Denmark - Oh! To be Danish. An Essay

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It is difficult to be a Dane. Seen from the outside, most would say that the opposite was true: That being Danish is the easiest thing in the world. The country is well run, well organised, there is very little difference between high and low, rich and poor, the social safety net is securely in place, etc., etc. Even so, we still feel that something isn't quite right. We don't, for example, travel abroad with the same air of nonchalance as a German or Swede or an American. We are a little more unassuming, we don't raise our voice in restaurants or other public places. Mentally, I suppose you could say we stand there with our hat in our hand, apologetic, a little self-effacing. Except when we do find a role we're comfortable with - and there is little doubt that the football 'roligan' phenomenon could only have come from Denmark! As roligans we fell safe, and the rather dull-witted image doesn't seem to bother us. A roligan is a nice guy with a bottle of lager in one hand and a bit of a beer-belly. He might be wearing a cap, and he'll certainly be wearing a big smile (or a grin) which signals to all and sundry that here comes a guy who likes having a good time and doesn't want any trouble. No-one seems to mind that the term roligan is influenced by Swedish. When it comes down to it, however, it's the Swedes we'd really like to give a good hiding.

Some may therefore say that it is sheer nonsense to claim that it's difficult to be Danish. But if we turn once again to the world outside Denmark, we notice that many people immediately focus on the one subject we don't like to bring up: The high incidence of suicide. We shudder a little and refer to the strict accuracy employed when compiling the statistics. "In a Catholic country, they'd never allow all suicides to be registered!". Foreigners haven't just got eyes for the Little Mermaid; the most popular quotes when it comes to describing Denmark and the Danes come from Shakespeare, and the oldest clichés refer to Hamlet's melancholy and fickleness. And we all know, of course, that there is "something rotten in the state of Denmark".

If we look at the country's history and geography, then two things have been decisive in making us what we are: We are surrounded by water, and we've lost all the wars we've fought since the year dot. If we look at a map of the Great Roman Empire, there are a few white areas in the north where the Cimbrians, the Lombards and other barbarians lived and shivered with cold. There was once talk of shivering Vikings whose impatience drove them to seek other shores in search of the sun and all the wonderful things they had heard of. Rumours of these foreign shores had managed to reach even the Vikings, who spent most of the year knee-deep in water or seeking shelters from winds which tore across the country from the west.

Since the time of the Vikings, however, this deep-seated need to conquer has almost disappeared or mostly had tragic consequences as witnessed by the record books. Most Danish kings have consistently managed to support the losing side. Every time the country threw itself headlong into battle, defeat was guaranteed. It cost us our Swedish possessions, the loss of Norway and the duchies in the south, and when the Napoleonic wars arrived, we not only had to hand over our navy to the English, but our allies were so kind as to come to our assistance, giving the Spanish mercenaries the chance to burn Koldinghus to the ground. In 1864, the Prussians and the Austrians captured a large part of South Jutland, and if anybody thinks that the Three Years' War was a "real" victory, they need only look at the records which tell a very different story. During the German occupation between 1940 and 1945, there were twice as many people engaged in active service on the German side than there were members of the resistance. Attempts have since been made to convince the population that the resistance movement won the war, but deep down we know that isn't true. The thing that brought us almost unscathed through the Second World War was a policy based on compromise and compliance, common sense and a well-developed ability to recoup outward losses by inward gains.

This is one area where our unease becomes a little more bearable, even though many would deny it. We have learned by our defeats, and the lesson has not been 100% negative, quite the contrary in fact. One of the best traits in our national character is our unsentimental conviction that it is unnecessary to take recourse to violence in order to stake your claim in the world. Instead of resorting to greed, we have learned to use our expertise to get ahead. It might sound a little dull, but it's highly recommendable and our special ability to use our head instead of our fists did not simply fall down from the sky (as the Dannebrog flag is said to have done), but has been mastered over the centuries. It has been a long, hard struggle, and it has hurt, and it hurts so much even today that some people are actually ashamed of being Danish - which is not very constructive in the long run when trying to build up a national spirit.

Many would rightly say that Denmark is a consensus society. But is that really true? A country or a nation or a people are not always the same in all contexts. If that was the case, then any attempt to create a definition would always have to resort to clichés. The Danes were not the same people in the 13th century or in the 19th century, just as the Danes who live on the west coast of Jutland are not like the ones who live on Stevns, and we can safely say that the people living in Copenhagen are quite unlike any others. Seen from the outside, however, there is still a common feature which many people in history have tried to identify without any real success. Well, almost without any success.

In a letter to a friend, the English author George Orwell described his complete lack of interest in ever visiting Denmark. His reluctance was based on a feeling that Denmark is a boring place. In an article on the yearly Nobel prize, The New Yorker wondered who the unknown (Danish) nominees Johannes Vilhelm Jensen and Henrik Pontoppidan might possibly be. A French diplomat described the Danish climate as "eight months of winter and four months of bad weather". A German newspaper described the country as a place where every town has a Co-op, two restaurants with the same (expensive and very bad) menu and a Social Security office where everyone can go to get money. It is hardly a cheerful picture, but there is a grain of truth in it. Denmark and the Danes are not "exciting". The question is, what are we? If we are unequivocally boring, we might as well get out a rope or a bottle of sleeping tablets now.

But the truth is, of course, somewhat less cut-and-dried. If we examine the way we "see" ourselves and the country in which we live, "as we see it", we might just come up with something.

During the Romantic period last century, the certainty that our grand and noble past had come to an end finally began to sink in. This realisation saw the birth of our national spirit, and the Danish landscape was suddenly brought to our notice as never before. Poets and artists were suddenly busy depicting the scenery in various parts of the country. Hans Christian Andersen is a good example: He travelled all the way to the very top of the country, describing all the wonders of nature which are perhaps only visible to those who love them. For the past 200 years we have, in other words, been told to view our native country as something valuable and beautiful and deserving of our care. Although the notion has admittedly been drummed into our heads, it must be true in many ways for us to have heeded it. Denmark is a beautiful country, but you have to look at the details to find the beauty. There are not many natural phenomena here which inspire breathtaking awe, since almost all the available land has been cultivated. But that may just make it seem even more of a miracle: Nature is still here, and it may even be more beautiful because of the way it interacts with the cultural landscape which we are part of and, of course, responsible for.

It may be worth considering this for a moment: In countries which are much larger, the common culture is a far more fleeting notion than it is in Denmark. Our closeness has enabled us to nurture a real sense of community and, when push comes to shove, genuine solidarity. As has been said before, history was a hard but helpful master. We know we have no call to join in when the loud and boastful nations start gloating. We have no atomic bombs to drop on anyone, no dream of conquest or imperialism. The problems we have with the "colonies" we still "possess" (Greenland and the Faroes) are so great that we would gladly leave them to their own devices were it not for the obligations that "ownership" brings.

"Too much pomp and striving will bring us no rest / keeping our feet firmly on the ground is the best", wrote one of our great bards, N.F.S. Grundtvig, some time during the last century - no doubt to the annoyance of many an ambitious soul. Even though he was a romantic, he was very down-to-earth in his view of Denmark and the Danes. He was in no way against spiritual advancement. In time, Grundtvig became one of the pioneers of the spiritual movement which created the Denmark of today and shaped the spirit of the Danes. Another figure who was instrumental in shaping the soul of the nation was the Jewish literary historian Georg Brandes, who was the exact opposite of Grundtvig in terms of temperament.

Two important paths merge at this point: The first concerns popular education and national revival, the other deals with internationalism and a new, more open approach. They both lead to a more radical way of thinking, which opens the door to a wide spectrum of new ideas: The cooperative movement, the liberation of women, social equality, sexual emancipation. In other words, the creation of a democratic society "where few have too much and even fewer too little".

Getting a radical experiment to succeed in a modern welfare state such as Denmark requires a great deal of talent. There is every chance that you will end up in a grey area between general boredom and stark depression. But perhaps the price we pay for success is that "normality" spreads, and that the unusual and the extraordinary must take a back seat. Or we could turn the whole thing on its head and say that it is in this normality that genius lies buried, inasmuch as the majority of us would prefer to wake up every morning to a normal life rather than to bombs and grenades and bellowing dictators, or to repeated performances of Wagner's operas or tales of great destinies that ended in flames.

One thing is certain: We haven't produced any of the great dramatists. On the other hand, Denmark has fostered excellent prose writers and poets, philosophers and scientists and a handful of composers who, on closer inspection, also turn out to be poets. Which is also true of our painters.

So what kind of national self-image does all this produce? Is it even possible to delimit and define a national self-image? The answer is a cautious yes, and the image must be a little blurred round the edges. All the same, we can discern a faint outline: A Dane is a creature with a big heart and an equally big inferiority complex. The latter is for external use only and shows, paradoxically, that we are finally becoming more successful outside Denmark and have made it to the front pages of the international press. To the amazement of absolutely everyone. To think that it was possible! To think that we little insignificant Danes, with our successful well-organised social structure, our sound economy, our high level of education, our women's lib and our sexual tolerance have come all that way!

There is an inherent contradiction here which borders on the comical, or is at least mildly amusing: A Dane, confronted by a satirical view of himself, will laugh even if it hurts. It is a disarming trait which often turns out to be a good weapon in a tricky situation. Humour always wins in the face of conceit and arrogance, and those who push Denmark and the Danes too far, or have the audacity to actually invade us, will find that humour is just as harmful a weapon as sugar in a petrol tank. It creates a sense of unease because of its very complexity. It is particularly useful when you want to say a lot or to get a particularly important point across without having to resort to big words or raised voices.

If it is possible to talk about such a thing as national intelligence, then the Danish national intelligence is remarkable because of its willingness to doubt itself. When others become cocksure, the Danes tend to allow themselves a moment of doubt. This doubt is often highly productive, inasmuch as the definition of intelligence is the ability to solve problems and act effectively in unfamiliar and difficult situations - there have, as we have seen, been quite a few of those in Denmark's history and if we look closely, the problems have almost always been solved in a sensible way. If that brings us admiration from the outside world, then we should accept the compliment without further ado. Let us not worry when some silly American journalist mocks Johannes Vilhelm Jensen and his Nobel Prize, or when a foolish German who has spent a week here declares that all Danes are a bunch of boring peasants. Because we know better - even when it comes to the weather!

Sure, it can be grim, and now and then we might want to turn our collar up and jump in the river. But then the light suddenly changes and there's a melody in the air, a whiff of spring to come, the smell of the sea and a blackbird singing on a rooftop. And then you walk on holding your head up, feeling just a little proud. Even of being a Dane.

Klaus Rifbjerg

THIS PIECE, RENDERED IN 1992-ERA CONSUMER-GRADE SOFTWARE, FEATURES A COMMENTARY , Thursday, 26 April 2007 16:27 (eleven years ago) Permalink

http://www.um.dk/Publikationer/UM/English/Denmark/kap8/8.asp

^ this is from the danish foreign ministry!!!

THIS PIECE, RENDERED IN 1992-ERA CONSUMER-GRADE SOFTWARE, FEATURES A COMMENTARY , Thursday, 26 April 2007 16:27 (eleven years ago) Permalink

Last month's Harper's Index contained the statistic that Danish children are "the happiest in the world". So . . . something's going wrong.

Drew Daniel, Thursday, 26 April 2007 16:38 (eleven years ago) Permalink

Garrison Keillor, so much to answer for.

Ned Raggett, Thursday, 26 April 2007 16:40 (eleven years ago) Permalink

I want to track down Klaus Rifbjerg and get him to explain to me the merits of "The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey".

That fucking show.

Drooone, Thursday, 26 April 2007 22:37 (eleven years ago) Permalink

six years pass...

the fuck is these ppl's problems w/ giraffes? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/12/second-giraffe-marius-risk-denmark-zoo

balls, Wednesday, 12 February 2014 22:45 (four years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

euthanasia may be considered for the giraffe if a suitable breeding female was offered to it

Dieing for love.

We'd like to conduct a wobulator test here (Sanpaku), Friday, 19 June 2015 20:59 (three years ago) Permalink

Dying, even

We'd like to conduct a wobulator test here (Sanpaku), Friday, 19 June 2015 21:02 (three years ago) Permalink

Frederik B quiet on this election result... which is unusual for him tbh (sorry, Fred).

The Manner of Crawly (Tom D.), Friday, 19 June 2015 21:09 (three years ago) Permalink

Yeah, it was a weird night yesterday. I don't actually agree with all the foreign press saying that this was a big right-wing swing. Actually, the right won by the thinnest of margins, 90-89, and the polls had given them more seats throughout the last four years. The left has had a big comeback in the polls over the last year. Having followed politics throughout the last years, this seemed like a much smaller right-ward shift than expected.

Basically, what happened was that four years ago, a left-wing coalition won, but the least left-wing party had a much better election than expected, causing them to then basically force through pretty right-wing policies over the last four years, meaning that their lead evaporated almost immediately in the polls. That party, confusingly titled the Radical Left, even though they are the least radical left, got half of the seats they got four years ago, but are apparently unable to take a hint.

The DPP nearly doubled their vote, true, but that neither surprises nor frightens me. They had a much better European election. What has been horrifying has been the other parties, including the Social Democrats, basically competing to see who could copy most DPP rhetoric. The Social Democrats had a slogan saying: 'If You Come to Denmark, You Must Work', which is fair and good, but refugees don't work because they aren't allowed to...

Frederik B, Friday, 19 June 2015 21:22 (three years ago) Permalink

I need to tell another funny story: The guy who will become the next prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, everybody hates him. He's been prime minister before, but that was because the old one resigned to take the job leading NATO - like Blair/Brown. He then immediately lost the next election. In the years in opposition, he's been embroiled in scandal after scandal. Back in the days, he'd been attacked for claiming almost everything to his expense account, even nights in hotels under a fake name. Then, a few years back, it surfaced that he was claiming an absurd amount of expenses for leading a South Korean NGO, including flights on first class for hundreds of thousands of kroner. As that sorta faded, it came to light that the party had spent tens of thousands of kroner buying expensive suits for him last election - money that the taxpayer in the end had helped with, as parties get public funding to even the field. And also, because he smoked in non-smoking hotel rooms, a whole lot of extra expenses, and they'd payed for his daughters holiday plane tickets, etc.

He was very nearly toppled as leader of the party, but at the last moment, he threatened to throw the whole party into a fight for the leadership post, which would have hurt everyone immensely. However, they underestimated how much people dislike him now. When the election date was announced, and the campaign heated up, he couldn't get through with any of his messages, since nobody believed him. It was actually quite funny, the opposite of a tefflon candidate. All the other candidates kept pulling numbers and anecdotes out of their asses, and none of it seemed likely, but then when he did the same, everyone would be 'ah, come on, that's not true'. At one point before the scandals, the party polled 33%. They ended up at 19%. Amongst those who lost their seeds were several of his closest allies. So now, we have a new leader, who led his party to their worst result in many decades, and who was clearly the problem. A fine new prime minister.

Frederik B, Saturday, 20 June 2015 19:16 (three years ago) Permalink

one month passes...

jerks: http://time.com/3974498/denmark-ban-kosher-halal/

Mordy, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:08 (three years ago) Permalink

The Danish government could definitely try and do something like that, but I'm a bit confused, because I haven't heard anything about it, and the minister they quote in the article, Dan Jørgensen, hasn't been the minister since the election in June. I don't really know what's going on.

Frederik B, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:22 (three years ago) Permalink

hmm looking closer it seems like all the links in the Time article are from 2014, but the piece does say it happened this Monday. and no one else besides some Pakistan wire service is carrying the story. so maybe just a Time fuckup?

Mordy, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:24 (three years ago) Permalink

Both observant Jews, under kashrut laws and Muslims, under halal laws, will not eat meat unless the animal has been killed with a single slice to the neck, with the intention to minimize its pain.

fwiw, this is not remotely true in the UK where the vast majority of halal meat is pre-stunned despite there being no laws to require it.

I wear my Redditor loathing with pride (ShariVari), Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:25 (three years ago) Permalink

idk how halal meat works but it's definitely true that shechita requires the single slice across the neck (iirc where the windpipe is?)

Mordy, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:28 (three years ago) Permalink

I've seen several videos of animals struggling for the better part of a minute after (perhaps botched) kosher or halal slaughter. Consciousness likely continues for some time even after the loss of blood pressure (Dr. Beaurieux and the guillotined Languille, etc).

Pauper Management Improved (Sanpaku), Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:33 (three years ago) Permalink

oh no doubt, animal slaughter is not for the weak of stomach. have you ever seen a chicken after it has been decapitated?

Mordy, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 20:42 (three years ago) Permalink

Actually, I'm pretty sure parliament is on vacation, so I don't think it even could pass a ban of this kind right now.

The debate about halal/kosher eating is definitely interesting and jerksy, though. At the latest citizenship day, where all the people who got Danish citizenship came to the parliament, the Danish Peoples Party demonstratively only served pork to them. They're also constantly talking about how important it is that every official institution MUST serve pork for dinner, and that nobody should be able to opt out. Being Danish is eating pork.

I know a guy who used to be a farmer. He told me that 1) all halal meat is pre-stunned in Denmark and 2) all meat is slaughtered halal, since doing two types of slaughtering would be bad for costs. Only difference is specifik halal is done with a prayer first. This of course doesn't stop people demanding that halal meat be banned from public institutions, because of animal welfare.

If that is true, but if kosher is done without pre-stunning, then this story would be pretty ironic, since you bet that the point of such a law would be to do something against islam and muslims. Jews are just collateral damage. And further irony: It's usually the same people who are most against anti-semitism when it seems that it is muslim immigrants who are perpetrating it, who are most willing to make laws against Jewish practice if it can be sold as being against muslim immigrants. They are very bad allies.

And jerks.

Frederik B, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 21:05 (three years ago) Permalink

it's a similar thing w/ intactivists as well right? a lot of them in europe - my impression is - are mostly against islamic circumcision? or rather against circumcision but they're the types of ppl who one would likely think are motivated primarily by anti-islamic bias and not antisemitism? (obv there is a lot of antisemitism as well like that comic book about the evil circumcising rabbis)

Mordy, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 21:10 (three years ago) Permalink

Yeah, circumsision is another interesting one. It's often focused only on female circumcision used a lot for anti-islamic purposes. But at times I get the feeling it runs into another barrier of jerksism, which is that some people can't stand fighting solely for the good of women, and their misogyny wins out over their islamophobia, so they begin equating Jewish male circumcision with Islamic female circumcision. Which seems bizarre to me, whatever one thinks of the dangers of male circumcision. And also left-wing anti-semitism, I think, where it becomes a jerkish way of fighting Islamophobia to try and paint Judaism as badly as possible, to make Islam look better by comparison. Jerks on all sides.

Frederik B, Wednesday, 29 July 2015 21:19 (three years ago) Permalink

one month passes...
one month passes...

denmark is having a moment in the US dem primary atm bc of the debate this week, but this link has nothing to do with that:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/europe/denmark-lion-zoo-dissection.html

Mordy, Thursday, 15 October 2015 12:47 (three years ago) Permalink

He. Almost a 130.000 people have signed an online petition to stop it. It's normal for Danish zoos to do this, but wow, it really pisses some people off.

Frederik B, Thursday, 15 October 2015 13:28 (three years ago) Permalink

it seems crazy to me - if they had to put him down anyway, why not make it an educational experience?

Mordy, Thursday, 15 October 2015 13:29 (three years ago) Permalink

three years pass...

Denmark Plans to Isolate Unwanted Migrants on a Small Island

sleeve, Tuesday, 4 December 2018 18:29 (one week ago) Permalink

I guess this is the most-current Denmark thread, lol

sleeve, Tuesday, 4 December 2018 18:29 (one week ago) Permalink

yeah that's obviously not the brightest idea of all time but it's not as if the people affected are much better off atm - they're officially deported but cannot be sent home since they risk torture/death penalty, in the end they choose to stay in Denmark but they are not allowed to work/marry/vote, they have to register at local asylum centers daily and they hardly have any income...

some evil motherfuckers among them for sure, terrorists and war criminals, but feel bad for the rejected asylum seekers (I also understand the necessity of being able to reject some asylum seekers)

niels, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 21:55 (one week ago) Permalink

There's a rolling Danish politics thread, just for this :) And it's complete bullshit, they're spending something like 300.000$ per asylum seeker so that they can say they've send them to a small island. Politicians crowing about how horrible they've been to people of color. That's Denmark.

Frederik B, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:05 (one week ago) Permalink

haha aight

agreed that it's a stupid waste of money anyway and obv not sympathetic

can't believe there's a rolling danish politics thread o_O

niels, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:15 (one week ago) Permalink

It's, uh... It's a long story...

Frederik B, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:25 (one week ago) Permalink

some evil motherfuckers among them for sure, terrorists and war criminals, but feel bad for the rejected asylum seekers

Yes, I imagine we all feel bad for the rejected asylum seekers being housed alongside criminals and terrorists on an island called The Virus.

Jesus Christ.

Trϵϵship, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:26 (one week ago) Permalink

I believe there's still a fair chance that this doesn't actually happen

niels, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:49 (one week ago) Permalink

It's not called the Virus, and they're all criminals. Still, 'Jesus Christ' is in order, it's a fucking disgrace.

Also, yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if this was too stupid and expensive even for Støjberg.

Frederik B, Wednesday, 5 December 2018 22:50 (one week ago) Permalink


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