By Andrew Scott
In the digital globalized age, the Scandinavian secret has gotten out. The once stereotyped quiet and content peoples of the North have come to fame as having crafted a Huxley-esque utopia of socialist framework, fishing trade, and Volvos. The region has emerged as a leader in global happiness, education, and equality for decades now and the rest of the world is starting to catch on to this success. Each country can easily pick a headline declaring their people “The Happiest on Earth,” or their cities “The Greatest City in Europe” with something to the effect of the Scandinavians are doing something right that the rest of us can’t comprehend. However, the paradise imagined of the natural North has had a rocky history. The economic pressure, wartime strife, and recent surge of immigration have all created chinks in the Nordic armor. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Icelanders may all carry some distant Viking related genes, but they are hardly as unified as the picture painted by modern media displays. Travel writer, Michael Booth, seeks to find out what makes the Scandinavians reliably continue to tick like a grandfather clock in his 2014 book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
About the Author
Michael Booth is a British journalist, traveler, and food writer who has been employed by such renowned outlets as Conde Nast Traveler and Independent on Sunday. His 2010 book, “Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking” was a critical success and began the partnership with Picador Publishing continued into this travelogue. Having over a decade’s experience in Scandinavia, Booth’s wife and children are all Danish, as well as endless travels across the region. Booth’s interpretation of the region comes from a place of respect for the culture, love of the people, and undeniably skeptical about the policies and “utopic” essence of the systems. In a series of research based chronicles of his travels across the region, the author dives deep into the crux of each nationality without forgetting how they all intertwine.
One of the immediate takeaways from Booth’s discoveries is that the Scandinavian’s have resounding differences from country to country. Often this region is given blanket descriptions: blonde, tall, and pop music sensations. Or Vikings, love for German engineering, and bushy beards. While the Scandinavian countries don’t have the blatant descriptors of their people like their fellow Europeans the Italians, French, and English, they do have subtle intricacies that differentiate themselves in a variety of ways. Detecting the differences amongst the region can be a much more difficult process; however, the differences are there, underneath layer after layer of winter-weather clothing and reserved contented protection. To begin, each country has their own discrete characteristics: Norway is blessed with oil revenue that will last for lifetimes, Denmark has the happiest and patriotic people on Earth, Icelandic people are so few and far between that they are easily only separated by one or two degrees, the Finns have an identity crisis between Swedish and Russian roots as well as a crippling anti-depressant dependency, and the Swedes are some of the most focused people on equality that manners are almost completely thrown out. Each country has a unique relationship to one another across the history of Europe spanning centuries, a fact that doesn’t allow generations to pass without remembering the tumultuous relations of the past.
The differences between the peoples of Scandinavia are listed in detail within the context of “The Almost Nearly Perfect People;” however, I believe that one of the chief and unique components of this text is it’s skeptical and insightful look at the problems that have plagued the region. The first thing that most people think of when they read or hear about Scandinavia is the socialist political format that has been attributed to creating some of the most equal nations in the world. It is also attributed to the outrageous tax scheme that many see as a sacrifice for the greater good of society. If your health insurance, education, and (in an overwhelmingly high percentage of cases) your job is all paid for by your taxes, one has an incentive to pay. Particularly in the cases of Denmark and Sweden, the taxing and political system has seen both great success and failure. Both economies have flourished and tanked. The people are constantly being told that they system will fail; yet, they continue to produce such high ratings and success. Some skeptics will notice that pirating, credit, and other solutions to the tax problems have all been implemented by the people creating a potential issue for the future. All this being said, the one key feature of the Scandinavian identity is their contentedness and acceptance of what is fair which allows for a taxing system like this not to run into issue with class.
Another issue that has crept into the limelight in recent years is their immigration policy and racist political movements. Much like in America, an alt right political group has gained some traction running on a platform that discriminates heavily against the Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants that are flooding into the countries. These groups believe that their culture is in danger and that they will lose their jobs, resulting in some hate speech that isn’t what the stereotyped normal is for the Scandinavian region. Some of the countries are dealing with this problem in better ways than others. Sweden’s government run media has blocked any representation from these parties in a truly Orwellian decision. The countries denial of the issue has resulted in a much more flawed and hampered socialization of the immigrants coming into the country. On the other end of the spectrum, Denmark has allowed for these alt right ideas to make it into the media (like the United States), but the immigration and integration process has been proven to be much smoother. These countries that for centuries were undesirable living locations, home to only the few homogenous groups, are now having to deal with the flood of other cultures. This will be the true test for the success of Scandinavian utopia.
Booth calls out Scandinavia for all of its faults, all of the flaws in their system; yet, he still believes that they are the world’s greatest chance to save us all from collapse. Not just because of their environmental policies, but their heart, resilience, and cooperation. Booth in a comedic end to his research states that he hopes the Nordic United Nations or some sort of partnership doesn’t eventually happen because he fears that they would easily crush the rest of us. The Scandinavians are a rare breed of people: industrious, compassionate, content, and equals. They have built a stable societal foundation for the generations to come, nations that are focused on the humanity in these frozen tundra. Booth’s comedic expose on the ins-and-outs of the people provided for a natural immersion in the culture of a people that he struggled to understand; however, by the end of the project he had a great fondness for the people and a deeper respect. I have come to a greater appreciation of the people through this reading experience, and to supplement it I began to learn Danish. Booth is the perfect author for me personally. His sarcastic and skeptical tone throughout the travel research matched my opinion going into this subject matter. The viral Facebook memes of the Scandinavian countryside utopia had to be too good to be true, they must be strictly click-bait for the gullible progressive. While some of these elements are certainly dramatized; the superiority, equality, and prestige of the region is the chief epitome of Western culture, but certainly not without sacrificing some purity. These places hold the globe’s attention now for great reason, they have so many groundbreaking societal experiments going on. With all the success that has come their way, they still seem like they could use the help of others, some ideas from nations that are slightly different. Almost nearly perfect, but certainly as close as one might get.