Academics tend to agree that identity is of particular importance right now. The participants of this podcast explore how different portrayals of history can influence our identity, these portrayals can be in the form of school curricula, museums and cultural institutions, or even company advertising and specific nation-branding. Local and national identities appear to be becoming more dominant than global or regional ones, which were arguably favoured at earlier points in time; concepts of identity are becoming increasingly entrenched leading to a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Listen to this podcast which starts its investigation with ideas of national identity.
Be sure to listen to the next podcast on identity which focuses more on regional identity!
Welcome to this nordics.info podcast. nordics.info is a research dissemination website based at Aarhus university in Denmark and publishes material by researchers on many different aspects of the Nordic countries within the social sciences and humanities. Nordics.info is part of the university hub Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World, ReNEW, My name is Nicola Witcombe and I am the editor of the website. This podcast series is based on me catching up with specialists and experts at different university events and discussing particular topics of the day with them. This podcast is about identity
and it is called "The Nordics and identity: unite or divide?' It is the first of two podcasts about the subject. It was recorded at the Marienlyst Hotel in Helsingør, Denmark during an academic workshop on identity and post-global nordic societies in March 2020.
Academics from the Nordic countries in Eastern Europe and Russia were present and I grabbed some of them, sometimes alone, or in pairs in between sessions to talk to me. They consider that gone are the days when it was exciting and attractive to be a global citizen with a worldwide outlook. On the one hand, global tendencies such as pandemics and climate change keep pulling us in the direction of globalisation. On the other, we are increasingly reticent to identify with the global population and have a tendency to identify with smaller, or specifically identifiable groups, which we feel close to for a particular reason.
But first, this morning I along with my children sang along with 23.000 Danes according to Facebook to four songs that were broadcast on the main TV channel at nine o'clock. While we cannot be physically near one another, as we are in the middle of the corona pandemic, schools are shut and we cannot congregate in groups of ten or more, the intention is that, when we sing together, we belong together and the feeling of 'fællesskab', the feeling of community, is stronger. I am filled with a sense of happiness and pleased to be living in
this country, where things like 'the common song book' exists in practically every house.
But a couple of lines stand out and they can be roughly translated as follows:
"Our futures are coloured by the sound that you have inherited."
"It is the rhythm of your ancestors that touch your flesh".
Having moved to Denmark from the UK, the song appears to exclude me. I suppose, as the words of many national songs, poems, etc. due to a range of people, for a range of different reasons. What is this 'national community' then? Am I permitted to belong to it? Do I want to belong to it? So on the one side, nation building is a positive thing that gives people a warm
fuzzy feeling, but it can potentially turn negative for some members of the community quite quickly. I asked the group of academics about why identity remains important to us and how it manifests itself in the Nordic countries today. First up was professor Kazimierz Musiał from Gdansk University Institute of Scandinavian Studies.
We are much more mobile than we used to do be and we encountered a world, which is much different from our pre preconditions of the cognitive priors, so to speak that we grow up with. And then, out of a sudden, we want to know where we stand, right?
We are identical with 'what', we are the same as 'who' as which world is our world.
So, that's just like an answer to our own anxiety that is growing, because we are confronted with a world that is really heterogeneous.
The following is professor Norbert Götz of the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University in Sweden, who discusses polarisation in the Nordic countries, as well as elsewhere with me. We go on to talk about how often we in the Nordic countries hark back to a social democratic heyday, an idle of consensus and harmony, or was it?
We are experiencing that we are living in a time of polarisation of different national but also lifestyle, political concern attitudes like climate change and new movements and others denying it and so on. So it's like these identities are kind of reinforcing each other strengthening one identity means that others, who don't have the same concerns, or are excluded, are building up theirs and at the moment, we really live in a time with research and identity politics NW: And that's interesting because often,
the Nordic the social democratic model is sort of considered to be about consensus and discussion and negotiation and so on. So what you're saying is that that idea of consensus is maybe breaking down a bit, becoming more polarised?
I think it happens even in the Nordic countries, although arguably other places in the world are more affected, but i mean the rise of populist parties, for example, in all the Nordic countries, the decline of social democracy to some degree. At least it's no longer hegemonic, so you have more different forces competing with each other. So even in the Nordic countries, we have a notion of this increasing polarisation, which is even more discernible in other parts of the world.
Just to continue on that vein, perhaps the idea of a consensual social democratic Nordic model was never perfect in any event, NG: *laughs* NW: perhaps you could describe a little bit about the more questionable or worrying side of the idea of the people or the 'Folkhem' concept?
Yes, well what we now see is really that formally social democratic concept like 'the people's home', the 'Folkhem' in Sweden serves populist parties, like the Sweden democrats, :as a nostalgic reference point for Sweden, which was not much affected by immigration in the 1930s and where working people had decent conditions, welfare-wise and otherwise, and where you could go out on the streets without having to fear crime and so on, while on the other side, the social democrats and others to some extent, we imagine the Folkhem as something green and multicultural. So, this polarisation is a forecast, a very good example for how different interpretations now compete. What you hinted at with your question is of course like this issue that not everything was perfect in the 1930s and 1950s and so on, the periods associated with the golden people's home epoch.
This harking back to what seems like a perfect past is interesting. I asked Danish historian Michael Bennedsen-Hansen, ph.d fellow from Copenhagen Business School to explain why we do it. He uses 1814 and 1864 as examples. If you don't know what happened at these two points in time, In short, in 1814 Denmark lost Norway during the Napoleonic wars, which it had been in union with since 1380 and in 1864, Denmark lost a third of its territory, if you discount Greenland and the Danish West Indies, to Prussia and Austria. Both of these things of course affected the country and its identity very greatly at the time.
We need the world to make sense and so, with big historical changes then established identity narratives of course can be challenged and then you sort of are in search for a usable identity. Sometimes, you have to sort of reinvent a new identity in light of the historical changes, or you have to go back. So, in the Danish case, we often talk about the years of 1814 and 1864. When Denmark as a nation becomes amputated and then sort of sparks an internal discussion on the Danish identity, where we as people have to reinvent ourselves and what is being Danishness then about. As an historian, what's interesting here is that in this search for usable identity often means that people are also in search for a usable past. So, that also means that they look at the past with different eyes and they use the past for a different purpose because then they need the past to sort of be a part of this new narrative about who we are that could be as a people for example, right In this national identity, one of the very strong identity narratives about Denmark is this notion that we are very consensus-minded, but now you have relatively new, younger historians doing research on that this idea of the consensus is, it's more an illusion than a historical fact that, of course, at every time, you have key events concepts ideas being contested. So, just one example of publication just called Denmark 'the conflict zone' so where each chapter you have a chapter on a period or a concept that has been very much contested so you also see it in academia, what type of narrative do you want to tell about the nation because we also played a part, of course and it's not an either-or, but what do you then stress, do you stress the consensus part, or the conflict part?
So it appears that we cannot rely on the past.
That even historians and their narratives of what has happened and what it means have to make conceptual choices that end up framing and shaping how the past is conceived. Each generation poses new questions to the past and in that sense history is also always about the time, in which it is written. The group of academics and experts attending the workshop on identity in the Nordics were of course good at finding other concrete examples of events that have displayed different characteristics of national identity. The first example is a nation associating itself with, or disassociating itself from a particular abstract characteristic such as freedom of expression. Both Denmark and Sweden had different forms of a cartoon crisis around 15 years ago. The crisis started due to the publication of drawings of the prophet Muhammed being published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten in 2005, when depictions of him are considered blasphemous by Muslims there was a similar controversy in Sweden in 2007. This has to a limited extent been played out again between Denmark and China with respect to the corona crisis. In the following you will first hear Dubinka-Huscha, a Danish foreign policy expert from Copenhagen Business School explaining the Danish cartoon crisis from an identity point of view. This is followed by Norbert Götz again explaining how the situation played out differently in Sweden
So the cartoon had actually several stages because at the time when the cartoons were drawn nobody actually paid attention to them, as such I mean they were cartoons discussed as something normal, but then there was a new year speech of the Danish prime minister, he sort of was reflecting back on on the year and then what happened was that some of the muslim priests travelled abroad to the muslim countries and they conveyed that message to outside of Denmark, which uh raised awareness and that sparkled the crisis and that led the ambassadors' right to the prime minister and demand an apology, which from his side also caused a response that he would not be in the position to do that because of the freedom of speech and he would not apologise for something that a newspaper has written so we can see this interaction of identities and and how identities are formed because for the Danes, it was very important to preserve their identity as a democratic society with freedom of speech and so on and now when we see the other cartoon case with the coronavirus and the Chinese flag being cartooned in the Danish newspaper in February this year. There was again a demand of apology from the Chinese embassy and the Danish prime minister again repeated the same opposition, although we have a different prime minister, but she took exactly the same position as as her successor before that she would not apologise for something that the newspaper would write. But Denmark was also quite diverse. For instance some of the Danish politicians experienced diplomats for example like Uffe Ellemann-Jensen criticised the cartoons and the way the dialogue was taking place between the politicians. He actually said it was, from the diplomatic perspective probably not the best idea. So, I think also the current chairman of the party who's also, by the way, the son of Ellemann-Jensen, I think he was also reacting in the same way towards the coronavirus cartoon.
It's also very interesting to illustrate like differences between Danish and Swedish political culture and identities related to that culture because, I mean, in both countries you have a legally established freedom of speech, but what you can say in public without being pushed out of the dialogue, to the margins is is different in Denmark and Sweden. There was a Swedish cartoon case also where the Swedish society was rather distant towards humiliating other cultures and so on, whereas in Denmark you really have this freedom of speech, it's really like part of the national culture and identity, unrestricted and without regard to others, you have in Swedish culture, where self-restraint and tolerance and so on is valued much higher and if you don't conform to that you are not persecuted in any way legally but you are contributing yourself outside of the mainstream. I mean, I perceive Denmark as being right-wing, debaters have a greater freedom to express themselves without really being marginalised and rebunked and personally discredited and frozen out.
The second example also about Denmark and Sweden is the puzzling relationship between large companies, which people often associate with a particular nation, such as the Danish mega shipping company Maersk and IKEA in Sweden and perhaps the business magnates, Mærsk Mckinney-Møller and Ingvar Kamprad. Is it to their economic advantage to be particular icons of a national identity? In the following you can hear assistant professors Anders Ravn Sørensen and Mads Mordhorst both from Copenhagen Business School discussing the paradoxes involved in being both a humble Scandinavian on the one hand, and a millionaire tycoon on the other. When Mads refers to 'jantelov' to put it briefly, he means the satirical requirement that Scandinavians must be humble and at least not admit to being better than anyone else at anything as everyone is of course equal
Anders Ravn Sørensen:
Well, I would say in the past 20 years Maersk emerged as the nation's shipowner, like coinciding with this with the idea of the maritime nation having been prominent again, that old shipowner Mærsk Mckinney-Møller, kind of became the national icon and looked into his when he died like in the funeral and the public discourse of his death, he died at 98 years old, and it was it was the ceremonies and the identity politics going on in his funeral was like just the display of a deliberate identity politics and using that icon as a kind of a binding national symbol. Only the headline on the breaking news read: 'The ship owner is dead', like there was only one ship owner, there's basically one. The Danish Ship Owner Association have been the ones that have been interested in kind of grounding the sector, the industry, as a national one. Maersk has been a more paradoxical kind of ambiguous approach actually oftentimes dismissing the initiatives of that saying 'Well, we don't need it', they have a deliberately explicit low-profile strategy of not making too much fuss of themselves and living in the shadows,when it was opportune to them, that is to say. So, I think for 100 years, they have been balancing the kind of the danger of being the nation's shipping company and then at other times the old Maersk, the kind of the Mr Burns of the Danish shipping company, the old guy at different points kind of wanting a personal interest giving the Copenhagen Opera as a gift. That is not low-key. That is not keeping it low. That is extravagant and a public display of riches and benevolence and stuff like that and so I think they had been struggling with that and sometimes he couldn't help it and the foundation, it has an immense foundation behind it, it has been all over the Danish cultural landscape, so it's difficult to keep a low profile and then kind of pump millions of millions of Kroners into cultural events and etc.
I think there's a huge difference between, for example, the huge company owners of Sweden, like IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad, who somehow incarnates the Swedish identity. I mean, you called him just Mr. Burns right?
Anders Ravn Sørensen:
*agrees* Exactly, you would not be allowed to call Ingvar Kamprad 'Mr Burns' in Sweden, I can tell you that. And I think that is a huge difference here. Because somehow, even though he tried to somehow frame himself as Danish, he was always framed as the one, who broke the 'Jantelov.' I mean he was the one who was in opposition to the Danish identity and narrative and through that created that, so it's quite different, right. So he was the hero for the bourgeois and liberal identity, it was definitely not for the social democratic or the welfare state, which Ingvar Kamprad actually is, I mean he's incarnating the welfare state in contrast to Mærsk Mckinney-Møller, who is definitely not incarnating the welfare state. So, you have those different approaches.
With those examples under our belts, it is good to look back and see how identity as a concept has developed. When did it arise and how did it develop? It appears that there are different ways of approaching it from an academic point of view. Norbert Götz presented an interesting suggested chronology:
The point of departure is WW II, after that identity was dead and then it re-emerged in two steps, I would suggest. And the first one was the post-material value change in Western societies and symbolised by 1968 and kind of a left-wing identity departure or all these kind of different sub-national identities connected, for example , to gender, sexuality, lifestyle and so on. Perhaps, to some degree, one could even argue that in connection with the political strength of the West on the one hand, but also the raising or for example environmental issues and if you consider how strong environmental was in the Baltic countries. This contributed in a way to the breakdown of the Soviet bloc, because these identities were attractive and so on, and then with 1989, we have a slow return of this nationalism of course it was a time of strong globalisation discourse but at the same time you you clearly have a renationalisation going on below, which then perhaps around 2008 becomes dominant, but it's of course a process. So, these two forces in interaction, you could even argue that these post material values and identity are connected to a global framework, as some sort of sub-identity system that transcend national dividing lines. So, you have these two going on at the same time and their dynamics are highly interesting
Next is a different chronology by Mads Mordhorst from Copenhagen Business School: An alternative way of making sense of the last 50 years in terms of how the concept of identity has developed.
All the institutions and organisations we have to somehow guide the ideas about how we create an identity from the modern age, the nation state, the family, the class structure, church, those institutions or organisations have today changed their role, so they cannot play the role as a guiding principles anymore and then it's left over to two new actors, that is, 1) the new media and 2) the market. Now we have reached the area of the 'competition state' and that is exactly what I can't call the area for globalisation right and in that, the international part of the national is framed as a competition state and therefore we have to bring ourselves, because then we are just like companies so brand the state like companies, so the nation actually becomes a product in this framing. So, Norden becomes a brand that we export for example like design or movies or whatever it is, that is somehow the thing that we use to brand ourselves and the global is the international market of globalisation. I would say that this has collapsed. We do not have a competition state. In the new area we have nation rebuilding and not competition state. Donald Trump is not a part of a national competition state, right? And he has not seen the global as a market, so we have the Scandinavia as a model, internal, and conflict, internal in Scandinavia that re-emerged, and we have the global, as a problem and villain that we have to solve by rebuilding the national identity.
The chronologies presented by Norbert and Mads are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The concept of identity has taken many twists and turns over the decades. Forces pulling us towards being global citizens and thinking global. Identity politics giving cross-border solidarity, or solidarity with local groups, market and the media. One thing in particular they and the other academics keep coming back to is that the importance of the national perspective seems to be increasing. Instead of the competition state that vise for capital, also across borders, states are increasingly looking inward. Mads also talks about selling identity like a brand. If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, then we explore it further in our next podcast called 'The Nordics and Identity: Innate or Imagined?'
Identity in the Nordic countries then, as well as elsewhere, appears to be a concept that even the experts find hard to pin down. How can analytical tools and academic investigations
ever win over the fact that people simply feel that they are a particular identity or identities?
It is of course up to them, what they feel they are. This may or may not be influenced by a certain portrayal of history that they received at school, or when they visit museums and cultural institutions, it may have been influenced by company advertising over decades, such as IKEA using the colours of the Swedish flag or national branding such as Denmark standing up for freedom of expression, arguably to the point, where it is not in fact sensible from a diplomatic point of view. While all these forces may be relevant, the academics I spoke to seem to agree that identity is of particular importance right now. Local and national identities appear to be becoming more dominant than global or regional ones, which were arguably favoured at earlier points in time. Concepts of identity can become entrenched leading to a sense of 'us' and 'them', just how i had different responses to the national singing projects; on the one side, warm and fuzzy and on the other, divisive and questioning. A strong sense of identity can build a positive sense of belonging and being united in times of crises like the current COVID-19 one, or can, on the other hand, induce a lack of solidarity with other groups, be it other nations and their populations, or simply those who identify with different political or social groups, than ourselves.
To sum up then, identity and identity politics are important issues in today's society, Nordic or otherwise, as they have an impact on social and political movements. It is important to analyse how identity is formed and played out in different contexts. History can be helpful, but it must be treated with caution. Many thanks to the many academics, who contributed to this podcast. It was the first of two about identity and the Nordics. It was recorded at the Marienlyst Hotel in Helsingør, Denmark in march 2020 and was introduced and produced by Nicola Whitcombe. This podcast and Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World are supported by NordForsk. Please visit the website nordics.info, if you are interested in hearing more.