By Ask Foldspang Neve
Small countries are, as a rule, constantly nervous about how they are perceived abroad. Little wonder that is: if you depend on alliances for your prosperity and maybe even your potential prosperity, impressions matter. Their mythical golden ages are typically also farther away than that of the immediate has-beens, and so looking abroad does not threaten national solidarity and pride quite as easily.
Mostly small societies are just happy if they get any attention at all. American presidents are masters of using this fact to their advantage: you can get the support of almost every minor power simply by mentioning that they ‘punch above their weight’. Even when they realize that their patron superpower is not being exclusive in such praise, minor powers are so addicted to attention that they will soak it up when given. Former great powers such as the UK must still be talked into believing that such a thing as a ‘special relationship’ exists, faithfully adhering to it, even if the Brits and people on the payroll of the American Department of State know that it is special.
Denmark is obviously no exception from the rule of attention-starved client polities. There is seemingly no end to the joy Danes can get from hearing about how Danes are the happiest people in the world: in fact, it seems like a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy.
When you are so obsessed with the feelings of others for your own fulfilment, it is no wonder, then, that you feel hurt and become defensive when their praise turns into scorn or reprimands. And whereas the praise often has to do with arguably less immediately consequential considerations such as the percentage of the electricity supply wind energy or bike lanes, the international fallout that was the result of a newly introduced and much discussed Danish policy of seizing certain assets of asylum-seekers as a means of deterring newcomers.
This only hurt so much more because Denmark, like Sweden and many continental European countries have been profoundly unable to develop a model of citizenship that is not based on either xenophilia or xenophobia; i.e., that tolerance of the strange customs of others does not imply having to love it. Continentals, it seems, are puzzled at the meaning of Lockean tolerance, and so feel safer banning what they cannot love. Switzerland’s 2009 ban on minarets and Denmark’s recent Meatball War – the latest round of which resulted in the local council of Randers, a medium-sized city, deciding that pork must be served in its schools and kindergartens – are both prominent examples.
So when outside attention is given to this dysfunctionality, it hurts. So much, in fact, that the liberal principles espoused by a whole host of brave knights defending freedom of speech during the 2005-2006 Cartoon Controversy can be forgotten. Back then, the nativist right was busy defending Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose’s editorial that stated that in a “secular democracy with freedom of speech, one must put up with mockery, insults, and ridicule.” When the Guardian meta-mocked that same political movement, the DPP were suddenly less keen on the mockery. Hence the following medley of the founder of the Danish People’s Party alternately demanding absolute freedom of speech and that the Guardian withdraw its cartoon.