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Getting to Denmark

(Copenhagen Airport)

Is there any country that punches further above its weight class than Denmark? It is a small country in both size (43000 square km, smaller than Nova Scotia) and population, with just over 5 million people. But from Hamlet to Hans Christian Andersen, from Niels Bohr to Bjorn Lomborg, from Kierkegaard to Lars Von Trier, Danes both real and imagined have had a hugely disproportionate influence on global culture, science, and politics. 

(I reviewed Fukuyama's book for The Progagandist)

It is perhaps no surprise then to discover that Danes are supremely happy. By a recent measure, they are the happiest people in the world, out-happying the rest of Scandinavia and the entire Anglosphere. What is interesting about Danish happiness is that the result is based on the measure pioneered by the Kingdom of Bhutan, with its metric of "Gross National Happiness". Yet while Bhutan has always used GNH as a political tool to show that wealth is an obstacle to happiness, in Denmark wealth is one of its very sources. That is, while the Bhutanese are looking for happiness by turning their backs on the modern world, Denmark's path to happiness is profoundly and enthusiastically modern. 

That shouldn't be too controversial: Look at the list of the top ten happiest countries, and compare with the bottom ten. The most obvious differentiator is wealth. But not just any sort of wealth, but wealth leavened by high level of trust, a strong welfare state, high employment, substantial gender equality, low levels of corruption, and a high degree of social integration.

This is Denmark. 

I recently spent a week or so in this peaceable kingdom, mostly in Copenhagen with a side-trip to Odense. I originally went at the invitation of Professor Per Østergaard of the Institute for Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. I also met some journalists and various young thinkers, including David Turner and Markus Bernsen. Both are on staff at Weekendavisen, a weekly broadsheet that seems pitched at the the same sort of audience as The Economist.  I also got to hang out with a gang associated with the think tank CEPOS, including the author/anthropologist  Dennis Nørmark, the sociologist Ulla Holm, and a handful of other academics, journalists, and public sector workers, all of whom were extraordinarily generous with their time, ideas, and booze budgets. 

The trip was remarkable in a million ways. A constitutional monarchy, Denmark has a lot in common with Canada -- notwithstanding the enormous differences in geography and demography. In many ways, Denmark is Canada's idealised version of itself. In the face of rising levels of immigration, Denmark is struggling with existential questions of national identity, something that Canadians have become extremely good at. 

The nature of Danish masculinity is also in play. A surprising number of youngish men and women I met freely admitted that Danish men were emasculated and that Danish women were authoritative and independent. But as with so many issues that arose over the course of conversation, the answer was a laughingly self-deprecating "at least we aren't as bad as the Swedes!". And in that, they are probably right. 

The crisis of Danish masculinity (if it indeed exists, and is not just an artifact of the phenomenon known as Traveler's Insight) is reflected in the broader national angst over their participation in the war in Afghanistan. Fighting alongside the Brits in Helmand, the Danes have suffered the highest death rates of any allied country.  It is also providing one of the highest per capita contributions the war -- 750 troops, compared to Canada's 3000. 

Like Canadians, Danes had grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as a nation of peacekeepers, and the shock of finding themselves killing and being killed in a shooting war in Asia was profound. To get a sense of this, watch the movie Armadillo, a Restrepo-style documentary  that shows the soldiers doing the usual things -- goofing off on base, handing out candy to Afghan children, and messing around in LAVs trying to avoid IEDs. But one extended episode, that involved  Danish soldiers pulling Taliban bodies  from a ditch and stripping them of their weapons, caused a huge fuss back home. There was talk of charging the soldiers with war crimes, though they were cleared after an investigation. 

I don't want to make too much of the similarities between Canada and Denmark. They are there for sure, but Denmark is interesting enough in its own right. In the next few posts on this blog, I'll try to do justice to one of the more intellectually and personally rewarding trips I've ever taken.