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Other Viewpoints: Attempting to stand above political chaos


March 15, 2018

Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, by Robert Ferguson, (Overlook Press, 2016)

This is a good read on its titular topic, if you’re up for page-and-a-half paragraphs and 150-word sentences, all stuffed with literary allusions, European history, and wanderings into psychological analysis.

In truth, you need some extra motivation to get through it. Bleak winter weather sets the right mood, as would a melancholy personality, which is in fact what the author suggests Scandinavians possess, at least in popular lore. He wants to know why this is so, but he finds far more ironies and contradictions than answers, as in the following examples.

In the 1760’s, Denmark, with a long history of absolute monarchy, had an adolescent king named Christian whose favorite drunken pastime was to disguise himself, gather a group of thuggish personal attendants, and wander the night streets beating everyone they met, including the night guards. This is the man, of course, responsible for the safety of the nation under the law. Openly consorting with a known whore named Katherine the Boots, he so insulted his queen that she, with Christian’s approval, took as a lover the king’s doctor/advisor, a fellow named Struensee, who soon began issuing decrees signed — but not read by, the king.

What kind of decrees? Well, abolishment of torture, of unpaid forced labor, of special privileges for the aristocracy, of subsidies to unproductive industry. He introduced taxes on gambling and luxury horses to support the poor, a ban on slave trading, an elimination of judicial corruption, freedom of the press, and more.

Now, wouldn’t you think that a populace still groping its way out of medieval feudalism would react with absolutely wild gratitude for all these democratic freedoms? Wouldn’t that be the “natural” reaction, as people such as Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson were writing about during those same years?

Instead, quite soon the aristocracy, cheered on by mobs of citizens, publicly dismembered Christian and Struensee and displayed their remnants on poles at the Copenhagen gates. The absolute monarchy was welcomed back.

A century or so later, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a man of deep faith but a disdain for the privileges of both monarchy and state religion, became so hated by the everyday citizenry that they taught their children to pelt him with stones and offal while mocking him with the cry, “The individual! The individual!”

And you wonder why John Adams feared the masses.

Reading this stuff reminds me of the tensions in American history, both old and current, between those who want full-blown, rowdy democracy, and those who want a more controlled arrangement less vulnerable to the whims of momentary majorities and angry minorities. Theoretically, that split is democrats versus republicans, liberals versus conservatives, but all four of these terms are so corrupted that anyone who thinks he has a clear definition for them is seriously delusional.

For instance, somewhere recently I saw a headline calling for a conservative “back to the people” convention, and of course that phrase is often invoked by conservatives, even though, looking at it historically, traditional republicanism disenfranchises many of the labor and service folks who think “the people” means “us” (that’s the trend that got Andrew Jackson got elected in 1829, for instance). Yet ironically, all these current neo-liberal identity-politics groups have convinced themselves “they” are the real people. Meanwhile, both define “freedom” by passing more laws to cram their own beliefs down the throat of non-believers, and anyone who tries to stand above this chaos is simply shouted down, ala Soren Kierkegaard.

Maybe Scandinavian melancholy comes from reading Scandinavian history, in which case current Americans must either ignore their own history, or become downright depressed.

Ron Rude, Plains


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