German Word of the Week: Bekenntnisschrein

This GWOW is special, because it’s new.

It occurs in a short piece by Christoph Seils in the German politics mag Cicero about the hapless German Social Democratic Party, which has been circling the drain along with every other Western European center-left party. The title, appropriately, is Warten auf den Untergang — ‘Waiting for the Collapse’.

As I read along, I came across this sentence: “Das Bemühen das Thema soziale Gerechtigkeit aus dem Bekenntnisschrein zu holen und für die unterschiedlichen Zielgruppen der Partei konkret herunterzubrechen, wirkte ideenlos.”

“Efforts to take the subject of social justice out of the shrine of beliefs and to break it down for the party’s various target groups made the party seem out of ideas.”

Bekenntnis is the German word for a profession of belief or an article of faith; lip service is called Lippenbekenntnisse. Schrein is a shrine, obvs. “Shrine of beliefs” is just my clumsy way of translating Bekennnisschrein. And why did I have to resort to a clumsy approximation?

Because the word Bekenntnisschrein does not exist. Check out this Google search:

He made it up!
He made it up!

Seils, you magnificent bastard, you made it up! You used German’s endless, Lego™-like flexibility to create a brand-new word that never existed before, at least according to Google. And if Google don’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing.

It conjures up a great image, too. I imagine the Bekenntnisschrein to be a sterile, vacuum-sealed chamber, let’s call it the Brandt Chamber, where the temperature is kept just above absolute zero. Whenever elections time rolls around, a senior operative of the SPD party dons a clean suit and enters the Brandt Chamber:

Bildergebnis für clean room

Here, the Sacred Core Principles of Social Democracy (SCPSD) are arranged, in careful alphabetical order, in glass cubes. Each sentence is composed of glowing, ethereal script composed of pure Bebelium. Upon contact with ordinary oxygen and party infighting, the principle slowly deteriorates, but the original, inside the Brandt Chamber, regenerates using a mystical source of energy: the Simple Faith of the Common Man.

But lately, the SCPSDs grow dimmer and dimmer. The Simple Faith is depleting with each passing year. One day, the glowing sentences will eventually flicker out and die forever. And, joined my millions of doughty dockworkers and contumacious costermongers, I will shed a silent tear.

And then return to absolutely slaying it on Grand Theft Auto IX.

People who Look Like Us

Vox reports on a new study:

White people become significantly less likely to support welfare programs when told that black people might benefit from them.

That’s a crucial conclusion from a newly released study by Berkeley sociologist Rachel Wetts and her Stanford colleague Robb Willer in the journal Social Forces. The authors conducted two different experiments to see how white Americans’ attitudes toward nonwhite people affect their views on welfare spending. Both experiments found that showing white Americans data suggesting that white privilege is diminishing — that the US is becoming majority nonwhite, or that the gap between white and black/Latino incomes is closing — led them to express more opposition to welfare spending.

Wetts and Willer are hardly the first scholars to argue that racial animus is a powerful factor motivating opposition to social spending and redistribution in the US. Jill Quadagno’s The Color of Welfare in 1994 and Martin Gilens’s Why Americans Hate Welfare in 1999 credited racial factors — in particular, stereotypes of black people as lazy and overly dependent on government aid — with substantially reducing support for welfare spending since the war on poverty began in the 1960s.

This study was carried out in the U.S., but studies from other developed countries reach similar conclusions (pdf).

When I point out that increased ethnic diversity saps support for generous welfare provisions, people often respond with an is/ought conflation. They suppose I’m actually saying it’s good that people are less likely to favor welfare if it goes to others who are ethnically distinct from them. Or, on a slightly more sophisticated level, they suggest that only conservatives believe that this effect exists, and they abuse it to construct a “false choice” between ethnic diversity and generous social welfare provisions.

No, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. I think it’s regrettable, in the abstract sense, that many people oppose welfare when you tell them it will help someone who doesn’t look like them. I would now appreciate it if you would congratulate me on my tolerance and open-mindedness.

Bildergebnis für i am a good person

However, in addition to being pure and noble of spirit, I’m a pragmatist, so I think abstract moral judgments about the attitudes of people I’ll never meet are a waste of time. People are the way they are, and policy should be designed to work with people as they are right now, not people as they should be after a beautiful revolution in mass consciousness.

The choice between generous welfare states and increased ethnic diversity is pretty real. There have already been cutbacks in welfare spending in Germany attached to more stringent supervision and work requirements. One reason is likely that the largest group of immigrants to Germany, people of Turkish descent, receive welfare at higher rates than native-born ethnic Germans — and this effect continues into subsequent generations (pdf). Even among Germans, who are quite tolerant in international comparison, people prefer government welfare to go to people who look like them. This is human nature.

I predict the recent spike in migration from 2015 is going to greatly accelerate this trend in Germany. And my predictions have a way of coming true.

‘Cold-Blooded’ Horses

Taking a spin around the Urdenbacher Kämpe today, I came across a group of three handsome horses happily consuming huge quantities of fresh grass:

Urdenbacher Kämpe Rhenish-German Draft Horses 1Urdenbacher Kämpe Rhenish-German Draft Horses 2

These are Rhenish-German draft horses, which were once the main source of local transportation in this part of Germany. After the advent of the automobile, the breed went into decline, but a local horse-breeding family, the Reuters, continue breeding them (g), and make a living by offering wagon and carriage rides.

The German name for this general variety of draft horses is Kaltblutpferde — ‘cold-blooded horses’. As the Wikipedia entry po-facedly explains (g), this does not mean that these horses are reptiles: “they are warm-blooded mammals which have an average body temperature of 38°”. They’re called cold-blooded because they are mild-mannered, unflappable, and don’t mind being harnessed for man’s purposes.

They are pretty friendly: one came up to me and stuck his head at me over the fence. He just stood there, chewing a big ball of grass, and examined me with mild curiosity.

Fün with Dändy-Döts

I have never stopped loving the perky pairs of pronunciation-permutators, and the great Berlin Typography blog now has an entire post dedicated all the different ways German graphic designers have had fun with these dandy dots over the ages:





If German mandarins ever decide to try to eliminate Umlauts in the name of anti-discrimination or ease of learning German as a second language or what-have-you, I will go underground and begin a campaign of direct action to save the dots. Non-violent, of course. At least at first.

Tino Sanandaji on Swedish Immigration Policy

Tino Sanandaji asks whether a “Trump Moment” might happen in Sweden’s upcoming general elections, driven by an immigration backlash:

The generous refugee migration championed by parties on the Left was not particularly popular in the first place, never really enjoying majority support outside culturally liberal urban areas. Today, opinions towards restricting migration and the generous support migrants receive has hardened among all segments of the Swedish population, and is particularly strong among blue-collar union members.

In-depth polling indicates that the majority who favour restrictive refugee migration policies are fairly well informed.3 Most express sympathy for refugees, but offer specific arguments for restrictive policies. Many offer some version of the view that Sweden can help refugees in other ways. In polls, very few Swedes express fear that migrants take native jobs, but tend to point to crime, pressure on the welfare state and, most importantly, the lack of integration into Swedish society. These views are not unique to low-educated rural voters, although they may be more common among them, but rather are held by many people across social and educational groups….

At the core of it, shifting Swedish politics is simple, and has little to do with either deindustrialisation, racist deplorables or bitter clingers – however emotionally appealing it is for progressives to blame these factors. Sweden’s highly generous refugee policy never had majority support among voters, including Social Democratic voters. Blue-collar voters who dared to express even mild protest were bullied and branded as hateful or ignorant by their own party. The only outlet for that built-up resentment has been the Sweden Democrats, and while in the run up to the election the Social Democrats have moved sharply to the Right on migration and crime issues, the mistakes of the past years may prove difficult to repair for this once invincible party.

One of the remarkable things about mass immigration policies in European countries is that they went on for decades despite being opposed by most of the population.

I think this is all about salience: For decades, ordinary voters weren’t happy about the levels of immigration national political elites were allowing, but the issue wasn’t salient enough to drive their vote. Other issues (economy, education, foreign policy) were more important, and that’s what drove voters. Recently, though, the problems associated with large-scale, low-skill immigration have become so glaringly obvious that the salience of immigration has skyrocketed — voters all across Europe now rank immigration as their top concern (g).

More voters are willing to make immigration their primary, or even only, issue. And when they do, they will find parties in every European country ready and waiting for their vote. In Sweden, that’s the Sweden Democrats:

Support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has surged ahead of an election in September to the point where it could be hard for the government or opposition to form a working majority without their support, a poll showed on Tuesday.

Immigration has dominated debate ahead of the Sept. 9 vote, which has helped the Sweden Democrats whose support increased to 18.5 percent from 14.8 percent in November, according to the poll by the government’s Statistics Office.

This Sizzling Girl-on-Girl Action Brought to You by the German Government

The center-left Social Democratic Party has been slipping into irrelevance for two decades now:

Bildergebnis für umfragewerte SPD

To try to get some attention — any attention at all — the Berlin branch of the Young Socialists (called Jusos), the party’s youth organization, calls for state funding of “feminist” pornography, which is apparently something Sweden (of course) already provides. The reason? To combat non-state-funded pornography, which they claim is degrading to women and trades in racial stereotypes.

And thus German political discourse is diverted into yet another whirlpool of pointless debate (g) on trivial issues, something which happens every week, sometimes more than once.

But the most revealing thing is how out-of-touch these self-styled Young Socialists are. All of their arguments could have been made, and were made (g), in the 1970s. And back then, they might have had some force. But anyone not living under a rock today knows a few things:

  1. The Young Socialists complain about “male-dominated” porn studios, but professionally-made porn is on life-support these days thanks to the huge increase in the amount of amateur porn available online. Turns out when cheap filming becomes possible, lots of ordinary folks are more than happy to copulate (or do even more exotic things) on-screen for little or even no money.
  2. The era in which women were routinely “forced into” pornography against their will (or at least claimed that this was the case) is long past. Aside from some isolated incidents, most women doing porn these days in advanced countries like Germany know exactly what they’re getting into and have balanced the pros and cons. They have Twitter and Instagram accounts (NSFW!) in which they share their mundane political thoughts and post pictures of their dinners.
  3. The notion that “feminist porn” needs state funding to survive is laughable. Thousands of hours of women-created and/or explicitly “feminist” porn is just a Google search away. There are even Feminist Porn Awards.

This proposal permits us to examine a few aspects of German political culture more closely.

First, we note the lack of originality: The Jusos didn’t come up with this idea, they copied it from Sweden.

Second, this is pure symbolism. Even were it to be implemented, this proposal would result only in a tiny droplet of cash being sprinkled on a few lucky winners. Nothing will change for Germans, 99.9999% of whom couldn’t care less (except for perhaps wondering why the state would need to support an industry devoted to showing naked ladies, something humans have always been happy to pay for). Yet words like “feminism” and “pornography” are catnip for the swollen ranks of opinion-mongers in the German mainstream press, who are already treating this proposal as a license for endless bloviation.

Third, we see the childish truculence common on the German left (which prizes the “critical” pose). The Jusos have proclaimed that they’re in favor of pornography! Yes, we Jusos are proudly standing up in favor of government funding to show naked people, and we don’t give a good goddamn what you squares and realos and fundamentalist fuddy-duddies think about it. You’ll sputter in outrage, but we spit on your outdated social conventions!

Meanwhile, the rest of the world (which has actually seen a Game of Thrones episode) chuckles in bemusement.

Fourth, this is how the kind of strait-laced, rule-following German who would actually join a political youth organization tries to appear hip and relevant. A friend of mine once remarked that when the mild-mannered dowagers who run Goethe Institutes want to show they’re in touch with the cutting-edge youth of today, the result is usually a poetry slam. Or perhaps a hacky-sack tournament. Maybe a rave!

This is all a bit annoying, but then again, it’s a privilege to live in a country which can afford the luxury of these debates.

Random Clips from Finland

Film a few seconds of what you’re seeing, crudely edit it together, put it on your blog. This is from Finland:

In order, we have 1. A cemetery; 2. a woman singing a song in ‘old Russian’ in the Sörnäinen metro station in Helsinki; 3. Adel Abidin, ‘Archive’ (2018); 4. ?; 5. A Finnish metal band playing at the Kamppi shopping center; 6. 3 clips from ‘Aalto Natives’ by Mellors & Nissinen; 7. A clip from ‘Thinking about Invertebrates’ by Nabb & Teeri; 8. A clip from ‘Reproduced’ by Anna Estarriola; 9. A few seconds inside Tapiola Church; 10. Marti Ahtisaari sighs.

Small Pockets of Nature Everywhere

Germany is one of the most densely-populated countries in Europe, and the Rhein-Ruhr region, where I live, is the most densely-populated in Germany.

But thanks to German regional planning, there are enclaves of nature even here. And they’re not created thanks to some misguided Corbusier-like mix of giant residential housing blocks surrounded by parks. The vast majority of Düsseldorfers live in 4-5 story buildings, not high-rises.

Yet the city is still compact, with beautiful greenery in the middle and at the edges. The key here is small parks and enclaves. One example is the Urdenbach marshes. Ages ago, the Rhein changed its path near a place called Urdenbach. It stopped following large curve and began flowing more directly, in a straighter course. Since the entire area of the former curve was only a few meters above the new course of the Rhine, it flooded whenever the Rhine flooded. This created a marshy wetland area.

Long story short, over the years the wetland was partially destroyed, some used for agriculture, some paved over. The old course of the Rhein was hemmed in by dams, and gradually dried into a small stream. In 2013 the city, and local government, and local nature organizations (these things take lots of consultation) decided to increase and broaden the flow of the “Altrhein”, and make parts of this nature preserve into a genuine marsh again. Here’s the picture from the official city-planning brochure (g).


The red is the small stream of the former Rhein, the light-blue is the part that would be be reclaimed as a wetland. The two yellow dots represent large breaches in the dam, letting the water flow in the lower area to the east. On the right, you see a residential area, the lower-middle class suburb of Hellerhof. On the left, agricultural land and rich pasture for sheep and cattle. I’ll come back to both the suburb and the fields a bit later.

The plan worked. The wetlands brought birds. In only one 5- minute span on a bench, I saw coots, cormorants, gray herons, swans, ducks, Northern geese, Nile geese, and grebes. And was surrounded by the awkward croaking of horny frogs. The brochure from which this photo was taken lays out the strategy the local authorities pursued after after breaching the dam: nothing. They just let the water find its course and build ponds of its own design. A few dead trees were scattered in the riverbed to adjust its flow. And then allowed to rot, creating natural temporary dams. Existing trees which couldn’t tolerate the higher moisture are slowly collapsing, leaving room for more moisture-tolerant trees.

The marsh area is only narrow strip hemmed in by farmers’ fields to the southwest and a thickly-settled suburb to the northeast. But still, it’s there. And it’s beautiful:

Other nearby areas have also been declared nature areas. Some of these areas cover no more ground than, say, a department store (example not chosen at random). Here’s part of one of them, near the suburb of Baumberg:

Meadow near Baumberg.JPG

This meadow directly abuts a farmer’s field, and is just a few hundred meters away from a suburb. But since it’s been left in its natural state, it’s enough to provide nesting and hunting grounds for hundreds of birds, frogs, mice, and other creatures. And a soothing vista for human passers-by.

Regional planners in the Rhineland don’t have vast open spaces to work with, so they make the most of what they have in a spirit of compromise, creating small but viable islands of nature right next to streets, railroad tracks, high-power lines (one of which goes right through the Urdenbach Marshes), crop fields, and housing complexes. Give animals an area in which they are completely undisturbed — even a small area — and they’ll be able to adapt to nearby human influence.

All of this nature-civilization compromise takes careful planning, much consultation with “stakeholders”, a strong state, and a sophisticated strategic vision. All things which Germans are quite good at creating and maintaining. It makes their sophisticated regional-planning system (pdf) a model for the world. Other countries would do well to adapt it, before it’s too late.

Scandinavians and Finns

Razib Khan, discussing the reliability of commercial DNA ancestry tests, describes the genetic links between Germans, Scandinavians, and Finnic peoples:

Scandinavia is a coherent ethnolinguistic category which encompasses various northern Germanic people who were relatively untouched by Roman cultural influences. This is in contrast to many Germanic tribes to the south, such as the Franks, who emerged in dynamic tension with the rise of the Roman Empire. The final Scandinavian conversion to Christianity, and so admission into the post-Roman European world, began about two centuries after the conversion of the pagan Saxons by Charlemagne.

Later, the two centuries of the Kalmar Union brought all the modern nations of Scandinavia under one ruler. Today, the concept of Norden, which includes non-Scandinavian Finland, expresses the cultural and social connections of the northern peoples.

And yet genetically the reality is more muddled. Looking at samples of Germans, Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, the geographic patterning is clear. Danes occupy a position between Germans on the one hand, and Norwegians and Swedes on the other. Because of Sami ancestry in many Norwegians and Sami and Finnish ancestry in many Swedes they are genetically distinct from continental Germanic peoples to the south, including Danes.

So what is a Scandinavian? A Scandinavian is a Swede, Dane, or Norwegian (or an Icelander). Scandinavians share 1,000 years of history since their integration into the European system. As a cultural category Scandinavians are clear and distinct.

But as a genetic cluster things are not so clear. First, there is the Danish connection to Germany. This is due to both history and geography. People from northern Germany are clearly genetically close to the Danes. While the Angles and Jutes were from modern Denmark, the Saxons were from northern Germany. Yet in Britain, they fused seamlessly into one people. Before the mass conversion of the continental Saxons under the Carolingians, the cultural barriers between the peoples of Jutland and Saxony must have been marginal at best.

Second, an enormous number of Swedes in particular seem to be highly admixed with Finnic peoples. Many Swedes are highly “Finn-shifted”, both due to Sami assimilation in the past few hundred years, and the long history of Finnish migration into Sweden (which dominated Finland either politically or culturally for nearly 1,000 years). But culturally, and in their ethnolinguistic identity, these people are nothing but Scandinavian at this point.

Going back to the results of the 23andMe user above, who genealogically is more than 60% German, but comes back as 25% German, how to make sense of it? Anyone who has looked at German data realizes that it is very difficult to identify a ‘prototypical’ German. Germans are people who speak Germanic languages, whose ancestors out of the European Bronze Age, when much of Northern European population structure was established. But being at the center of Europe means that Germans have been subject to gene flow by peoples to from all other directions. Also, some ethnic Germans in the eastern regions clearly descend from Slavic tribes, and more recently there were migrations of peoples such as French Huguenots.

A PCA of Danes, English, French, and Germans, show differences across the groups. But Germans overlap a great deal with the English, and a substantial minority overlap with Danes. Also, many more of the Germans are “French-shifted” than the English.

The point is that to be German is to be many things. At least in the context of Northern European peoples.


German Word of the Week: ‘Agathe Bauer’

I hope everyone enjoyed the excursion into game theory and the Estonian Museum Locker Paradox. Many of you are now probably harboring doubts about my mental state, but that’s the risk I took in the name of Science.

And now for something completely different. I can’t believe I’ve been living in Dear Old Deutschland forever, but just learned what ‘Agathe Bauer’ songs are today. Let me clarify. First, let’s fade into 1990, with the dancefloor classic ‘I Got the Power’:

Parachute pants, flat-tops, primary colors, sampant rampling, — it’s all there. Still holds up pretty well, I’d say. When Germans heard this song, many thought ‘I Got the Power!’ was ‘Agathe Bauer’.* It turns out that native German speakers constantly hear phrases in their native language within English pop songs. Some of them absurd, some perverse.

Eventually, the entire phenomenon came to be known from its most famous instance, “I Got the Power/Agathe Bauer’, and songs which are misunderstood by Germans are now ‘Agatha Bauer’ songs. Here’s a recording of a radio call-in program (all in German, except the song titles and lyrics) in which Germans discuss their favorite ‘Agatha Bauer’ songs:

The irony is that “I Got the Power/Agathe Bauer” is a song by a German group, Snap! Here is a fun fact from the Wikipedia article about the song:

The song opens with the somewhat enigmatic line in Russian“Американская фирма Transceptor Technology приступила к производству компьютеров «Персональный спутник»” (meaning “The American company Transceptor Technology has started production of the ‘Personal Companion’ computer”). “Personal Companion” was a computer-like device for the blind and visually impaired. Released in 1990, it was controlled by voice and could, among other functions, automatically download articles from USA Today by a built-in modem. It was made by Transceptor Technologies of Ann Arbor, Michigan

Continue reading “German Word of the Week: ‘Agathe Bauer’”

The Politics of Museum-Locker Psycho-Experiments

There are two entrances to the National Art Museum of Estonia (called KUMU for Kunstimuuseum) which is built into a hill. One entrance leads you straight into the main ground-floor ticket and reception area.

But if you approach the museum from the nearby park, you enter one level below the ground floor, a basement level where the cafe and auditorium are located. If you enter from the lower level, you must walk up an inclined pathway to reach the ground floor and buy your ticket. However, even before you go up to buy your ticket, you have a chance to stow your bags and coats in storage lockers on the lower level.

This is what I decided to do. As I was stashing my stuff, I noticed a sign on the lockers which read (from memory): “There are also storage lockers at the main entrance one floor above which are free.” I chuckled and thought to myself: “Why would a museum have two sets of identical storage lockers, one of which doesn’t require a coin, and one of which does?”

You see, I took “free” to mean “you don’t need a coin to operate them.” At least half of the museums I visited in Finland had storage lockers which were totally free: you just turned the key and put it in your pocket, no need to deposit any coins. “Very civilized,” I mused, “another benefit of a high-trust society.”

As it turned out, I had a 1-euro coin handy, so I decided to just use the bottom lockers. “What’s the difference?” I thought, “I’ll just get the coin back anyway. These lockers are ‘free’ too, unless you count the opportunity cost incurred by not investing that 1 euro in an interest-bearing account for 3 hours, which I calculate at €-.00000043. I can afford that.”

So in goes the 1-euro coin. I then go off to enjoy some art. When I return, I insert the key in the lock, open the door, and reach down underneath the lock mechanism to retrieve my one-euro piece from the little plastic tray.

But there was no 1-euro piece.

There was no little plastic tray.

There was only a sealed box underneath the coin slot. The locker had taken my coin. Forever. It had been designed to take my coin. Forever. The locker wasn’t free, it actually cost 1 euro.

I have never seen this before in any European country. Museum storage lockers which permanently eat your money! What a bunch of stinking chiselers! I had to fight off a strong urge to whip out the old pocketknife and get that goddamned 1-euro back, by hook or by crook. Damned if I’m going to let a bunch of Estonian aesthetes fuck me over! But then I decided that might not be such a hot idea, Estonian prisons being what they are.

Here is a handy illustration of the KUMU system:

Finland - 3

But my mind-shredding rage was soon replaced by mind-shredding curiosity: What on earth was going on here?

First I checked to see whether I’d been a dummy. Granted, the sign did try to warn me that these lockers weren’t “free like the ones upstairs. Shouldn’t that have warned me? After a period of searching and fearless introspection, I concluded: no.

Here’s my train of thought:

  1. Ordinarily, “free” and implicit “not free” would normally imply a contrast between something which costs something, and something which does not.
  2. However, this was not an ordinary context. This was the specific, narrow context of museum storage lockers.
  3. In the context of museum storage lockers, the word “free” is ambiguous for several reasons:
    1. First, nobody expects museum storage lockers to cost something. After racking my brain, I was unable to think of even one museum I’d been to which charged a non-refundable fee for merely using a locker for a few hours. I mean, this isn’t a bus station.
    2. Second, the word “free” had an obvious alternate meaning in this context: “You can use the lockers on the upper floor without a coin.” Not everyone is going to have a 1-euro coin on them, and there was no place on the bottom floor to get change. So the sign was saying: “If you have no 1-euro coin handy, no sweat! Just go upstairs!”
    3. Finally, and most compellingly from a logical perspective, the ordinary museum visitor, confronted with the reality of how this museum operates, would say to himself: “Wait, what? There are lockers on one level which cost a non-refundable fee of €1, but the exact same kind of locker on the higher level cost nothing? Why? Who in their right mind is would ever use the €1 lockers? Nobody could have created such a stupid system.” As the old German saying goes, was nicht sein darf, kann nicht sein: that which cannot be, must not be.

So I concluded no, I hadn’t been a dummy. It’s point 3.3 that really gets me: Who thought up this system, and why? Did somebody just check off the wrong box on a “museum locker” order form during construction? Is there some at least hypothetically logical reason for this?

All I could think is that maybe the museum wants to profit from high visitor numbers: if all 100 lockers on the upper floor are used, then we get to charge all the poor saps who have to use the ones on the lower floor. But then again, why? This is a huge, brand-new art museum, with tons of lockers. If they want to make money from the lockers, why not charge for all of them? Why, instead, create a two-class system of the privileged elite who get free lockers, and the downtrodden masses who must pay? That only increases the risk of civil unrest, which is not what you want in a museum.

I can only think that the lockers at the KUMU must be some sort of psychological experiment. Some behavioral economist at the University of Tallinn conceived of this experiment, and has been running it since 2006, when the museum opened. You know, like those experiments where you can split a cash payment with a stranger, but only if you choose to share it, or where you can have one cookie now or 5 tomorrow.

But what could this experiment be designed to prove? This question has been torturing me now for a month. Can anyone help?

Estonia is Culture-Mad and Who Can Blame Them?

Estonia seems to enjoy being perched between the Baltic countries and Finland. Its language is Finnic, but not mutually intelligible with any other of the other odd languages in that dysfunctional family. I got the distinct impression that Estonians prefer to compare themselves with Finns rather than their Baltic neighbors. Esties enjoy a high level of education, a reputation for being reserved, a good school system, a much higher GDP per capita than Latvia and Lithuania, and a thriving cultural scene eagerly supported by state policy, to the extent that funds permit. All that’s missing, a few of them joked with me, was an Estonian Nokia.

The ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn is splendid. You begin with this amazing panorama at the Helsinki Ferry Terminal:

helsinki ferry port terminal

And then get on an Estonian-flagged ship. The Estonian flag is blue, black and white, cool Nordic colors:

hel leaving helsinki on estonian ferry

Finland taxes hard alcohol at a high rate, so plenty of Finns take booze cruises to Estonia, where prices are much lower. This means that ferries are basically floating malls and complexes of bars, but you can still fight your way outside to see some of the dramatic scenery.

There are a few distinct bits of Tallin. First, the Old Town, which is compact and built on two distinct layers, with the Parliament house on top of a hill called Toomea. It’s a nice old town with narrow, winding streets climbing up and down hills, but it has the sort of artificiality you associate with these places: There’s not much there except for souvenir shops, restaurants, and kiosks. I got the distinct impression that it fills up with drunken Finnish tourists during the summer. Estonians don’t like being the cheap-booze getaway destination of choice for Finns, but they grit their teeth and accept it, since it brings in significant cash.

The area around the Old Town has a number of streets with charismatic crumbling old wooden houses:

est house on endla.JPG

The other beauty spot is the Kadriorg Park, site of a Baroque castle and gardens:

Also in this park is the Estonian national art museum, called KUMU for KUnstiMUuseum. It’s in a fine modern building by Pekka Vapaavuori, opened in 2006, with the long walkways and slice-shaped architecture that are getting to be clichés for contemporary-art museums these days. Cliché or not, it’s a spectacularly successful and inviting building. It cost $50 million, which would seem to be a staggering sum for a nation of only 1.3 million people. This shows you how dedicated Estonians are to culture.

You won’t find many masterpieces of European art here, but the curators have done an outstanding job presenting Estonian art and culture. The permanent exhibition devoted to art during the Soviet Occupation is particularly interesting, since it’s basically also a history lesson in adaptation and resistance. It introduced me to the term “Soviet Pop”, which is just what it sounds like. There were also interesting photorealist works, and a number of moody, slightly eldritch paintings and sculptures. A selection:

There’s a strong German influence in Estonia; the word for ‘artist’ in Estonian is ‘Kunstnik’, which never failed to crack me up. Estonia is nominally mostly Lutheran, although only 14% of Estonians go to church regularly. Like all the Baltic countries, Estonia has a sizable Russian minority, mostly of people who were moved there to “Sovietize” the Baltic SSRs and their descendants.

The official description Estonians give of this problem to outsiders is carefully and diplomatically framed. The occupation of Estonia by the Soviets is portrayed as illegal and unjust, but Estonians seem to not want to look like they’re obsessed by historical grievance (unlike certain nearby nations who will remain nameless), and discussion of the occupation and the current status of the Russian minority is couched in euphemisms, at least among the class of Estonians who speak fluent English. Of course, this careful reticence is also driven by the fact that Russia, which has 378 times the land mass of Estonia, is highly concerned about the treatment of the Russian minority (to put it diplomatically), and the EU also monitors Baltic countries’ treatment of the Russian minority.

Outside of the beauty spots, Tallinn looks like the somewhat-more-prosperous-than-usual Eastern European country it is. Shopping centers are cheap, warehouse-like buildings thrown up in the early 1990s. The typical pattern holds: public areas and building exteriors are often shabby-looking, because Eastern European countries never really developed an economic infrastructure for keeping these places tidy and modern-looking; there wasn’t enough money for that. The flat I Airbnb’d in was pristine and newly-remodeled, but the apartment block it was located in wasn’t, and the entry way was an obstacle course of crude, dangerous concrete blocks and crumbling stairs erected by some state contractor in 1974 who obviously didn’t give a shit.

Unlike in many Eastern European countries, though, you get the sense that Estonians are quite aware that some bits of their country still needs a bit of sprucing-up, and they’ll be getting around to it once their economy begins generating enough surplus wealth to support an nationwide infrastructure of architects, landscape designers, building renovators, park-management specialists, and urban planners. The talent and the love of culture is there; the money will soon follow.

Estonian bookstores are as interesting as you’d expect. and feature a surprising number of English-language books on Estonian culture, folklore, and history, written by Estonians in nearly-flawless English. My favorite find was a small pamphlet on Estonian folklore and traditions, which are as interesting as you might think. I plan on scanning it in and posting excerpts later. For now, here is the text from the back:

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