How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

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Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

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Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

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This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

Winter 10-68

Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

Christmas 14-05

The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

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But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.

The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.

What hath 2016 wrought?

Lily Edith Christmas 2016
Dear Edith,

Everyone is saying 2016 was a terrible year. Yet years from now, your mother and I will look back at 2016 as one of a single significance: the year you were born.

Yes, right now we remember 2016 for the conflict in Syria, Donald Trump’s election, and the death of celebrities such as Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and others. But when you are old enough to understand, I hope that these events will no longer give any cause for worry.

For your father, it has been a turbulent year. I began by saying goodbye to my employer of nearly five years, with a promising new start. That new start brought, for one thing, a shorter commute which gave me more time with your sister and mother, and eventually with you. It also brought me the stress of adapting into a new environment. And ultimately, although through no fault of my own, it led to termination, which is why I have been there to play with you every day the past eight weeks. While this has been good family time, I enter 2017 with the burden of finding somewhere else to employ my skills. As the sole provider, you really need a job.

As for your arrival, it has been a joy to see you grow into the smiling and cackling 6-month-old you have become, and witness the mutual love between you and your sister. I do also remember how the first two months were especially tough on me, as I adapted to our new situation and came to know you as a person. You will not and should not understand this until one day you become a parent yourself, at which time I will probably be too old to remember myself.

On a lighter note, we planted the berry bushes and fruit trees which I hope you are enjoying. Before you were born, your sister and parents made a short break in Bologna, Italy, our first proper holiday in several years. And we enjoyed a visit from your paternal grandparents, with the prospect of them moving back to Denmark very soon. We have missed them, and are happy to know that they will be larger part of your life as you grow up.

You celebrated your first Christmas gracefully among family at home, and tonight you will (we hope) sleep through your first New Year’s Eve.

Edith, you have blessed our family beyond measure. It is my prayer that you will be a highlight not only of 2016, but of our entire lives to come. Happy New Year!

Love, Dad

How do you explain hygge?

Hygge is everywhere these days. The English-speaking world has embraced this Danish/Scandinavian concept with a fervour. So when a friend of mine, who writes for an Australian magazine, told me she was doing a piece on hygge, I was not entirely surprised. She wanted input from a real Danish person, and I was only happy to oblige.

These are her questions, and my answers:

Is hygge a real thing in Denmark, or is it just something made up by marketers who tell us it’s from Denmark?

Hygge is definitely real. The trouble with defining it is that for us Danes it’s ubiquitous. Just as fish cannot see water, we don’t really ponder the meaning of hygge until we have to explain it to a foreigner.

If it’s a real thing, what is your opinion of it?

Although difficult to define, it is something that sets us apart. Not that other people don’t know how to have a good time, but they probably do so less vigorously. A common joke is that Danes wouldn’t be any good in war; we would stop to sit down and eat way too often.

Do you “practise” it? And if yes, how and why? If no, why not?

Paradoxically for the marketers, real hygge is not about buying stuff. The marketing version is, at best, 50% true. It’s more about being in the moment. You set the scene for that moment with anything you like. Any combination of mood lighting, background music, entertainment, some form of comfort food (or drink), and good company. Indoors or outdoors. We tend to stay inside a lot because of the climate, but in my opinion a traditional Aussie barbecue would in fact qualify.

Finally, how do you pronounce the word?

The difficult part as a native English speaker is the first vowel, which doesn’t exist in English. If you know other languages, however, you’ll find it’s the same sound as in German süss, French tu, or Mandarin yuan. The double g is hard, as in goat, and the final e is an unstressed vowel, like the second syllable in Brisbane. Now you try.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I hope my contribution will help the readers understand some of the ups and downs. Danish readers may find more thoughts (in Danish) in this post from 2011.

The End of Politics

America finally had its anti-establishment political breakthrough.

U.S. CapitolAfter Donald Trump’s surprise win last night, the world is rightfully shocked and scared. How could a person like that rise to power in the world’s most powerful country? But while Trump is uniquely American, his election follows a trend which has marked other parts of the world for years, even decades.

Yes, the man is jerk, a bully, and an idiot; the type of guy you would hate in school, knowing that he might have his way back then, but he would never succeed in life. Except sometimes they do.

But despite all that, Trump represents something else: he is not a politician. His anti-establishment platform has hit a nerve with millions of voters who are fed up with bureaucracy, career politicians, and inside deals. For that, they have apparently been willing to accept an incredibly high number of personal flaws.

We have seen the anti-establishment trend play out in Europe for a while. Right-wing parties such as UKIP in the UK, Front National in France, or the Danish People’s Party in Denmark are all testament to this. And just look at Duterte in the Philippines.

At the last Danish election, in 2015, voters in droves (myself included) supported new-ish, anti-establishment parties on all sides of the political spectrum. More than anything else, I interpret that election as a quiet uproar of people fed up with the ruling classes. The enlightened elite had all become the same, congratulating themselves on their one version of the truth, reading the same newspapers, hardly venturing out of the capital. But by focusing inwards, this elite became blinded by their own know-it-all attitude, ignoring real problems facing large portions of the population.

So if you thought the worst that could come of voter fatigue was falling electoral participation, think again. The vacuum left by the blinded elite is paving the way for protest parties and politicians across the globe. Trump is the latest in that chain. And of course the Americans had to take it to the extreme.

The great convergence of fear

As Halloween transcends borders and beliefs, everyone but Rome is becoming more catholic.

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Pope Francis visits Lund, Sweden today, to ‘celebrate’ the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironic? Welcome to 2016.

It is no coincidence that this happens on Halloween. Because when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church (sic) in Wittenberg, breaking the Catholic Church’s monopoly on salvation, it is believed to have been on exactly this date, 499 years ago.

So what is it with Halloween? The feast has come full circle, with roots in Celtic harvest festivals as well as early Christianity, crossing the Atlantic, and now hitting Europe full force as a dumbed-down, Americanized celebration of saints, death, fear, scariness, candy, and pumpkins (at least we’re now also eating the pumpkins).

This is convergence – everything melting together. And nobody seems to remember that Danish Protestantism had actually retained an All Hallows’ Eve event in its curriculum with church services and the like.

Which in itself is strange, since the whole concept of Saints was one of the things the Reformation rebelled against. Nobody, living or dead, should have ‘special status’ according to God. And the Church should not wield its power by installing fear (of Hell) in its subjects.

As a good protestant I was brought up to fear Rome, not spirits. Halloween becomes a non-event when you don’t believe in ghosts, but await a physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Catholic Church, however, was seen as a real, potential enemy, distorting the ways of God. Clergymen should not be people of power, and any human should have direct access to God.

When Catholics and Lutherans attempt to bridge the centuries-old gap today, it will be a cause for alarm for some. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has changed a lot since 1517, and burying the axe is not a bad thing.

Breaking down barriers – convergence – is true to the original meaning of the word catholic: universal; all-encompassing. Catholic uppercase has a different connotation, however.

An editorial in the usually very secular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has some interesting points: They note the fascination with the pope, but also remind us that “in Lutheran eyes the pope is no more, no less Christian than the congregation.” They also remind their readers that “the [Danish] Lutheran People’s Church differs from the Catholic Church  by having room for differences, and that nobody can speak on behalf of the church.”

While the Pope is reaching out across differences, my own Seventh-day Adventist Church is becoming more and more Catholic in its actions; at least at the top organizational level it is no longer a movement, but an elite of the few with the ‘correct’ views, attempting to wield undue power over their flock.

Convergence. Old fault lines disappearing, organizations becoming that which they rebelled against, and new consensuses appearing.

My reaction is not to fear, even though today is Halloween. Rather, I will quote the “Litany of fear” from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Also that is convergence – finding inspiration in a fictional religion set in a distant future. Where will we be 500 years from now? Let’s not worry about that.