WEEKEND: Teivo Teivainen Shouts Out Loud

Engaging with politics, spicing up academia, and how Finland is turning into Peru.

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Credit: Nauska
Professor Teivo Teivainen

Renaissance man Teivo Teivainen is a professor of World Politics at Helsinki University, an acclaimed author, an activist and advocate, and a “petty bourgeois academic professional” – his own words.

Known for his ‘grand salons’ that bring together academics and politicians with people from the world of music, art or literature, Teivainen tells News Now Finland in his own words about the lessons Finland can learn from the Global South, how to spice up the world of academia, and the weird requests he sometimes receives from people who disagree with him.

Doesn’t the world we live in seem more politically awak these days? Do we have Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to thank for that? 

The world is becoming increasingly messy, in various senses of the word. Donald and Vladimir surely matter too, but I would pay more attention to climate change, people on the move, and the political role of big corporations. Some of these changes trigger political awakenings of various kinds.

You’ve cultivated this whole “rock and roll professor” persona. How much of that is an act, and how much of it is your genuine enthusiasm for the subject to connect with people and make them energized about it as well? 

In order to change the world or make scientific discoveries, we need to be creative. Artists are often, though surely not always, focusing on creativity in ways that academic people could learn from. So I started organizing World Political Rock Nights to combine academic reflections with artistic creativity. It is also a way to create new connections between people, something I have always enjoyed doing.

Of course, much of my academic work is also very classical: writing, teaching, speaking in conferences in different parts of the world. Spicing it up with creative happenings makes it more fun too.

Professor Teivo Teivainen / Credit: Matti Pyykkö

Some of the topics you tackle provoke a lot of heated reactions, like the continued use of a swastika by the Finnish Air Force. Sometimes it seems people just want to argue. Where are the fault lines in civic discourse in Finland, what issues get the most extreme reactions from your audience, or the general public here, and why? 

The most extreme feedback in Finnish debates tends to be quite gendered. It is amazing how extreme hate mail many women who are active in human rights-related issues may get. So I am partially protected by being male, and I do not receive too many rape fantasies and the like. I do get quite a lot of feedback of various kinds, and even if some of it is clearly negative, it is mostly not something that would upset me. Most recently, the swastika question that I mention in my new book has triggered plenty of feedback. Recently also someone who presented himself as a Nazi called me and kindly asked if I could cry a little for him. Depending on my mood, I sometimes like to engage in conversation with people who contact me with negative aims, it can provide a nice opportunity to learn more about different people.

You’re a student of political systems in different parts of the world. If you could make some immediate changes in the way Finland does politics, what changes would you make?

As a professor, I try to ask questions rather than provide simple answers. In my recent book on Finland, one of my few concrete suggestions was that Finnish kids should be taught the basics of the Cyrillic Alphabet at school.

More generally, I tend to ask if things that are claimed to mean more democracy or freedom really do so. One of my main concerns is that powerful people who defend privileges fundamentally based on property rights are able to claim to be guardians of general liberty. I would like them to be called ‘propertarian’, so that the misuse of the term ‘libertarian’ would stop.

In my new book, I ask many questions that may seem uncomfortable, about Finnish traditions and the ways some people have been excluded from Finnishness. Some of the songs children are made to sing at school would sound fundamentalist or barbarian if we heard them in places like the Middle East. Here, they are simply considered part of the tradition. One of the concepts I have developed to explore these kinds of dimensions in Finnish culture is Blue Cross Jihadism.

Teivo Teivainen (L) talks about his latest book with former Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (R) at the 2017 Helsinki Book Fair / Credit: Sanna Saarto

There seems to be more Finnish media interest in trying to decode some of the big issues in the world today – but what sort of lessons are Finns learning? What do Finns still need to understand better about the world outside our borders, or outside Europe?

Finland needs to learn from the world, including the Global South. One of the terms I have coined in my academic work is Latin Americanization of Europe. It occurred to me when I had once returned from Peru to Finland in the early 1990s. Finland was experiencing various changes: increasing power of credit-rating institutions, increasing hybridization of culture though migration, flexibility of labour markets with all kinds of talk on informal sector that would later also be expressed as precarious work. All the seemingly new things in Finland had been experiences and studied in Latin America over decades and centuries. In my conceptual universe, it exploded the myth that it is only wealthy countries that can provide possible futures for poorer countries. For better or for worse, in some aspects Finland was being Peruvianized.

What’s next for you? You’re promoting your new book “Maailmanpoliittinen kansalliskävely” but can we expect to see your books translated to other languages and get a wider audience? More political rock nights? Some new and exciting re-invention for the rock and roll professor?

My earlier books have been published in Finnish, Spanish, English, and Arabic. Writing books in Finnish, like the most recent one, has the obvious disadvantage that few people in the world read Finnish. In the new book, I explore the implications of translation algorithms, such as Google Translate, for the future of publishing in Finnish. Perhaps it will make more sense in a possible future where people will be able to write in the language they master best and others will read it immediately translated into their own languages.

My next book projects are on the idea of freedom and on transnational social movements. I am also focusing on Finnish pulp and paper investments abroad, especially in Uruguay. Now that there might be a truth or reconciliation commission on the Sámi questions in Finland, I might also finish my long overdue book on truth commissions.

And yes, sure, there will be more World Political Rock Nights. Also World Political City Walks, since my latest book was structured around a walk through Helsinki. In fact, it is not only a book on Finnish history and Finland in a global context but also a travel guide to Helsinki. Right now it exists only in Finnish.