For a small nation, Denmark certainly looms large in the conversation.
From hygge to Noma to Joe and the Juice, my current country of residence garners more than its fair share of attention. And now here we are in the midst of another presidential election–as if the last one ever ended–and Denmark keeps popping up as a kind of Nordic Viking Beacon of All Things Good and Socialist (note: Denmark is not a socialist country, but a market economy).
As an American who’s been in Copenhagen for the past eight years, the comparisons are interesting to say the least. Because of our residency status, we don’t have access to the full state benefit system which so many want to emulate, but we’re close enough to it to see how it works (and how it doesn’t).
And for all the semantic parsing of differences between socialism, social democracies, democratic socialism, etc., there is something huge and glaring that is missing from the conversation:
Get rid of the idea that universal health care or *free* college education can’t work in the US because the country is too big or populous (We put men on the moon. We can have health care and college for all). Stop talking about a homogenous ethnic population. Forget the tax rate. The biggest difference between the Scandis and the US is not size or population or marginal tax rates, but the mythology which runs through its people, the stuff of stories and cultural tall tales. I’m talking about the red meat of what it means to be a Dane, or a Swede, or in this case, an American.
The biggest difference is the people themselves, what they believe in, what they strive for, what they dream about.
And here’s the harsh truth: The American Dream has no room for “us,” it only has room for “me”.
The American Dream is the omnipresent cultural idea which whisper-screams at us that
anything is possible if you just work hard enough.
It’s one of the fundamental foundations of American culture, based on the idea of hard work and rugged individualism. It’s the Marlboro Man riding into the sunset on his trusty horse. It’s the frontiersmen and women setting out in their covered wagons and taming the west (we tend to gloss over the whole theft and genocide part). It’s plow the land and reap what you sow. It’s the scrappy kid selling enough newspapers to build an empire. It’s pull yourself up by the bootstraps. It’s work hard and you too shall be rewarded.
It’s all bullshit.
The American Dream isn’t a dream as much as a myth. It’s there to have something to believe in so you don’t jump off a cliff. It’s there to keep you going, to help you sleep at night. Because if you don’t believe in the idea that you have control over your own destiny, that you too can work hard and be Mike Bloomberg some day, then holy Christ, what’s the point in even getting up?
Yet just look around. There are millions of Americans who work hard, who do all the things they are “supposed to do” to succeed, and you know what? They’re drowning. And let’s be honest, if Americans were rewarded on the basis of hard work, then Black Americans, on whose literal backs the wealth of the nation was built, should be the richest of us all.
You can’t swim if all your energy is spent just keeping your nose above the water line. And if you can’t swim, you’re never going to butterfly stroke your way to that shining shore with the big Hollywood-like sign screaming American Dream, are you?
If only we worked just a little bit harder, did things a little bit better, took a fourth job, went to college, cut out the cable, meal-planned, gave up the avocados…
We Americans have been lulled into the misguided belief that it’s not the system failing, but ourselves. Within the myth there’s zero emphasis on how we can help one another, on compassion, on how the structure can be shored up to support us all.
It puts the burden on the individual and takes the pressure off the state.
Neat trick, right?
Not living the life? Must be something you’re doing wrong.
It’s brutal, toxic, individualism. It is “me” as opposed to “us”.
The reason we don’t have universal health care? There’s no room in the American dream for the ones who are comfortably in boats to stop and help the ones who are drowning in the waves below.
Do the Danes I know complain about the high tax rate? Of course they do. Do they want even better health care bang for their highly taxed buck? You betcha. Are they willing to deny health care to others so that it’s better for them, personally? Never.
It’s simply not part of their ethos. It’s not part of the Danish mythology. The stories I hear Danes tell are ones of coming together, of looking out for each other. The culture is firmly rooted in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. The Danish mythology is one of working for the whole–not instead of the individual (think there are no millionaires in Denmark? Come see the houses and cars in my tony Copenhagen suburb)–but as well as.
Contrast this to the stories I hear Americans which are the success stories of individuals overcoming the odds.
No one tells you what to do when the odds are stacked against you.
The biggest difference between the Danes and the Americans? The thing no one talks about when we discuss how to think about health care and education? The fact that the country’s entire mythology is based on me, not us.
And that’s the biggest stumbling block, the biggest difference. It’s why the US can’t have nice things. Because there’s no real “us” in the “US”.
I’m not sure any amount of legislation or screaming or promises or facts or research or finger wagging revolution is going to work until we tackle the underlying myth that makes the country tick.
And to do that we need to dismantle the myth and rebuild the Dream into something that includes the US part of USA.