Digressive Reflection

Sept. 15 - The other day I saw something so quintessentially Danish that my failure to capture it on (digital) film will haunt me forever. I saw a pretty young Danish girl standing at the crosswalk of a quiet intersection, waiting for the lights to change so she could cross the street. That was very Danish of her, but the quintessential part was that she had obviously dyed her hair jet black, had several facial piercings, and wore a jacket emblazoned with a hand-drawn anarchist "A."

Welcome to Denmark, where even the anarchists cross with the lights.

Sometimes I anticipate reader objections or criticisms to things I write even as I write them. This has been getting especially weird lately, because the objections are becoming increasingly Danish in tone. As I wrote the preceding anecdote, for example, I could almost hear someone asking me, in a Danish accent, why on earth anarchists shouldn't obey the rules just like everybody else. We don't pull our laws out of a hat, do we? They're designed to help and protect us, aren't they? You think to be an anarchist you have to risk being run over by a truck?

A lot of popular Danish thought runs on these grooves. There was a headline in one of yesterday's papers about Danish ferries being easy terror targets. After a few horrifying paragraphs about the ease with which any of these boats could be destroyed along with everyone and everything on them, there came the level-headed Danish responses. Achieving total security would cost gargantuan piles of money and create unbearable boarding delays at every ferry. Achieving partial security would cost a lot of money (though not as much) and cause boarding delays (though not as lengthy), but would still leave the boats vulnerable to certain types of attack. So why bother?

Well, there's this:

The extremist group Ansar al-Zawahiri, which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two female Italian aid workers in Iraq, says the time has come for Denmark to face "punishment."

In a statement released Friday, the group gave Italy 24 hours to release its female Muslim detainees in Iraq, and issued a warning to Denmark.

"The time has come for Denmark to take its share of the punishment," the statement read, adding: "Both Italy and Russia have been punished."

Ansar al-Zawahiri has reported ties to the al-Qaida terror network.

But as we've seen in the United States, such warnings aren't usually grounds for action and recriminations until after something has actually happened.

I admire the pragmatism of the Danish stance toward their ferries: they can't be made 100% safe without being made almost 100% useless. Now that there are bridges over the major Danish waterways, who's going to take a ferry that requires airport-intensive inspections of cars, luggage, and so on?

The Danes acknowledge the risk, examine the costs, and shrug. They're saying, this is a risk we can live with. And I really do admire that.

I sometimes get the sense that we Americans have a childlike notion of security—we believe, or want to believe, that we can immunize ourselves against tragedy if only we spend enough money, hire enough people, arm enough soldiers, build enough bombs, say enough prayers, hold enough vigils. Those things can certainly reduce risk and make us feel better, but they don't make us invulnerable. And when our sense of security is violated, as it was so very spectacularly about three years ago, we run for our guns and our lawyers—assuaging first our hunger for vengeance, then finding someone to blame. Someone must be accountable, after all, because all bad things are preventable.

* * *

So for all the talk of fairy-tales, the Danes are a sensible, practical, and sometimes painfully logical people. Which is why I wasn't surprised that although my Danish teacher shared my bewilderment at the bureaucracy's objections to us naming our daughter Molli, she didn't see why we wouldn't just name her Molly or Mollie. Couldn't we just change her name later?

It was interesting to observe how my classmates reacted. The spectrum ran from indifference ("So?") to indignant empathy ("That's obscene!"). As one student in particular struggled to understand what possible objection I could have to a government veto over my daughter's name, another rose to my defense.

"Americans have very independent spirits," she explained.

I caught a few "oh yeahs," "that's rights," and "of courses," without any irony or sarcasm. I found the moment strangely refreshing.

For all the acid criticisms of America I've heard from my classmates, it's still considered a land of fiercely independent spirits. There's also a visceral acknowledgment that such passion for individual liberty remains (alas) the exception to the rule. From the heart of European civilization our obsession with individual liberty is considered a quaint anachronism. From more Hobbesian lands it's considered admirable but unrealistic—like electric cars or fat-free chocolate.

I've always admired New Hampshire's motto, inescapable to anyone growing up in northern Massachusetts. Live Free or Die. It always seemed pretty hokey to me, though, because I never experienced any real challenge to living free. I always took my freedom for granted. Despicable western capitalist rat-bastard that I am, I still do.

I don't think the Danish naming laws are an actual threat to my freedom. I'm certainly not prepared to die for the right to name my daughter any damn thing that pops into my head. But it's clear that my outrage is almost entirely American (or at least Anglophonic), which is interesting in itself. I've been wondering a lot about what it means. I haven't come to any conclusions. There probably aren't any conclusions to be had. But it's certainly something to think about.

But then, so is this.

* * *

Agatha Christie was born on this date in 1891. Since my arrival in Denmark, she's done more to preserve my sanity than any other person, living, dead, or fictional. I've read 45 of her books in the 18 months that I've lived here—and the only reason I haven't read all of them (we now own about 80) is that I've deliberately been spacing them out to make them last longer. It's literary crack.

History And So On

On this date in 1776, the British occupied Manhattan. Outraged by the rents and discouraged by the lack of parking, however, they left shortly afterwards, leaving only journalists behind.

On this date in 1830, British MP William Huskisson was chatting amiably with the Duke of Wellington at the grand opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, when all at once the right honorable gentleman distinguished himself for posterity by becoming the first human being in history to be run over by a train.

(The Duke of Wellington, on the other hand, is remembered for his Beef.)

Thirty-four years later, on this date in 1864, another hardy British soul, the explorer John Speke, distinguished himself by becoming the first European to see Africa's Lake Victoria and then accidentally shoot and kill himself while hunting partridges.

The Germans occupied the Sudetenland in late summer of 1938. This enraged the British and the English, who both feared for the loss of the Sudetenland's celebrated pea crops. On September 15 of that year, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet Hitler at Bertesgaden to discuss the situation. Hitler assured him that there would be plenty of peas to go around, and Chamberlain returned to England with the famous proclamation of Peas in Our Time. World War II was therefore avoided and did not break out until some time later.

On this date in 1928, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered that the mold penicillin had an antibiotic effect. Had he cleaned his laboratory every night and put all his things away like a good little boy, he never would have discovered penicillin, and half of us would be dead right now.

Today is Independence Day in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It's Respect for the Aged Day in Japan.

It's the birthday of Britain's Prince Harry (1984), Dan Marino (1961), Tommy Lee Jones (1946), Oliver Stone (1946), Merlin Olsen (1940), Jackie Cooper (1922), Fay Wray (1907), Agatha Christie (1891), Robert Benchley (1889), William H. Taft (1857), and James Fenimore Cooper (1789).

Happy Hump Day!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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