Where all the kids are above average . . .
I’ve been reading Swedish crime fiction. Along with the rest of the Western World, I’ve read two of the three books in the Stieg Larsson “Girl” series. As I mentioned earlier, these are good page turners and, unrelatedly (maybe) very violent. I’ll read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest just for the hat trick, but I’m rather over Larsson. The reasons why have been explained in so many other venues, it really isn’t my place to repeat them. I believe it was Joan Acocella in the Jan 10th issue of The New Yorker who laid it out the best: his stories are good but his writing is atrocious. I can only imagine what these looked like before the unsuccessful editing job.
So, to keep in the vein but aim for tighter prose, I read The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. Mankell’s cop and his police narratives obviously served as a source of inspiration for Larsson and I can see why. They’re well written and seedy all at the same time. What strikes me though, especially as I being listening to an audiobook of The Pyramid by Mankell, is their joint interest in the decline–or decay–of the liberal Swedish welfare state and an abiding concern with what kind of Sweden will take the place of that mythical Nordic land where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. (props to Keillor)
Since you can all go read Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell for yourselves, I won’t go into the details of their concerns with the welfare state’s demise in Sweden. They are concerned about crime, about fascists, and about how Sweden is changing. At one point in The Fifth Woman, Kurt Wallander opines that Sweden is changing for the worse. Sweden used to be a country where people darned socks and now it is not. People throw away worn out socks and this disposable society also means that people are more likely to get tossed aside, as well. The care for fragile things, the investment of one’s time in simple things (like repairing a sock that was likely hand-knitted) have no place in the current, fast-paced, materialistic world, in which the individual is concerned with him or herself alone and not with the welfare of the entire tribe.
When I read this, I immediately thought that Sweden is becoming more American. The USA invented the disposable, one-size-fits-all culture of commerce and slowly but surely have been importing it all over the world since the end of WWII. Poor Sweden, one is inclined to think. Of course, Sweden makes its own decisions and their immigration policies, tax policies and the like have just as much influence on the changing face of their nation as any sort of Americanization creep I might posit.
This past summer, when we were driving across Germany and France with the kids, I got to thinking about how Germany today is not the same country I lived in for the first time 20+ years ago. There are the little things–like the fact women shave their armpits and legs and deodorant is stocked in drugstores–and then there are larger things, too, that are harder to name that just make it feel “different,” or, really, more American. I pondered this for a while and came to a rather different conclusion than “the US, through its media and military, are infiltrating the rest of the world in the attempt to turn everyone into us.” The source lies elsewhere, methinks and it is arrogant of me to assume that my country has anything to do with changes in western European democracies. We are a superpower and stuff, but let’s not assume tooooo much importance, shall we?
Germany and its politicians are full of laments about the “state of things today.” Angela Merkel has famously declared that the multicultural experiment in Germany has failed. Several years ago there was a political kerfuffle about the CDU’s demand that immigrants commit to the principles of Germany’s “Leitkultur,” (or dominant culture). These things sound horrible and call up images of Germany’s repulsive xenophobic, racist past. But perhaps these people are merely responding to that same feeling that I have when I think about the Germany of 25 years ago. The country has changed. The relatively homogenous culture of the past, where all shops were closed on Sunday (the Lord’s day), people swept their sidewalks, hung lace curtains in their kitchen windows, and used plastic gloves to handle fruit and veggies in the supermarket before putting them into their cart is impossible to maintain in the face of growing immigration and, let’s not forget, more porous borders with other European countries.
It isn’t Americanization that I see in Germany, it is globalization–or, perhaps more accurately–the growing pains of a country that is become an very unwilling melting pot. Demographic changes related to immigration and urbanization, coupled with the deregulation of large sectors of the economy have changed the face of America radically since the end of WWII–and this change has been more aggressive and more pronounced since the Reagan era. These changes are now confronting Europe, as their economies begin to look more like the US economy and less like the social welfare states of the previous century. Since these changes go hand in with increased immigration in Germany, it is easy to lump them together causally, but I just don’t think that is justified. Germans don’t darn socks anymore, either.