31 August 2005

Racial Representations of a Disaster

Check this out.


30 August 2005

Discovering "Paju-time" in Estonia

On a whim of mine, my mother and I decided to visit Estonia, the home of the maternal-grandfather. This whim brought us across the Baltic by way of the now-infamous Regina Baltica ferry. After sightseeing in Tallinn for a day, we traveled two hours by bus (where my foot was almost puked on by a sick little girl) to Parnu, the summer vacation capital of Estonia. Unfortunately, we were not spending the day sunning on the beach. After dropping our bags a Hotel Parnu, a Soviet-era hotel turned questionable Best Western, we embarked on a search for a “Coca-Cola Light and a bus to Ikla, a small town 65 km south on the Estonian-Latvian border. Seeing a bus for Ikla as we entered the station, we decided to simply hop on instead of checking the schedule – trusting another passenger who informed us it would take about an hour. About two-and-a-half hours later we arrived in Ikla. We knew it would be small, but Ikla surpassed my expectations.

I expected a bus depot, as it was the final destination of our bus, but we only encountered a bus sign. We joked before leaving Parnu that maybe we should find lunch before traveling to Ikla because there might not be any food there. Of course we did not heed our light-hearted warnings, and soon the joke became a reality. There was no restaurant, no town center – simply a small fishing village on the Baltic Sea with a small general store and Latvian-Estonian passport station. After using the universal word “toilet” at the general store, we enjoyed a hearty lunch of melted Swedish chocolate and rye bread. The woman in the store did not recognize any of the last names we threw at her and neither did the border guard. So we began to walk.

We came to Estonia armed with very little information. My grandfather Erich Paju lived in Ikla, 2.5 km north of the Latvian border with his brothers Johannes, Arnold, Vela and sister Salma. The Paju family head, my great-grandfather Christian, was a sea-captain. When we left for our trip, the only living brother Arnold was living in Florida and instructed my mom to ask locals where the Pajus lived, “they will know.” Arnold was the only brother to survive the Soviets and visited in the late-nineties. Salma stayed behind in Estonia throughout Soviet-rule with the parents while the brothers all eventually made it to the United States by way of either South American or Scandinavia. We were under the impression Salma had sold the property to a Finnish man before she died, but did not know if he had sold the land.

Although discouraged by our inability to communicate with the locals, we were determined to at least journey a few kilometers north and see what we came upon. We had two hours according to the bus driver who moved the hands on his watch to communicate our deadline to us.

We passed a few locals before we came upon a group of three older men who seemed approachable. No one spoke English, so again we tried our method of saying names. Paju (mom points to herself) Salma Paju (the sister that died over ten years ago in Ikla) Finnish man… you get the idea. Incomprehensible words were exchanged amongst the men, and finally an agreement was reached that they knew where the Paju homestead lay. My mom asked if any of them could drive us – she shocked me with this move. My overly cautious mom was going to have strangers drive us?

One man pointed to the beer in his hand and gave a hearty laugh – explaining why he couldn’t drive. The large man next to him (also quite red in the face if I do say so myself) told us to follow him, offering to drive. In English (which was our own personal code in Ikla) mom asks me, “You think we’re doing the right thing?” “HA!” I replied. I don’t always have the most reassuring responses. As we walked through the backyard we learned the man was a bee-keeper, and he showed us how the bees did not sting him. Although I was sure he had put a few back, he was rather large and seemed cognizant (although, I can’t say I would know if he was slurring his Estonian). Behind the bee-feeders, a small shed produced a Volkswagen Golf and down the road we went.

During the short ride I was sure we had gone much farther than the expected three-kilometers and that this man was driving us to our death in the remote forest never to be seen again, but fortunately my genetically predisposed paranoia was proved wrong. Soon we turned down a path and he said, “Paju.” As we reached the house, we noticed that the owners of the house had just arrived before us, in a massive Dodge Ram van no less. Our driver and the owner shared some Estonian words and the homeowner looked at me and said in near-perfect English, “How are you?”

It was as if they expected us all these years. Salma had will the property to a friend who sold the property to the Lehtinens, a Finnish family who used it as a summer vacation home.

I could go on forever about the generosity and kindness of the Lehtinen family. We found out our bee-keeping driver was also a local fisherman who sold fish twice a week to the Lehtinens. The words “Paju” and “Finland” had thus connected correctly in his head to bring us here. Raimo and Maria-Leena invited us into their home after we said our goodbyes to the fisher. They both understood English and Swedish (along with their native Finnish and Estonian) and translated our conversation into sign-language for their hearing-impaired son. Amazing people.

What struck me most was the interest and knowledge they possessed about the Paju family. When they purchased the house, letters and pictures were strewn about like trash, but they collected everything and took it to Finland to keep it safe from drunk locals who loot the house while they are home. In a secret location, however, they kept a few things. As both a historian and a descendent of the Paju family, I was blown away by their forethought. Why didn’t they just throw everything away? Most people would. This is the excuse I needed for a trip to Finland.

The Lehtinens met Arnold when he visited in 1996 so they were quickly able to understand who we were. Raimo told my mom he had something hidden for her, sat her down and told her not to cry. At this point I let out another audible smirk, “yeah right.” My mom almost cried on the ferry when she saw an older man speaking Swedish with an Estonian accent as her father used to do. Any actual relic of “Paju-time,” as Raimo called it, was certain to open the floodgates. He presented a small name placard to her that said E. Paju. No suspense here, mom started to cry. So did I. I couldn’t believe we were actually finding this…the land, the house, the people, the proof.

The house the Lehtinens lived in was built during or after the time the boys left the country. The house Erich lived in was in the back, currently being remodeled into a sauna (how Scandinavian is that!). We walked through an overgrown path to the old house. Raimo told us of Arnold’s visit in 1996. Arnold stood on the porch and began to cry. For fifty years he had not been allowed to see his home.

This house also had a later addition, but we could see what it had been like when my grandfather lived there: one small kitchen and a big “living” room. In the main room Arnold and Erich shared a bed in the corner, the younger boys in another and finally the parents and Salma is the third. Raimo produced a worn, glass-covered photograph of my great-grandfather’s ship. Also given to us was a picture of my great-grandfather’s parents taken in 1918.

Two hours later, after many pictures, email and address exchange and a great cup of coffee, we were on the bus back to Parnu. Here I have flushed out the broader details of our journey, but I feel I have yet to comprehend the meaning of it all. I cannot understand what my grandfather experienced, leaving his home and never returning. The Soviets did not let letters in or out of the country, so when one of his parents died someone smuggled a photo of the burial to one of his brothers. My grandfather was an intellectual and a civil engineer. It was obvious there was not enough to occupy his mind in Ikla and with the foreboding promise of either Nazi or Soviet rule, there was little for him in all of Estonia. I am thankful these are not choices I face. As more history articles get translated from Estonian to English, I hope to learn more about the occupation history.

Raimo and his family had been in Latvia all day until ten minutes before the fisher dropped us off. He told us he felt an angel guided us to the Paju land. Feeling a connection to the grandfather I never met but am often compared to, even the cynic in me hoped Raimo was right. When we arrived home after our trip, my mom received a letter from Florida informing us that her uncle Arnold had passed away the day before we left for Sweden, only a day or two after my mom had asked him advice regarding our trip to Ikla. I am glad he died with the knowledge that his past, the Paju’s collective past, would be remembered by its descendents.

24 August 2005

Wonder if he's even heard of Darfur?

This is why I love Talking Points Memo.


23 August 2005

Pragmatic Possibility

I hoped writing here would develop a personal editorial style appropriate for the op-ed columns I seek to write in my later days. However, the authoritative voice does not come naturally to me. I blame my postmodern historical education in general and more specifically, my interest in pragmatic theory for denying me the ability to take a strong stance with confidence in its continued validity. While postmodernism is often dismissed as cultural relativism, I believe its historical precursor pragmatism, can be applied effectively and avoids the nihilistic tendencies of postmodernism. I have been deeply enthralled by pragmatic philosophy and its social and cultural implications since exposed to William James during my junior year of college. Pragmatism allows us to view beliefs as social habits, and emphasizes the importance of collective democratic decision-making based upon the consequences of action. Refuting the trend towards absolutes, pragmatism offers our current world a method for solving conflict.

Here is a link to William James’ “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” This essay by James deals less with pragmatic theory than some of his other works, but I feel it explicates pragmatism’s ethical base.


04 August 2005

Civilizational Ideology

Back from Sweden, I still need to type out my long entry from Estonia, but I thought I would make my first attempt to transition this blog into what I hope to be its post-trip format. The following is a excerpt from a longer essay I wrote reviewing Samuel Huntington's theories in The Clash of Civilizations...


In 1947, George Kennan’s now famous article outlining a plan for containment was released by Foreign Affairs and signed anonymously with an “X.” Kennan, the Truman administration’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, formulated a paradigm defining foreign relations between the United States and the Soviet Union for over forty years utilizing moral and ideological distinctions. At the end of the twentieth century, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the paradigm Kennan and the Truman administration developed for conducting American foreign policy, no longer pertained to the emerging world. Political theorists scrambled to write the next Kennan article and explain the new world order. Visions of a new universal state quickly succumbed to a seemingly chaotic turn in world politics. Despite great criticism, Samuel P. Huntington found meaning and order in this chaos in his Foreign Affairs article on the “Clash of Civilizations.” After the events of September 11, 2001, Huntington’s thesis gained newfound respect and notoriety, and Huntington was praised for his prescient theory. While Huntington’s proposed paradigm serves well to show the flaws of competing models, and reminds scholars of the importance of culture, his prescription for the West and conceptualization of culture are problematic and dangerous.

George Kennan’s “X” article provided a structure through which Cold War Era – Americans could identify and organize themselves within the world around them. In the post-Cold War world, Huntington attempted to do the same. The 1990s was a global identity crisis. Huntington argued, “Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization.”(1) While balance of power alignments will sometimes lead to cross-civilizational alliances, Huntington believed reinvigorated old antagonisms and affiliations would be quite powerful in this new order. Huntington argued, “The civilizational ‘us’ and the extra-civilizational ‘them’ is a constant in human history.”(2) Cultural issues produce “zero-sum” choices, whereas one can more easily debate or resolve differences of secular ideology and material interest. Lisa Wedeen warns, however, against such culturally essentialist explanations of political outcomes which “tend to naturalize categories of group identity, rather than exploring the conditions under which such experiences of group identity come to seem natural.”(3) Viewing culture in a constant state of becoming, as part of a historical process, these zero sum choices no longer exist, rendering Huntington’s theory problematic.

Huntington believes the world increasingly identifies along civilizational lines, and calls for greater civilizational unity in the West. He despises the multicultural tendency of the United States and wishes we would reinvigorate our relationship with Europe. Huntington should be critiqued for his irresponsible prescription; calling for a hard-line civilizational ideology at home, while warning against the coming clash of hard line civilizational ideologies in the world.

Huntington’s models can aide politicians and foreign policy analysts in designing policy but it is a simplistic predictive model, not an explanation of events. The Clash of Civilizations is a work of political science, and of civilizational ideology, but it is not a work of history. It gives little, if any, significance to the possibility of change over time. Civilizational ideology is problematic because it is useful on all sides, and in many ways. Huntington’s model has provided a framework within which fundamentalists from all civilizations can view their world and arouse the support of those around them. Fred Tipson wrote in verse for Foreign Affairs:

It strikes me as a dangerous form of policy confusion,
Boosting culture clashes through a self-fulfilled conclusion…
Because the final irony of Huntington's portrayal
Is that in other countries he may make his biggest sale.(4)

Fundamentalists may clash in the future, and the likelihood grows stronger when intellectual theorists rally for closed cultural spheres. However, dissenters wishing to be disassociated with fundamentalist action and thought will remain strong in every “civilization.” Samuel Huntington lost his realist theory when he promoted the concept of unity over the reality of plurality.

Huntington’s model accurately refutes Fukuyama’s theory of Western universality. However, recent United States foreign policy has created an easily identifiable enemy in Islam by utilizing Huntington’s model of clashing civilizational ideology, while ignoring his criticism of Fukuyama’s imperialistic aggressive West determined to promote Western values and interests throughout the world. This is a dangerous policy combination and an accurate portrayal of the many ways Huntington’s theories are malleable to those who seek overarching support for previously unpopular causes. Gershom Gorenberg accurately assessed, “Framing this battle as a clash of civilizations invites every Muslim from Morocco to Indonesia to take the side of the men who crashed the planes. It labels every Muslim who opposed fundamentalists, every Muslim leader willing to work with the U.S., as a traitor. It risks turning a misconception into a political fact.”(5) The quest for “X” continues.

(1) Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 125.
(2) Ibid., 129.
(3) Lisa Wedeen, “Beyond the Crusades: Why Huntington , and Bin Laden, Are Wrong, “ Middle East Policy X, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 60.
(4) Frederick Tipson, “Culture Clash-ification: A Verse to Huntington’s Curse,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 2 (March/April 1997).
(5) Gershom Gorenberg, “Clash of Civilizations? No Thanks,” The Jerusalem Report (October 22, 2001): 33.