A few comments have been directed more towards myself than to the subject of their respective posts. I guess the story of my life is also one out of 5 million other small pieces of the history of Denmark for the last 41 years, so this post is all about me and how I came to loathe the Danes and their ridiculous little country and their unmerited complacency and their peculiar love of dragging their intellectual knuckles on the ground as they walk through life.
I should warn you that the post is a little wordier than usual, but hey – I’m a complicated man.
I was born in the fall of 1967 in Copenhagen. My mum’s dad owned a small provisions business at the harbour supplying the ships with victuals and the seamen with liquor. My grandmother was a seamstress. My dad was made an orphan at the age of five, raised by nuns for a few years and then adopted by a Member of Parliament in desperate need of good publicity.
My parents met each other at the university so it was paramount to them that my name reflected their astronomical levels of knowledge and insight. And since this was the late sixties, “it was very important for us that you were named after a provo”, as they have often told me. Peter Andreas Heiberg was the right man for the job, apparently.
Heiberg lived from 1758 to 1841, was a writer and translator in a time of absolute monarchy – not a period of Danish history where mocking the nobility and criticising the King’s decisions would pass unnoticed. He was banished on Christmas Eve, 1799 and lived the rest of his life working as a clerk at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, France. His wife divorced him and many years after when his adult son visited him for the first time, he had gone blind. He died forgotten, poor and alone. Thank you ever so much for the christening gift, mum and dad.
In 1972 my parents had the audacity of sharing their attention to me with a brother. My response to that was beating him up on a daily basis until I received a well-deserved knock-out in 1981. Today he’s my best friend.
My dad spent the most of my childhood by almost finishing courses of study. He’s almost an architect and almost a civil engineer. In 1981 he summoned the strength and passed an exam as a mural paintings restorer and spent the rest of his working life rubbing and scratching tiny chalk whitening flakes off church walls around the country.
My mum was more determined in her ventures. She graduated as a social worker when I was 5 and has spent her career helping the homeless, saving children from violent homes and nursing mentally handicapped citizens.
They are both retired now. At this moment my mum is in Beijing on vacation and my dad is probably sharing a few pints with the locals at one of his favourite watering holes.
My brother and I were born and raised in socialist surroundings. Both our parents are proud members of the Socialist People’s Party, Socialistisk Folkeparti or SF, which occupies political territory a little to the left of the Social Democrats but far away from thoughts and ideas that include violent revolts or politbureaus. It was formed by people who were excluded from the Communist Party in 1958 because they had criticised the Soviet Union’s reaction to the uprisings in Hungary in 1956. Its chairman was lucky enough to break his leg at the party’s first election in 1960, so he campaigned from a hospital bed and SF entered our parliament Folketinget with 11 seats out of the 179 available and sent the Communists into oblivion. They have (almost) always supported the Social Democratic prime ministers since then, but have never held ministerial offices themselves.
My parents’ version of socialism is… pragmatic. They have owned property. They have christened both their children in churches. They have raised my brother and me to follow our ambitions, even if they include helping the evil multinational companies’ never ending efforts to enrich themselves on behalf of the working class. Once, when they were called to a meeting at the school where I was a 3rd grader and told that they should stop me from reading ahead on my homework because I was ‘getting out of level’, my parents just laughed and gave me more books.
But they have always demanded from us that we should show gratitude for living in a country where education and healthcare is free for all and unemployment doesn’t mean you have to spend the nights curled up in cardboard in dark alleys.
Except for the two summers I spent at Feminist Camp (more about that in a later post), every summer holiday of my childhood was spent on a bike, traversing the country from top to bottom, which sounds more energetic than it is, since you can never be farther away than 600 kilometres from anything in Denmark (except if you count in Greenland or The Faroe Islands, but they don’t seem to want to be counted in any more).
Every once in a while our parents would call the pedal-horse convoy to a halt and ‘give us the land’ as they called it. Spectacular scenery, a dolmen on top of a hill, a sunlit clearing on a hot July afternoon – they would tell us that this was ours no matter who claimed ownership of the actual property. This was ours because it was Danish and we were Danes. At the time we had no idea what they were talking about, of course, and pretty much had all attention directed towards laying out a strategy for relieving them of the private ownership of a couple of ice creams.
In 1982 our family moved from Copenhagen to a small town called Svendborg on the island called Fyn. Smack dab in the middle of Denmark, yes, but in the middle of nowhere if you asked me at that time. I was stunned. Copenhagen is not a big city by most standards, but Copenhageners are of the firm belief that it’s enormous. Arriving in Svendborg presented me with a change of culture that seemed impossible to endure at first. But I settled in, got friends, got my own apartment and completed upper secondary school with usable grades in 1986, still thinking that my future lay in astrophysics. Boy, was I wrong.
My plan was to spend a year or two having fun and then go to university and learn how to discover and inhabit other planets. And what could be more fun than getting paid for spending time in a bar? Little did I know that it was in the dense fumes of tipsiness and tobacco that I should find my vocation.
When you’re a bartender you have the responsibility of your guests well-being. And the first prerequisite for that is a cheerful and non-hostile atmosphere. Getting people to behave properly is a challenge – getting drunk people to behave properly is known to be almost impossible. But for some reason I was pretty good at it. A few months in, I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve made my living by adjusting people’s behaviour in different directions. From buying more coffee or chewing gum or cement factories to wearing a condom more frequently. I’ve spent some 20 years riding on the back of a society that’s gotten richer, healthier, more secure, and better educated every year. According to most theories of human behaviour that should create the foundation for a people who would develop into being more generous, more tolerant, more optimistic and more likely to base it’s decisions on rational thinking. But for the Danes, something went horribly, horribly wrong along the way.
My suspicion of this was first awakened in 1999. I was hired by The Danish Refugee Council to do a fund-raising campaign for the benefit of the refugees from the barbaric civil war in former Yugoslavia. The Danes’ history of providing means of survival for other nationalities in dire straits offers plenty of proof that this should not be an insurmountable task. Showing the actual living conditions of those in need usually did the trick. But our research showed, that the Danes either refused to acknowledge the authenticity of the hardship that these people had endured or simply ignored it. They couldn’t care less. But none of the participants of our surveys failed to mention how well-renowned Denmark was all over the world for always ‘being there’ when help was needed.
Instead we made the campaign all about helping the heroic Danish men and women struggling to make things right in Kosovo. Not a single picture of refugees. Lots of pictures of Danes. The amount of kroner collected sky-rocketed.
Something broke inside me during the weeks I spent on this project. Really? This was it? That’s what 50 years of perfect living conditions does to a people? Frosty indifference to those not as privileged?
But there were more shoes to sell, more cars to be wanted by more Danes so I just kept on truckin’ and made ads showing Danes wanting shoes and cars, hoping that it was just a phase. That reason would pull us through. Boy, was I wrong again.
A few years ago a writer was working on a school book about Islam. This guy had previously written books on the subject, one of them suggesting that we should spray menstrual blood on the Koran to teach the Muslims a lesson about equal rights of the sexes. This time he had cast his attention on the fact that drawing pictures of The Prophet Mohammed is considered extremely poor taste in some circles of Muslim society. I know a couple of the cartoonists that he asked to make drawings of exactly that for his book, both of them politely saying no to the job because you never get very far by spitting in people’s faces before trying to change their convictions.
A newspaper ran into the story and concluded that the only right reaction to this was to buy and print a number of cartoon drawings making as much of an insult to The Prophet as possible with the expressed intent of ‘mucking and ridiculing’ Muslim beliefs. Just to celebrate freedom of speech, you know.
I lost all hope for Danishness that day. All the spectacular views and the dolmen-dressed hills and the sunlit clearings were instantly reduced to sickness-invoking symbols of pure and unleashed stupidity. The whole thing with the cartoons showed that Danes lack even the simplest ability to engage in meaningful relations with cultures other than their own. And by that we lose the chance to play a part in shaping the world.
Despite my upbringing, I’m not a socialist. I believe in the idea of the welfare state; I’m indisputably a product of it myself, but there’s too much envy in socialism for my taste buds. I’m not a Neo-Conservative either. Or a Social Democrat. Or a nihilist. I believe that all the privileges and possibilities that we can agree to help each other achieve should be made instrumental for a higher level of human development. We should contribute our experiences and techniques to the collective pool of ideas and efforts of the world so that other countries can use the best of them to build better societies and develop new tools for society-building that we can use and so on.
I know this must sound incredibly banal to most of you, but for Danes it’s not even an option to consider.
So to sum things up and in response to the questions in the comments about why I’m doing this: I did love you once, Denmark. But I have serious doubts about ever being able to love you again. Because by meeting the world as a miserly, paranoid fool you produce the very proof that your way of doing things leads to failure.
And that really pisses me off.