In the last couple of weeks, I have been reading the handful of books that have come out in English about Denmark to cash in with the success of tv shows Forbrydelsen and Borgen. Two of these books were written by visitors or recent immigrants, so a lot of the text is repeating what they have heard. For example, Danish people like interior decorating because their daycares and schools are decorated nicely.
Typical classroom in Denmark
And I had to put the book down and breathe for a minute or two. Danish classrooms are functional, they get the job done… but beautiful? Who are these people feeding these quotes to foreigner journalists?
There are a lot of quotes like that out there. One chapter is about how Denmark has a wonderful welfare system because of the efforts of collective bargaining. And collective bargaining is so strong because of the efforts of Grundtvig, the 19th century school reformer. According to legend, his dream was to teach Danish people to think critically and ask the right questions in order to keep them safe from tyranny; a legacy that lives on even today.
Except. Not quite.
I can’t just upload a random picture from a few years ago to refute this, so I will have to take this part by part.
The history of the things that make Denmark attractive
In the late 1800s, there were strikes after lockouts after strikes. In 1899, a compromise was struck which ultimately ended in a system with maternity and paternity leave, sick pay, holiday pay and all the benefits that are lauded as Denmark doing things right.
This will have been a hard battle. These rights did not just appear just because Danes are so much better at democracy or seeing things realistically. People fought for these rights at great personal expense.
Whether you can credit Grundtvig’s ideas in those early stages, I do not know, I am no historian. But for the collective bargaining that was to come, having a general public that was educated in thinking critically will have helped.
Grundtvig’s aim is being actively frustrated right now and this threatens everything that those trade unionists 100 years ago were working for.
I read a book by an American woman about her experience at Christian college. Mostly what was taught were arguments to shut hard questions down.
In Danish schools, also, there is a similar movement but not for Christianity. Children are certainly taught to question but they are also taught the standard retorts to shut the question down when it gets too close to the bone.
These are (in no particular order)
- Even though Denmark is not perfect, it is still the best because some other countries are much worse
- Nowhere is perfect
- We have it pretty good here
- At least people are honest here
- We didn’t have any problems until outsiders spoiled everything
There are two interlocking reasons for the importance of these retorts.
Danishness as Religion
Firstly, Danishness has been elevated to the status of a religion. People do not feel Christian, they feel Danish. Questioning anything about Danishness is on the level with blasphemy. One housing association decides that an outside Christmas tree isn’t necessary for their community, the national media reports on it. One daycare facility decides that it’s just easier to serve vegetables, fish and chicken to their kids because they cater to kids with dietary restrictions, it is the end of the world because what happened to the pork? Some immigrant parents don’t come to twice annual meetings for all parents at their kid’s school, Danish parents pull their kids from the school even though there is nothing else wrong at the place.
The second reason is conviviality. It is important to always maintain conviviality. If one were to have a deep conversation, it might make someone uncomfortable or god forbid start an argument. Conflict must be avoided at all costs, so these arguments are stopped before they are started with the same old shibboleths. (An exception to this is when people are made uncomfortable by use of irony or politically incorrect statements, fuck conviviality in those circumstances)
If that is how you want to run a country, fill your boots. There are consequences. If you never have to ask hard questions or think deeply, your muscles atrophy.
I was sat in a large conference room with educated, politically active adult Danes. It became abundantly clear that while the majority were not exactly stupid, this lack of facility with difficult, conflict provoking concepts had disabled many of the participants in the discussion.
The course leader showed us a way of looking up information that is a matter of public record. One participant said “But why wouldn’t management just show you the accounts?” thinking this was a wonderful example of Danish humour, I turned to her, winked and said “Yeah, right(!) Good one.” She looked back blankly.
It just had not occurred to her that people often have things to hide. That people can be dishonest. That some serious Game of Thrones shit is going down most of the time.
Not being able to think of original arguments or look for hidden agendas has meant that the Danish government have been free to pull a fast one for a long time.
All the things Guardian journalists like about Denmark are under attack. They are under attack for the same reasons they don’t exist (or are not as good), in countries like the UK: they make labour cost too much. They make the country unable to compete globally.
Danes have great parental leave benefits, great support during unemployment, holiday pay, decent wages and pensions. This is because Danish workers are not just grateful for having a job in the first place, they have unions that meet every couple of years with the employers and secure these rights.
But this is unsustainable, so the government has been weakening the unions for a while so they can do what they want. And no one has the ability to fight back.
They are able to complain about immigrants and their foreign ways. They are able to say how their country is one of the best. They are not able to see the way they are being tricked or how their services are being ruined in cost cutting measures. The things that make Denmark special are the very same that are being dismantled. Not enough people understand how powerful they are and how they could stop it. And for that, I blame the teachers.