Monday, December 17, 2012

On "The Scandinavians" by Donald S. Connery *****

The one drawback to this wonderful introduction to post-World War II Scandinavian culture is that it is fifty years old and, thus, in many ways out of date. And yet, my general impressions of Scandinavia before coming to this text would have matched those of mid-1960s Scandinavia as well. Connery terms the basic stereotype of the nations of this area as being involved heavily in sex, socialism, and suicide, and his text goes about both debunking and confirming these general impressions.

After a general introduction to these themes, Connery presents chapters on each of the Scandinavian nations respectively: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a short postcript on Iceland. Denmark emerges as a country fun partygoers, Norway as a country of naive outdoorsmen, Sweden as a land of stern and hardy workers, and Finland as a land of quiet depressives. Iceland is the land of the original Vikings (indeed, even the language is more akin to original Danish than contemporary Danish, as if the area is frozen in time). All of these impressions are true, and all of them are false, which is what Connery brings out.

The chapters of each part delve into consistent themes: general cultural impressions, the physical geography, history, contemporary government and economy, famous people, and the arts. By remaining more general, Connery is able to give a better understanding of why each nation did what it did in World War II than someone who focuses on the nitty-gritty details, though he is perhaps a bit hagiographic (uncritical) with regard to each nation. Finland emerges in a particularly sympathetic light, the loser of over twenty wars who has somehow managed to survive despite all that. Indeed, for much of its history it was either part of Sweden or part of Russia, and when not, it has been under threat from its larger neighbors.

The welfare system in each of these countries emerges in a particularly interesting light. Although each nation is generous in how it treats its sick and aged and poor, and although each country has high taxes to enable such, the idea that they are truly socialist falls by the wayside when one considers how much of the private sector is owned by the government--indeed, very little in most cases.

Connery covers in some detail the Danish penal system, which focuses more on rehabilitation than on confinement. He seems won over by the idea that treating such prisoners in a humane way works better than denying them comforts. He makes me think our own American system--so often focused on punishment and "revenge" for wrong deeds--needs quite a bit of reform. But there is a balance, and it strikes me as a bit naive in some ways to think that would work for all peoples confined to prison.

Another startling government feature in most Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, is the "ombudsman." His role is to investigate government wrongdoing. If there is an accusation, a complaint, the ombudsman looks into it and then, if the troubles prove to have foundation, makes recommendations accordingly. The role seems similar to the consumer bureau that the United States has lately attempted to set up to guard against corporate wrongdoing. I get a sense the U.S. version will get bogged down in red tape and corporate buy-offs.

Sweden comes off as a country with strong strictures on drinking as does Finland. Both countries own all the liquor stores (though in the former case, the intent was mostly to make money for the king originally). This allows Sweden, for example, to prevent certain known drunks from purchasing liquor. Bars close by one a.m. Taxes on liquor are exorbitantly high, which keeps it from heavy purchase. And yet, at the same time, attitudes toward sex are comparatively open. In Finland, even in the sixties, out-of-wedlock babies were common as were couples living together; even so, pornography and the like was frowned upon. Women were more often in government and more likely to hold jobs comparable to men. In Sweden, the church was something all Swedes become members of and render income to from birth, unless they actually apply to become nonmembers; most don't bother to deregister, even though few people actually attend services. Such odd juxtapositions are what make Scandinavia unique.

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