The countries we know as the Nordics all have distinct cultures and languages, yet they share much in terms of history with the possible exception of Finland. The other four Nordics are Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Together, they demonstrate the amazing ability of states to come together and cooperate in so many ways that future wars between them are almost impossible. They share so much and yet, this has not always been the case.
The Vikings were great traders and adventurers, making it from Constantinople to the coast of North America. They named places like Iceland and Dublin and stole and pillaged a lot. They also brought a tradition of telling stories and passing them down over generations. The sagas that we know today were passed down for years before being written and are some of the finest literature of the middle ages. They accepted Christianity on their own terms and have never forgotten Thor, Odin, Loki or the other gods and when you see their landscapes, it is possible to understand why. The Nordics have large urban centres where the populations congregate today, but for many years and indeed still today, the rural towns and farms played an extremely important part in Nordic history. Despite the fact that people have lived there for thousands of years, the Sami or Lapp peoples for example, many places feel untouched and completely devoid of any humanity. It can be extremely comforting or oddly frightening. A group that seems incredibly in tune with this nature is Iceland’s Sigur Ros. Not only do they do what they can to protect Iceland’s natural beauty, but they have a deep respect for the people from around their island as they demonstrated by giving a free tour in different towns and venues as seen in the documentary film Heima.
Saeglopur – Sigur Ros
Over the years, the different Nordic countries would pass through different hands and they each seemingly had a time to rule over the others. As the 20th century drew near and nationalism was in fashion, each wanted their independence. Yet, within a few years, the time for coming together returned albeit in different forms. The Nordic Council is one of the most comprehensive cooperation efforts in modern history and ranges from living arrangements to social security across the entire Nordic area. The way these countries developed was with neighbors helping neighbors and tireless work over hundreds of years in difficult conditions. In Iceland for example, each few years a volcano would erupt causing the death of a quarter of the population and of the livestock. This meant that people had to work even harder to feed themselves and start over quite often. Towards the end of the 19th century, many Nordics left their homes to settle in the Midwest of Canada and the United States creating new communities in difficult lands, many of which still have strong ties to their native lands to this day. The hard work that led to their resettlements showed the true colours of the immigrants. Abraham Lincoln once said that the Norwegian were by far the people who had advanced the most upon arriving to the United States. Like their fellow Norwegian Ane Brun, they showed their true colours.
Ane Brun – True Colours
Once the 20th century rolled around and these nations were no longer handed over at the whim or marriage of royals, each state became a clearly defined entity and the end of the Second World War solidified this. At one time, a King of Denmark had offered the then colony of Iceland to Germany in exchange for the region where he was born that he had lost in war. As citizens gained more control over legislative bodies, the intense cooperation between them led to the development of what is called the Nordic model. The social system is quite complete and citizens are taken care of from the moment they are born until they die. Daycares, schooling, hospitals are top rate and generally free. Weeks off are plentiful, much work is done to get women in high ranking positions and the gap between the rich and the poor is not generally too high. The judicial system focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment and there are day cares in many jails.
At the same time, the relationships between people are different. On the bar scene, it tends to be the women who more aggressively pursue their potential mates. There is also nothing wrong with having children out of wedlock or not getting married at all. Homosexuality is widely accepted and Iceland has the first openly gay head of government in modern history. In fact, Icelandic news stories would focus more on the fact that Johanna Sigurdardottir was a flight attendant prior to election than on her recent marriage to her female partner.
Indeed, as Swedish star Lykki Li sings about, things are a little bit different in the Nordics.
A Little Bit – Lykki Li
For fans of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, this Nordic way of life is socialist and is giving President Obama ideas on how to do the same thing in the United States. The term used by the locals to describe their form of government is social-democracy or the Nordic model. Although it has its detractors in that part of the world as well, they don’t have as strong of a voice as people who are opposed to such forms of government interventionism in other parts of the world such as in North America. That is surely due to the fact that it works to create stable governments and opportunities for all whatever the personal background might be. The argument is that with the government doing so much work, the opportunities for private citizens to start businesses in those fields are removed. By doing so, the government also destroys competition by creating a monopoly in that field. Followers of the Tea Party might argue that this destroys liberty, as they argued against health care reform. That rests on one particular conception of liberty with which people in the Nordics might not agree.
One might think, then, that Nordics have no need to work hard anymore because they can play off the system that they have created and live happily without working hard. Indeed, people on welfare have many benefits that could make a simple comparison with working find a person quite tempted to be on welfare. Yet, there are people willing to work in all the jobs necessary for a society to function and the Nordics are often very close to the elusive full employment. That is because of the balance that people create between work and the rest of their lives. Work is not what you do while you wait to become rich, it is what you do to help society in some way. The feeling of being trapped in that mode can certainly exist, but in many ways, as Sweden’s Miike Snow will share, we are all still animals needing to be released. We do have this need to let our nature take over and propel us beyond the simple security of the every day.
Animal by Miike Snow
The Tea Party’s way of seeing liberty has achieved great popularity. At the same, there are other ways of conceiving this concept. Instead of liberty being the ability to fulfill our basic needs with different options to do so, Hannah Arendt would contend, as to my limited understanding of work, that liberty is not the ability to fulfill your needs; that is necessity. Liberty is the ability to beyond that and to have the place and the freedom to create.
This is indeed something the Nordics have mastered. Whether it be the stories of the Valhalla where the Gods fought infinity or the sagas which told of real people in occasionally fantastic settings, the Nordics have no limits to their imaginations. What has been important in creating this tradition has been to set aside time for story telling at the end of the hard day of work, even if there is still sowing and other work to be done at the same time. Icelanders called it kvöldvaka – night awake. When it would get dark early in the winter months, they would have little light, but amazing stories to keep them awake to finish the work they needed to do.
Today, this translates into so many people having this desire to create. Thanks to the social system and support, a lot of residents of the Nordics have the opportunity to try their hand at a vast array of artistic activities with great support from corporate and governmental institutions. Walking into a Subway restaurant with paintings by a local artist on the wall is not only an uplifting way of supporting the community and beautifying your space, but also inspires would be artists to try their hand at something they think passions them, just to know.
Icelandic pop-electronica band FM Belfast, for example, made a song for a friend as a birthday gift, so the story goes. Then, they made a few more and found a place in the lineup of the big Iceland Airwaves music festival and now they tour all over Europe. Whether they planned on being stars or not is beyond me and whether they will make a career out of this in the long run is not yet certain. But at least they had the freedom to try.
Synthia – FM Belfast