Just Like Heaven? Four Stories About Nordic Countries

The bookstore where I work has a motto: “Get to know your world.” We’re a small shop, but visitors often marvel at the size of our travel section. Spend a few too many minutes near these shelves, and you’re researching flights to Iceland or the best time of year to hike the Appalachian trail (maybe that’s just me). Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in books about Nordic life—like The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, to this past week’s release, The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen. Why are we Americans so drawn to the Scandinavian Peninsula and beyond? Why do some Republicans speak of Sweden with disdain or horror, whereas left-leaning folks go starry-eyed? Does the recent influx of refugees to these countries mark the beginning of institutionalized xenophobia?

1. “What’s So Special About Finland?” (Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, July 2016)

Uri Friedman interviews Anu Partanen about her new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. Partanen posits that so-called American values—like opportunity, freedom, and education—are cherished and bolstered by Finnish government and society, even more so than in America itself. Partanen breaks down misconceptions about health care and taxes in Finland and explains why she and her husband decided to move to the States in spite of the perks of Nordic life. It’s a fascinating interview.

2. “Northern Lights.” (Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, February 2015)

“What Nordic life tells us, in other words, is how steep and ambitious the path of American liberalism is. Conservative social ideals are notorious for their mercenary spirit and wishful self-justifications—the Thatcherite talks of neighbors helping one another and themselves as homeless people fill the sidewalks. Yet a certain hardness of heart rests in the practice of modern American liberalism, too. We have registered our willingness to make the Faustian deal that the Swedes have not. The possibility of having a truly Iranian-American life, or enjoying deep-Appalachian bluegrass, is important to our national variety. And, to let these cultures thrive on their own, we’ve agreed to let some of our people, by our withheld intervention, be thrown under the bus.”

3. “Keep Norwegian Weird.” (Jessica Furseth, Hazlitt, June 2016)

Does the omnipresence of the English language mark the end of Norwegian?
(If you’re interested in reading more about language, I compiled a list here.)

4. “Liberal, Harsh Denmark.”(Hugh Eakin, NYRB, March 2016)

On the rise of a racist right-wing Denmark:

In January, more than 60,000 refugees arrived in Europe, a thirty-five-fold increase from the same month last year; but in Denmark, according to Politiken, the number of asylum-seekers has steadily declined since the start of the year, with only 1,400 seeking to enter the country. In limiting the kind of social turmoil now playing out in Germany, Sweden, and France, the Danes may yet come through the current crisis a more stable, united, and open society than any of their neighbors. But they may also have shown that this openness extends no farther than the Danish frontier.