The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen | Review
Publication: New York, NY : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 
Genre: Nonfiction, Politics, Sociology
Pages: 418 | Audio Length: 10 hours, 28 minutes
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook
Earlier this summer, a friend recommended this one to me. As a stay-at-home mother of three with career ambitions put on hold to rear her little gaggle of the next generation, she was particularly ecstatic about discussing the differences between the societal and economic structure of the United States versus those of the more (seemingly) socialist-leaning Nordic countries. While I had a hard time not feeling squeamish every time Partanen mentioned “the Nordic theory of love,” I found it extremely interesting that this love-based philosophy is actually all about liberating individuals so they can actually practice their independence.
In a nutshell, Partanen explains (through painstaking details of generous parental leave, government-regulated employment security, universal healthcare, free higher-level education, and low-cost daycare) that the citizens of the Nordic countries are freer to actually live their lives because they don’t have to combat the pressures of marrying well, getting the best–and often most expensive–educations to then secure the highest-paying jobs with employer-sponsored benefits just so they can avoid the therapist’s office and a litany of anti-anxiety prescriptions in the face of all these stressors. Seems like the American dream of pulling oneself up by our mud-stained bootstraps has defeated the very purpose. As mentioned by another, much wiser and keener-minded than myself, the biggest ships often take the longest to turn.
So is the American Dream truly alive and well only in countries like Finland these days? What, exactly, are American citizens striving for again? Have we lost sight, as Partanen seems to imply, of what the American Dream actually means?
I recently revisited HBO’s early 2000s television series Deadwood (perhaps not the greatest historical reference, I know, but it still gives the general idea), and I was struck by the praise the show gives to “the individual’s struggle.” Rivers of mud-grit squish under each boot-step as blood splatters and drips on the set’s splintering saloon front wooden planks, all while each character tries desperately to break the bonds of the familial and financial ties they had grown up with in their quests for fortune, glory, and self-sufficient independence out west. And this all to prove their new-found individualistic powers will therein also allow them to redefine the social structures being miraculously and (in some sense) organically erected around them. Not a tall order at all, really. (Excuse me!?)
This got me thinking back to the opening lines of that pesky old document known as the Unites States Declaration of . . . um, what’s it called again? Oh, that’s right . . . Independence. Specifically, my mind homed in on the bit that talks about people’s “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Taking these lines at face value, the answer to the above-noted questions about what the American Dream originally entailed should be that Americans want, more than anything, the freedom to be independent. But independent from what? And independent to do what? Well, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, I suppose, and, as exemplified through Ian McShane’s character in the Deadwood series, the American Dream screams that this pursuit should be at all costs.
But herein lies the rub, dear friends, which will bring us back to Partanen’s extremely, if not also devastatingly, insightful book: Any declaration of independence, with whatever costs inherently or otherwise associated, also needs to leave room for the individual to actually live out his or her pursuit of those oh so precious “unalienable rights.” This is the main point that Partanen seems to be making in her book and in her multiple interviews about the ideas she presents within her book. In rereading our illustrious Declaration of Independence, I was reminded that the United States was set up not to completely abolish government (although, I don’t think even the most radical libertarian among us would argue for that extreme), but to have a government that will make room for the independence and individualism we so dearly long to achieve. In a word, the founding fathers seemed to be of the opinion “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among [people], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
Okay. Great. The United States was founded on the ideal-government model, with the caveat that even the most perfect government should be changed if much deliberation shows it’s just not cutting it any longer. Have the citizens of the United States found that ideal government yet? Partanen seems to think not, and in considering her arguments, while poking my head up for air through the quagmire of homelessness (the majority of which is still caused by untreated behavioral health disorders–speaking here from a personal family experience during which I also didn’t know how to even begin to help), anxiety-riddled claimants at my day-job whose healthcare has just been cut off because their gut-wrenching pancreatic cancer won’t let them continue working at the not-that-great-to-begin-with factory job, and the gross student loan debts that continue to cripple the financial abilities of our up-and-coming consumers (not a great way to start the wheels turning for the next generation in a wholly capitalistic economy), I’m not far from agreeing with her.
So now what? Let’s keep fighting against big government? No, wait. Let’s implement larger government? Our species may never escape wanting what we think we deserve, which is often sitting all too annoyingly on the other side of the fence. Being able to finally grasp what we think we deserve (even the meekest among us have ideas about this, mind you) is the hard part, and perhaps the hardest part of all is seeing clearly from the inside. I certainly applaud Partanen for giving Americans a glimpse from beyond our borders. As I’ve mentioned, the United States of America is a ridiculously huge country and steering it toward happier, less stress-filled citizens, with the freedom to work for the employers they want (as opposed to those with the best benefits package), to get the higher-level education (debt-free) needed to pursue such entrepreneurial adventures as this country has always promised, and to lessen the strains on family and marriage relationships because there are actually tax-funded systems in place to give us the professional help we crave for our loved ones, is going to take some time. Or maybe, we like the current state of affairs. Who am I to judge?