Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Living Danishly

Someone on the Well Trained Mind forums recommended a book called The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country, and I thought it sounded fascinating.  I've always been interested in Scandanavian culture, plus friends of ours moved from here to Norway this past summer, and I thought maybe this book would give me insight into living in that region, even though it was about Denmark, instead of Norway.

So the premise of the book is that the author's husband got a job with Lego for a year, and so they moved from crowed, stressful London to rural Jutland, where Lego has its headquarters.  The author, Helen Russell, is a writer, so she decides to write book about how Denmark has been rated the "happiest country on earth", and how her experience goes along with that.

It was very fascinating and funny as well, and some parts of Danish culture sounded really great to me.  Since they have such long months with little daylight, they have this concept of "hygge",  which means they basically stay at home with family and friends, lighting lots of candles, and being cozy.  Sounds good to me!

It seems like Denmark is a very organized, well-run country, with rules for every single little thing, which is sort of appealing--I do like following rules. But on the other hand, I think I am way too American to be happy with some higher power-that-be telling me how to run every little detail of my life.  Apparently, Danes really like uniformity, and they all sort of look a similar way, dress a similar way, decorate a similar way . . . that would drive me nuts.  And they have this weird set of rules called "Jante's Law" for how to integrate and "live Danishly":

  1. You're not to think you are anything special
  2. you're not to think you are as good as we are
  3. You're not to think you are smarter than us
  4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than us
  5. You're not to think you know more than us
  6. You're not to think you are more important than us
  7. You're not to think you are good at anything
  8. You're not to laugh at us
  9. You're not to think anyone cares about you
  10. You're not to think you can teach us anything
So . .  yeah, sorry.  The book definitely did not make it sound like Danes are very welcoming to any foreigners at all, as you might have understood from the list of rules above, lol.  But the author loved it, and tried to spin everything pretty positively.  

One huge thing I noticed was that religion has basically no part at all in Danish life, except what happens for traditions to be followed.  Danes are really, really big into traditions.  Otherwise, no one goes to church at all or has any religious thoughts whatsoever--except that they pretty much worship the state.  It takes care of all their needs, tells them what they need to do, and in general serves the function of a benevolent god.  One thing this god does is take their children.  Parents both get a ton of baby leave, but then the baby gets right into daycare when he or she is 6 months old that is subsidized (the state covers 75%) so parents can work guilt-free. Of course this means the kids are mainly with their "child-minders", who do things like shop with them and other things that I would totally want to be doing with my toddlers, and also let them have time to play freely with a bunch of other kids.  When they start school, they spend the next 10 years with the same 20-odd kids, which seems like another way to make it hard for a newcomer to fit in.  Their schools seemed to have a weird obsession with "a child's autonomy and self-expression", which honestly sounded terrible because there was "no hierarchy between pupils and students".

A liberal facebook friend of mine shared an article about Scandanavia (Norway in particular, but it seemed exactly the same in Denmark) which really lays out how perfect liberals think it is that the government takes the children!  Here's a lengthy quote from towards the end of the article:

Things happened very differently in Norway. There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women. Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.
Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal. (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)
To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous. In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another. More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice. For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the US finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Anyhow, that was a tangent . . . But even with Russell's positive spin, there were some issues that came out.  There are pretty much no sexual mores at all, so anything goes.  They have a 43% divorce rate, and promiscuity is really high.  There is a lot of abuse and violence that gets swept under the rug.  A great number of Danes are on anti-depressants, which seems to me to indicate something other than complete happiness.  I guess the feeling I got when I finished the book was, the Danes are "happy" if you define happy as "being comfortable and complacent".  There didn't seem to be any personal growth, or a concept of joy through trials, or anything like that.  Still, it was quite fascinating, and a quick read.

That led me to my next book, which is called The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandanavian Utopia.  As you can imagine, this book is a lot more even-handed.  The author, Michael Booth, who is married to a Danish woman, travels to Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland to flesh out how "perfect" these cultures are.  Booth is actually a really funny writer--the cover review says "Bill Bryson goes to Scandanavia"--so there were many descriptions that made me laugh out loud.  Also, I ended up googling so I could see several of the places he mentioned, especially in Iceland, because they sounded so unique and beautiful (they were).  But he did lay out a lot of the less pleasant realities of Scandanavian life in these socialist countries--the ones that articles like the one I linked to conveniently don't reference. I would definitely not call the author any sort of a conservative (and he has several digs at the US sprinkled in there), but he is at least willing to open his eyes and see reality and the downsides to the welfare state.  No, thank you!  I'd still like to visit, though, that's for sure!

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