Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

As soon as I saw this book I knew I had to buy it. I've seen plenty of posts, especially on Tumblr, where Americans and otherwise make out the Nordic countries as some sort of haven for education, health care and social liberty. The author, Michael Booth, is a Brit who's married to a Dane and lives in Denmark. He has travelled a lot in the Nordic countries, both for pleasure and for research, and so I decided to try to find out why this legend about the Nordic utopia exists. The author ventured to do the same and so this book was made. I love the quotes on the back of the book:
"The Danes are the happiest people in the world, and pay the highest taxes.
'Neutral' Sweden is one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world.
Finns have the highest per capita gun ownership after the US and Yemen.
54 per cent of Icelanders believe in elves.
Norway is the richest country on earth."
The book paints a pretty dark picture, actually. What he finds out about all of us is that we're all basically balancing a very thin thread each and it could go either way - either total collapse or continued welfare. The country that takes up the most space in the book is understandably Denmark, and the smallest part is Iceland, and while reading I realised how little I actually know about my neighbours. I knew some of it, but far from everything. I can't say how accurate any of the other countries' depictions are, but when it comes to Sweden he paints a pretty correct picture.

He starts with the crayfish party season, and also touches upon graduation celebrations and Midsummer, which are some of the days when Swedes actually allow themselves to let loose and become crazy. We are partying Vikings just like the Danes, but we usually keep it under tight wraps. He describes Swedes as being shy (because we honestly don't talk to people we meet on public transport or on the streets), reserved, boring, and a little rigid. I recognise that picture. He also talks about the fact that Swedes love conformity (which we do) and if you don't fit in to the pattern you're going to have a hard time. I find it funny that he realised the conformity problem for non-conformed people when he basically only visited the major cities. I wonder what he would've made of the small villages. Because for myself who never fit into the rigid conformity of my home village, Malmö and Stockholm are areas of liberty. Because the way I percieve it no one looks twice at me or thinks I'm weird in the cities, while that's the impression I get all the time when I go "home".

The most interesting chapter in the Sweden part was the discussion upon immigration. This book is written and published before the immigration crisis of last year, and it seems like he gathered his information on Sweden before the last election (2014), so some of his information isn't correct anymore, but even he realises that the media is blowing the issues way out of proportion. He visits the immigrant neighbourhood of Rosengård in Malmö (well-known for violence throughout Sweden) and talks to the people he meet there as well as the people in charge of the area, and an imam. And you know what he realises after all this? That they are the same as "native" Swedes, same hopes and dreams and worries. He walks across the big road to the area next to Rosengård and talks to the people living there - mostly well-to-do "native" Swedes and their responses to his questions about immigration problems and violence and what they want and hope for are mostly the same.

Some things irk me, though. He complains a lot about the weather. You're British! You hardly have exceptionally good weather in your own country. And he also complains about the monarchies of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Again: You're British! If any country is known for loving their royalty, it's you. In Sweden the attitude is mostly: we don't mind having them there. They don't really do anything and they don't have any say in anything anyway. And having them there sort of blocks the way for any crazy dictators :P Heirs to wealthy conglomerates have more power than our royal families. Keep that in mind. I'm not a royalist, but I'm not really a republican either. I just don't mind having them there.

But the overall feeling I get from this is something I've known for a long while to be true: we are family; Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are brothers, Iceland is the cousin, and Finland is the adopted brother (Faroe Islands and Greenland are foster children). Since we are family we've had our squabbles (wars, culture oppression etc), but nowadays when we're all grown up we've reduced our squabbles to joking about each member's stereotypes, and we're all ok with that (as far as I know).

The rest of this post will be quotes from the epilogue:
"Of course there are downsides even in almost nearly perfect societies: there are historical skeletons in every closet, and yes, countries with homogenous, monocultural tendencies do tend to be a little too safe and dull, and insular. Looking to the future, the Nordic countries are also facing some serious challenges - aging population, creaking welfare states, the ongoing integration of immigrant populations, and rising inequality. But it's still Scandinavia. It is still the enivably rich, peaceful, harmonious and progressive place it has long been."
"To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be, and be able to make the appropriate changes if you are not. This cannot merely be a perception, an empty slogan like the American Dream (the Us came way down on the LSE's social mobility scale, incidentally). In Scandinavia it is a reality. These are the real lands of opportunity. There is far greater social mobility in the Nordic countries than in the US or Britain and, for all the collectivism and state interference in the lives of the people who live here, there is far greater freedom to be the person you want to be, and do the things you want to do, up here in the North. In a recent poll by Gallup, only 5 per cent of Danes said they could not change their lives if they wanted to. In contrast, I can think of many American states where it would probably be quite an uncomfortable experience to declare yourself atheist, for example, or gay, or to be married yet choose not to have children, or to be unmarried and have children, or to have an abortion, or raise your children as Muslims. I don't imagine it would be easy being vegetarian in Texas, for instance, or a wine buff in Salt Lake City come to that. And don't even think of coming out as socialist in any of the fifty states. In Scandinavia you can be all of these things and no one will bat an eye."
"I didn't mention it but the day after the Malmö crayfish orgy, the city's annual festival continued with more al fresco feasting - mainly of Turkish, Indian, Arabic and Chinese food - but this time the streets of the city were packed with the most multiethnic crowd I have ever seen on the streets of a Scandinavian city. The atmosphere was terrific that day; it felt to me like there was a genuine sense of community and that, contrary to much of what I had heard about Malmö in the Danish media, this was a city at peace with itself."
"Though there has been increasing discussion about this in the Scandinavian media in recent years - with some suggesting a Federal States of Scandinavia as a northern alternative to the faltering EU - it is still unlikely. Just in case, though, my plea to the Nordic people is this: please don't. For if you ever really did band together in such a way then, truly, the rest of us would not stand a chance." 
One of the most interesting reads I've had in a while. Be sure to pick it up!


  1. "Since we are family we've had our squabbles (wars, culture oppression etc)". Wars, oppression, occupation (!) - all friendly family squabbling stuff ;p

    1. Countries squabble on bigger scales than tiny humans ;P


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