Bunch Of Saps

Whos that tap-tap-tapping?

An inability to accept praise as well as criticism is one of the classic signs of an inferiority complex.

This occurs to me as a result of a strange little phenomenon observed today, following the publication of an entirely trivial story last week.

I filed a piece for DPA early last week about birch juice season in Latvia. The reasons for writing it were threefold. First, not much was happening news-wise, which invariably leads journalists to look for “colour” pieces instead.

The second reason for choosing this topic is that the drinking of fresh birch juice at this time of year is, in my experience, more widespread in Latvia than in other countries. So those other countries might be interested to find out about it.

The final reason was my own personal interest in birch juice. I love the stuff and even tap some of my own from my small patch of land in the forest.

So the piece was written – as light, sweet and fleeting as birch juice itself – and sent to DPA for distribution. More important things were happening elsewhere in the world, so it got slightly overlooked for a few days and was only published on Friday night. Consequently it only appeared on the bizarrely named news aggregation site Monsters & Critics.

This bad scheduling meant it was basically a dud. A shame, as it was quite a nice little piece I thought. Oh well, never mind, let’s start thinking about the next feature…

But today it reappeared. Latvian news agency LETA reported that a “foreign journalist” was “surprised” about Latvia’s taste for birch sap, boiling the feature down a good deal to avoid the information that would be common knowledge to Latvians but which had to be included in a piece aimed at an international audience.

I don’t think the original piece reflected an attitude of “surprise”, it merely noted an interesting and enjoyable phenomenon that is more prevalent in Latvia than elsewhere.

Various local outlets then picked up the LETA story, including the daily Diena and the Apollo news portal. It even got translated into Russian by the newspaper Telegraf. Basically they were all reporting a foreign news story that hadn’t even made the foreign news. No “foreigners” had read the original story, and now the Latvian media were writing their own stories about this non-story.

But the really interesting – and moderately depressing – thing was the reaction in the reader comments on these websites, which tended to take the form of “I suppose these fat foreigners want us all to drink Coca-Cola” or “As usual these foreigners are saying we are all backwards” with multifarious variations thereof.

In fact the feature said nothing of the sort. It didn’t even vaguely imply it. The feature was if anything too upbeat and unquestioningly positive about the whole birch juice phenomenon.

But that’s apparently not what a fair number of Latvians want to believe. They are so keen to be misunderstood and victimised that they can turn the most sympathetic and lightweight coverage into some sort of sneering international put-down.

This creates an absurd situation in which news is worth reporting simply because it was written by a “foreigner” and which simultaneously because it was written by a foreigner cannot contain anything good. So let’s not bother with the bit in the middle about actually reading the thing, because whatever it says, we all know those foreigners are out to get us.

To me this smacks of, at best, a collective inferiority complex and at worst an extremely unhealthy national paranoia.

It’s a bit like commenting to someone that you like their hat, only to be told: “And why are you so interested in my hat? I suppose you think your hat is so much better, don’t you? Well don’t think you can take my hat, because you can’t!”

Is it really so difficult to believe that foreigners can be interested in Latvian culture and society without any accompanying didactic or judgmental intent? Perhaps, in a perverse sort of way, it is reassuring to think that the rest of the world is obsessed with you when in fact it is merely expressing a minor interest.


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