With Best Countries like These-

By Codrescu, Andrei | Newsweek, August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

With Best Countries like These-


Codrescu, Andrei, Newsweek


Byline: Andrei Codrescu

Why cold, dark, small, and depressive nations top the rankings.

I used to eat at a Scandinavian cafeteria in San Francisco that called itself a "smorgasbord" and advertised its reindeer meatballs over pasta as superior to the Italian meatballs at the U.S. Cafe next door. This place was just outside Chinatown. It also had Swedish meatballs, but if there was a difference only a Finn could tell for sure. After the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing Gypsy music from Slovenia under the direction of a Japanese conductor in Salt Lake City, this is my second-favorite example of the great American smorgasbord.

The word may have originated in Sweden, but looking over the metrics for "best -countries"--where Sweden is No. 3 and Finland No. 1, Norway No. 6 and Denmark No. 10--I find it hard to imagine just how much variety that Northern European buffet holds. Why is it that the Nordics always dominate such lists, anyhow? Since it's dark and cold outside for most of the year, the smorgasbord itself must be an attempt to offset tedium, angst, and monochromatism. Even so, there couldn't be that many kinds of pickled herring, smoked fish, dark rye bread, and mustards on the smorgasbord, be-cause we know from the 1987 movie Babette's Feast that a French woman on the run in Scandinavia after the Paris Commune turned the austere locals into insane bons vivants by means of spices. Also, as Ingmar Bergman's movies and Stieg Larsson's novels show, Scandinavian angst is nothing to laugh about. Pass the vodka, the incest, and the noose.

Still, metrics are metrics, and art is subjective, so let's try another tack. Intuitively, one would think that people who are warm most of the year would be better off than people who are not. Yet Finland is in the No. 1 spot, and tropical Burkina Faso dead last at 100. The link between freezing and a high ranking becomes more explicable when the following dots are connected: a heated classroom is better than being outside chopping trees, hence education is important; moving briskly is good preventive medicine, thus health is robust; quality of life improves immensely when one must get as close to one's beloved as possible to fend off the chill; the political environment is likewise better when governance is kept simple and equitable because it's too cold to fight in the streets; and finally, economic dynamism is bound to be high among peoples who have learned to combat frostbite with a maximum of movement and the least expense of calories.

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