We hear so much about you over here in Denmark. We love hearing about you because we think it’s interesting to learn about people who resemble ourselves in so many ways, yet who are still different. You are Americans. You are nationalistic. You are independent, enterprising and enthusiastic people who like to drink Coke and eat fast food. You are the home of the biggest stars, the brightest minds, the richest economy, the wildest cities. At least that’s how you are portrayed here in Denmark. Or at least that’s the positive story that’s told about you here. There’s also a less flattering story and it’s filled with narcissistic, Christian, gun-toting idiots who are corrupt warmongers. You are plagued by murder and crime. Even your state is licenced to kill.
It’s this less flattering image I’m writing to you about. It’s not because I don’t like you. I do. I’m enamoured with the US and I am crazy about your culture. I love your musicians, directors, actors and authors. But I want to understand America’s darker side, and why American citizens accept things that are clearly unjust.
I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read one of those studies saying that Danes are the happiest people in the world. The study apparently also found its way to your side of the pond, all the way to Oprah, who just had to visit this tiny, happy country at the northern edge of Europe. She spoke with a few Danes and tried to work out what made them happy. Her conclusion: our welfare state, and something or other about bikes.
Can that be right? I asked, and wound up drawing my own conclusion from her conclusion.
A welfare state like we have in Denmark, which relies on one of the world’s highest tax rates, stifles progress. It is undeniably expensive to operate a company in Denmark. And because of that we see our companies moving to other places where it’s more profitable to operate. This causes unemployment, and work is the cornerstone of our happiness, according to the aforementioned study. If that’s true, then, wouldn’t our welfare state be making people unhappy?
Another argument, though, is that we get a lot of social security for the taxes we pay. And it is precisely that security that lies at the heart of the welfare state. Free schools, free hospitals, free universities and high levels of public assistance all take away people’s insecurity. And the fewer concerns people have, the more likely they are to be happy.
What theory do you, as Americans, subscribe to? You live in a society that considers ‘tax’ to be a four-letter word, and the first stop on the road to the ultimate swear word: ‘communism’. You believe in the right to individual self-determination, and that the state should be involved as little as possible in people’s lives. America is the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with nothing and end up with everything. In a word: freedom. That’s the way you see yourselves. Reality, sadly, is a different story.
Poverty begets poverty. America’s poor are stuck in poverty. They attend the worst schools and can’t afford to send their children to college. They can’t afford a doctor, and if they ever do save up enough money, it’s often too late to be worth the expense. Money is the key. If you don’t have money in America, you either join the military, you become a criminal, or you’re a sponge and you need to get your act together. Of those three options, the best is probably to join the military because it’s the only one that allows you to maintain your self-worth. Unfortunately, America is a country that’s almost always at war, which means serving in your armed forces is a dangerous occupation. We know a little about this here in Denmark, given that we’ve been your steadfast ally through a handful of wars. One of our former prime ministers, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was bosom buddies with George Bush Jr and many young Danes have met their end on foreign soil in the fight against an enemy America more or less conjured up on its own. In return for his support, Rasmussen was appointed NATO secretary general.
Most of your recruits are poor. Life for them is so meaningless that they might just as well put it on the line. Our military is made up of wild young volunteers looking for “adventure” – as soldiers put it in the documentary ‘Armadillo’. That’s right, Americans, because there’s almost no poverty in Denmark, our army has to find other ways to recruit people. We sell action, adventure and the chance to live out your boyhood dreams.
Another problem – in the US and here in Denmark – is the media. News coverage plays a role here in two respects: hate and fear. Inspired by American news outlets, both are creeping into the Danish media. On any given weeknight, we can witness murder, violence, home invasions, terrorism and war, all from the comfort of our living rooms. I’m not saying it’s a problem that we report them. It’s the way we report them that’s the problem, because it stigmatises certain groups. In the US, it’s typically ‘blacks’, in Denmark, it’s traditionally been ‘immigrants’ (read as: anyone with Turkish, Somali or Iraqi heritage), but it’s increasingly also eastern Europeans and ‘gypsies’. We never miss the chance to say what nationality a perpetrator was, and the crimes we report have almost always been committed by someone who isn’t ethnically Danish. This, despite the fact that most crimes are actually committed by your run – of – the – mill, pork-eating Dane. The news, though, is much more interesting when you can add a racial element. This pushes one on a path towards an increasingly fearful society, and it explains why Danes feel it’s permissible to make semi-racist comments that years ago at best would have been frowned upon and at worst resulted in a lawsuit.
The situation is worse in America, of course. You need to sleep with a gun under your pillow, lock yourself behind security doors and turn on multiple alarms. But, trends always take a little while to reach us here in Denmark. We’re increasingly installing surveillance cameras in our homes, and an increasing number of people admit to having a weapon within reach of their bed. You never know when an eastern European is going to violate your home in the middle of the night. We still can’t buy handguns like you can, so we need to settle for baseball bats, knives and the like. But, then again, these weapons might also be a little more cathartic.
As you can see, we resemble you a lot, Americans.
I’m not trying to moralise here. No-one is better than anyone else. It makes sense that a little country like Denmark would look up to America, its big brother. We try to be like you, in so many ways, so it’s only natural that we learn things about you – good and bad things. We’re inspired by America, no doubt about that. Sometimes, though, I wish the inspiration went both ways. I wish the US was better at noticing what’s going on in the world around it. I wish you would be inspired and learn, instead of believing that you ALWAYS know best. Otherwise, fear and pessimism is going to, slowly but surely, eat us alive.
The author teaches Danish and social studies at the Copenhagen adult education centre KVUC. This piece was originally printed in Politiken and has been translated and reprinted with the author's consent.