Toomas Hendrik Ilves: Drought of essayism

Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the opening of a bench in honor of Enn Soosaar.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the opening of a bench in honor of Enn Soosaar.

Things that just a few years ago were considered extreme or intolerably crude in politics or journalism have become commonplace. While we can call it freedom of speech and not be mistaken, we must also realize where it might lead to and to some extent already has, former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said when unveiling a bench in honor of Enn Soosaar.

Michel de Montaigne invented – I suppose we could put it this way – the essay as an important literary device. The word "essay" comes from French and stands for an "attempt" or "undertaking," signifying in the original spirit of the Enlightenment an experiment to come nearer to the truth or express something that is yet undescribed.

A good essay is contemplative. It is written as put by Tacitus in his "Annals" sine ira et studio, meaning "without anger or passion" or in Tacitus' original meaning "without bitterness and partiality."

Another short literary device that seems to be dominating in Estonia is "publicism." The latter is not so much characterized by a discourse of ideas as, and this is to put it as mildly as possible, the desire to force one's position on the reader, usually by attacking someone else. Unfortunately, almost everything to be found in Estonian "opinion sections" falls into this category.

Can we still imagine a politician publishing a piece we could honestly call an essay that does not rail against or criticize opponents? Perhaps there are still a few. However, aggressive publicism is no longer exclusively the playground of politicians. Public scolding and cursing has become commonplace among literary historians.

It is a sign of the times.

But Enn Soosaar wrote essays. Some are so long that the term "essay" can only be applied in comparison with John Locke's book "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" – one of the most important works of Western culture.

We are living in a drought of essayistic publications. The reader is treated to the business end of the cast iron frying pan of boorishness, lies are openly spread, while sowing hatred has taken precedence over debate. As put by Nazi intellectual Carl Schmitt, the enemy must be destroyed. A little while ago, I happened upon an opinion piece where it was said an Estonian political party needs to be destroyed.

I read both "mainstream" and political so-called opinion pieces and sometimes cannot help feeling I've happened on the text of the eighth plenary session of the Estonian Communist Party from 1950. They reflect the same anger and thirst for destruction as Lembit Remmelgas' programmatic speech in Rahva Hääl the communists used to ostracize Friedebert Tuglas. Some party media pieces are already reminiscent of North Korea.

We can say that it's freedom of speech. And it is. However, we need to realize where it might end up and perhaps already has in some ways.

The Overton window

Political science in the 1990s came up with what is called a window of discourse that later became known as the Overton window, named after its creator. It describes a socially acceptable narrative, how it can change and how ideas that were previously considered taboo or were hard to stomach can become generally acceptable.

We have experienced it ourselves. Some of us still remember how the blue, black and white, the occupation or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were only discussed inside the family. Restoration of independence was considered a harebrained idea. Just one year later, leading occupation figures were cladding themselves in the blue, black and white, with the Baltic Way seeing the participation of most Estonians just two years on.

Similarly, the idea of Estonia becoming a member of NATO or the EU was still utopian for most of Europe in the late 1990s, even though it was already a clear goal for us.

The Overton window can also expand in a different way. The discourse held generally acceptable in society has changed considerably in recent years. That which was still extreme or intolerably crude in politics or journalism a few years ago has become commonplace.

A certain university's graduates have been described as horse thieves, ministers have styled themselves as "daddies" that have come home to restore order. Leading Estonian statesmen have been labeled "secret Jews" by a government minister, while a hand gesture used by a mass murderer who massacred 51 people has been used to mark an inauguration.

The Overton window of public discourse in Estonia really has expanded and there seems to be no antidote. The press has abandoned quality criteria and agrees to publish such texts, citing freedom of speech.

At the same time, it has stopped issuing the title of enemy of the press that I have had the honor to receive, along with former president Lennart Meri, saying it is no longer needed – this during a year when the free press in Estonia has been under the most pressure it has seen since the country restored its independence.

Gresham's law

Why things have turned out this way can be explained with the help of a principle from the world of finance. It was first described two and a half thousand years ago but was called Gresham's law by a British economist 150 years ago, referring to another 16th century moneyman.

Gresham's law states that bad money drives out good. In other words, while coins have nominal value, the same value coin where gold is mixed with tin is preferred over a solid gold coin. The tin coin can be had more cheaply than the same value coin made entirely out of gold.

In our own history, the Hanseatic League's Lubeck pfennig was made of solid silver, while the Danish pfennig had the same nominal value but was cheaper.

The same goes for our so-called free speech. Who would write an elegant, restrained and poignant essay when they can just rant away, without having to choose their words or understand their meaning. Words carry no meaning whatsoever, neither "cultural bolshevism" or even "conservatism," not to mention the founding concept of Western democracy "liberalism" that no longer has anything to do with the rule of law or democracy but has simply been boiled down to a synonym for same-sex marriage.

The standard that has been lowered is that of speech. The currency is journalism where it no longer matters whether an essay is understood as Anne Applebaum's recent reflections on populism or a hate-driven text by some local "writer" whose use of language is reminiscent of that of a politruk in 1949. What sentient being would want to use the true standard of words tempered in erudition when their nominal value is the same as that of an ignorant but outspoken lout.

They don't as there is no longer any point. This is how Gresham's law manifests in our written word.

Of course, I might be accused of elitism. People and their positions should be equal. It would perhaps be fitting had we not, as neo-peasants, declared ourselves nobles that can be described as one of the more hilarious and ridiculous developments in newly independent Estonia.

An intellectual pillar of Estonia

This brings me back to today's event. I can acutely feel how much our public discourse misses Enn Soosaar. Even if a wise and well-read person musters the courage to publish an article, they know it will be followed by unchecked verbal abuse, including from the highest-ranking members of government; they know it will be drowned in the liquid dung that has already washed away the frames of the Overton window of public discourse in Estonia.

I reread some of Enn Soosaar's essays – essays for journalism! They are a breath of fresh air when one contemplates analogous problems over the first two decades of re-independent Estonia.

Enn Soosaar was one of the intellectual pillars of Estonia. He had not one gram of that provincial inferiority complex that I can now read in papers' opinion sections. Not a shred of boastful and haughty quoteism. The void left by Enn's departure is a chasm that can now be seen in almost every opinion piece, every publicist text that serves to remind us day in and day out of what we lost when he left us.

I keep finding in Enn's works that genuine Estonian spirit, sense of the world and wit that allowed us to rise from the Soviet swamp. I very much hope the younger generation still holds those who, in spite of their zeitgeist, can bring Estonian intellectualism back to its roots.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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