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Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark
Jul 23, 2019

Shortly after finishing my dissertation I flew to Copenhagen to present a paper at a small conference “Politics, Societies, and Disasters: China and Beyond.” I was honored to be invited by my mentor and colleague Bin Xu. I presented our co-authored paper “The Sympathetic Leviathan: How Do Modern States Culturally Respond to Disasters?” and you can find the slides here.

Having never been to Denmark (or any other Nordic country), I assembled a reading list to better prepare for my brief cultural immersion. Luckily, I inherited blonde hair and a fair complexion from my father’s father’s mother’s parents – who emigrated from Jutland, Denmark around the turn of the nineteenth century – so I figured my 1/8th Danish heritage made me less of a tourist and more of a long-lost Danish expatriate returning to the homeland. Skål! Culturally, Denmark today is known for their food (Noma), television (The Killing), design (hygge), and energy efficiency. In fact, the tiny island town of Samsø is known as one of the few carbon negative places on earth. Another Danish town – Ringkøbing – carries the mantle of being the happiest town in the happiest country in the world according to studies by Cambridge University and the United Nations (Kingsley 2013).

My Danish reading list

Of course, progressive politicians champion Danish happiness as the causal corelate of its extensive welfare state. Residents pay up to 60% of their income in taxes in exchange for state-provided childcare, healthcare, education, and college. College students even receive a stipend to cover living expenses while in school. Danes also enjoy the highest minimum wage in the world and the unemployed can get up to 90% of their previous salary for up to four years while looking for work. Sociologically, this is interesting against the backdrop of relative racial and cultural homogeneity. That is, many argue the success of the Danish welfare state is dependent on its status as a small isolated monoculture. Once a sprawling European empire enjoying full reign of the Baltic State in the 10th-century, by 1864 Denmark had lost much of its territory to secession movements to the east and military campaigns to the south. Thus, the nineteenth century saw Denmark finally coming to terms with their status as a small and unified culture set apart from the rest of Europe (Jespersen 2019).

My great-great grandparents Rasmuss
Jensen (1874–1956) and Johana Nelson
(1886–1967) grew up in Jutland, Denmark
before coming to the United States.

Rising immigration since the 1990s has tested the boundaries of Danish identity today in ways not seen in more heterogeneous nations. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005 brought these tensions to a global audience when a Danish paper published satirical images of the Islamic prophet. As the second-largest religious group in Denmark, Muslims are often the target of nationalist tensions. “In this way, Danes became exclusive through their inclusivity, intolerant through their tolerance - which helps to explain some of the contradictions in today’s society.” (Kingsley 2013:117). It remains to be seen how the Danish welfare state will handle the tide of globalization and cultural diversity, but future developments will serve as a valuable perspective on the overarching project of modernity: how to distribute collective goods to a diverse collectivity.

After a missed connection in Toronto, an overnight flight, one lost suitcase, and a few hours wandering the streets looking for my Airbnb, I had about two days to explore the city before the conference. I quickly found Copenhagen’s bike lanes to be the best way to get around the city and spent a lovely morning on the streets of Nyhavn, an afternoon at the royal gardens to visit Søren Kierkegaard’s statue, and an evening on the three lakes (Søerne) of the Western edge of the city. I flew back to the United States after a long but productive day at the University of Copenhagen’s Nordic Institute for Asian Studies and I look forward to sharing our work in a forthcoming publication.


Jespersen, Knud J. V. 2019. A History of Denmark. 3rd edition. Oxford: Red Globe Press.

Kingsley, Patrick. 2013. How to Be Danish: A Journey to the Cultural Heart of Denmark. Short Books Ltd.


Copyright © 2019 John A. Bernau


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