Trouble in Paradise

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.

Danish classrooms
Danish classrooms
Typical classroom in Denmark
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.

Shut downs

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)

  1. Even though Denmark is not perfect, it is still the best because some other countries are much worse
  2. Nowhere is perfect
  3. We have it pretty good here
  4. At least people are honest here
  5. 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.

Worsening Conditions

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.

Danish Winters I have Known

2008-9: My First

The nights drew in, the skies got overcast and it stayed like that until March. There was rain and wind but mostly it was dark. It snowed once and my students insisted on being let out to play. I refused them saying the snow would be there at the end of school.

“No, it won’t. In Denmark, it snows for a couple of hours, melts and that’s it.”

As someone who thought they were coming to Scandinavia, this shocked me. That sounded very much like England.

The lack of sunlight got to me, I remember being confused about patches of sunlight coming in through my living room blinds. “What’s wrong with the floor?” I thought.

I went away for a trip around Europe in February and came back to reasonably deep snow.

February snow
February 2009 

2009-10: My Second

So, I had my Christmas holiday tickets all booked, all ready to go for the evening of the last day of school. Then the night before the last day of school, there was a snow storm. I walked to work in it, it was crazy. The snow came up to my knees in some drifts, something that had not happened since 1986 and my knees were substantially closer to the ground. One driver got snowed in taking a corner and he leapt out with a shovel and dug himself out efficiently. I got to work, feeling like a boss, and they cancelled school. They said it was exceptional and many of the teachers out in the suburbs of Erritsø, Børkop, Brejning et al couldn’t get to work. We had bread rolls and took down Christmas decorations and then went home.

I decided against flying out until later in the weekend.

When I came back in the new year there was still snow everywhere. I asked when it was leaving. Spring, they said.

December 2010
December 2009

The weather regularly got below freezing point, sometimes to double figures. I felt a lot better about the winter, despite the hardships of trudging through snow that had not been powder for quite some time. Every journey was a happy hormone dispensing trip because it was physically such hard work. Plus, it was not as dark because the snow reflected what little light there was.

2010-11: My Third

The winter was incredibly cold and there was quite a bit of snow. The snow fell and then stuck around until March or April. By then, I knew how to deal with it. Tights under legs, lots of t shirts as vests and gloves. I would get hot and sweaty as I tackled the packed snow but I would only feel the cold in my thigh muscles and on my face. I took to wearing a scarf around my face to keep my asthma in check.

I stayed in Denmark for Christmas, having learned my lesson about trying to fly in winter.

December 2010
December 2010

2011-12: My Fourth

The winter was at an almost subtropical 2˚C most of the time, except February when it was proper brassic and snowed a little bit. This was also the month that I moved in with my boyfriend, so we had to negotiate a metal spiral staircase with sofas in freezing, icy conditions.

2012-13: My Fifth

Really cold. Really really cold. There was snow still at Easter.

Easter 2013
Easter 2013

2013-14: My Sixth

Relatively warm but there was snow and it stuck around for a little while. There was a massive storm that messed up all the trains.

Autumn 2013 "We cannot drive the trains"
Autumn 2013
“We cannot drive train”
April 2014
April 2014


2014-15: My Seventh

Moved up north so in a slightly different microclimate. Started out pretty mild but woke up on Christmas day to a thick blanket of snow. This melted but was replaced a week ago. Now they are saying it will stay cold until spring.

January 2015
January 2015
A few weeks later in January 2015
A few weeks later in January 2015

All the while, people keep telling me Danish winter is ‘typically’ like my first and all six of my other winters are outliers. Seems suspicious to me. I think this is how winters are in Denmark now.



News Translation: Satire Edition

This is a very special translation of the news, being as it is translated from several almost identical opinion columns in Danish newspapers.

Muslims are not just folks

In recent weeks, it has been almost impossible to avoid the news that some clearly disturbed individuals had killed a group of unarmed civilians. Clearly, enough column inches have been expended on Boko Haram’s massacre of over 2000 people, we need to talk about the events in Paris.

Of course, we know that two out of 1.6 billion is a very small minority. Still, those 1.6 billion people are sort of responsible, if you think about it. If it wasn’t their responsibility, then whose would it be? Ours? What?

You can’t say that every Danish person is responsible for foreign policies that disenfranchise and enrage, contributing to disturbed people snapping and committing mass murder. That is preposterous. Some of those Danish people actually disagree with their politicians or haven’t given the policies much thought. Some of these Danish people would deny that there is any link between radicalisation and the way power is kept in the hands of the Western world, of which Denmark is a part. How can it be the fault of moderate Danish people that radicalisation happens in the modern world? We’re just folks.

No, it’s the Muslims that are the problem. While we agree they are not a homogenous bloc, that is because they have two sorts. The peaceful ones who we are pretty sure we’d like if we ever met any and the radical ones who cut your head off soon as look at you. The peaceful ones should prove to us, once and for all, that we definitely would get on with them, if only we met socially, by stopping all extremism and bad behaviour of the second group.

We know that the Muslims (both groups, so all Muslims ever), might now claim “Well, Danes, you have not succeeded in stopping murder, extremism, violence etc in your ranks”. The very simple answer to that is “That is impossible to do because we are all individuals and the reasons for violent conduct are as numerous as the violent individuals themselves and are usually very complicated, difficult to unpick and even harder to solve.” We are folks, remember, and the members of our group that behave badly can no way reflect on us and we are absolutely not responsible for their actions. Anyway, back to the main point, good Muslims should really make sure that bad Muslims never happen.

Who do they think they are, anyway, having a different religion and really caring about it? If a good Muslim comments on being provoked or disrespected, they are really saying that bad Muslims are acceptable. Bad Muslims do not like being disrespected either, so it makes it harder and harder to tell the difference. Why can’t Good Muslims just let massive provocation go? We certainly do whenever people provoke us about things we care about, like Danishness. Every time a foreigner says anything critical or in jest about Denmark, we just shrug and laugh. “Interesting point!” or “Hahah, foreigner, good one,” we always say.

This is not like it is a new policy, this one of telling entire groups what to do when a couple of exceptional individuals from a related group do something horrific.

Remember when Breivik killed all those people? We really held the Norwegian people’s feet to the fire. “Rein in your far right, you’re the only ones who can, moderate Norwegians,” we advised. We even got on to people who spoke languages similar to Norwegian, such as Swedish and Danish, and told them pretty much the same thing. We are only doing the same thing now by telling moderate Muslims that they need to do something about their fringe elements. Fair is fair. Remember all that child abuse in the Catholic Church? We told that group to get it sorted and fair do’s, child abuse by priests is completely at an end now. All the moderate Catholics took responsibility for their fringe elements and sorted the problem out easily by telling them to stop it in a clear, firm voice.

In conclusion, there is no point looking at the complex interplay of power distribution in foreign policy and immigration politics to figure out what exactly is driving a tiny minority to violence.

Let’s just tell the Muslims it’s their problem for being different.

‘Oh dearism’

Here is Adam Curtis’ analysis of the rise of ‘Oh dearism’

Part One

Part Two

Danish news is no different. World news is presented as fragmented examples of human cruelty with no attempt to bring the context into view. National news is a laundry list of minor stories and if there is an overarching narrative, it is how the immigrants are fucking everything up.

We are being distracted.

This is a week where Boko Haram massacre thousands and a man received the first 50 of his 1000 lashes for criticising Saudi clerics and the western international community mull over making Assad an ally now. The reporting of these stories has generated a few news articles and a couple of columns.

Meanwhile, the attacks on French cartoonists have been dominated the news cycle. Real talk now: murdering a bunch of people for saying/drawing offensive stuff is obviously wrong. But so is whipping someone 1000 times over 20 days. So is murdering thousands of people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So is making an ally of a war criminal. But those narratives are hard to fit into the current agenda. They are complicated. They are same-shit-different-day. Why is Boko Haram on the rampage? How come Saudi Arabia is as fucked up as North Korea and one country is a dear ally and the other is a mustache twiddling monster? How can one leader be as bad as Hitler one day but a necessary evil the next?

‘Whataboutery’ is a ridiculous point scoring exercise in debate. But surely the deaths of these innocent French people, be they cartoonists or policemen or shoppers, are just as worthy of being buried under the news cycle as the death of a 10 year old girl used as a living bomb? The guy in Australia who held a shop hostage and killed a couple of people got buried in the shuffle because he was a bonkers lone gunman. These guys in Paris, they fit a narrative. They fit a story about Good and Evil. We can stand together in solidarity because all the context and nuance are washed away.

So, now people who say “yeah but those cartoons were pretty mean, I am not really going to defend racist trolling”, are automatically on the side of Evil. People objecting to being snooped on by governments are automatically condoning Evil.

Whereas, the other news stories are just too complicated to be understood, so no one has an opinion other than “oh dear” or “people are sick” or occasionally “that continent/country/culture can’t look after itself, we should save them”.

We are being rallied to a choke point. Right now, it is needed that we feel under attack by faceless, barbaric enemies. It wouldn’t do to denounce the killers as bonkers. They are part of a plot. We are under attack and we need to take action. And the action we will take? It will be complicated and no one will bother to explain it to us. It might take the form of attacks on countries we are not at war with. It might be drone strikes. It might be economic sanctions. And when innocent people die or it sets off a chain of events (like the mistreatment of people set off ISIS), we just get to shrug and say it is too complicated to understand. That is until a crime is committed where context can be shrugged off like a jacket.

We don’t need to look at why cartoon trolling of particular people sets them off into a murderous rage. We don’t need to consider the response to world events only benefits a small minority. We don’t need to look for context or nuance, we just need to be outraged long enough for our masters to do what they want.

Denmark’s Radio

When I taught English as an additional language, I advised my students to listen to podcasts, watch tv and see films in English. Anything to expose them to the language in an enjoyable way. The theory is, if you experience pleasure your brain will give you an extra boost to remember vocabulary or assimilate syntax.

Taking my own advice, I would listen to the radio while washing up or what have you and watch the news of an evening.

In the end, I had to stop because of the relentless xenophobia of the Danish media. I was not experiencing pleasure, I was not entering a flow-state. I was constantly irritated. I remember putting on a local radio channel in the early days and had to switch it off when they were asking the leader of the far right what she wanted to listen to.

The state of Danish news is probably a post in itself but I just wanted to focus on Danish radio.

Left to myself, I bought an internet radio and split my attention between Alouette, BBC 6 Music and occasionally NPR or Radio 4. I just stopped listening to the Danish radio because nothing good was coming of it. But then I got a boyfriend and he likes to listen to programmes on the radio, rather than music all the time when he is driving. So, I have had to listen to a lot of talk radio in my time here.

On ordinary FM, there are two talk radio channels that I know about. 24/syv and P1. P1 is more traditional and 24/syv is more modern. As much as I enjoy Radio 4 and NPR, P1 rubs me up the wrong way. If they talk about Denmark, it tends to be in terms of how Denmark is the best at something. There’s always something of the 9th grade geography project about their pronouncements on other countries and cultures. Of course there is some interesting, quality programming that does not irritate me. There are tech shows and shows about the Danish language which never get on my nerves. But if they talk about anything to do with current events or world news, the lack of self-awareness or introspection grates on me. 24/syv never gets to me in the same way, I advocate for this channel if music is not an option.

We recently got a dog and we leave the radio on when we go out so she does not feel so lonely. The kitchen radio is usually tuned to P1 so the boyfriend can listen to it while he cooks. In the past couple of months, and it may be coincidence, almost every day I walked into the kitchen, they were talking about Islam. They have a lot of repeats so maybe I was walking into the same show at different points but I don’t think I was. They never say anything offensive or ignorant but it’s remarkable how much they go on about Islam without involving Muslims. It’s just non-Muslim talking heads talking about The Other.

Anyway, it was getting to me and sometimes P1 has shows that involve animal noises or odd noises as illustrations, so I tuned the radio to a music channel. The commercial ones are alright, they just play music really. I managed to tune it to P4 one day, this is a local channel that plays middle of the road pop and rock. This works for dogs and humans. Until the other day, they were talking about the word ‘neger’ and whether it was socially acceptable to say anymore.

Again, it was just the perspective of white Danes. One white Dane went on about his ‘dark’ friends from Denmark and how some of his best friends (from his time in America) were black. His major point was ‘they’ don’t mind. The lack of awareness that his impression based on a self-selecting sample of people answering a socially awkward question might be subjective was striking.

Then they interviewed various white people who insisted that their intention was magical so anyone taking offence just did not understand the spirit in which their racial slur was intended. They pulled out their kindly old grandmothers who were simply not able to keep up with a changing political landscape and language as examples for why no one needs to keep up.

I had to stop listening because although they were coming down generally on the side of ‘well, it’s outdated now’, the premise for the most common arguments of why the word is not that bad grind my gears.

(When I turned the radio on again, they were discussing the word ‘åndssvag’ (moronic/retarded/daft), and how it had become taboo. Again, no one with special needs were asked how the word made them feel. It was just about how people with privilege feel about showing consideration with their choice of words)

What strikes me is that some of the radio channels funded by mandatory licence fees are keeping integration from happening. The immigration debate, issues surrounding multiculturalism, world religions 101, the changing face of politeness as a culture evolves; all these issues are discussed in such a way to drive a subtle ridge between the intended listener and The Other. Foreigners are rarely involved in discussions about integration (though I have heard it, they picked three good immigrants to talk about the adorable ways Danes are different). Islam is discussed almost non-stop which serves to make the divide seem more important and unbridgeable than in reality. Changes to Danish society are presented as being imposed on the Danish people, rather than adopted by them.

What would be better would be programming that includes us. Programming that talks with or to us rather than about us. Stories about how similar we are for every story about how we are different. It would be an improvement for programs to engage in critical thinking, rather than the bland regurgitation of a talking point.