A Good Day for World Peace

After 70 years of “war” in Korea, was this the breakthrough we were waiting for?

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The Singapore Sling is an iconic drink, created more than 100 years ago. You take an American mixture of something strong and something sweet, add a few Asian flavors, and you’ve made history.

That was also the recipe for today’s summit on Sentosa Island, Singapore, the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy made the phrase “Speak softly, carry a big stick” famous. That’s not the first expression you would use about Donald Trump, but he does seem to have somehow broken through to the world’s weirdest regime. Despite several many potential flies in the ointment, that itself is a big achievement.

A Fool’s Errand

From threatening mutual destruction to suddenly embracing each other as friends, Trump and Kim have come a long way.

Only last year, they were calling each other a madman and a dotard, respectively, and worse.

Kim-Jong-un-1Kim Jong-Un:
”I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
“Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason.”

051117trump-angryDonald Trump:
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”
”Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”

Objectively speaking, they were probably both correct.

And perhaps this is one of the real reasons they apparently hit it off in Singapore today – they are both equally crazy, and on some level understand each other.

Win-Win?

Critics say that Trump has played right into Kim’s strategy. Certainly, as argued in Politico, “Kim’s diplomacy is a progression of Kim’s strategy.” His agenda includes better international relations and improved quality of life for his people.

In that light, the summit and agreement is a big win for Kim. And personally for Trump, who has not had many policy breakthroughs and is facing mid-term elections later this year.

It also weakens U.S. bargaining chips, say some, but if the end result is lasting peace in Korea, doesn’t that make us all winners?

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BFF

In today’s press conference Trump was confident and spoke almost like a statesman, especially in his prepared statement. Hats off to the ghost writer, but also to Trump himself for saying words such as:

“The past does not have to define the future. Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can, indeed, become friends.”

To an oratorically deprived audience, such words from the president seemed almost blissfully out of character. In the following Q&A he reverted occasionally into his usual self-defense mode, but still with more composure than has often been the case.

Ten years ago on this blog I was hoping for a thaw in relations between North Korea and the world, but not a whole lot happened. Will it this time? Only time will tell.

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Ban or no Ban?

How can a liberal society justify outlawing ‘religious expression’?

Denmark is making international headlines, not for hygge and happiness, but once again as a battle-ground for the clash between Western and Muslim civilizations.

The Danish parliament voted last week to ban burqas and niqabs, following the lead from France and other countries.

Additionally, there has been heavy public debate on (male) circumcision, sparked by a citizen’s petition calling for a full ban on circumcision of anyone under 18.

Do these cases represent attacks on religious liberty and liberal values? No, it’s not quite that simple.

The self-righteous left will probably interpret the ban as an attack on religious liberty. I would rather see it as a sad, but necessary counter-attack on individual liberty.

It’s all a matter of perspective. And campaigners are quick to label their opponents’ views and practices as sexism and child abuse, or religious persecution, respectively. Calling each other names will not resolve the issue, however.

Religion as victim or oppressor?

It is an easy temptation, especially in religious circles, to portray religion as the victim. To argue that the most important civil right is the right to freely express your religion.

But even as a religious person myself, I don’t subscribe to that point of view. Surely, the right to live is more important? The right to decide your own fate? The right to not be oppressed?

The civil rights movement in the U.S. was about basic human dignity, not religion. In fact, you had churches and ministers fighting vehemently for their right to treat black people as, well, not people.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, churches which were believed to be places of refuge were converted to scenes of mass slaughter.

It’s not that the Left are any better. Remember Stalin? Mao? Chavez?

The right to live

No, religious liberty as a value should not be put above other values and basic human rights.

The values of liberty and justice and equal rights may have roots in religion, and perhaps even in the divine. I believe that recognizing all human beings as loved by a Creator should carry an imperative to treat them with the dignity and respect that they are often deprived of.

But the sad reality is that organized religion has not always been the most ardent proponent of this principle.

Societal values

So back to burqas. For all its populism and symbolic gestures (the number of people carrying them is disproportionately small), I believe the ban has merit.

People have the right to choose, but choosing badly has consequences. They have a right to choose, but not to enforce their views on others or disturb the public order.

When some Muslim women say, “no, we are not oppressed,” they are speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

And when some Adventist women say, “we do not want ordination of women,” they are also speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

The burqa represents a world-view we do not want to condone, just as Feudalism and censorship has been removed in our society. And as a society, I believe we must defend our values of individual rights and liberalism, even if it has a few paradoxical consequences and draws criticism from those opposed to those values.

When English takes on new meanings abroad

Foreigners beware: What you think of as an English term may be something made up entirely by your fellow foreigners.

Languages develop; always have, and always will. New terms and words develop; words and terms are borrowed from one language into another. My high school Latin teacher often derided English for being “impure”, and he does have a point: there are remarkably many borrowed words in the world’s lingua franca.

That has cultural and historical reasons, of course, as does the fact that German ceased in dominance in the 20th century, as English rose to conquer the world. The borrowing goes mostly the other way now, and English terms fill our lives like never before. You could argue that crappy English is now the world’s most spoken language.

An interesting side effect is how foreign languages make up their own terms in English. That’s right – importing words is not enough, they even have the audacity to alter it, and often don’t even notice it themselves. This means that in Denmark we speak words in English to each other which no native speaker would have heard before.

You have to be bilingual, and somewhat of a geek, to notice these things. Well, here I am. I can only speak for Denmark, but I would imagine the phenomenon exists elsewhere too.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Soft-ice. You know, the creamy ice cream featured in a Sundae? In American English, it’s known as soft serve, but each country has its own term, apparently, with Germanic Northern Europe tending towards a variety of soft ice.

Body. This word entered my vocabulary with fatherhood. Known in English as a onesie or a romper, it’s what you put on your baby, right after the diaper. It took me a while to discern that the Danish term body probably derives from body stocking; a term which applies only to adult lingerie, however. Oh, and we pronounce it “buddy”.

Ghettoblaster. Not strictly a foreign invention, however what is known elsewhere as a boombox the Danes refer to only as a ghettoblaster (in one word). According to urbandictionary.com, ghetto blaster was a pejorative nickname, “reflecting the belief that they are popular in poor inner-city neighborhoods (ghettos), especially those populated by black Americans.”

Stationcar. A type of car, known in English speaking countries mostly as station wagon or estate. It’s not that station wagon is an unknown term, but for some reason that was not enough. You can see the logic of calling it a station car, and most people would be able to guess what you are referring to. But that doesn’t make it correct.

Feel free to add your favorite examples.

The social contract of shovelling snow

For what I hope will be the last time of the season, I was out shovelling snow this afternoon.

It takes me 15-20 minutes to clear the driveway and our stretch of sidewalk, so the chore is not too tiresome. Plus, it has been a weak winter in Denmark, as is often the case, and I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to shovel this year.

Still, as a homeowner its something you do – to make sure you can get your car out, so visitors can approach safely – and because you are obligated by law. As a general rule in Denmark, any stretch of paved sidewalk must be kept clear and passable by the landowner.

It is easy to see, however, that the obligation is taken quite lightly. Nowhere in the places I’ve lived or visited in the last few years do you see 100% compliance. Sure, many people do it, but pedestrians can never be sure of clear passage.

I may not be the first to shovel (that honour often goes to our next-door neighbour), but I do try to do my duty, and I am definitely not the last on the street.

Why the variance?

There are many excuses for the lack of compliance. Ruling out the weak and elderly (which I believe may be granted exemption), most would say they are too busy with work and tight schedules. It is a weak argument, however.

The small-business-owner across the street, for instance, has plenty of time for loud building projects and polishing his Tesla, but not once in our four years on the street have I seen their stretch of sidewalk cleared of snow.

Another reason could be that many people drive more. They are oblivious to the annoyance they bring down on pedestrians, since they rarely walk themselves.

Which brings me to the final reason: something has changed in our society in terms of solidarity. That’s a big word to use for a small matter, I know. But I believe it is an example of how we care less for what others think, and more for ourselves.

The lawful obligation to clear your own sidewalk most likely comes from a time when this was the common solution to such issues: it was natural for people to think of the better good of their neighbours and communities. The social contract mandated that you did your duty to keep things tidy.

That social contract seems to have changed, even while the legislation remains.

Possible solutions

What should we do about it, then? A common answer would be nothing; there are bigger issues to worry about. They have a point. But the case still presents a mismatch which I cannot quite ignore.

There is the American option: do away with sidewalks altogether: no shovelling, no problem. Not very child-friendly, though.

There is the ‘fascist’ option: increase the penalty for non-compliance. Today you can sue for damages if you slip on a non-cleared sidewalk, but it rarely happens. You could have the police do rounds and enforce the law. Probably not the best use of their time.

There is a campaign option: through communication efforts you can remind people that this is important, and why.

Another option is to revise the legislation: acknowledging that we will never see full compliance, remove the obligation from the homeowners, make it a public responsibility, and send the bill back to citizens through higher taxes. Good luck with that.

Ignoring the reality

What amuses me, though, is a common objection to doing anything at all. Many people will respond by saying something like: “People know the rules, they just need to follow them.” While technically not incorrect, it also completely ignores the fact that currently people do know the rules, but they don’t follow them.

If the system is outdated, and the social contract dissolved, then an appeal like that will achieve absolutely nothing.

Bottom line: It is difficult to change a social tradition that has been in place for generations, even if and when it stops working.

A Frenchman in the Cold North

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Photo credit: Torben Eskerod, Kongehuset

Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.

A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.

Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.

A man of the world

He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.

He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.

He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.

For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.

Don’t stand out

In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.

Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.

Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.

Assimilation, not integration

This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.

The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.

In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.

Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.

Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.

Ten emotions that describe my 2017

Of death, Trump, and everything in between: an alternative look at a turbulent year in my life.

As an introvert, I have often heard that I am not wont to expressions of emotion. I even recognize a similar ‘stone face’ in my daughter at times. You should not let the apparent stolid exterior fool you, however. I choose other means of expression. Music is one; another is writing; hence the theme of this post.

On this day of reckoning, I have to reflect on a year with an unusual number of ups and downs, and no clear conclusion. A chronological approach would not work, neither would a simple list of events.

Instead, I will try to describe my 2017 through a list of emotions in no particular order, but corresponding to the first ten letters of the alphabet.

A. Accomplishment

When we bought our house four years ago, the woodwork was all pink – not our first choice against the yellow bricks. This year, I finally found the time and energy for a colour change. I probably spent around 100 hours in August and September, but now everything is shining white. All our neighbours welcomed the change, and it still makes me happy whenever I look.

B. Bewilderment

Visiting the U.S. in January was a good experience, as usual, but then not quite. Trump’s first travel ban came into effect while we were there. It didn’t affect us personally, but it was further evidence that something is not right in this country.

The actions of the president are difficult to ignore, and half of my blog posts this year comment directly or indirectly on Trump’s leadership. My love for the country has been tainted, which is something I do not take lightly.

C. Change

My parents moved back to Denmark this year, after 17 years abroad. For me, it meant a farewell to trips to Michigan, like the end of the Sydney era eight years ago. It meant house-hunting with my mom in May, and finally having them arrive in their new abode in July. We spent Christmas at their house, just a 25-minute drive away, and look forward to a new, more normalized mode of family relationships.

D. Desperation

Looking for a new job can be a stressful experience, and more than once this year I’ve had the doubtful honour of being runner-up to a good position. I’m good at what I do, but what I do is not primarily job hunting. I crave the experience of using my skills in a more thorough, intense, and value-adding manner. Soon.

E. Elation

Winning the London International A Capella Choir Competition this summer was a pinnacle of my eight-year tenure in Camerata, one of Denmark’s best choirs. To reach this level as amateurs is a true privilege.

F. Faith

This year I have been to church probably more than the previous six years combined. That’s not saying a lot, but it’s a careful, welcome change. A mustard seed, if you will.

G. Grief

Standing in the rain beside the grave of my beloved grandmother, only tears could express the feeling of loss. At 97 it was her time to go, and she was blessed with a long and rich life. Still, the memories are now irreversibly just memories, and the emptiness remains.

With my wife’s grandfather passing away just a month later, our children have no remaining great-grandparents. Indeed, 2017 was a year of loss.

H. Hope

This is the other side of the double-edged sword of unemployment. I have been frustrated, yes, but I have also been fortunate to meet many interesting people in the Copenhagen business community. I value the time spent with new and existing contacts. The positive feedback and good experiences leaves me with hope for the future, despite the uncertainty.

I. Immersion

As our children’s sleeping patterns improve, we have rediscovered time for watching movies and series, a welcome diversion and, at times, immersion.

In 2017 we went through classic series such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, and discovered Game of Thrones (better late than never).

But the most lasting impression on me was made by Interstellar. Something in the premise and the melancholy of that film touched me deeply – a feeling which was intensified by hearing music from the film in concert with DRSO only a few months later.

J. Joy

Despite the challenge and uncertainty of our situation, 2017 has been a good year. There are two very tangible reasons for that: Lily and Edith, now 3 and 1, who continue to amaze us with their love, fun ideas, contagious joy, occasional tantrums, mutual affection, and continuous development. I am privileged with a family whom I love, and who loves me back. At the end of the day (and year), that’s what really matters. Happy New Year!

Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.