Category Archives: culture

Rye bread and salt liquorice

Danish rye bread and salt liquorice.
Danish rye bread and salt liquorice.
The Tories' Brexit dreams are getting wilder and weirder by the day, as shown by yesterday's dramatic story in The Telegraph: "British jam, tea and biscuits will be at the heart of Britain's Brexit trade negotiations, the Government has said, as it unveiled plans to sell food to other countries to boost the economy."

I loved @garydunion's response on Twitter: "Is it just me or is it becoming really obvious that the Tories don't know the difference between an economic strategy and a period drama?" Much as this is an intriguing explanation for their madness, I think the real answer lies in their provincialism, though. It's clear they don't understand the world we're living in.

The thing is that we can all pine for specific products from home when we're abroad, so when visiting family and friends in other countries it can often be a welcome gift to bring these items.

Tea, jam and biscuits is probably what the Brexiteers bring when they visit migrant expat friends abroad, so they assume these are universally sought-after delicacies.

However, having spent the first 30 years of my life outwith the UK, I can reveal that British tea, jam and biscuits aren't that popular abroad – in fact, I think most markets have already reached saturation point.

Perhaps it's easier to explain by imagining what would happen in Denmark adapted the Brexiteers' economic strategy. The Danish culinary equivalent would be rye bread and salt liquorice. This is what a Dane would take to friends abroad, not butter and bacon.

So if Danish food companies tried to export mainly what they wanted to eat themselves, the Danish embassies would be busy trying to flog rye bread and salt liquorice to unsuspecting foreigners. "Don't buy Danish bacon, buy our superior salt liquorice instad!" No, I can't see it happening, either.

Why don't the Brexiteers understand that the way to be a successful exporter is by selling what the customers want to buy, not to sell what you want for yourself?

The Great Scottish Bake Off

Often you hear independence switherers worrying endlessly about losing their favourite TV programmes, such as the Great British Bake Off, Big Brother or The Apprentice. The reply is often that Ireland has made a deal with the BBC to make their channels available in the Republic, at a lower price than Scotland currently pays through the licence fee, and of course Scotland will be able to do the same.

That's true, of course, but something that's often overlooked is that most successful TV show concepts these days get bought by foreign TV channels. Scotland wouldn't be restricted to watching the Great rUK Bake Off (if it'll still exist by then), but a Scottish TV channel would probably buy the concept and broadcast The Great Scottish Bake Off.

Just to illustrate how accurately the concepts get copied, here are a few foreign Bake Off clones:

Den Store Bagedyst from Denmark:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oe58y-sd_Q

Das große Backen from Germany:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK91x01nhKg

The Great Australian Bake Off:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2xIDHd38PA

Bake Off -- Ale Ciacho form Poland:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCdXQQcIdy0

The Great Irish Bake Off:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZqROWTiyNE

Le Meilleur Pâtissier from France:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEPKElBw9zY

You can see a complete list of international version on Wikipedia.

It would have the advantage for Scots that it would be much easier to get onto these shows because they would be recruiting from a population of 5½m instead of 64m, and as far as I can tell, the quality of the cakes isn't any worse in the Danish version (Denmark has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Scotland).

The Law of Jante and the Lad o Pairts

'Murder Victim' in the Basement
'Murder Victim' in the Basement.
A term that is often used to describe Nordic culture is the so-called Law of Jante:

Generally used colloquially in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a sociological term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasises individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.

There are ten rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, all expressive of variations on a single theme and usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: You are not to think you're anyone special or that you're better than us.
The ten rules state:

  1. You're not to think you are anything special.
  2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You're not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You're not to laugh at us.
  9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.

Although there are differences, I tend to think Scottish culture can be similar to this -- people tend not to brag about their own achievements (perhaps even to the point of self-deprecation), and they tend to strive to fit in. The Scottish cringe is at least partly a consequence of this, because it is often the result of people standing out by being too Scottish compared to the consensus level. Perhaps the hatred many people feel towards Alex Salmond can also best be explained as a consequence of the Scottish Law of Jante.

However, in the Scottish version there has historically been an outlet for people who wanted to pursue their dreams, namely becoming a lad o pairts (I've seen it defined as "the young boy from humble origins who demonstrates academic talent and is able to achieve success, often in London or in the colonies, owing to the historically superior Scottish educational system").

Of course some Scandinavians have also "escaped" to other countries -- for instance, the Norwegian playwright Ibsen was absent from Norway for 27 years, and the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt has spent most of his adult life in Greece and Turkey.

However, one of the consequences of the British Union is that it has always been extremely easy for anybody talented to have a career to London -- in many cases probably easier that achieving the same in Scotland.

Of course, in today's globalised world talented people from everywhere flock to London, New York and other global hotspots, and indeed talented Scandinavians seem to emigrate much more than they used to.

The Scottish lads o pairts therefore don't depend on the UK any more, and it would probably be much better for the Scottish economy if it was easier to have a successful career without having to leave Scotland.

Update (15/01): See also Gerry Hassan's article about the Scottish Tut.

Och, Denmark! ☹

A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
Ever since moving to Scotland from Denmark a few months after the 2001 election (which put Anders Fogh Rasmussen into power -- imagine a Tory government supported by UKIP), I've been increasingly unhappy about the way Denmark is developing.

While Scotland has found its own voice during the independence referendum and is now speaking loudly in favour of tolerance, solidarity and equality, Denmark seems to running away from these values.

The two modern Danish lodestars appear to be xenophobia and neoliberalism. Let's look at both in turn.

Xenophobia has been on the rise for more than twenty years, and I was already starting to find the tone of the debate uncomfortable in the 1990s. Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish equivalent of UKIP) was always at the centre of this development -- I described it like this a while ago:

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

This is making it increasingly uncomfortable to live in Denmark if you're not 100% Danish. Theresa Nguyen, a Danish journalist of Vietnamese origin, described it well a couple of days ago:

[I'd like to] talk about the feelings that are awakened within me when a candidate for prime minister says that "Denmark is in danger of becoming multicultural" with pride in their voice. Dear Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Lars Løkke Rasmussen, your rhetoric makes me so angry and sad — yes, almost depressed -- that more than anything I just want to leave that awful Denmark that I am barely able to recognise any more. [...] The Denmark that I see now is quite unrecognisable. I don't have the words to describe the missing link between the Denmark of my memories and the Denmark I, as an adult Dane from an ethnic minority background, must now contribute to and be a part of. Your debate last Sunday was a disgrace to the generous and bountiful country of my childhood. Your views on people and our global responsibilities frightened me and filled me with shame. [...] Your divisive rhetoric is giving a lot of people the desire to leave the country. But those who can and probably will leave are people like me; the educated and resourceful citizens that Denmark strongly needs to stay and pull our weight. The rest, those who have been less lucky to get an education, do not have the ability to leave Denmark. They are forced to stay behind and listen to your words.

([Jeg vil gerne] tale om de følelser, der bliver vækket i mig, når en statsministerkandidat med stolthed i stemmen siger, »at Danmark er i fare for at blive multikulturelt«. Kære Helle og Løkke, jeres retorik gør mig så vred og trist – ja, nærmest deprimeret – at jeg mest af alt bare har lyst til at forlade det forfærdelige Danmark, jeg snart ikke kan genkende længere. [...] Det Danmark, der møder mig, er mildest talt uigenkendeligt. Jeg mangler ord til at beskrive den manglende kobling mellem det Danmark, jeg husker, og det Danmark, jeg som en voksen dansker med anden etnisk baggrund nu skal bidrage til og være en del af. Jeres duel på ord i søndags var en skændsel for det generøse og overskudsfyldte land, jeg var barn af. Jeres syn på mennesker og vores globale ansvar skræmte mig og fyldte mig med skam. [...] Med jeres splittelsesretorik giver I rigtig mange lyst til at forlade landet. Men dem, der kan og formentlig vil gøre det, er dem, der er som mig; de veluddannede og ressourcestærke borgere, som Danmark har så såre brug for bliver og tager vores tørn. Resten, dem, der har været mindre heldige til at tage en uddannelse, har slet ikke muligheden for at forlade Danmark. De er tvunget til at blive tilbage og lytte til jeres ord.)

I'm so much happier living in a country where Ruth Wishart could say her famous words: "A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here."

The other Danish malaise is neoliberalism. Although the Danish welfare state is working well and is quite affordable for the state, Danes keep demanding lower taxes and most people have grown up with so much job security that they honestly believe unemployment can never happen to them. For a while it was possible to cut costs without great consequences, but it's now getting to the point where it's becoming visible in international comparisons. To take but one example, in 2001 Danish unemployment benefits on average gave workers 66% of their previous salary, which was the highest in the EU; by 2012 this had fallen to 40%, which placed Denmark as number 10 out of 14 countries (less than Spain but marginally more than the UK).

When I tell Danes they'll soon start seeing real poverty if they continue this development, they don't believe me. Again I really enjoy living in a country that has already learnt the lesson of the Thatcher years -- looking at Denmark from Scotland feels a bit like observing a train crash in slow motion from a distance.

Of course not all Danes agree with the xenophobia and the neoliberalism. In the same way as many people in England are still voting Labour because of what it used to be like, many Danes are still supporting the Social Democrats without realising that they're increasingly a part of the problem. And of course there are several parties that do what they can to change things for the better.

Danes get disenfranchised two years after leaving the country, so I haven't had a vote for over a decade. However, if I was able vote in the general election on Thursday, I'd probably support Enhedslisten (or possibly Alternativet). I used to be a member of the Social Liberal Party, but although they're still strongly against xenophobia, they seem to have forgotten their social conscience and are increasingly becoming a neoliberal party (or perhaps more accurately, one of the parties of Necessity), so I wouldn't really consider voting for them any more.

Election posters in Scotland and Denmark

De første plakater
De første plakater by Karen Melchior, on Flickr.
Peter Geoghegan has written a great wee article on his blog about the problem that election posters are getting banned from more and more councils all over Scotland:

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

[...]

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

[...]

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

I can definitely confirm that election posters are an important part of Danish political campaigning. When I was a political activist there, I never chapped a single door (nobody does that in Denmark), but I spent many hours putting up posters and taking them down again after the election.

Another big difference is that while Scottish election posters are typically small, often just displaying the party logo, Danish ones are generally big, showing a big picture of the candidate and sometimes even a quote or a slogan. The purpose is to make the voters familiar with the candidate before the election, and it's generally quite effective.

If you saw the text "Kirsten Oswald -- SNP" at least 20 times while driving down Ayr Road in Newton Mearns, you'd be unlikely to forget it again.

Anyway, posters are clearly not going to be allowed in time for the Westminster election, but hopefully Holyrood will overrule the councils in the future and allow posters again everywhere in Scotland.

Are terrorist attacks Europe’s high-school massacres?

Fuck the Terrorists
Fuck the Terrorists by VivaAntarctica, on Flickr.
In the light of the recent horrible events in Copenhagen, I'm starting to wonder whether terrorist attacks are becoming Europe's version of America's high-school massacres.

Both high-school massacres and small-scale terrorist attacks are typically done by young people who feel they don't fit in, and they're heavily publicised by the media.

Lionel Shriver wrote the following back in 2007; however, wouldn't almost every word of it apply to many recent terrorist attacks in Europe?

If it does not sound too tautological, campus shootings keep happening because they keep happening. Every time one of these stories breaks, every time the pictures flash round the world, it increases the chances that another massacre will follow. In the main, all of these events are copycat crimes. Campus shootings are now a genre, much as, in literature, campus-shooting novels are a genre, one of whose entries I am guilty of writing myself. They are part of the cultural vocabulary, and any disgruntled, despairing or vengeful character -- of any age of late, since grown-ups now want in on the act -- now has the idea of shooting up a campus firmly lodged in his brain.

[...]

I would far prefer that this new killer remained anonymous. Were all such culprits to remain utterly and eternally unknown, the chips on their shoulders interred with their bones, their grudges for ever private, surely the frequency of these grotesquely gratuitous sprees would plummet. One of the driving forces for most of these killers is not just to be noticed, but, however perversely, to be understood.

Of course there are terrorist attacks that are carefully planned by organisations consisting mainly of grown-up people, and maybe they should be handled differently. However, I can't help thinking that perhaps we're actually causing lots of small terrorist attacks by talking about them too much.

Would it not be better if media reported such attacks in a low-key fashion, without talking too much about the perpetrator's identity and reasons, basically treating them pretty much as if they had been bank robberies with the same number of casualties?

Of course it's hard to force the media to tone down their reporting when there's a huge amount of public interest, but at the very least we should perhaps try to keep the big headlines inside the country where the attack happened instead of publicising every one of them across the entire continent. For extremists, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Je suis Charlie

A Charlie Hebdo cover.
A Charlie Hebdo cover.
When Jyllands-Posten published the now famous Mohammed cartoons back in 2005, I must admit I felt a bit annoyed. The Danish newspaper is consistently right-wing, so it was very fond of Dubya and his War on Terror, and it had no history of provoking people (other than left-wingers) just for the sake of it. I therefore thought their real motives had less to do with protecting free speech and more to do with provoking Moslems. At the same time, I supported their freedom of speech 100%. In other words, my attitude at the time was very well expressed by the quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

However, this time it's different. Charlie Hebdo didn't just criticise Islam -- they were ruthless in their treatment of everything and everybody (see the cover illustrating this blog post), as a left-wing secular satirical magazine should. It would have been very strange for them not to criticise Islam using their best cartoonists from time to time. In other words, the terrorist massacre of Charlie Hebdo's core staff is the clearest attack on free speech imaginable, and we all have to join the fight against those people who want to transform our societies into illiberal, totalitarian regimes, whatever their religion and nationality.

Moi, je suis Charlie. Et toi?