Vive la résistance

There is intelligent life in the White House, after all. What about Silver Spring?

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Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times was one of the most interesting, and heart-warming pieces of news recently. Yes, you heard me right.

nytimes_opedInteresting, sure. An anonymous senior White House official points the gun at President Trump, essentially saying: we know he’s amoral and erratic, but we are working behind the scenes to contain the damage and counter some of his worst tendencies. Trump has responded in his usual manner, shouting and threatening on Twitter. The circus continues.

But what makes this heart-warming is the fact that even Trump’s supporters are aware of the reality. Even if you blinded yourself to believing in the man, this op-ed shows us that there are still people in power who want to work for what’s best for the country.

Things may not change overnight, but this gives me hope.

Church politics gone sour

I have previously mentioned the ongoing political theatre in the Adventist Church, which I am a member of. And I have compared General Conference President Ted Wilson to Donald Trump – not for his morals, but for his ignorance of the limits of power, and lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Next month, the church’s world leadership will meet for their Annual Council, and following last year’s failed attempt at forcing unity, an inquisition-like setup of oversight committees is once again on the agenda.

Where is the op-ed from within the General Conference office?

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We probably won’t see that, but I have to believe that not everyone is happy with the president’s warmongering. It would not surprise me if – like in the White House – a large group of church officials are silently playing along, but doing their best behind the scenes to mend some of the wounds which the president’s actions are creating.

Silent majority

The president can be a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, I don’t care. But a president should not be authoritarian and despotic, whether he is president of a country or a church.

Yes, Trump got elected. But I still believe in the American people. I choose to have faith that a silent majority of Americans cannot abide this man’s values and actions.

Similarly, I choose, for now, to have faith in the Adventist Church. I have to believe that a silent majority cannot abide by the divisive, un-democratic behavior of its highest elected official, but have hopes and intentions that transcend political games.

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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.”

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“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.

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.

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.

The Road to Norway

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Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

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I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

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There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

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There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

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Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

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As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

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It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

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The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2002. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

A land of your own?

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As Kurds in Iraq voted on independence last week, and Catalans in northern Spain attempted to do so this Sunday, it seems like a new wave of independence movements is underway. They are not alone: Scotland comes to mind, as does Greenland (at times), and of course Tibet, South Sudan, Kosovo, and others.

These situations can easily escalate into violence. Ironically, more violence has been reported from Spain than from Iraq.

Reactions from around the world follow the traditional lines: those with nothing at stake support the movements or stay silent. Those who condemn are typically countries who fear similar movements within their own territories.

For the supporters, the right of people to choose their own government weighs heavily.

The US Declaration of Independence states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a destructive government], and to institute new Government”. And for most free countries, this rings true as the decent thing to do.

But it’s not that simple. The American Civil War was fought because the Confederates were not allowed to secede from the Union. Yes, slavery was the issue of moral high ground, but also at stake was the integrity of the nation. A United States of America would be a strong world power – two Americas would not.

Even for democratic states, it’s about money and power.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It would add even further strain on its struggling economy were the powerhouse of Barcelona to leave.

Similarly, independence for Padania (Northern Italy) would be fatal to the Italian economy.

China needs Tibet, not for economic reasons, but as a territorial buffer to India.

Turkey fears having to give up large parts of its territory to a united Kurdistan, and thus opposes the movement among Iraqi Kurds.

On the other hand, Greenland for instance survives on large subsidies from Denmark, which they would lose with independence. Consequently, any thought of them becoming independent is no real cause for worry in Denmark (even with potential mineral riches).

Scotland is somewhere in between. They have oil, but London remains the economic centre. And yes, dissolving the union would be a blow to any Imperial memories the English might have. But with Brexit, they have chosen their own path of solitude, so they are (self-)occupied for the time being.

So where does that leave Catalonia and Kurdistan? The people in power need to balance morality with prosperity. People’s rights and all that is fine if you have nothing to lose. Will they accept a poorer Madrid and a less powerful nation, or keep on fighting against the will of the people? Only time will tell.