Twisting language is generally the easiest way to evade unpleasant truths. The Guardian, the British liberal-left newspaper, offered a good example, in the wake of the Islamist killings in Copenhagen. Under the heading SCANDINAVIANS VALUE FREE SPEECH, BUT NOW THEY NEED TO BE PRACTICAL, Andrew Brown wrote: “When the Swedish Democrats [a political party that wants to limit severely immigration into Sweden] caused an election film to be banned from national television in 2010 because it showed hordes of immigrants taking benefits from native old people . . . Danish politicians queued up to accuse the Swedish authorities of a betrayal of free speech.”
How did the Swedish Democrats cause their own election film to be banned? How, indeed, could they have done so? They might have suspected that the film would be banned, but that is not the same thing as causing it to be banned. Only authorities with powers of censorship could do that—and whether they should have exercised those powers is another question. The proper way of putting the matter would have been: “When the authorities banned the Swedish Democrats’ election film.”
The policies of successive Swedish governments did not cause the Swedish Democrats to make their election film, as one billiard ball causes another to go off at an angle when struck; the Swedish Democrats consciously reacted to policies and their consequences that, rightly or wrongly, they abhorred. To say, then, that the Swedish Democrats “caused” the banning of their own film is, paradoxically, to deny agency to those who did ban it.
Another phrase in the Guardian’s coverage of the events in Copenhagen caught my attention. For unspecified reasons, it quoted a primary school teacher, Birgitte Krogh, “who had joined crowds in central Copenhagen to remember the dead and was wondering what she was going to tell her eight-year-old pupils in school on Monday.” “We hear about attacks in Paris or London, but we’re still struggling to think that it could happen in our little fairytale country,” Krogh said. The newspaper thought the phrase “fairytale country” so apposite that it quoted it in its editorial on the subject.
Denmark is in many ways an admirable country. Without natural resources, it is more prosperous than the United States, has exceptionally high levels of education, and is generally very pleasant. Despising Denmark, as some people are apt to do for ideological reasons, is quite wrong.
But behind the teacher’s notion that she and her compatriots live in a fairytale country lies not only complacency, but arrogance. “We are so wise and nice that what goes on in the rest of the world cannot affect us,” they suppose. “Moreover, anyone who comes to live here must be so thankful for our generosity that he must be grateful to us.” This is indeed a fairytale, as real life is not. It requires a form of moral grandiosity to believe that you can live in such a tale, with a happy beginning, a happy middle, and a happy end, without ever having to think of such potentially nasty beasts as national interest and old enmity. Strange, when one thinks that within living memory—just—a vicious enemy intruded on the fairytale.