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Opinion | Us, them and being Danish

Public broadcaster DR’s Washington correspondent, Erkan Özden, is a victim of “assimilation”, one of my friends, who I’ll call ‘K’, told me once. K teaches Danish as a second language and was informed about this at a training workshop on ‘cultural understanding’ at the University of Copenhagen. Referring to the fact that Özden has learned to speak standard Danish and that you can’t identify his ethnic origin based on the way he speaks, it was argued that the majority had forced him to accept their understanding of good language usage.

My friend was a little taken aback. As a language teacher, he’d sought to teach immigrants to learn Danish as well as possible, but now the culture experts were telling him that just insinuating that something is ‘better’ or ‘more Danish’ than something else is wrong – and even repressive.


K has always enjoyed working with people from other countries, but it wasn’t until he attended university that he found out that you can’t really be tolerant or inclusive unless you distance yourself from your own culture, or until you accept how much ‘structural racism’ exists in Denmark. For the final exam, students needed to search the Danish media for stigmatising portrayals of immigrants. 


Figuring it was probably bad for my health to attend the workshop/propaganda session, I borrowed K’s course material. This only confirmed my fears. The class was based on Iben Jensen’s ‘Grundbog i kulturforståelse’ (Introduction to Cultural Understanding). The book’s cover art shows a black man stating: “I’m from Africa.” To which a white man replies: “Cool, so you’re good at dancing, singing and hanging on the block.” The point – that ‘we’ generalise and ‘talk down’ to ‘them’ – was the general theme of the book and reflected its readability level: the language use isn’t much above what you’d find in a children’s picture book, and its point – to challenge the nation-state and promote multiculturalism – is made about as subtly as a Jehovah’s Witness recruitment spiel. 


Jensen’s text is something of a handbook in political correctness for all the well-behaved boys and girls who’ve been fed trendy theories about national identity being a ‘social construction’ from the 19th century, and built on the establishment of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and how we mustn’t allow this to be carried over into the age of globlalisation, which should be the age of the post-national, unprejudiced and inclusive ‘homo multiculutralis’.


What these scholars are telling us, then, is that Danish identity is dangerous and artificial, and that what we like to call ‘culture’ is simply laughable. Not long ago, DR broadcasted the 2011 performance of annual parody skit show Circusrevy, which contained a bit about the immigration point system. In the skit, two characters, ‘Fatima’ and ‘Ahmed’, both eager to assimilate into Danish society, each “lack 10 points in order to be included into the Danish context”, as the refrain went. They’d done everything they could to become real Danes: they bought a clap hat and a bible, they decked their walls with porcelain platters, and they were willing to watch pornographic films on the internet and get divorced. 


Another example is the work ‘Vi danskere’ (We Danes), by award-winning, misanthropic poet Henrik Nordbrandt, which – all too predictably – puts down our complacency and pokes fun at pig farming, the Church of Denmark and the Royal Family. Fortunately, Nordbrant’s lyrical talent saves the day for him.


And now that we’re at it, at the University of Copenhagen’s library, I found a catalogue of courses in ‘Danish culture’ for foreign students. The cover featured Peter Carlsen’s painting ‘Danmark 2009’, a pastiche of Delacroix’s iconic revolutionary image ‘Liberty leading the people’. Carlsen combines the preposterous with the dangerous by portraying Danes as a beer drinking, pork eating and tabloid reading group as a way to signify their mediocrity, simplicity and bourgeois consumerism. Meanwhile, in the background, there’s a baseball bat-wielding football fan and lynch mob. Welcome to Denmark!


Many will probably call me a frustrated, humourless stiff, but there are times when I wonder just how complacent we are here in Denmark, and whether those who attack Danishness are as controversial as they think they are. My humble point is that while self-criticism is a virtue, hating yourself is pitiful. 


With the box office success of the film Hvidsten Gruppen, about a Second World War resistance cell, many of the letters written by members of the resistance group are being made public. The letters make for fascinating reading – quite possibly even for social constructivists and critical culture researchers. The letters make it clear that they weren’t fighting for democracy, the welfare state or human rights. What they were fighting for was freedom for their people and their country. In their defence, you can say that modern culture studies were just as unknown for them as they were for Saxo Grammaticus when he wrote about the feats of the Danes. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t know that they gave their lives for a repressive social construction. They never state outright whether they were ashamed of the Royal Family, the Church of Denmark or pig farming, but I doubt they were.


The Hvidsten Group must be a goldmine for culture scholars looking into nationalism.


Am I paranoid? I hope so. But I can’t seem to shake the notion that disrespect for one’s own culture is masked by respect for someone else’s – like when teachers move Christmas celebrations out of churches in consideration for non-Christian students. Nor can I let go of the thought that those that are the biggest proponents of inclusion, actually, practise the opposite: eliminating national cultural differences and intolerance for everything they, for political reasons, don’t approve of.


I’ll never forget going to a meeting at my daughter’s school and suggesting that they consider instituting a traditional morning assembly, complete with flag raising and song. One father swore that he’d never let his son be subjected to that sort of “Christian propaganda”. So much for the great hymn writers of the past. Now, they sing kids’ songs which don’t exclude anyone, neither on religious grounds nor on ethinic grounds, because they are totally meaningless.


All of this makes me think of people I’ve met who defected from eastern Europe during the Cold War. They were happy to arrive in the free world, but the most progressive of their new compatriots told them that Denmark was a repressive, post-capitalist society. Fortunately for them, the country was still free enough that these people were allowed to put it down – and also fortunately for them, the majority of Danes at that time weren’t progressive social constructivists either. 


Lars Christiansen is a German translator and author and is currently a PhD fellow at Aarhus University


Originally published by Berlingske.