Eero Epner: I, Claudius
One's center substituted by a jacket, values by vague and often misfiring political instinct, goals by talking points and opinions by slogans. Eero Epner analyzes the phenomenon of former PM, incoming Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas.
That is when it happened. I looked at the screen again but my old eyes had not betrayed me. The words came together as: "If the desire is for Jüri Ratas not to have an opinion, that I will not do."
I tried to recall when it all started but was no longer sure. Were the lilies of the valley already in bloom? Was the old oak tree full of acorns and were the children already laughing? But at one point it had happened – our prime minister started talking about himself in the third person.
Okay. I know what's coming next. The story of how in a country far away a scientific study was conducted a few years back. People's brains were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (please do not send me questions as to what that is) and shown disturbing images.
We can only guess at what was on these pictures. A lion eating a baby gazelle. Hiroshima in wintertime. Young people having a party. An unspeakable horror of some sort whatever it was.
Next, the people were asked (do not forget their brains are still hooked up to an incomprehensible scientific machine) to answer the question "What do you feel right now?" followed immediately by "What does [the person's name] feel?" In other words, people were first meant to imagine looking at the bloodied corpse of a baby gazelle or a high-spirited figure skater themselves, followed by imagining that someone else with the same name was looking at those things.
Scientists (using the electroencephalogram of course) then determined that if one speaks about themselves in the third person, the horrors of the world suddenly become easier to bear. Everything seems lighter somehow, the air takes on pastel hues, one's stress level falls and appetite for something wheel-shaped is restored.
Therefore, just think of yourself as someone else – and you will feel better. It is not you going through the terrible experience. It is not you forced to do these unpleasant things. Even this tedious batter needs to be kneaded by someone else who has the same name and looks like you.
Talking about oneself to alleviate stress seems like a logical explanation. Because the last year was tough. When Jüri Ratas was asked about the government's crowning achievement for all of 2019 a year and a half ago, he said: "A major change is happening in the offices of rescue departments being fixed up."
The offices did turn out nice – credit where it's due. The walls are painted in socially cohesive colors, while the legs of armchairs have been equipped with silencing pads. The lamp-fittings cast no shades at all and the front doors close with a soothing whisper on your way out.
Compared to all this loveliness, 2020 admittedly dawned rough. One thing was followed by another, stress levels kept mounting and certain people started to feel they were living in historic times and making colossal decisions deserving of special respect. Formally addressing oneself in the hallway – and why not?
But perhaps it all happened much sooner. While the prime minister used to come off as a kindhearted teachers' pet who removed an arrogant layabout who had overstayed his welcome in front of the class in one smooth motion, the unexpected loss on election night delivered a blow not least in terms of one's self-image.
The psychological seismograph started picking up strange vibrations sometime after the birth of the previous coalition, something happened – or snapped. All of a sudden, the recently mild-mannered prime minister was seen yelling at employees for failure to perform various tasks. Both his nervous state and tone changed, even private conversations with the president were now apparently spiced with lashings out and backtalk.
The growling responses soon greeted journalists, while gloating and sarcasm appeared when speaking in the parliament – initially clumsy and stemming from hurt feelings, while increasingly arrogant and boastful as time went by. As if it had dawned on him that there had been an attempt to take the country away from him, while the effort had failed. And if it failed then it was meant to fail.
The attitude proliferated. The first signs included pronouncedly paternal gestures, including Sunday television appearances, expostulations and instructions, demanding more airtime when there was nothing more to add and undisguised pleasure at being able to lay down an Emergency Situation in the family.
The entire country was doing what it was told, another step toward the infantilization of society that is becoming increasingly common in different ways and based on different ideologies, whereas the in-house dynamic of the coalition seemed able to keep one in power for a long time to come. To reinforce the latter, Stenbock House became the venue for exquisite dinner parties, with fine wine and meats used to indulge the coalition that soon culminated in taking home the state's wallet and coffeemaker both of which were bled dry – debauchery done right!
Talking to several people with ins to our economic and political ecosystem when preparing for an odd job a few months back, they said they have seen it all before.
Several decades ago, when the state was still being formed and it all seemed to have a special place in history. And therefore – the rulers reasoned – we must also have a historical mission. That they were not the elected but rather the chosen ones.
And so, our prime minister started to refer to himself in the third person. You ask a question and he tells you that "Jüri Ratas did this or that." While everyone else still remains themselves.
The president had boiled down to a "person" in Ratas' recent interview. This was probably done in the key of shamanism. It would make sense – to refer to one's enemy not directly but in a roundabout way. Beast. Beelzebub. Person.
It is no secret that Jüri Ratas has taken offense many times in the past year. There was a spring-summer meeting with entrepreneurs the final 15 minutes of which consisted of the PM bemoaning his poor emotional balance after reading a startup person's criticism on Facebook. And why talk about damage done to the government's reputation while one is engaging in money laundering?
While Ratas' behavior was described as "he snapped" by a participant, he must have thought: okay, criticism is good but why start by criticizing him – Jüri Ratas? It hurts and clashes with the master plan. While the master plan is simple, to go down in history in some way.
This is where our electroencephalogram picks up an error. Jüri Ratas could not have said "in some way" and instead must have said (or thought) to go down in history in a particular way – as a solver of crises and a great unifier of the people. The one who listens, conciliates, understands and unites. Solver of Great Challenges and a Historic Crisis.
Alas, it feels that the plan is not really coming together and this is leaving Ratas anxious. That is why (our electroencephalogram assumes) Ratas is currently criticizing the government not in the coalition council but on social media, by speaking up, teaching and pointing fingers.
It is not so much an effort to instruct someone as it is to have the people remember that the instruction took place and it was Him – Jüri Ratas – that did the instructing. You say "Jüri Ratas" once, then twice and perhaps for a third time to make sure. Keep repeating the name "Jüri Ratas, Jüri Ratas, Jüri Ratas" when talking about yourself and you start to be remembered, things start to improve, the presidential nomination appears on the horizon, justice is restored and the gates of history open before you. You ride through the triumphal arch of History, larger than life.
Even if someone is quietly whispering "Memento mori" in your ear, let them – we will wash them away with an emergency situation. While you think to yourself: I'm guarded by two security guards in suits – must be an important man.
But why pick at someone's emotional universe without having even spoken to the person? Perhaps because a certain someone's sulking is a symptom of something larger. A sign that one lacks an ideology the place of which has been taken by instincts and reactions. One's center substituted by a jacket, values by vague and often misfiring political instinct, goals by talking points and opinions by slogans.
And so, it happens that governance becomes theatric, with dramatic solutions (emergency situation!) preferred. Buffoonery meant to portray a decisive man must hide something, while it is no longer merely the style of leadership but a substitute for content – the prime minister has become a simulacrum.
"If one has principles, deciding is easy even if the decision itself is a difficult one," Erkki Raasuke once said. But when those principles just aren't there, one needs to rely on instinct – and when those instincts fail, what follows is bewilderment and then displeasure, umbrage and anger. Jüri Ratas is not the first in this line. A party chairman once described his whole generation this way. Why whine about it. I'm no better. Perhaps that is just the way it is now.
It was hardly an accident that one could often notice Ratas fingering something in the past few years. While one is allowed to finger quite a few things in a free and democratic country, he was fingering his phone: at press conferences, in the Riigikogu – he was constantly diving into the contents of his smartphone as if looking for something.
The others are speaking, while he is fingering. Questions are being asked, while Ratas is still fingering. Perhaps he was searching for something or someone. The universe is a bleak place and we alone in it – finding a kindred spirit is a great joy.
And if, once power falls through one's hands, that kindred spirit turns out to be an image of a bigger and better self, when your imaginary best friend is your own image and his epochal feats of heroism – while it is sad, the world must not be allowed to stop spinning. Facebook, here I come. Because the near future seems clear. Riigikogu speaker this week, the presidency come fall. The career that started brilliantly as an economic adviser for the [Tallinn] city government office will finally be crowned.
The only tragedy, the only concern when power is restored is, as always, the question of what now?
Personal growth aside, it can be summed up in the question of what is the "self" doing. But what is the other doing, he who is so similar and like me, while so much more important, greater and more powerful? Because at least one thing is for sure – once formed, he will not be going anywhere. Ever.
True, there is one more possibility.
To think about whence this emotional wobble, a grown man's umbrage and anger giving way to one another seemingly following a switch being flicked in Stenbock House, and that switch shaping Estonia's political choices more than anything else in recent years – to think about whence the effort to equate the self to the state, this mad desire to go down in history, our once prime minister could say something other than "Jüri Ratas" in his next interview. He could adjust his now tight-fitting jacket, listen intently to the news anchor, then point the finger at himself and say – I, Edgar Savisaar. Some shadows do not pass.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski