Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Poisoned by the Welfare State (or How Denmark Spoiled Me for American Politics)

It's weird to live in a country, a "democracy" nonetheless, where I feel such a fatalistic attitude about my personal ability to effect any change. It's also weird that somewhere along the line I was poisoned with intolerance and frustration.

I was on a plane to Denver a month ago and after I had settled myself down in my seat, I watched the rest of the passengers boarding. As a group of women in homesewn muslin dresses wearing nametags proclaiming Jesus Christ their Savior and bearing the name of their elder walked past, I felt something akin to loathing wash over me. I was sort of appalled at myself for having this visceral reaction, particularly towards a generally inoffensive law-abiding group as these young Christians. As I thought about it I realized that I was projecting my own frustration with politics in this country upon these women. I was blaming them for George W. Bush's reelection, when in fact, more than half the voting population is responsible. When I think back on the past few years, I think I actually know where I went wrong...

In the fall of 2000, I spent four month living in Copenhagen, Denmark. My memories of my time there are not merely viewed through rose-colored glasses - my mental image of Denmark practically has a halo of perfection surrounding it. The country was clean, the air was clear, the people were beautiful, the people rode bikes to work and waited for lights at crosswalks. I was almost certain that Denmark was the closest the world could get to the embodiment of a Utopia. The day I arrived (as a student with a visa) I was issued a health care card and assigned a doctor near my residence. As part of my sociology class, we learned all about end-of-life care and eldercare provided free of charge for citizens. In my political science class we learned about the numerous political parties that are represented in the Folketing (Parliament) and studied the ground breaking environmental legislation set forth. It all almost seemed to good to be true. Certainly Denmark has issues of its own. A nation which once existed as 5 million citizens who looked alike, spoke the same language, and practiced (or didn't practice) the same religion, is today facing some of the issues posed by an influx of foreign immigrants (mostly from Turkey). But it was my impression that these issues would be gradually resolved so long as the immigrants accepted the premise of the welfare state mentality: pay 70-80% income tax and you'll be well taken care of. It sure sounds like a lot, but hearing that teachers and doctors are paid approximately the same salary seemed like just one evidence that it's worth it. After all, where's the logic in saving someone's life just to send them to a school system that sets them up for failure because the teachers who care aren't paid enough to subsist. AND... the people seemed happy! Of the students I spoke to, there didn't seem to be as wide a range of socioeconomic variation as I've experienced in the US. There were certainly those who had more than others, but the pursuit of having more didn't seem to occupy the same lofty position. So then, after living for 4 months in this seeming perfection, I returned to the US - to a country whose election turmoil had just been decided by the Supreme Court (democracy? election by the people?). It was a hard pill to swallow...

At the time I thought, "How bad can it be? George W. Bush seems like an entertaining guy - I'm sure he'll have smart people backing him up." And I always really liked Colin Powell! The truth is, I'm not really sure that it's gotten all that bad. I don't agree with the premise of the war in Iraq and I find the lack of renewal of the assault weapons ban, the repealing of important protective environmental legislation, and the lowering of taxes (among other things) completely irresponsible and nearly abhorrent, but I'm not convinced that "things" are so different. What I'm most upset about, the wound that was reopened and salted in November, is that the system is just so blatantly not designed for honest discourse. I know that the US is never going to be like Denmark - that model is hardly applicable, but the realization that we're trapped in this stagnant two party system where all that matters is money is depressing. There are plenty of other political parties and great political minds in this country who will never have a voice. So what to do? Where to go with all these thoughts?

I don't want to have a fatalistic attitude and I don't want to be so diametrically opposed to half the population. Last summer someone told me I was "such a Northerner" - by which I think they meant liberal intellectual who wears cashmere turtleneck sweaters. As a person who certainly has biases against "Southerners" or "born-again Christians" it felt weird to be on the receiving end of the bias. In reality, these labels all seem pretty stupid. What I'm hoping is that maybe sometime soon I'll just feel like an "American" again and stop wishing so desperately that I were actually Danish.


At 9:57 PM, January 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just so you know, Mormons, like the women you saw on the plane, actually use the title "Elder" before their own names. So that is what you saw on their name tags, not the name of their elders.


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