The manner by which the Danes have chosen to deal with the migrant issue is quite different from the Swedes, and telling in terms of cultural difference. The Danes are trying to square a difficult circle, looking to hold onto a tolerant way of life while limiting the impact of cultural values that may be uncongenial to its conduct.
That process requires them to actually stand for something, to define a way of life worth defending. Compared with the indulgent and sometime tongue-tied Swedes the Danish can come across as harsh in limiting new arrivals and for insisting on assimilation for those already arrived. But you can’t always beat intolerance with the same brand of tolerance that you like about your own culture.
I am sure the Danish way is no easy thing. Coming to grips with what you wish to preserve about your own culture runs against the consensus view that universal values are bound to prevail if we just stick with them.
But there must be another level, too. It would be one thing if a nation simply woke up one day to find many others with different cultural values had suddenly arrived unannounced in the middle of the night. That would pose a set of challenges but at least the host nation would have not been complicit in its new predicament.
But what is it about Scandinavia–indeed all of Western Europe west of the Hajnal Line that we most associate with high trust civilizations–that seems to have invited the new values in? What is it about those new values that appealed? What is it about the old ways, as they were experienced, that made the new values attractive?
Again, let’s go to the videotape!
Department Q is a Danish crime mini-series–a trilogy, really, short but not so sweet. It concerns a pair of apparently mismatched detectives: your by-now clichéd world weary detective–the Dane–required by circumstances to partner with a Muslim from abroad.
One might think that since Sweden touts its virtues on immigration so loudly that you would find Muslims proudly showcased in Swedish noir more than you would find them in Danish noir. But that is not the case. Most Swedish crime films and mini-series simply ignore Muslims, as though they do not exist. One way to do that is to shift the venue so that Muslims are not present, the better to find villainy among the deplorables of one’s own kind. Here’s the description of the Swedish mini-series Saknad:
Police superintendent Maja Silver goes back to her old hometown in the Swedish Bible belt to see her daughter, when a terrible discovery paralyzes the small community.
To cut to the chase, so to speak: yes, the local pastor is the bad guy.
By contrast Department Q brings a Muslim right into a lead role. The manner by which this is handled, though, is interesting and perhaps instructive to those of us on the other side of the ocean trying to guess at what is actually going on in Europe.
Here is a scene that gets to the nub of it. Our Danish detective is not just world-weary in the conventional Sam Spade sense. He is world weary in the Kierkegaardian sense as well. He’s got that darned sickness-unto-death thing going on.
Consider this exchange in which the Muslim partner describes his faith while the Danish detective reveals his lack of it.
The Dane’s lack of faith is clearly killing him. And though he resolutely defends his barren ways you see him circle his partner’s beliefs warily, obviously interested at some level. He has lost God and faintly sees his partner as offering a path back.
His partner in turn is nothing but warm, sincere and non-dogmatic.
Carl, I don’t believe that I am going to Paradise, or up to meet my family when I die. But I believe in something larger than us, and it makes me happy.
But he will have none of his partner’s bleakness.
You believe in a black hole. That nothing means anything. No thanks.
The Muslim partner, as it turns out, is more or less Danish–that is to say an ideal Dane who has retained the decency and values of our modern age but has found his way back somehow to belief. He is, in effect, the Danish version of the Magical Negro in American narratives.
So one one level Department Q portrays Muslims in an intentionally naive way. The Muslim partner is hardly threatening. Yet Denmark would not be pushing back against Islamic values if it didn’t see them as a threat.
The message I see under the surface:
“OK, our culture has become enervated and we have turned to believers to help us reclaim belief. But there must be some way for us to grow a spine while still holding on to the Danish ways we cherish.
We recognize now that there is a risk to accepting unlimited amounts of a harder-edged culture. Bathwater comes with the babies. Perhaps we should put a brake on the demand for more and deal squarely with the world that we have been complicit in making. If we take active control of it, it is quite possible that the Muslims in our culture will not overwhelm our Danish ways, and that we can benefit from what they offer us.”
It’s not a perfect solution but the perfect is the enemy of the good. Assimilation, despite the gauzy mythology that has developed around it, has a hard edge to it. But is it too late for the Danes? For Western Europe? For the United States?