Saturday, October 27, 2007

Talkin' Politics

On Wednesday, Denmark’s prime minister announced that the national elections will be held in a few weeks on November 13 – a full fifteen months ahead of the “deadline” for the election to be held. Like most democratic governments outside the US, Denmark has a parliamentary system, and so, like in most parliamentary systems, the government is run by a coalition between multiple parties. Although I certainly haven’t had the chance to learn much of the intricacies of Danish politics, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about one of the parties that has managed to exert a considerable influence in Danish politics by playing a key role in the current coalition government – the Danish People’s Party (DPP), which is described in the press as “right-wing” but has been described to me by people here as an anti-immigration (or, depending on who I talk to, racist) populist party. Despite the current shortage of workers in Denmark that would actually make it useful to allow immigrants and increase the country’s workforce, they have been fairly successful in pushing through immigration restrictions over the past few years. In retrospect I realize this is probably largely responsible for the difficulties I found in trying to get my visa to come here, for the stories I heard about Canadian students studying abroad here having difficulties obtaining student visas and even difficulties in allowing a Danish citizen to bring his fiancée to the country, for the full waiting room spilling out into the streets when I went to pick up my visa in Copenhagen when I first got to Denmark.

Also, long overdue, here is a picture of my hard-won visa, now happily affixed to my passport.
I can’t help but wonder, though…would I have been able to come here if I had been from the somewhere other than the US?

The DPP’s main platform is for reducing immigration, in particular from non-Western countries, along with nationalist policies such as maintaining Danish sovereign powers within the EU and preserving national institutions like the monarchy and the constitution and the Church. It’s probably over-exaggerating, but it sounds uncomfortably similar to the National Socialist German Workers Party (yes, the Nazis). Of course as a foreigner with little knowledge or understanding of Danish politics, I try not to judge too soon, but the party’s most recent move is particularly and disgustingly upsetting. Most people probably still remember the controversy two years ago over the Muhammad cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper which ultimately led to so much negative feeling in the Muslim world that the Danish embassy and consulate in Damascus and Beirut were burned. Well, it turns out that this whole crisis helped the DPP gain a lot more support in Denmark, and as such, they have decided to use a cartoon drawing of Muhammad (generally considered offensive to Muslims since Islam prohibits depictions of the prophet) in their campaign ads for the upcoming election along with the slogan “Freedom of speech is Danish, censorship is not,” followed with the claim “We defend Danish values”. (You can read more about this here.) I’m used to thinking of Denmark as a fairly liberal, open-minded country, but the kind of blatant intolerance that would lead the third-largest political party in the country to try to gain support by showing their pride in disrespecting the religion of not only a large population of the world but also a group of the country’s own citizens is sickening. And not just sickening – it’s disturbing and downright scary. One Muslim woman also running for election has come up with a clever counter-ad showing a drawing of the DPP’s leader with a slogan saying “Freedom of speech is Danish, stupidity is not.” I sure hope she’s right. I’m plenty used to living in conservative places where I disagree with most of my neighbors’ political opinions, but it’s depressing to think that here in Hirtshals particularly, the DPP has a large following.

Spurred partially by this recent turn of events here, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and political differences between countries over the past couple of days. In many ways, Denmark seems much more liberal than the US because of its Scandinavian socialist model. Within a week of arriving in Hirtshals and registering myself at the local government office, I had already received a mailing with this:

My Danish health card. Yup, the government of Denmark, where I am living for a mere 110 days, has offered me more comprehensive health care coverage than has ever been provided to me by the government of my own home country where I have lived for twenty years. (Yes, they did spell my name wrong, but it's still better than what I get in the US of A.)

Yet at the same time, a major political party can run this sort of ad and still expect to gain more than 10% of the seats in parliament. And somehow it is also considered appropriate for the government to refuse to publicly discuss its support of the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even with journalists daily requesting and being denied interviews and protesters demonstrating outside the Parliament building in Copenhagen every day since Denmark began fighting.

It’s these kinds of things that to me seem befuddling combinations that have also gotten me thinking about how difficult it really is to explain politics in an international context. For me, it is a stretch to try to shed my biases coming from the US and look at how things work in a parliamentary system, pick up the main trends of the issues people consider important, the main trends that influence people’s views. Even after a month of fairly determined efforts, I have only a vague understanding of the politics behind the EU’s fisheries policies, let alone the larger picture of overall EU politics and how each of the member states’ political landscapes function. And similarly, trying to explain US politics and policies to people who have never lived in the US – no matter how many news shows and American movies they watch – seems nearly impossible. Sure, I can explain the basics, but it’s a system far too complicated to explain just in the course of a conversation – I can’t manage to get across the fundamental role of the US constitution in the judicial system, how we can represent a wealth of regional and ideological diversity in opinion even with a two-party system, the importance both of religion and religious groups but also of the separation between church and state. It’s certainly an eye-opening experience to try, but perhaps even more importantly, it helps me realize how impossible it is for me to really understand all the nuances of politics in Denmark, let alone in all of Europe or all of the world.

Pretty much everyone I’ve talked with so far this year about politics, and particularly the US’s role in international politics, has mentioned that they think it is really important for Americans to get out of the country and see what, and how, the rest of the world thinks. Sometimes I think this is their nice way of saying that I don’t seem quite as crazy or narrow-minded or “American” as they imagine most Americans to be, which they seem to chalk up to my having gotten out of the country (another thing I have a hard time explaining – really, not all Americans love George Bush! Nor are we all supporters of the Iraq war, conservative Christians, residents of giant cities, or any of the other assumptions I’ve heard). But I also think they’re completely right – I think it would do the US a lot of good if everyone had to spend some time abroad, seeing what the rest of the world is like.

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