The Norden

Nordic Flags. Source: Wikipedia

Nordic Flags. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, through my various wanderings about YouTube, I came across a most excellent Finnish TV program, The Norden. The show explores various aspects of Nordic societies (prisons, police, religion, gender, work, and family values) through the eyes of a foreigner.

The episode on religion first drew me in. It followed a Southern Baptist preacher, Marty McLain, who had previously never left the country, as he tried to make sense of the largely atheistic Nordic countries. Whereas 65% of Americans agree with the statement “Religion is important to me,” Finns (28%), Danes (18%) Norwegians (20.5%), and Swedes (16.5%) all rate religion with significantly less importance to their lives.

In some sense, the lack of religious mentality among the Nordic people is paradoxical. All nations have official state churches. All have crosses on their flags. And many people within the countries enjoy the using the church for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. But to quote the show, “We just ask the priest to tone down the whole Jesus thing, and then everything’s hunky dory.”

On the other hand, secularism was written into the U.S. Constitution, but religion thrives in the states. In the U.S., the percentages of theists vs. atheists are roughly flipped.

Despite our theological differences, I found myself relating to the preacher McLain. We were both ostensibly Southern (McLain’s home could be found via a quick trip down I-75 near Atlanta, Georgia), and I could sympathize to that first experience of culture shock. I imagine that my first trip abroad as an adult to China was just as much of a culture shock to me as Denmark was to him.

I would have loved to have interviewed McLain, and while he did invite me to ask questions, he was upfront in saying he might not answer them, and he did not. It’s too bad, because I think his perspective would have been enlightening.

However, I was able to exchange a couple of emails with the show’s producer, John Stark, to whom I am extremely grateful for the correspondence.

Although he enjoyed doing the show on religion, but my Stark’s admission, it wasn’t the best show in the series:

I do like the religion episode as well, but in a sense it’s a bit weak; hand on heart, religion is not part of the Nordic welfare society per se, and the clash between the mainly secular Nordic citizens and representatives versus an American Baptist pastor is perhaps a little too obvious. But in any case, it still shows the vast gap between two cultures, and raises many very vital and fundamental questions regarding the role of religion in the society; be it laws, values, or whatever. Do we want God to decide, is the law above or beneath a “God”?

Instead, Stark’s favorite episode was the first, the one on prisons, “The content is the most interesting of the series since it takes you inside real prisons in a new way, seen through new eyes, and with an approach that hadn’t been used before.”

Stark’s goal was to showcase the differences between cultures in an objective way, “We decided early on NOT to by any chance say in the shows that ‘this is better than that,’ but rather wanted to let the viewer decide for him-/herself. We merely present the facts, the similarities, the differences in value and approach between the Nordic representatives and the guest in each episode/theme.”

The show visited prisons in Finland, Sweden, and Norway to see how former Attica State Prison warden James Conway would react to the Nordic model of rehabilitation.

One of the prisons they toured, Halden Prison in Norway, was perhaps the perfect example of the vast differences that exist in the mentalities of Nordic and American societies. Whereas Halden has been called “The World’s Most Humane Prison,” American prisons are known–at least through pop culture–as anything but. In a moment Stark describes as a “Breakthrough,” he asked himself the following questions which became the basis for the first show:

Which prisons in the world are not known for their humanity, but rather the opposite? Sure, many Asian and South American prisons might be like that. But through popular culture and fiction, all of us Westerners have a relation to American prisons. However false and skewed that relation might be, we still have it strongly thanks to dozens and dozens of police and court drama series. What if an American warden would visit Halden? What would happen?

While watching, I was saddened by Conway’s responses to some of the biggest differences. His first inclination was to go around and find things that could be turned into weapons (everything from cutlery to pepper). One particular prisoner in Sweden did not wish to be filmed for the documentary, and created quite the fuss. They asked the TV crew to go elsewhere so he could enjoy his morning stroll. This perplexed Conway, who explained that in America, the prisoner would face some consequences for the disturbance.

The incident was a reminder that these prisoners, regardless of their crimes, are still humans with human desires and human rights. Of course, they lose some of their rights when they break the laws of civil society, but they shouldn’t lose them all. His desire to not be filmed is a reasonable one, and the TV crew was essentially “invading” his space.

To Stark, this was an example of the difference between “Punishment” and “Rehabilitation.”

We visited four Nordic prisons of different security levels, and he found some similarities to his own background in the US, but above all, there were many vital differences. Above all, the whole approach to the suspect and/or inmates. In the US, the focus is on punishment. In the Nordics, it’s on rehabilitation, we want the inmates to become decent citizens and want to offer anyone a second chance. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does.

Although Stark did not intend to show the Nordic model as inherently superior, my own personal (liberal) biases led me to side with the more humanitarian approach to correctional institutions.

Beyond just the background and development of the show, I was also curious about how culture shock affected their guests? Did they learn anything on their journey, or were they stuck in their tried and true ways?

I’ve stayed in touch with both James and Marty from the prison and religion episodes ever since their episodes were shot. They’re great people, and we enjoyed each other’s company. The guest certainly experienced a whole lot, and we all learned from each other – that’s so human to do, which is great. I’m not sure if anyone would admit to being changed permanently in one way or another; I think that the visit would be too brief for that, but it definitely gave many new perspectives to our guests. They mostly stayed sceptical of some of our methods, but they could understand the points in many cases.

This is probably true. In my experience, I found culture shock can often take months or even years of perspective to fully grasp its significance. And sometimes, just the knowledge that there are other ways to do things is enough to soften otherwise intractable positions.

Stark said they’ve considered doing a “reverse” tour of sorts, for instance, having a warden of a Nordic country visit Attica State Penitentiary. Like the original series, this is a show I would love to see.

We are now living in a world of unparalleled connectivity and complexity. New ideas are at a premium in order to effectively deal with a rapidly changing world, with a litany of new and evolving problems. As such, it is vitally important for us to look at not just they way we do things, but how others do as well. Maybe Nordic solutions cannot be applied to the same problems in America, or vise-versa, but it is more important than ever to keep an open mind. This is what I loved so much about The Norden, and I wish John Stark all the best in continuing to provide smart and enlightening shows for the world to see.

Again, I must give a big “Thank you!” to John Stark for answering a few of my questions about the show. The episode on Prisons can be found below, and three others (Religion, Police, and Gender) can be found here