Vishful Sinking


Once upon a time, at the height of the Danish cartoon crisis, I was cycling down a Copenhagen street when I glimpsed something extraordinary on the kerbside: a miniature Danish flag, fluttering in a breeze of car-exhaust, planted firmly in the centre of a fresh dog-turd.

I was impressed. There were various political demonstrations going on all over the city, but this tiny, powerful protest was by far the most the most original I had witnessed so far. The shocking, subversive juxtaposition of the flag and the dog-shit was simple yet enormously evocative. The 3D graffito, probably the creation of some urban warrior artist – perhaps even Scandinavia’s answer to Banksy – was transmitting its message quite literally at street level. As a passer-by, blink and you’d miss the installation altogether. Which was part of its potency as agit-prop. While ostensibly stille og rolig (‘quiet and peaceful’ – a phrase much favoured by beleaguered Danish Muslims), and discreet to the point of politeness, it managed to pack quite a punch.

Energised, I reported the sighting to my friend Helle.
She nodded benignly. ‘You haven’t seen this before? It’s kind of a tradition, you know.’
‘You mean when people are pissed off with the government, that’s how they show it?’
She looked baffled. ‘No. It’s what you do if you see some dog’s mess in the road. You stick a flag in it.’
My guerrilla-art disappointment was turning to outright confusion. In nationalistic Denmark, children’s birthday cakes positively bristle with red-and-white flags, and in private gardens they are raised to mark all manner of occasions from football matches to the births of grand-children. But this was plain weird.
‘To…celebrate it?’ I asked tentatively, still feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
‘No. To draw attention to it. When someone sees some dog-shit that people might accidentally step in or cycle over, they stick the flag in to make it noticeable. It’s a pragmatic solution to dog-fouling.’
‘But why are people walking around with miniature Danish flags in their pockets in the first place?’
‘In case they come across some dog-shit,’ responded Helle, as though I were the loony.

Helle was born into a famously high-trust society. In Denmark, responsible citizenship – often zealously practised – is the norm. It is the only country I have ever been in where it is possible to leave the equivalent of £200 lolling, tongue-like, out of the cash machine for an hour, as a distracted friend recently did, and retrieve it because an honest citizen with a pocketful of emergency dog-shit flags has handed it in at the bank. Even when off his face at two o clock in the morning, a Dane will wait for the little green man before he staggers over the road.

Not for nothing was it a Dane, the philosopher Knud Ejler Logstrup, who came up with the principle of Ethical Demand. ‘It is a characteristic of human life,’ he wrote, ‘that we normally encounter one another with natural trust. Only under special circumstances do we ever distrust a stranger in advance….we never suspect a person of falsehood until after we have caught him in a lie.’ Even today, in a climate where ethnic tension is high, and the immigrant population is seldom given the benefit of the doubt, two thirds of Danes still say they trust their fellow-citizens.

Putting faith in anything else, however, is quite another matter.
‘Put a vish in one hand and a gob of spit in the other,’ my Danish father used to retort when confronted by any expression of optimism. ‘Then decide vhich veighs most. Sink about it! Haha! Hahaha! The gob of spit! Ha!’
This favourite dictum – which he claimed originated in his native Jutland, famous for the epic dourness of its populace – encapsulates a morbid attitudinal trait whose resonant subtext is this: You really plan to put faith in the intangible? Sucker and double sucker! But his attitude was typical of many Danes: acknowledge what’s there, and mistrust what isn’t.

To fathom the Danes’ antipathy to high hopes, one must first come to grips with the notion of Jantelov, Scandinavia’s equivalent of tall poppy syndrome. The idea of Jantelov (literally, the Law of Jante) first appeared in a novel by the Danish-born writer Axel Sandemose in 1933. Set in the small fictional town of Jante, A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks is a satirical savaging of a fundamental Danish mind-set which permeates society as much now as it did then. According to the militant egalitarianism of Jantelov there are ten rules must be followed to maintain the prized stability and uniformity of the town’s citizenship. They are as follows:
1.Don’t think you are anything special
2. Don’t think you are as good as us
3. Don’t think you are smarter than us
4. Don’t imagine you are better than us
5. Don’t think you know more than us
6. Don’t think you are greater than us
7. Don’t think you can do better than us
8. Don’t laugh at us
9. Don’t think that anyone cares about you
10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.
Stern it may be, but Jantelov ensures harmony by fostering a society in which the word ‘ambition’ has only negative connotations and ‘competitive’, as applied to people, does not appear in the dictionary. Free of the tyranny of social aspiration and devoid of any sense of superiority, armed with the insurance policy of low expectations and a set of rules that ennobles mediocrity, the Danes can relax: they know exactly where they stand.
And where is that?
Prepare to cheer.
At the top of the world happiness league tables, that’s where! In survey after survey, Denmark is up there, defying the Law of Jante by being the tallest poppy in the global field!

It seems bizarre at first glance, but there is a perverse logic to it when one factors in three important aspects of the Danish national character. Firstly, the Danes have a self-confessed tendency to be ‘selvglad’. This means smug. Give them a questionnaire about their contentment levels, and they’ll eagerly and patriotically tick the box marked Ecstatic. Secondly, although the Danes do not actually seem to me any happier than any other people (and indeed, their rocketing use of anti-depressants and penchant for heavy drinking indicates they are not) they are perhaps more easily pleased, more inclined to savour and celebrate life’s modest, quotidian joys. Give a Dane a bottle of Carlsberg, a slice of pickled fish, a bit of liver paste, a boiled potato, a thermos of coffee and a flicker of sunshine, and he thinks he’s in Paradise. Thirdly, they are happy pessimists. If you can count on one thing, as a Dane, it’s that your negativity will never let you down. Assume that a thunderous black cloud lies on the horizon, and when a grey one comes along instead, bearing only moderate to light rain, you’ll have instant reason to wave that now internationally-famous flag. Indulge in the ‘vishful sinking’ my father so despised and you are deluding yourself that there is more weight to the abstract concept of hope – to promises stacked high and sold cheap – than there is to the gob of spit in your hand.

If there is a lesson that the trusting Danes can teach the rest of us, I think it must be this: that as a default response, scepticism is – perversely enough – something you can put your faith in.
It may even bring you something you can call joy.