Published in 2014, this book has an eerie vibe, redolent of a past that seems distant but really was just yesterday. Intertwined with gentle criticisms of Nordic foibles is an iron self-confidence that “we,” a group constantly referred to but never defined, desire above all things “modernism”: absolute equality of result and a rejection of sex differences, collectivism, atheism, multiculturalism, the death of traditional cultures through multiculturalism, and the active, aggressive suppression of any view or speech deemed “right-wing.” Viewed from the post-Brexit, post-Trump, pre-Le Pen perspective of early 2017, this seems as quaint as nostalgia for steam locomotives. It worships something that was hollow and imaginary then and is now, fortunately, being dragged out, still struggling weakly, to be thrown on the ashheap of history. Reading this book is like seeing a man venerate a statue of Mithras—it just seems odd, with a frisson of fading menace.
I bought this book on a whim, because it was cheap on Kindle, and I needed something immediately to read on the move. But I had heard of it, and the premise implicit in the title seemed interesting. I, like most people, know very little about Scandinavia (though I’ve been to Denmark and Sweden, briefly). While reading it, I swung wildly between wanting to praise it for being funny, insightful and interesting; and to savage it for being ignorant and unbelievably closed-minded. I still haven’t decided which one to do. So I think I’ll do both. And in passing, I’ll note how this book demonstrates why the Nordic countries have contributed and will contribute nothing of significant value to the world.
First, the good news. Booth (an Englishman) writes well, in an interesting and funny fashion. Sometimes it’s a bit like he’s trying too hard to be Bill Bryson, but he spent a lot of time traveling, talking to many individuals, and trying hard to understand the five Nordic/Scandinavian countries (Denmark, where he lives; Norway; Sweden; Iceland; and Finland). He organizes his book around countries, in essence trying to paint a picture of each one—not with a focus on the bad, as the title would imply, but with a balanced view that tries to cut through the vague stereotypes that outsiders have.
Of course, this is analysis by anecdote. Trying to get a handle on what a country is really like this way is difficult. It’s made more difficult by the narrowness of the people Booth chooses to interview and cite. There is a distinct odor of conformism and ideological ostrich behavior. Moreover, it’s hard to get a handle on overall and relative economic performance, because there are various statistics thrown out but no attempt at an overall discussion. There are nods to low and declining productivity, aging population, etc., as well as attempts to explain why, for example, the Danes like having a welfare state. But how these all fit together in terms of, say, GDP growth, is unclear, as is the economic effect of mass immigration. Unfortunately, this problem is exacerbated by continuous sycophantic hagiography. “The accomplishments of twentieth-century Sweden are legion and, mostly, noble: from its rationalist, respectful secularism, to its industrial might and economic success and, of course, its compassionate, all-embracing, shining beacon of a welfare state. . . . How we lap up news of their free schools and foundation hospitals, their harmonious “middle way” consensus politics, and their economic and gender equality.” As always—who’s “we,” kemosabe?
In any case, anecdote is the nature of this kind of book, so to complain too much about it is silly. To Booth, Nordic people may have a few imperfections and some room for improvement, but there is only one area in which they can be grossly imperfect. That’s the degree to which a tiny few of them (they are few, aren’t they, Mommy?), the retrogrades, the bad ones, reject modern leftist thought—not in economics, but in culture. To Booth and everyone he talks to, it’s OK that, say, Sweden has substantially dialed back its welfare state and regulation a few years back. Maybe not desirable, and perhaps part of highly dubious “neoliberalism,” but not sinful. The only unforgivable sin, though, is not living up to and worshipping the latest progressive canons relating to culture, including forced gender “equality,” atheism, and, most of all, the wonders and joys of unlimited immigration of alien cultures. Such sinners deserve nothing but contempt and punishment, according to Booth and every person he interviews.
Before we get to analyzing this problem, what this book shows more than anything else is why the Scandinavians have accomplished nothing for hundreds of years. The reason people can’t name Nordic individuals or cities is not that their names are hard or their weather is cold, but because the Nordic countries have no stellar accomplishments. (Also, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are awful and make the reader want to commit suicide.) This is because their cultures discourage excellence, through the Danish so-called “Jante Law” and its rough equivalents in other countries. Those who excel are brought low by their peers, which means a stagnant culture. Conformity breeds lack of accomplishment. That Gustavus Adolphus conquered some other countries in the 17th Century and Angry Birds is (or was) popular is not to the contrary. As one newspaper editor says, “In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding, we create hopelessness, helplessness and . . . ordinary mediocrity.” If it were not for the accomplishments of Europeans with better cultures, the Scandinavians would still be sitting in turf huts dotted across the landscape. They probably wouldn’t even be stealing from others like the Vikings, since they have now wholly emasculated themselves of male characteristics (at least the Swedish have, Booth says, in one of his rare admissions that anything is culturally wrong with Scandinavia). That doesn’t mean their cultures are inherently bad, though—you can have a perfectly good culture that doesn’t accomplish much to add value to the world. Look at Spain. But at least the Spaniards have good food and art.
Anyway, turning to Booth’s obsessive belief that “we” all want more left-wing cultural dominance, at least he admits his bias. I am not sure if the first clause is meant to be a joke, but towards the end of the book he says “Though it might not always be apparent, I am a great enthusiast for political correctness . . . it seems to me just another manifestation of politeness.” Booth then spends the next 100 or so pages shrilly concluding his book by calling for aggressive suppression of any and all “right-wing” speech and political activity, defined as anything opposed to modernism, most of all any opposition to unrestrained immigration or recognition that importing alien cultures has costs. Naturally, at no point in the book does Booth ever acknowledge that there is such a thing as Norwegian, or Swedish, or Finnish culture, that might have any value or deserve protection, other than trite anecdotes about oil, Ikea and saunas.
In particular, unsurprisingly given most immigration to Scandinavia is Muslim, Booth is obsessed with being anti-anti-Muslim. He notes the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy in Denmark—only to criticize the “boorish, willfully unfunny cartoons.” He does not imply that anybody else did anything wrong, and the only consequence at all noted mentioned is that Norway (not Denmark) “was implicated” (how?) and “got [their] embassy in Damascus burned down” (by whom?) But this is only one example—this is how Booth treats all instances of immigrant violence and crime, even while noting in passing that “immigrants [to Sweden] are more than four times as likely as Swedes to commit a murder, and more than five times a likely to commit a rape.”
Naturally, none of the people he interviews will comment on this, except “off the record,” where they “concede” the exact same thing. Those on the record then tell him that he’s a “fascist” for even asking questions where the suggestion could be that there is anything other than Totally Awesome about more and more immigration. Booth repeatedly endorses the bizarre claim that “second-generation immigrants have been [turned “Scandinavian”] . . . they think like Protestants” (bizarre not least because nearly all of the people interviewed by Booth openly despise actual Christianity). Then he claims that Rosengard, the infamous Swedish no-go zone in Malmo, is a totally normal area. The only Muslim he talks to there is an imam, self-described as a “Western Muslim,” whose mosque equally serves Sunnis and Shiites, had little problem with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and likes to hang with the local rabbi. I’m pretty sure this imam is not representative of the Rosengard population (that his mosque was bombed by other Muslims not thrilled with his views suggests this to be the case). And I’m pretty sure Booth made no effort at all to find out the reality of mass immigration in Scandinavia, for even thinking there might be an alternative view would have made him unclean in the eyes of the correct-thinking people he views himself as belonging to.
I was able to use Kindle’s search feature to determine that in this book term “right-wing” appears 35 times; in every single instance, it is used as a term of abuse and hatred or near-hatred (frequently coupled with adjectives like “loathsome”). On the other hand, the term “left-wing” appears three times; in each instance, as a positive appellation. What is “left-wing” is the default, except when it’s not left-wing enough. That does not usually happen, for Booth, in economic matters. But any movement culturally leftwards is good. Similarly, Booth constantly talks about the “Nordic Right’s bigotry and falsehoods” without any evidence or a single mention of what those “falsehoods” are. His only actual contact in any country with any member of the Nordic Right (whose vote percentages are 25-30% and rising in more than one of these countries) is a Norwegian whom he interviews for the sole purpose of demanding he answer for Anders Breivik, and who is not permitted to talk about anything else. And in the worst part of Booth’s book, a long ideological screed he appends as an epilogue, he characterizes any opposition to mass immigration thus: “And the Breiviks will not win. They never do. Immigration will continue in the north—it has to for many reasons—and integration will improve.” What those reasons are, or why integration will improve, we are never told. It is self-evident. We know it to be true if we are People of the Light. If not, we are Breiviks, and we are not “we,” so shut up.
The reality that I saw, reading this book, is that Scandinavians are the picture perfect model of where modernism and autonomy-maximizing liberalism gets us, and it is a bleak picture. Almost all of Booth’s interviewees are zombies: they are participants in and priests of a dead culture, where, for example, any Christian religious belief is “taboo,” yet they think, or at least say, their culture is at its pinnacle, and heading higher. So, perhaps, the inhabitants of Scandinavia deserve to have their cultures die, for if you will not fight for your culture, it will not fight for itself. Or, perhaps, there are many Scandinavians, not given voice by Michael Booth, who are even now preparing, like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, to overturn the order of things and allow the bringing of renewal to their lands. We’ll find out soon enough.