Saturday, April 12, 2014

Far from perfect: Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle

Maybe, if you’re like me and have spent a far amount of time in Scandinavia, you’re used to stereotypes about the Nordic lands held by people who’ve often never been there, but who take their images from popular culture. Before the arrival of Noma and Nordic Noir, I often found impressions of Scandinavia revolved around a handful of pictures: Fjords, snow and skiing, Olympic athletes or other tall blond people, lutefisk, and Ingmar Bergman films. Seattle has many Scandinavian-Americans and a thriving heritage culture (the big 17th of May parade, Swedish pancake breakfasts, Norwegian language classes). Yet detailed knowledge of modern Scandinavian societies is often lacking, even as curiosity seems to grow.

Now, instead of Olympic skiers, the Nordic countries would seem to be populated by serial killers and depressed, often alcoholic detectives. On the other hand, the food is thought to be much better than it was: fewer meatballs and more birch sap and lichen crackers.

In vain, when asked about my visits to Sweden, land of the murderous and melancholy, do I try to paint a more complex picture, one that includes a lot of multicultural billboards and young men, often accompanied by their friends or fathers, pushing perambulators on the street.

In London a couple of weeks ago I picked up The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a new book that purports to tell the “truth behind the Nordic miracle,” by travel writer and humorist Michael Booth, a Brit who lives in Denmark with his wife and family. It’s a little unclear what he thinks this miracle is; I  had the feeling he and his publishers were taking advantage of more extensive media coverage in Europe of Scandinavia, mostly owing to the popularity of several Danish TV series: The Killing, Borgen, and most recently The Bridge. Nevertheless the various straw dogs Booth assembles from each of the five countries allows him to offer opinions ranging from the hilarious to the puerile to the purely dyspeptic, with a good dose of sensible criticism of Denmark’s denial of its financial outlook, Sweden’s faltering welfare system, Iceland’s spectacular meltdown and recovery, Norway’s smug oil wealth, and finally Finland—which mostly does things right.

Posing as a naif at times, a brash travel writer looking for trouble, Booth is actually well-read when it comes to politics and a cool-eyed journalist, adept at getting interviews with the movers and shakers of each country. I read most of this longish book at one sitting (granted, on a flight from London to Seattle there’s a great incentive to sit), and found myself smiling at times and often nodding in agreement. I’ve been to each of the five countries, and know Norway particularly well from having lived there and visited numerous times. In the last ten years I’ve also spent lots of time in Sweden and Denmark, and many things he wrote either jibed with some of my own observations or discussed some aspect of the political scene that illuminated something I’d had never fully grasped, particularly about the ways in which the five countries, in areas of welfare, education, and economic policy differ so greatly, in spite of having many shared values.

Yet ultimately, for all the facts cited and the impressive number of interviews with policy makers, newspaper editors, bureaucrats, and a few relatives and friends for the personal touch, Booth’s book seems to me to skate too much on the surface, often generalizing and reinforcing stereotypes and maximizing divisions. He talks, for instance, about the social problems that occur with trying to fold immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, into the more homogeneous Nordic populations. But he rarely allows an immigrant to speak and certainly doesn’t celebrate some of the interesting initiatives at work, for instance, in Copenhagen, in the women’s organization Kvinfo, which has expanded its mission to include mentoring for refugee and immigrant women and a greater emphasis on ethnicity and equality along with gender issues.

Less reliance on his professional network, more innovative reporting, and especially giving new citizens of the different countries a voice, would have uncovered varied and creative responses to immigration, many government supported. Booth’s mention of the Sami who live in Sweden, Norway, and Finland is brief and uninformative; just one paragraph (p186-7) is devoted to this indigenous people with an important history in Scandinavia, a vibrant contemporary culture, and an ongoing political role to play in stopping destructive development in the north. No book can cover everything, but a book that claims to tell the truth about the Nordic people should make a greater effort to include many more voices. The Nordic countries, individually and as states, are far from as homogenous as Booth makes out. They may well be conformist in some ways, but Nordic people also travel widely and read voraciously, so their world is wider than Booth gives them credit for.

While the book made my flight speed by, I was plagued throughout my reading by a curious sense of emptiness at the heart of The Almost Nearly Perfect People. What was missing was the poetry of the North, the compelling light and darkness, the wild landscapes of the Norwegian coast, and rolling farmlands and forests of Sweden and Finland, not to mention the extraordinary volcanic, otherworldly geography that is Iceland’s. I felt sometimes I was sitting in an office block in Stockholm listening to one more talking head on the subject of the Swedish economy when I wanted to be walking along the Baltic shore on a bright summer’s day.

The poetry was missing in a literal sense, as well. Where was Nobel prize-winner, Tomas Transtömer? Or Rolf Jakobsen? Or the Sami joikers and  poets? Or the new crop of writers with immigrant parents who now write in Swedish or Danish? Where were exciting and popular Scandinavian writers like the Icelander Sjön or Norwegian Per Pettersen? Nordic Noir aside, Scandinavia and Finland have a wealth of literature, much of it translated, that far from reinforcing stereotypes, are more likely to illuminate the truth(s) of the Nordic imagination.

This book was published in the U.K. and its audience is more geared to a European readership. Here are a handful of reviews that give a flavor of the response to Booth's information as well as his humor.

1 comment:

Jack Cerf said...

Booth is writing from the point of view of a leftish middle class Anglo-Saxon, a reader of the Guardian or the New Yorker, who finds the egalitarian prosperity of the Scandinavian countries appealing. His title is not in the least ironic. While he finds the social conformity of the Danes and Swedes to be kind of stifling, he thinks it on the balance a fair price to pay. Much of his description of Scandinavian Lutheran reticence and socially enforced modesty, now secularized, will be familiar to any American who has visited Lake Woebegone. His conclusion, I think, is found early in the book, in one of the chapters on Denmark -- he says it's a wonderful country in which to be average, but if one is or aspires to be exceptional, the only recourse is to leave.

Booth also engages, somewhat reluctantly, with the elephant in the room, which is the racial and cultural homogeneity of each of the Nordic countries. He describes them as high context -- cultures in which everybody realizes that everybody else is in all essentials similar to themselves. That, he says, leads to the famous Scandinavian reticence; there isn't so much need for small talk as a social lubricant when you pretty much know what the other person is thinking. It also leads to a high trust level, which, among other things, decreases economic friction. Most importantly, it makes the system of redistribution politically possible because one's taxes are not going to an undeserving Other but to someone who wants, needs and deserves the same things you do.

Whether the solidarity of high context can stand the end of ethnic homogeneity is an open question. Booth finds the Danes are vocally anti-immigrant, the Swedes hypocritically so, and the Norwegians quick to deport. And he also thinks assimilation has its limits -- as he says jocularly about Denmark, it's tough to ask a Muslim to assimilate to a culture where the principal recreations are the consumption of beer and pork products. He doesn't say that its also tough for a Muslim to assimilate to a culture that treats God as a quaint, barbarous survival and that is radically anti-patriarchal, but that's true too. The Scandinavian nationalist anti-immigrant parties he describes are not in any sense what a European leftist would denounce as neo-liberal, i.e. American or Thatcherite capitalist. They believe strongly in the existing welfare system, but they insist that it be confined to people like themselves. And their share of the vote continues to increase.