Babies, immigrants and all that

Posted by – August 26, 2017

A couple of days ago, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) tweeted “This is the future that ACLU members want” with a picture of a toddler with a shirt saying “Free Speech” and holding a US flag. Responses included:

  • “A White kid with a flag?!”
  • “What? All blond folk! I don’t get this silly post. The future ACLU wants is a little blond kid???”
  • “I’d rather have this future:”, with several pictures of black characters from TV shows.

Soon, the ACLU account responded with “When your Twitter followers keep you in check and remind you that white supremacy is everywhere”, with a reaction gif of Kermit the Frog saying “That’s a very good point” – meaning that the ACLU conceded the point.

Possibly some of the commenters didn’t notice the words on the shirt, “Free Speech”, and only noticed the whiteness of the child, and made the sinister connection with “the future that ACLU members want” plus an American flag. Other comments may have not noticed the whiteness and kept looking for the point of the picture, which is the shirt. Other tweeters reacted with offense upon offense; “What has the world come to when a picture of a white kid is racist?” This must be one of the button-pushiest issues imaginable. Whose babies do we really like?

Also a couple of days ago, the chairman of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, Antti Rinne, expressed concern about low fertility numbers in Finland. He called on everyone to “pitch in” on this and make more babies, saying “Two is already well done”. Commentators were appalled, members of his own party evoked the Third Reich and his choice of words was universally condemned.

Some of the pushback was opposed to the idea of a man telling women what to do about reproduction, and some had to do with environmental concerns (“There’s already too many of us”). A lot of it was about the nation-building connotation. As a positive solution, many promoted increasing immigration instead (this included many who were concerned about the environmental impact of having children). One comment was “Finland doesn’t need more babies. Finland needs more immigrants.”

Despite the PR catastrophe, I think Rinne had some political wisdom. This issue of “our babies” vs. “those immigrants” is extremely potent, and even a ham-handed display of approval of “our babies” can be very valuable.

Of course, it’s potent in the other direction too. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, it is extremely distasteful to show preference for “us” over “them”, and many will now suspect Rinne of that. The idea itself of “us” and “them” in the context of babies is dangerous – to that side of the spectrum, which I might as well call the left, “us” and “them” applies to class and politics, not to ethnic groups.

Also a couple of days ago, there was a knife attack in the Finnish city of Turku killing two and wounding another eight. The attacker was a Moroccan asylum seeker who had been denied asylum. In the initial press conference, when solid information was scarce, the minister for the interior, Päivi Risikko, relayed the information that the attacker had been “foreign-looking”. This was met with dismay and disapproval. Does Päivi Risikko not know that there are dark-skinned Finns now? The “non-Finnish-looking” posted selfies challenging anyone to say what a Finnish person looks like. Parents of dark-skinned children took to Facebook to voice their concern that their children will be stigmatised as “non-Finnish-looking”. Columnists made the point, obvious to them, that there is no such thing as “Finnish-looking”. That perhaps there never was, but there certainly isn’t now.

Of course, this whole thing only made it obvious to everyone that it is pretty clear what “Finnish-looking” means. If it didn’t mean anything, there would be nothing to talk about. Predicting who might have felt their “Finnish-lookingness” questioned would not have been difficult.

(In case you’re wondering, I am sometimes asked about my non-Finnish name. It has not occurred to me to respond that there is nothing non-Finnish about my name, because these days Finns are named all kinds of things.)

That there is no such thing as “Finnish-looking” is something that educated Finns might be able to believe, but certainly Middle-Eastern and African immigrants, such as the attacker, who might be among a “Finnish-looking” majority for the first time in their lives, know exactly what it means. Those of a truly impeccable moral character might feel that there is no “us” and “them” between ethnic Finns and recent far-group immigrants, but hardly any of those immigrants fail to consider their own co-ethnics an ingroup. It is an iron law of social behaviour if there ever was one – people are groupish, and every emigrant group to anywhere ever has demonstrated intragroup solidarity.

Even though there is obviously every other kind of groupishness, the idea that there is no such thing as Finnishness has considerable purchase, but it is intended for domestic consumpion only. From the outside, it has the appearance of a cosmopolitan affectation. In reality, Finns are a relatively distinct ethnic and linguistic group (though not a very unified one – there is considerable distance between west and east genetically). But it is the same in every western country; of course there is no We, the very idea is both meaningless (there can be such thing) and disproved by history (did you know people have always moved around?).

As politics turns more and more to the fundamental question of politics, “Whose side are you on?”, you can expect to see more and more stake-claiming, and more talk about babies and immigrants. It did not occur to Antti Rinne to single out for praise residents of African and Middle-Eastern background, who have chidren at almost three times the rate of the rest of the population. As a demographic group, parents, who after all can hardly be politically discounted, would have reacted quite differently to that.

1 Comment on Babies, immigrants and all that

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  1. Olli S says:

    This is the future ACLU wants: