European recordings

  • 2001-05-24
  • Eric Jansson
We already know what everyone was thinking when Tanel Padar and Dave Benton appeared onstage at the Eurovision song contest: "That guy's black."

But Benton, an Aruban by birth, lives quite legitimately in Estonia with his family. His representation of Estonia nicely illustrates the principle that national identity is not solely an ethnic affair, but an invisible matter of spirit and character – an important point to remember in the ethnically uncomfortable Baltics. No doubt plenty of Russians in Estonia relished the Eurovision victory, just as many Slavs in Latvia now go ga-ga for the national hockey team and Poles in Lithuania follow national basketball.

Anyway, Benton's role begs a more profound question. Why would an Aruban leave his island paradise and settle for northern Europe? Note, Aruba is an autonomous land but still the property of the Netherlands. The Dutch voyagers who colonized it didn't arrive by accident. They traded short summers, wet cold and nasty politics for white sandy beaches and a year-round Caribbean climate safely outside the hurricane belt. Why Benton has traded it back is beyond comprehension, unless, again, it is a matter of spirit and character. But he is kind to import his talent, at any rate.

OK. So Benton is Estonian. We can swallow that easily enough. But how about the song? "Everybody," as it is called, features lyrics in English, a disco beat and a message of uncomplicated joy, "To kick the sadness out the door /Roll the carpet from the floor /Let the spirit hit the roof / The two of us still know the moves." If you do not perceive here a subtle allusion to the writings of Karl Ernst von Baer, a great Estonian thinker of the 19th century, you are forgiven. It isn't there. Everybody at Eurovision sang a non-national pop song tuned to multicultural standards, and "Everybody" was no exception.

Yet something about the great thinker, Baer, still deserves a mention. Let's give this Eurovision victory some cultural historical context.

Baer was the father of modern embryology. He discovered the mammalian ovum. Nowadays his face can be found on Estonia's two-kroon bank note. Younger than Charles Darwin by 17 years, Baer composed a general theory of evolution which helped lead, according to Darwin's written credits, to the much-loved, much-loathed "Origin of Species."

Darwin himself noted that his theories were only that: theories. The Darwinists who followed him, of course, have preferred often to use the theories as something more like facts. And Darwinism – radically applied to culture, society and race – has been used to justify all sorts of cruelty.

Now we harvest cruelty's fruit. Europe, emerging from the brutal 20th century, is weary — tired of conflicts, hoping to sustain safer social contracts. At the state level, this is manifested generally in a healthy drive for broader union. But for people, among whom culture counts, the weariness is manifested in the popular embrace of all sorts of rather bland culture which seeks not to offend. How else can one explain the popularity of Eurovision?

It is multiculturalism. It is another excuse "to party" and root benignly for your nation no matter how bad the song is, no matter that it is almost invariably a variation on an American musical idiom set to empty English lyrics. Even the Russians sang in English this year (although I defy anyone to understand Ilya Lagutenko's raspy falsetto in any language). The result is this tasteless soup which – excuse me – is way below pre-war standards. Multiculturalism is as silly and uniform in today's world as it was in the Soviet Union, when all nations sang about joy in Russian. It only feels less forced.

What a peculiar evolution, or lack thereof.

We seem hell-bent on failing to learn lessons from history, while relying on the seeming inoffensiveness of weary souls to see us through. If this were just a matter of silly music, it would be great. I disliked "Everybody" upon first hearing but have quickly succumbed to its nice harmonies. I also like that Padar and Benton sing about the spark inside the human heart. That's what we need to nourish – the divine thing that yields active and virtuous culture, not mythical multiculture.

But our difficulty escaping a hundred such hopeful myths is worrying. Social myths are stupid and illusory, and stupefied people living in illusions are especially susceptible to social abuses and temptations. We will regret our ignorance later.

Catchy music will not be the only thing recorded in the continent's good name, if the "Council of the European Union" soon has its way. The EU institution is reportedly seeking executive support for a new security regime in which all telephone calls, faxes, e-mails and Web page records can be intercepted, recorded and stored for state surveillance for up to seven years. The idea is pushed by the FBI, which wants to coordinate tougher surveillance tactics with Europe. This egregious potential abuse of civil liberties is reported by a watchdog group called Statewatch.

But almost nobody knows about it, and almost nobody is making a fuss. Who has the time? There's a party going on! "Every night's a Friday night / Ladies this sure feels right."