The Art of Provocation

     One of the remarkable aspects of the small, affluent nation of Denmark is the ability of the Danes to speak not only passable but articulate English. That skill reflects the importance of international trade and their emphasis on education.
     But multi-cultural the nation is not. It is by and large blonde and tall and traditional.
     When the controversy erupted over Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet four years ago, it seemed to me a simple matter of press freedom. I noted the solidarity of many European newspapers in re-publishing the cartoons and the deep reticence in the English and American press to do the same.
     My first conclusion was that the reticent were just wimps. But that impression has shifted.
When I was in Denmark this summer, I attended a wedding in a neighborhood of city-owned “summer houses,” beat up little shacks with big gardens meant to allow Danes to get some fresh air outside the city.
     My friend Søren and his wife had fixed up their summer house modestly, with a small television inside, and, outside, a barbecue used on most summer nights and a most marvelous garden of fruit trees and raised planters for onions, leeks, eggplant, tomatoes and cucumbers.
     I recently asked Søren, who is Danish to the core, if he thought the cartoons were meant as a provocation. It was a good question.
     “I think the cartoons were a deliberate provocation meant to fuel the debate, enhance the difference between them and us, put the debate in the field of the government and DF — and sell more newspapers.”
     DF is the Danske Folkeparti, a rightwing, anti-immigrant party, that received a tremendous boost in votes from the Muslim reaction to the cartoons. Danish goods were boycotted in the Muslim world while the newspaper and individual cartoonists were subject to threats and attempted murder.
     “I’m just very frustrated to witness the way things are heading,” Søren said. “I think that there a lot of reasonable, sane Danes, Muslim and non-Muslim, and we are being ignored.”
     He said the often painful road already traveled by England and the United States on the way towards a mixed society is now being traveled by Denmark and other nations in Europe.
     “Denmark is on the road to a multi-cultural society, and there is no rewinding back to the imaginary old Denmark of the DF. Nor is there a fast forward to the harmony between cultures and benefits of multiculturalism we are told exists by the progressive and liberals.”
     His comments on the general state of affairs in Denmark reflected a reality I had observed when I spent the better part of a summer in Denmark a long time ago, learning a fair amount of Danish and studying in Copenhagen’s vast, modern and welcoming library.
     Famous keepers of statistics, the Danes showed in their numbers a surprising parallelism between the political positions of the Americans, English and Scandinavians, and the same was true of the social trends within those northern societies.
So it was at first a surprise but then a confirmation of that paralellism to hear Soren listing the difficulties facing Denmark today, a nation that I had thought was so well and reasonably run.
     “We have budget deficits, unemployment is up, kids are being killed in Afghanistan, the public health service is on its knees. The housing prices are plunging and everybody is looking for a mono-causal explanation.”
     Boy does that sound familiar.
     He said the Danish conservatives offer a simple, understandable explanation in hard times and they are backed up by a willing media and extremists on both sides, while the cultural divisions within the nation are fed by a failed effort to integrate immigrants into Danish society.
     “The progressives don’t seem to have real answers to the real problems the country has, none that the majority understands anyway, and while we are focusing on Muslims, burkas, sharia and halal, the real problems are being pushed ahead and will then hurt `Greek style’ when they can no longer be ignored.”
     So the Danes have been playing out a conflict with fundamentalist Muslims through their politics, while the U.S. has been playing out a conflict with fundamentalist Muslims through our wars.
     But underneath both those great conflicts lie the same problems: deficits, unemployment and public health. And I wonder if the dark and skeptical view of Søren is correct — because it may well be — that we will push away those problems until they come crashing down on us and bring the government to its knees.

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