Wednesday, August 03, 2005

NGOs in Russia

This news release on Russian control over politically-minded NGOs seems to support some earlier concerns.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

To those who wonder

Yes, I've been back in the good old US of A for about 2 months now. It's not that there aren't interesting things to write about here (there are), it's just that my creativity goes through dry spells. I make no excuses. I'll see what I can come up with though...

Friday, May 13, 2005

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The ballad of Finnish public goods (and something about Lenore)

Once upon a midnight dreary while I wandered I posed a query,
of many a quaint and curious custom along that urban Finnish shore.
While I plodded, often slowing, suddenly I saw a glowing,
As if someone, numbers flowing, brushed a pattern on yon smokestack's fore.
" 'Tis some barcode," I muttered, "brushed on yon smokestack's fore;
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, quite staunchly I projected, that those Finns must be dejected,
That each factory's rejected smokestacks must be hard to store.
Eagerly therefore they painted numbers; identifying blunders to ease their chore.
But to my thoughts this seemed quite silly, just plain "out there," really, this and nothing more
Than to paint a rare and radiant barcode whose image causes all to snore
Pointless, actually, and such a bore.

A closer look at the Ballad of the Intellectual Finn

Then the silken weird uncertain rustling as ignorance's curtain
Thrilled me---filled me with fantastic terrors visions never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
" 'Tis some pattern entreating entrance at my mind's eye door,
'Tis the Fibonacci sequence!" I shouted, "---not industrial malfeasance!"
Glowing red, ancient mathematical lore.

Presently my mind grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"That, said I, is a testament to the Finnish; your forgiveness I implore.
But the fact is, I could not see the magic of your rara avis,
How so quaintly you feel the need, feed the public's growing greed,
For smart cheap intellectual seed." Here I opened wide the door;
---And took a picture, and nothing more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Can wishing make it happen?

So I have a date for a return to the US of A. It's kind of interesting for me to think about; I've never looked forward to a return home from a trip abroad with such a sense of relief that I feel this year. I suppose there are quite a few reasons for this, but I find it ironic that I feel so tired when I've done so little in the way of activity. I'm forced to admit that my jaunt to Scandanavia has probably been my least meaningful foreign adventure to date. The only reason I'm providing this little window into the Life of Jeremy is because I've learned something from this that I feel is worth sharing. I came to Finland without any real goals or expectations. I figured I'd just take a few classes, perhaps learn a little Finnish, and go with the flow for a few months. I find that I get more tired when I'm relatively idle with low expectations that I do when I have a schedule full of goals and responsibilities. I'm more convinced than ever that if a person wants to be successful and proactive, then s/he will be, and there will be enough energy to get the necessities accomplished, along with a few extras. But none of us have enough energy to be idle.

So to sum up, I encourage anyone to come to Finland. Just make sure you won't have time to do everything you want. You'll have a great time.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

John Widtsoe discusses doubt

I usually include only my own commentary in blog postings. Widtsoe is so much more eloquent than me, however, and his discussion of intellectual inquiry has become an essential component of my own (still imperfect) quest for spiritual and secular truth. I ran in to this essay in the book Evidences and Reconcilliations when I was a missionary, and these principles helped me to more effectively teach religious investigators. I hope other people, both religious and non-, can discern the truth in this essay.

Doubt usually means uncertainty. You doubt the presence of gold in the ore, though there are yellow flakes in it; or that the man is a thief, though stolen goods are found in his possession; or that a principle of the gospel is correctly interpreted by the speaker. What you really mean is that the evidence in your possession is insufficient to convince you that there is gold in the ore, or that the man is a thief, or that the gospel principle has been explained correctly. Doubt arises from lack of evidence.

Intelligent people cannot long endure such doubt. It must be resolved. Proof must be secured of the presence of gold in the ore, or of the dishonesty of the man, or of the correctness of the doctrinal exposition. Consequently, we set about to remove doubt by gathering information and making tests concerning the subject in question. Doubt, then, becomes converted into inquiry or investigation.

After proper inquiries, using all the powers at our command, the truth concerning the subject becomes known, or it remains unknown to be unravelled perhaps at some future time. The weight of evidence is on one side or the other. Doubt is removed. Doubt, therefore, can be and should be only a temporary condition. Certainly, a question cannot forever be suspended between heaven and earth; it is either answered or unanswered. As the results of an inquiry appear, doubt must flee.

In other words, doubt, which ever is or should be a passing condition, must never itself be an end. Doubt as an objective of life is an intellectual and a spiritual offense. A lasting doubt implies an unwillingness on the part of the individual to seek the solution of his problem, or a fear to face the truth. Doubt should vanish as it appears, or as soon as proper inquiry can place it either with the known or the unknown facts of life; with the solvable or the unsolvable; with the knowable or the unknowable.

The strong man is not afraid to say, "I do not know"; the weak man simpers and answers, "I doubt." Doubt, unless transmuted into inquiry, has no value or worth in the world. Of itself it has never lifted a brick, driven a nail, or turned a furrow. To take pride in being a doubter, without earnestly seeking to remove the doubt, is to reveal shallowness of thought and purpose.

Perhaps you are questioning the correctness of a gospel principle. Call it doubt if you prefer. Proceed to take it out of the region of doubt by examination and practice. Soon it will be understood, or left with the many things not yet within the reach of man. But remember: failure to understand one principle does not vitiate other principles. When proved false, one doctrine may cast distrust upon other doctrines, but the others must be tested for their own correctness.
Doubt of the right kind—that is, honest questioning—leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees—these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn that some things are known, others are not. They cease to doubt. They settle down with the knowledge they possess to make the forces of nature do their bidding, knowing well that they will be victorious; and that more knowledge will come to them, if sought, to yield new power.

On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor. The simplest truth is worth the sum of all such doubts. He joins the unhappy army of doubters who, weakened by their doubts, have at all periods of human history allowed others, men of faith, to move the world into increasing light.

Faith is practically the opposite of doubt. Faith rests securely upon "evidences" and "assurances." Note the definition by the Apostle Paul: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Faith knows, and goes forth courageously to use knowledge in the affairs of men. It declares itself the master of things; it lays mountains low; it lifts valleys; it promotes the welfare of man.

Joseph Smith is an excellent example of proper doubt. The ministers of his day were contending for the membership of the boy. He went to God for help; received it; and doubt disappeared. From that day on, doubt did not reappear. His doubt was lost in the desired knowledge he gained from proper inquiry. So may every man do.

The unknown universe, material, mental, spiritual, is greater than the known. If we seek, we shall forever add knowledge to knowledge. That which seems dark today, will be crystal clear tomorrow. Eternal progress means the unending elucidation of things not known or understood today.

No! Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end of life. It rises to high dignity when it becomes an active search for, and practice of, truth.

Doubt which immediately leads to honest inquiry, and thereby removes itself, is wholesome. But that doubt which feeds and grows upon itself, and, with stubborn indolence, breeds more doubt, is evil.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Regional Politics

Anyone who is even superficially acquainted with me knows that I am more than mildly interested in all things Russian. This includes Russian literature, language, history, politics, and economy. I had a great opportunity today to attend a guest speaker who spoke about Russia's place in transatlantic relations. This woman is a professor from St. Petersburg State University, so she was whole orders of magnitude more interesting than a diplomat from Canada. She was actually allowed to say what she thinks, as opposed babbling ridiculous pro-EU drivel. Do I like the EU? Yes I do. Do I think that it's a sunny paradise full of avuncular role models? Of course I do. That's why I should be a diplomat. I know how to sweet talk.

But this Russian professor had some really interesting things to say about Russia's official policies toward NATO, the EU, and the United States. Policies toward each of these bodies continue to diverge, which represents an ever changing world. After her presentation I asked her the same question I put to the Canadian ambassador. I really would like to know what Russian experts feel will be the result of the recent democratic political revolutions in Russia's back yard.

A little background: Political upheaval was relatively unheard of through the first 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though no one would accuse any of these post-Soviet states of being particularly democratic, the regimes have at least been stable. That changed during the summer of 2003 when the Rose revolution swept then Georgian President Shevernadze out of power in favor of a liberal president with an American wife. Ukraine's Orange revolution overturned a sham election this past winter, installing the western-leaning Yuschenko as president. Shortly thereafter, Kyrgyzstan chased their own president from power following suspect parliamentary elections. I have spent significant time in both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and even met with members of opposition political parties in Ukraine.

What does Russia think about these developments? They were officially opposed to the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and even accused western governments of toppling the pro-Russian regimes in those countries. Russia is concerned about losing influence in these countries, but as the visiting professor confirmed to me, they are even more concerned that these democratic winds might soon blow through Moscow as well.

I could talk about this subject all day, but there's one issue that specifically concerns me that I want to point out. I would feel a lot better if the recent political upheaval took place in at least one of the more repressive regimes of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, on the contrary, each of these states is relatively liberal (this is good liberal with a little 'l' as opposed to bad Liberal with a big 'L' for you suspicious republicans... urgh) and has already established a tradition of at least limited democracy. Now I realize that your average American differentiates each of the "-stans" in Central Asia about the same way they do junior colleges in Saskatchewan. You know, they're a long ways away, rather unimportant, they never really DO anything and they're pretty much the same when all is said and done, right? As much as I would like to make a plug for Saskatchewan JCs (I'm sure they've got some great northern wildlife mascots), I really know nothing about them. But Central Asia (and more generally the former Soviet Union) seems to be a veritable hotbed of political activity that might actually affect you one day. Maybe. I'll tell you why.

Politically speaking, Kyrgyzstan is unambiguously by far the most liberal of any of the "-stans". Check out what the CIA has to say about them. For another good regional analysis go here. The point is that citizens have no fear of publicly criticizing the government in Kyrgyzstan. The result? When things don't work out so well, the current regime is held responsible, and eventually gets the boot if people get too sick of 'em. That's the way things are supposed to work. Ukrainians got sick of corruption and Moscow meddling in their elections. So they dismissed the hand-picked Moscow lackey who rigged the election. But Ukraine has a history of significant political diversity and has always striven for westernized democracy. Former Georgian President Shevernadze was actually one of the architects of the fall of the Soviet Union and has always served as an advocate of democracy amidst a political culture of tyranny. Each of these regimes made the same timeless mistake that toppled the Soviet Union. Gorbachev allowed freedom of speech and press. He permitted political dialogue. The Soviet Empire was doomed as soon as its citizens realized that the could criticize and even mold their own government.

Why does this worry me? Soviet-style autocratic regimes still exist in the region. I've tentatively broached political issues in my discussions with taxi drivers and entrepreneurs in almost every country of the region. Though people are obviously nervous to discuss politics with a foreigner, anyone who has been to Russia knows that most ordinary people are at least somewhat nostalgic for old Soviet times. They miss the order, the predictability of life in an autocratic regime. Though people might envy the economic affluence of the West, they are deeply fearful of the perceived political and cultural chaos associated with our prosperity. Strange religions, commercialism, crime, and urban sprawl, to name just a few, worry people. I would argue that a poor paternalistic society is a dismal substitute for what I have grown up with, but I realize that my world-view is fundamentally different. In spite of my desire to understand where people are coming from, I still think that I'm right when I say that democracy is better than the alternative. So I worry that these autocracies will use the chaos in the more liberal post-Soviet countries as an impetus to further latch down on any potential democracy within their own states.

My conversation with the Russian professor confirmed this. She pointed to the developing civil society and non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan as prime agitators encouraging political unrest. "If you don't like your social environment, you have the power to change it" is a bylaw of civil society. So the knee-jerk reaction in other states is to clamp down on civil society. This is evident in Byelorus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan where most NGOs are completely unwelcome. The US Peace Corps was dismissed from Russia a couple of years ago. Many of these things happened before the political upheaval really got going in the liberal (small 'l') states. Most of the authoritarian regimes can see the proverbial writing on the wall, and though Russia occupies a more moderate position between the Turkmenistans and Kyrgyzstans of the region, I worry that political upheaval will persuade Putin to further limit individual rights. The Russian professor agreed, saying that Russians are concerned as to whether they might also catch the revolution bug. They are willing to impose measures to prevent this.

So it seems to me that while the revolutions in three countries mean democracy and freedom for a few people, it could be a harbinger of worse things to come for just about everyone else in the region. I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Frisbee = San Francisco? Seriously.

I was so excited to discover that there are online language tools that translate any webpage into almost any major language! So I says to myself: "Self, great day! Now your Russian friends can read your mindless banter!"

I therefore promptly translated this here blogsite into Russian. Now I realize that I employ a somewhat unctuous, wordy, and yet folksy method of communication in my writing, but I figured that the translator should at least get the general idea of my blog across. You can therefore imagine my disappointment at how unintelligible this Russian translation is. It's actually quite funny... my simple title become something like "Morning in the grammatically determined member world." And nothing is in the right case. The word "frisbee" became "San Francisco" in Russian. Who knew frisbees and elegant cities had so much in common? It's actually a great gag, so I'm installing a permanent link to the translations on my side bar. I also included a few other languages. That'll give you some ideas for a Friday night when you're sitting around wondering what todo and you're sick of charades.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Frisbee: worlds collide

Whenever I've been in Azerbaijan, I've played frisbee with some local expats. It turns out that in my absence they've gone and formed a real live team, and competed in a real live tournament. Thing is, the tournament was in Veliky Novgorod, where I spent 9 of my happiest months as a missionary. I hope to become a regular if and when I go back to Baku.

Blah blah blah

I sincerely apologize for the length of that last entry. As I read through it now, I feel overwhelmed by poor punctuation, grammar, and really weird wordiness. Perhaps I should hire an editor. Volunteers, anyone?

I wanted to update a few things. The meeting with the J-dubs was great. They were very considerate, and will return at some indeterminate time in the future. For the Stephen Covey fans out there, be aware that they absolutely will not set an appointment. Seriously, seriously less effective. I think I've identified a fundamental point of disagreement with them, though: they will read a passage from the Bible that talks about how great God's word is. They will turn to me and say "see, only the Bible is God's word!" I don't know exactly what one would call this fallacy, so I googled 'fallacies' and found this website. After a few minutes of study, I decided that our J-dub example might best fit the affirming the consequent fallacy. It's kind of like saying "you should only believe the word of God; the Bible is the word of God, therefore you should only believe the Bible." But I didn't bring this up.

Finally, I need to formally advertise the virtues of google's new web-based gmail service on this site. I won't personally review it here other than to say that it's awesome. Hotmail, yahoo, and yo mumma's mail don't even come close. You can read some good reviews here or here. So far it's available through invitation only, since google is still testing their beta version of the service. Why do I bring this up on my website? Because I want to spread the love. I have 50 invitations that have been sitting unused for over a month now. If you would like your very own account, let me know. Tell me why you are deserving of such an honor (my standards are pretty low) and I'll send one off to you.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Why can't we all just get along?

The Canadian ambassador to Finland made a guest appearance in my class on transatlantic relations today. I was quite disappointed that she didn't wear a flannel shirt or bring a box of apple fritters to share with everyone. But she talked about important things. Not about the cancelled NHL season or the delights of moose-watching, but rather on Canada's essential role as a bridge between the ever-widening chasm dividing the US and EU. I personally take umbrage to the fact that the 51st state imagines up to itself that it's better to be similar to the Europeans than to the cradle of civilization... you know, the US of A. But besides getting offended at the realization that even the Canadians don't like us anymore, I learned the following things:

Bureaucrats' speeches in any country are still high on image, and low on content. Just listen to any State of the Union Address. I'm sure somewhere in the US constitution it must be implied that this is a time designated for collective back-slapping among the President's party, and collective nose-crinkling among the other guys. It's tradition. It's expected. But it sure is tedious. And if applause is any measure of speech quality, then every sentence in one of these babies knocks the socks off anything Cicero ever said. Then again, he probably wore a Toga, and who listens to grown men dressed in a table cloth? But back to the Canadian ambassador. After spending an hour talking about how great the EU is (she certainly knew her audience, I can give her that) she opened the floor to questions. I raised my hand and asked: because the US, Canada, and Europe cooperated in supporting Ukraine, perhaps this influenced the recent regime change in Kyrgyzstan, and does this provide an arena for future cooperation in encouraging democracy in Russia or other former Soviet regimes? She spent 5 minutes talking about how there's a big Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. It would have been more fun if she talked about a lot of fluff AND wore a toga. I think I should be a diplomat. I'd sure improve things. No one takes me seriously, anyway.

Americans and Europeans don't like each other very much these days. The good ambassador did come armed with a few statistics that didn't seem to have much to do with Canada. But like I've always said, make hay while the sun shines, and there's juicy stuff going on between Europe and the Great Satan these days. For example, she quoted the following survey:

Europeans who had a positive attitude towards the US:

  • French: 63% in 2002; 37% in 2004
  • Germans: 61% in 2002; 38% in 2004

Americans who had a positive attitude towards:

  • French: 78% in 2002; 33% in 2004
  • Germans: 83% in 2002; 50% in 2004

So what can we learn from this? Absolutely nothing, because these people's opinions are completely irrelevant. Just kidding; people's opinions matter, but it seems that this precipitous drop in regard for each other has more to do with, say, my graduation from college (class of 2003, folks) than it does with Dubya's election. I mean, this is obvious, guys. Dubya was elected in 2000, hello. But I do wish people weren't so fickle. Americans aren't THAT bad. If I could have a hybrid SUV with 3 million horsepower and 40 mpg I'd be all over it. But we realize the limitations of reality. You just can't get 40 mpg. You can't. I think if Dubya could articulate this better to the nations of the world, we'd all get along much better. So I'll grudgingly admit that in addition to my diploma, our President has played a role in declining worldwide opinion polls.

But what does this have to do with Canada? Nothing. And that's the point. All their vehicles have like one moosepower, because they go to work, school, and the apple fritter cafe on moose(s) (... not sure about the plural on this one). I'm serious. Go to Canada, you'll find out. But I THINK the connection is (I'm really grasping here, folks) that the Ambassador feels that if Euorpeans don't like Americans very much, Canadians can feel themselves pulled in that direction too. But she also said that Canada shouldn't have to choose between the US and the EU. They can have their crepes and eat Big Macs, too. At least I think that's what she was saying.

Finally, I learned that the entire world thinks that the US has become a complete theocracy and is ruled by a bunch of religious whackos. The Canadian ambassador feels that religious mania has fundamentally altered the United States, as well. It's interesting to hear the religious folks' side of the story, but I might write about that in a more serious blog later on. Am I the only one who doesn't see the smoking gun connection, here? I mean, Kerry lost the presidency by less than 2 percentage points. The demos are the first to criticize Bush for assuming that this victory margin gives him a mandate, yet in the same breath they ponderously whine "how did we get beaten so soundly?" Where do they turn for The Answer (and I'm not talking Allen Iverson here, folks, though even HE would be more reliable)? an election exit poll suggesting that a plurality of voters felt that moral values were a key issue. You know all democrats seriously trust exit polls, anyway. I'm not even gonna go there. So suddenly the United States is in the grip of conservative religious fanatics. Forgive me if I'm not buying it. It seems to me that politics in the US are a lot more complicated than the Europeans, democrats, or (gasp!) Canadians want to admit. I think they're just calling names because the

a) Europeans are upset about Iraq

b) Democrats are upset about losing the election

c) Canadians feel like they're Europeans

I'm not saying that these aren't good reasons, but let's cut the ad homonym attacks, and I'm right with them on a lot of issues. Come on guys, you don't win any friends by calling names. I THINK that's my real point. Don't tell the Americans they're a bunch of right-wing fanatics. Even if they are, they don't think they are. But I'm pretty sure they're not, just like I'm moderately certain Canadians don't ride moose everywhere they go, and that Europeans aren't half so ammoral as Americans make them out to be. I hope no one is.

And there I go, talking about serious things when I was so convinced I wouldn't for at least one blog. In closing, I should make it clear (for those of you who don't already know) that I am not a Republican OR Democrat, I'm most certainly not a European (though I certainly enjoy hanging out with 'em) or by extension a Canadian. What am I? I'm an American who gets confused by all the wind people blow at each other. And by the way, I sure called the presidential election... check it out.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

True Bloggers Blog

So what does that make me?

That is a rhetorical question that I'll permit other people to contemplate. I blog sometimes. When I feel like it. Unfortunately, I don't usually post drivel when I have nothing to post. But lately I've posted nothing in general, even when there are interesting things to discuss. Perhaps that makes me a non-blogger. Who can know?

But I digress, because I really do need to update this thing. First of all, I went to Kyrgyzstan. Whoo-wee was it chilly. My feet thawed out when I got back to Finland, if it's possible to imagine. I will return for my third straight summer in Central Asia this July, but not before spending my first July 4th back in the States since 1998. I feel excited to have a bar-b-cue, drink root beer, play baseball... you know, American July 4th things.

But this blog is about issues, and I'm an issues man. Controversial. Probing. And often boring. So the Jehovah's Witnesses are coming by to visit me at 6pm tonight. I need to explain myself, here. When I was a missionary, I had so many doors slammed in my face (for each slammed door another happy discussion in Chile was my motto) that I started to wonder what ticked people off so much about discussing religion on their front door step. I realized that it can be annoying, inconvenient, invasive, and downright weird. But the "slammers" must realize that the "knockers" aren't stupid. The "knockers" know that what they are doing is perhaps more than a little odd. So they must really care about what they're doing, and it's so nice for potential "slammers" to become "friendly talkers." I decided that I would be a "friendly talker" if a "knocker" ever comes... you know, knocking.

Besides just trying to make life a little more pleasant for the beleaguered "knockers," I've found the J-dubs (no disrespect meant... used for brevity) to be as a general rule rather friendly. I even had a nice meeting with the J-dubs when I was a missionary when we sat down together and they asked me considerate questions about my religion, and I asked questions about theirs... you know, things I've always wanted to know, like what is the deal with blood transfusions or holidays.

The only thing I'm concerned about is that I don't want to waste their time. Plus, I would like for them to know what I'm all about and why I believe the way I do. I don't know the best way to do this, so I've put together a list of questions that I'd like to ask them. If anyone has some questions they've always wanted to put to the J-dubs, you are free to post them in a comment, and I'll add them to my list. I also have created a list of things that I would like for them to know about my religion. If they are interested in such an exchange, I think it will be productive. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I would have felt bad just closing the door on them.

And by the way, I really don't like those websites dedicated to bashing other religions. They are the first hits you get when you google the J-dubs. What kind of religion makes it their mission to destroy other beliefs? Answer: cowardly ones that doubt the strength of their own teachings to stand up next to others'.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Some thoughts since coming to Finland

Since I've been in Turku, I've had lots of important stuff to get done, including (among other things) opening a new bank account for the moderate fee of my left arm, purchasing a cell phone (because land-based telephones no longer exist in Scandanavia) for the reasonable price of my other arm, registering for membership in the local Student Union (a federal law in Finland, so that I have an 'advocate' against the sinister coniving designs of the university). All the student union asked was for the legal rights to my first-born child. Besides these every-day house-keeping activities I've become acquainted with new skills such as how to ice skate from my apartment to class without demolishing my tail bone, and how to string lots of vowels and consonants together to say words like hyvaa huomenta. This is how one says 'good morning' in the great land of the Finns. Amidst all these exciting new adventures, I've also had the opportunity to go to class, which I suppose is the real reasons I came to Finland, anyway. I have classes on Finnish (a shocker), Investment in the Russian Regions, Russian economic history, and the future of transatlantic relations. I have felt that I have a bit more free time than I am accustomed to while attending school, since I am unemployed for the first time in quite a while. I've also realized that teachers at the university here (at least in my classes) rarely give assignments, so I have little to do other than attend lectures. The evaluation period will come at the end of the semester in the form of a monster exam. This will do little to assist me in overcoming my procrastination tendencies, but I'm sure I'll learn some new study skills. In spite of the asphyxiatingly high cost of living, I can certainly say that the first two weeks in Finland have been most pleasant. I live in a section of student housing reserved for foreign exchange students, and so obviously everyone uses the international language, Urdu. Just kidding, everyone speaks in English. I actually have met several people from various countries in Europe who came here specifically to practice their English. Yes, the Finns speak it that well. So I try not to feel that my language is cheapened at all by the fact that everyone and their dog (and I mean that literally...) speaks English. In addition, I try not to feel foolish when someone asks me a question on the street, and before I can assume my dumb American expression, they're already asking me with a nice Oxford accent whether or not I need any help. I've also found that politics is certainly an issue where Finland (and Europeans in general) are much more homogenous than Americans. The general political opinion is, first of all, that Americans don't have a clue. One this fundamental principle is well understood, the discussion can move to more subtle points of analysis. I've done my very best to convince people that Republicans in general are not complete and utter morons, but I don't think I've convinced anyone, yet. I'll keep trying, for the sake of transatlantic relations. I've found the discussion strikingly similar to the many I have with conservatives back in the great state of Yootah as I try to convince them that liberals in general aren't pompus immoral buffoons. It's always difficult because when you defend someone, people automatically assume that you're one of the foolish group you're defending, and so you therefore obviously need tutoring in the fundamentals of the 'right' way to see things. It could get frustrating, but I've always been so flippant about politics, anyway, so I don't let it bug me too much. What does bug me is the following statement that I invite any person to logically support, because I just can't:

"I'm don't like people who are extremely religious because all the greatest human tragedies in the history of the world have been caused by religion."

This is a personal bone that I have to pick with people, I suppose, because I am religious, and everything that I've ever learned tells me that this is complete and utter nonsense. I bring it up because I hear it A LOT, and so it must have some grounding in reality that I just can't see. So here's why I think that this is bogus:
1) Such a statement seems to ignore history. Let me see if I can come up with a list of some really bad tragedies attributable to people. There were Stalin's political purges, the Holocaust, the great world wars, Rwanda, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, the Assyrians, the French Revolution. Not too much religion involved here, my friends. Each of these really bad things seem to have been caused by a few very secular people who were ambitious for lots of power. While religion-bashers like to use the examples of the Crusades, Bosnia, Ireland, Darfur, or the current multitude of problems in the Middle East, these are certainly not the most egregious tragedies in terms of life lost in the history of the world. So one could say that some of the lesser great tragedies seem to have religion as part of their underlying problem. But it seems to me that even with the seemingly religious-based debacles, religion is merely used as an excuse to mask other problems. No one could possibly believe that Milosevic in Bosnia was religiously motivated, though much of that tragedy involved a Christian-Muslim conflict. Experts agree that this tragedy was fuelled by ethnic friction and nationalistic ambition. I would argue that similar problems in Darfur, Ireland, and even the Middle East are also fundamentally cultural and ethnic clashes, and that though they may involve a religious element, they occur not because of religion, but in spite of it. I would even go so far as to say that religions are hijacked in the name of selfish, hateful ambition.
2) These statements ignore the tenants of religion. I have never seen a religion that does not advocate people to become good. Indeed, I think that this is part of the fundamental definition of religion. Religions that don't profess to make people better are useless. In fact, they are not religions at all. They are hobbies or philosophies or diversions. Religions teach people to be good to others. They teach people to be honest, to be fair and just. Those people who are most religious, in other words, who understand and practice the tenets of their religion, will not be driven to conflict with other people. Those people who incite such conflict are merely proving their complete inability to be religious and to solve their problems in the way their religion teaches, in other words, by being nice to people. I'm not saying that to be nice you have to be religious, but I'm certainly saying that to be religious you have to be nice. Period. So am I saying that Osam bin Laden isn't particularly religious? I doubt he'd be nice enough to grant me the time to discuss the issue of his religion. Since I'm a religious person, does that mean that I'm always nice to people? No, it doesn't, but it does mean that when I'm not being nice, I'm also not being very religious at the time. I think that if this applies to me specifically, then it applies to groups and events and the world in general. Don't blame good beliefs just because people refuse to live the beliefs.

So anyway, I'll get off my soap-box, and I truly do invite someone to disagree with me. I might return to my political discussions with people, later. We'll see.

In terms of other knewz out here, it seems that as soon as I got settled in Finland, I'm going to be headed out, again. I'll renew some of the work I started this summer with FINCA, when I spend 3 weeks in Kyrgyzstan. I leave this Thursday, and will return at an unspecified date in the middle of February. To be perfectly honest, I don't know exactly what they want me to do out there, but I anticipate that it will be different than the projects I've pulled off the last two summers. I hope to visit my old mission in Russia on the way back, if I possibly can, and have lunch with my sister Anna who's currently serving in my old stomping grounds in St. Petersburg. That might be more ambitious traveling than I can handle, right now, so I'll just take things one step at a time.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Back to blogging

After about a 6-month hiatus, I've decided to continue my online updates. It's not that I had nothing to report, the past little while, but when I'm away from friends and family, circumstances demand that I use the old blogsite as a means to stay generally in touch.

I have been in Finland for about a week and a half, now. For a brief background, I received a grant from the US Department of Education through a program called the Good Governance Consortium to study public policy in Europe. A combination of my own preferences and circumstance picked Finland for me, so I'm taking classes from three different universities in Turku, on the western coast of Finland. Turku is the oldest city in Finland and was the capital of Finland when it was part of the Swedish empire. There is subsequently a rather large Swedish minority in Turku, an officially bilingual city, and I am in fact taking one class from the Swedish university, out here.

There are lots of interesting things that I can comment about, but I think I'll save them for future blogs. There's no sense giving out too much candy at a time, I always say. I will also update my pictures online. If there aren't any new ones, just wait, there will be soon enough.