Denmark vs. Sweden 1

Two of the world's most progressive and prosperous countries are currently fighting over how to handle the realities of the 21st century. It is a cultural war fought in each other’s media, and it is about who we are and who we want to be. It involves feminists, nationalists, journalists, opinion makers, naked women, immigrants, and Pippi Longstocking – and one should never underestimate the strongest girl in the world!

Photo by

For better or worse

Whereas the rest of the world has a hard time distinguishing among the three Scandinavian countries – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – among ourselves there are some interesting differences.

For the past 20 years or so, Denmark has taken a turn towards nationalism and xenophobia. No political party in Denmark hoping for successful elections dares to not be tough on immigration. Also, since the cartoon depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, not only has freedom of speech become sacred and elevated to almost religious heights in this otherwise secular country, being rude, especially towards Muslims, is now close to being a hallmark of being Danish.

Sweden, on the other hand, has embraced mass immigration and feminism. No political party in Sweden hoping to succeed in elections dares to speak out against immigration and poor integration of immigrants or to not have a feminist agenda. In fact, feminism is so popular with Swedish politicians that the Feminist party didn't even get elected in the recent elections, the rationale being: Why vote for a party with only a feminist agenda when all the other parties have feminism plus a program?

The only exception seems to be Sverigedemokraterna / Sweden Democrats who are the xenophobic nationalists and traditionalists looking towards Danish politics for hope and inspiration.

This would hardly have crossed the border had Denmark and Sweden been two ordinary neighboring countries but, like an old married couple, not only do we get on each other’s nerves and keep nagging, we also cannot live without each other. Neither of us gets into these kinds of struggles with Norway. At the same time, it does seem that the Danes obsess more about what goes on in Sweden than the Swedes do about Denmark. Which, of course, only makes it so much more frustrating for the Danes.

So, what is going on?

In spring 2013, Danish musician and provocateur Thomas Blachman made a series of TV programs in which two fully dressed, middle-aged men watched and commented on a naked woman posing live in front of them. It wasn’t pornographic as such, it was just a naked woman and two non-naked men.

To be honest, the show was actually very boring and in Danish media it was considered anything from progressive to adolescent and in poor taste. But in Sweden it created an outrage.

Later that summer, Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark wrote an op-ed simultaneously in both a Swedish and a Danish newspaper telling the Swedes that their “new feminism” is unsympathetic in Swedish called “Dear Swedes”

The very next day, Swedish feminist Nina Björk wrote a reply, also in both papers. In Swedish “We don’t tolerate Danish sexism” and in Denmark “Our feminism is decent, dear Nørmark”

And so it continued until fall that same year when a young Danish poet of Palestinian descent, Yahya Hassan, told the world his honest opinion about his miserable, violent childhood, his failing immigrant parents and hypocrite Islam - just to mention a few things.

It crossed and crushed established fault lines in the Danish debate about immigration and, among other things, it was discussed whether such politically incorrect texts could possibly be published in Sweden.

Eventually they were, and one of the reactions was from Athena Farrokhzad, Swedish writer of Iranian descent, who in her review of Hassan’s poems worried and asked him directly if he wasn’t at all afraid that he was handing the xenophobes all their own arguments against immigration and Islam on a silver plate:

A worry that in Denmark was generally misunderstood as an attempt to silence Hassan and take away his freedom of speech, and therefore created a new swedophobic debate.

During all of this, the Swedes decided to get rid of the gender referring pronouns “he” and “she” / “han” and “hon” and to replace both of them with the gender neutral “hen”. Furthermore, in a popular Swedish Christmas toy catalogue, all traditional gender specific toys were meticulously being played with by both boys and girls. For both initiatives the Danes only had scorn and ridicule.

This summer, the Danish radio station 24syv (i.e., 24seven) started a program “Voice of Denmark” broadcasting politically incorrect debates in Swedish for the Swedes, inspired, they said, by “Voice of America” which used to broadcast Western content to the communist countries.

Then this month two new chapters were added to the fight between the two countries:

The Swedish theme park Astrid Lindgreen World withdrew from their souvenir shop a Pippi Longstocking curtain depicting Pippi with two black kids waving shading palm leaves over her head after the mother of a black kid found it offensive. Furthermore, this week it came out that in the reissue of the Pippi TV series from the 70’s, Pippi’s father is no longer referred to as “a negro king” but just “a king”.

Also this month, a Swedish artist, Dan Park, was sentenced to jail and had nine of his paintings banned for racism by a Swedish court, the sentence including destruction of the paintings. Radio 24syv got the paintings to Copenhagen and wanted to display them in order to check out the reaction and the limits of freedom of speech (and possibly to piss off some Swedes in the process), but eventually, due to legal problems, the radio station decided not to display them after all.

Let’s go meta

This fight is probably going to go on for a while, at least as long as Sweden pursues its open-border feminist agenda, Denmark sticks with nationalism, and both countries insist on being right and their neighbor wrong.

What would be so much more fruitful, however, would be if we realized, in both countries, that we are facing the exact same challenges as the rest of the Western world, that for historical reasons the two of us have approached the challenges very differently, and that neither of us has found the right solution. Yet. We are still struggling, we are both doing it with the best of intentions and we both have so much to learn, not least from each other.

The Swedish agenda points towards the future. It is developing some of the answers and values we need if a global community is going to thrive. It has a vision for a better world and it wants to address global challenges. But it suppresses freedom of speech and throws away the Swedish soul. Political correctness makes many Swedes deny that there even is such a thing as Swedishness, but to the rest of us there is and we don’t want the Swedes to get rid of it. It is not a metaphysical “spirit”, but the sum of Swedish experiences and narratives; it would not make Sweden (or the rest of the world for that matter) a better place if the majority of Swedes gave it up. The world would be a poorer place without the Swedes being Swedish.

The Danish agenda looks backwards. We are so obsessed with being what we once were that we are utterly blind to the real challenges coming from technological development and globalization. We become more and more self-absorbed and only care about ourselves and our own country (plus Sweden). Nobody would be better off if we as Danes lost our Danishness, but we need to find ways to open our nation and culture to others who want to join, and we have to learn how to be polite around strangers, also in the public debate.

The fallacy that both the Swedes and the Danes commit is that one has to either identify with the entire human race (Swedish PC) or identify with one’s own nation and people only (Danish PC). In neither country have we been able to develop a narrative allowing us to be both citizens of the world belonging to the same humanity, AND to be the Swedes and Danes, respectively, that we are, rooted in the cultures and historical heritages that have given us our languages, narratives, values, identities, and much more.

This lack of a shared narrative is what the current cultural war between the two countries is really about. Once both countries have come to realize that we must both identify with the entire species in general and our local culture and heritage in particular, Denmark and Sweden have each their own set of experiences which are complementary to one another and which when combined should be able to help us figure out how to be thriving nation states in the 21st century. By admitting that neither of us has all the right answers right now, we could learn from each other. By doing so, we ought to be able to figure out how to keep our distinct heritages alive and evolving while including newcomers into the respective cultures and peoples.

Now, that would be an interesting and inspiring process and debate to follow in the media of both countries.