of the principle of democracy can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. The original “demoskratos” could never be considered democratic by modern standards, as only white males with property were counted as citizens. Nevertheless, the idea that common people should be the ones deciding on government issues and taking part in the forming of government has passed down from the Greeks. Today we define democracy as “government in which people represent by voting”, but a core ideal of the original democracy was that every citizen should have the opportunity to make their voice heard and have the chance to take up a topic for discussion within the Assembly. Discussion was the main political activity of all citizens. But how can we discuss when the amount of participating citizens has gone from thousands to millions?

The demographic gaps in modern society, the trend of increasingly enclosing ourselves to our own spheres, and not openly hearing the rest only drives society further apart. So maybe we should go back to the origins of what democracy meant. To try to hear every voice and understand that for democracy to really work, we need to remember that society is a collection of people of all different backgrounds and with different needs. And for that we need a new perspective on how discussion works – or rather a quite old one; especially starting with public domains of discussion and representation.

Nudity, Shame, and The Donald: A Comparison of Finnish and American Culture & Politics

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A loaded title like that deserves a bit of an introduction. I moved to Finland in August of 2016 from the United States where I was previously working as a public school teacher in the state of Ohio. I’ve been enrolled in Helsinki University since August and I began working in Finland this January as a barista. During my undergraduate studies in the United States, I also did an exchange in Finland in 2012 for one semester; that 2012 experience, plus a wonderful Finnish man, brought me back to Finland for a longer stay in 2016.

So, what does nudity and shame have to do with Donald Trump and Finnish politics? Well, I originally set out to embark on the journey of answering the perpetually perturbing question that I receive steadily from Finns at the cafe: “Why, why, why did Americans vote Donald Trump into power?” Being from Ohio, a swing state in which I knew a lot of Trump supporters, I went to Facebook to pose this question myself, because I was just as stumped as the Finns who asked me.

The interesting thing about the Facebook post was that it wasn’t very interesting. The people who answered my question gave the answers that most of us have already heard: Hillary Clinton was a classic, corrupt politician with little interest in national security and cracking down on immigration, while Donald Trump was a successful businessman who offered security, prosperity, and success. Thus, the vicious cycle continued and my feeble attempt at research failed.

My failures brought me to the public swimming hall on Yrjönkatu. At this particular place, swimwear is optional, and if you choose to use the hall’s sauna after your swim, swimwear is actually banned. Yes, my fellow Americans, I have attended the sauna nude, with strangers, many, many times now. So, as I sweated my way through my Wednesday sauna session I inadvertently stumbled upon the things I wanted to talk about: nudity, shame, and politics.

I couldn’t think of anything to say about Donald Trump’s election that hasn’t already been said  before by much wiser, more qualified writers and critics. What I do know about is how my own politics have changed and grown since moving to Finland and how those changes are directly correlated to how both cultures handle nudity and shame.

For example: Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. I mentioned earlier that swimwear is optional. If you ever go there you will see women of all shapes, ages, and sizes swimming nude. Your definition of breast stroke will probably change, and back stroke will certainly never be the same. On an important side note for my American readers, there are men and women’s days; nudity is almost always separated by gender. Although there are male lifeguards, which I admit is a bit odd.

However, the first couple times I went to Yrjönkatu I wore my bathing suit. Then the Wednesday came that I forgot it and so I did the whole thing nude: swimming, sauna, walking around. It was great. But it didn’t feel that way at first. My eyes were peeled wide open as I walked around in my birthday suit. I kept thinking someone was going to notice me, despite the fact that the whole  place was basically nude. I, self-centeredly, thought everyone would somehow sense my Americanness and point and stare and probably laugh.

Instead, what happened, and what continues to happen there, is that I run into the sweetest old ladies who are always willing to speak English with me, or help me with me Finnish. They tell me about their adventures and why they love that swimming hall after all these years. Even though I’m naked, they talk to me for me; I genuinely feel welcome at that hall.

The way that Finns handle nudity is reflected in the welfare state style of government. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly you are, or how diseased and troubled—you will be taken care of. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But what I find admirable about the Nordic welfare state is that people are always, always people. And I believe consistent nude interaction with your fellow countrymen and women wakes you up to this concept. When it is normal and natural to see a person naked, flaws exposed, acceptance more easily enters the mind.

In contrast, nudity is completely taboo in the United States. Well, sort of. It’s completely acceptable for a young, attractive woman to wear a string biking which basically covers her nipples and butt crack, but if anyone else would wear such a bathing suit, it is immediately revolting and disgusting. Americans specifically struggle with the female nipple and I’d wager that just reading the phrase “female nipple” makes Americans uncomfortable.

This attitude plays out in our governments. Where the  Finns see a person as person, flaws and all, Americans tend to see the flaws first and make a judgement based on those flaws. “Are you on drugs?” You don’t deserve welfare. “Do you work?” Because if you don’t you don’t deserve welfare. “How many jobs have you looked for?” “How much have you sacrificed?” The questions we ask to determine a person’s worthiness go on and on.

This constant search for fault that is something I rarely see in Finland. When I talk to Finns about the welfare state, every single one I’ve ever met has admitted that there are those who take advantage of the system. This knowledge has never led any of  them to say to me: “We need to cut welfare” or “those people don’t deserve help.” The talk usually revolves around incentive and job creation. “How can we get more jobs in Finland?” and “How can we encourage people to work and avoid getting comfortable living off of welfare?” The questions are totally different.

This is where shame comes into play. From what I’ve noticed in my short time here, Finns feel a huge sense of shame when they aren’t working. If they’re studying, that’s a different story, but many Finns I know at the university have part time jobs and attend university as well. I would argue that this sense of shame also exists in America. I have not met a single welfare recipient in the US who is proud to take welfare. The difference in shame between cultures lies in the type of job.

For example, I was a teacher in the US, and now I work as a barista in Finland. The only time I ever feel a sense of shame about being a barista is when I tell other Americans. There’s usually a slight frown. “A barista? Why couldn’t you find a teaching job?” I make a livable wage as a barista here in Finland. I turned down a teaching offer because I didn’t feel comfortable in that particular school. My Finnish friends couldn’t have been happier for me when I told them I got a cafe job. I’m not quite sure why Americans job shame so much, but it’s a real problem in the US.

This attitude of job shaming even seeps into American schools. As a high school teacher, I noticed every year that students would stray from technical school or trade jobs, thinking those jobs were somehow lesser. I would argue that the vast majority of my students felt a massive pressure to go straight to college from high school and to know exactly what they wanted to major in as soon as they entered university. Remember, Americans pay thousands and thousands of dollars for university so there isn’t much time to think about what you really want to do.

Conversely, it is completely normal for Finnish high school students to wait a year or two before entering university, which is free of charge. However, once students graduate, they are expected to enter the workforce immediately so that they can contribute back to the system that just afforded them so many opportunities.

So, we covered two major cultural differences: nudity, and job shaming, which leads to the mother of all cultural differences: small talk.  The stereotype is that Finns don’t “do” small talk, which is a favorite American past time. Finns are known for being notoriously straight faced, shy, and quiet, whereas the Americans are known for being loud, talkative, and hyperbolic. I think both nations could learn valuable lessons from each other here.

Take for instance, the simple, but important question “How are you?”. To Americans, this is just a greeting. We don’t actually want to know about your day at the check-out line in the grocery store. For Finns however, this is not the case; they will sincerely answer your question.

For example, sometimes I slip into this American habit at work and ask Finns “how are you?” while I’m moving around, making their coffee, or giving them change. I’m sometimes greeted with startled expressions and “umm, ohh, I’m okay.” One guy in particular actually informed me he really didn’t like small talk and didn’t know how to answer my question. We ended up having a great conversation about cultural differences in greetings. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t friendly or talkative, he just didn’t see the point in the kind of useless banter that arises from the American “how are you?”

Like nudity and shame, this is yet another quality I see reflected in our cultures and governments. Donald’s rhetoric and the way he perpetually talks around issues and not about them, just seems like another version of small talk. Instead of getting straight to the issue, he creates small phrases that are catchy, but don’t really mean anything, and the greater meaning of the issue is lost, just like in the case of “how are you?”

However, the midwesterner in me misses talking to neighbors and petting any dog that walks by on the street. Here in Helsinki I have smiled at people on trams, and said hello to dogs on the street and I receive looks that say “Are you crazy or a murderer or both?”

What it boils down to, in my eyes, is that the Finns see Donald naked, just as the person and conman that he is. His drive to acquire and acquire and acquire-money, votes, fame-this is what Finns find shameful about Donald Trump. When Finns set out to establish free and equal school systems, they created a government in which free and equal school systems actually happened. When you step into school systems across the entire country of Finland, you will find the same basic supplies and buildings. Their government did not use small talk to make empty promises.

The final point I want to make is about this notion that Finland, and all of Scandinavia, is able to have a welfare state government because they are small and homogenous countries. Finland has had a bloody and difficult history. They gained independence from Russia only in 1917, and maintained their independence even after battles in WWII. Finland left the wars extremely poor, but autonomous. They made a conscious decision as a nation to invest in education and welfare for all; none of that discussion was small talk among Finns. Each Finnish citizen sacrificed and continues to sacrifice a large portion of their salary to contribute to this welfare system. Paying taxes is not the epitome of evil in Finland.

That is a concept and decision that hasn’t been considered in America. As long as Americans believe a country is a business, money will continue to be placed above people. And as long as welfare states continue to see people for people, then humans will be more important than money.

My hopes for the future are romantic. I wish that America would stop shouting from the rooftops “We are the greatest country in the world!” and learn from other countries that have things figured out a little better than we do at home. And I wish Finns would be more vocal about their culture, and the things that work so well for them.

Is Finland perfect? Absolutely not. Battles are fought everyday in the wintertime in Helsinki about who will walk on the part of the sidewalk that has been shoveled and who will walk in the snowy sludge. I have lost every one of these battles. So, how do I combine the best qualities from both my beloved homes? I can’t be sure, but sauna usually solves all my problems. Maybe President Donald Trump and President Sauli Niinistö can sweat it out traditional Finnish style, in the nude, with some birch branches in case a certain someone needs an extra wack when they get carried away with nonsensical small talk.

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