This Independence Day, We Should Take Nationalism Back From Extremists

As Finland today turns 100 years, it’s time to think about what Finland and being Finnish means to me. It should be an easy enough task, shouldn’t it? Something that elementary school pupils could write on – and considering it’s the centenary year, probably have written on. But it was a long time ago since I was given a comparable topic to work on, and since then, I have moved from my parents’ house, lived in three foreign countries, finished a degree abroad, and grown old enough to understand that nothing in this world, including my home country, is as perfect or even half as good as I had naively thought. On a special occasion like this, however, with the country clad in blue and white, I should probably feel at least a little bit nationalist. Can I, though? This is exactly where this topic becomes difficult for me. Any national celebration brings about at least a small dose of nationalist fervor. To me, however, the word nationalism has a negative connotation. (On a side note, the Cambridge English dictionary shares my feelings; according to their definition, nationalism means ‘great or too great love of your own country’…) But all this talk of Finland 100 has brought me to wonder if nationalism could be given a nicer, more positive meaning, at least for the duration of these celebrations. A meaning that doesn’t exclude people or ideas, or discriminate against someone, a nationalism that doesn’t look inward or back in time but instead looks forward?

Someone might wonder why I find nationalism a difficult topic. Let me explain. I don’t think I was too nationalist to start with. Or maybe I just didn’t give the topic much thought, having been born at a time when the wars of the past were far behind us, the welfare state was firmly in place, and the closest thing to a nationalist event was Finland playing Sweden in ice hockey. As a young person, I was far more interested in day-dreaming about travelling the world, watching the OC, and hanging out with my friends. Finland seemed a bit dull to be honest, a bit grey and tasteless. We were perched on the edge of Europe, where movies from the US always seemed to arrive later than anywhere else. Did most people even know we existed? When I was 19, I moved abroad for the first time, for a summer. Later, I would go on to study abroad full-time. Living abroad gave me perspective and made me appreciate Finland in a way that the 13-year-old version of me never thought possible. I learned that some of the things I had taken for granted, like being able to go to college regardless of your parents’ wealth or social standing, weren’t a reality to many people, not even in wealthy Western European countries. I learned that by global standards, Finland was pretty great, actually. It was, and still is, one of the wealthiest, safest and most liberal places on the planet. I had always been taught at school, that having been born here was comparable to winning the lottery, but it was hard to fully grasp that when you’d never seen that things could be differently.

 

More than anything, however, living abroad taught me how very alike people from all over the world are. I would notice that a student from India shared my views on gender equality, and that an American student had read the same books and wanted to see the same exhibits in Paris. When talking with my peers, I would soon notice that most people had similar plans for their lives: getting a degree, doing some travelling, finding a job, settling down and most likely having kids at some point, too. I learned that I’m not just Finnish, but also Nordic and European. The order varies from day to day, but all those categorizations have followed me on my path. They all complement one another, in a good way, I hope. This begs the question of where feeling nationalist fits the picture. I guess it doesn’t, really. But for the centenary of the Finnish independence, I’ll give it a try.

The 21st century in Europe isn’t the best time to subscribe to nationalism. (Not that many other periods have been much better.) Ever since the financial crisis started wreaking enough havoc that people all over Europe began once again turning to populist parties and anti-immigration movements to channel their frustration, I have been particularly suspicious of anything considered nationalist. Many people – most, I would like to think – who call themselves nationalist, are by no means hateful, racist or reactionary. Sadly, however, the most vocal proponents of that ideology seem to be just that, and they have managed to monopolize the word nationalism and use it for their own purposes. In my head – and I don’t think I’m alone – the word has become associated with hate, reactionary ideas, and frustration. It’s become a movement that opposes progressive social values and dreams of a past ‘when things were better’ without realizing that the past they are referring to was one in which most people were restricted by social and gender roles that prevented them from breathing freely, and where lack of wealth prevented many from pursuing their aspirations in life. They might want to ‘make Finland great again’ without really specifying what they mean by it. They claim to represent ‘true Finland’ and the ‘silent majority’. Extremists have hijacked national symbols and use them alongside calls to attack people who don’t share their views. In short, they have once again tainted nationalism with violence, hate and anger. And we, those of us who do not share their hateful agenda, have let them do that, by not stepping in earlier.

 

It shouldn’t be like this. For one thing, groups that oppose immigration and express Nazi-sympathies do not own Finland, no matter how often they claim to represent it. They are afraid of losing a country that isn’t theirs to lose. It’s just as much mine and everyone else’s who builds it, one way or another. There are more than five million conceptions of what Finland is, and how it should be in the future. Many of them entirely opposed to the views expressed above. I – a wanna-be vegetarian, feminist, internationalist, left-leaning tree-hugger – am just as Finnish as those carrying around lion-symbols around their necks. I can love Finland and simultaneously think that we who – despite our problems – have it so well in this world, should extend a helping hand to those in need. So those of us, who think that nationalism can be compatible with humanism and global solidarity, and with a critical outlook towards your own country, should weigh in on the conversation and give nationalism a new meaning. It won’t be a meaning that we all agree upon – how could any one definition ever be? – but we should actively try to reclaim some of the ground that has been lost to bigots and xenophobes. For too long, they have been given free rein to define Finland and Finnishness.

Let us take nationalism away from forces like the neo-Nazis who will march the streets of Helsinki once again on this independence day. Let us say ‘no’ to those who claim that multiculturalism is destroying Finland, a country that for centuries straddled east and west and was built by people speaking Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Romani language, Russian, Estonian and countless other languages and dialects. A country whose national anthem was originally sung in Swedish. Let us not forget the facts of our history. The feats, like Winter War, and the sacrifices of those who died and were maimed, physically and psychologically, by a war fought against an opponent a hundred times superior in force. Or the stains in our reputation, and the blood on our hands: the children, women and men who were let to starve to death in the prison camps after the Civil War. Let us take stock of all the accumulated history and look forward saying ‘we will do better in the future, we will build a better country in the future’. Together. It is the greatest gift we can give Finland.

 

My nationalism will be just this – always having a critical outlook towards the country that we are currently building. For Finland, just like any other country, is never ready, it’s constantly being molded by us the citizens, the politicians in the parliament and the forces of the world, both good and bad, that influence us. Finland can be constituted by the familiar stereotypes: silent people swimming in the thousand lakes, avoiding having to sit next to someone on the bus and anxiously asking foreigners what they think about us. But Finland is also more than that. It is a place where people are willing to house asylum seekers in their own homes. It is a place where people manage to organize a successful start-up event in freaking November. It’s also a place where some teenagers don’t have the means to continue into high school because their families can’t afford the required books. It’s a place where people who have lived here for decades, and have built their entire lives here are abused on the streets, in the bus and on the metro because of the color of their skin. Acknowledging our shortcomings doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate our successes.

So today, when I celebrate the independence day I will take a moment to be nationalist. To give a new, more positive meaning to that word, one that doesn’t discriminate, or slander, or hate. I’ll raise a glass to my 100-year-old home, gladly, and proudly. I will not let racists and xenophobes define my country nor the nationalism that represents it. Instead, I will be nationalist in a positive and constructive way. Cheers! And happy 100th independence day Finland! 

 

Photos credits: Suomi Finland 100 logo and the ice hockey celebrations from Wikimedia Commons. The landscapes from Pixabay under the Creative Commons licence.