Archive for April 18th, 2013


clone me

Stranger in a Strange Land: Denmark

by Mary Ellen Johnson

Danish MermaidWhat happens when you’re confronted with a totally different way of thinking, one that leaves you questioning your basic attitudes and assumptions about a whole host of things?

I often experience that sense of disconnect, even bewilderment, particularly when listening to talk shows or politicians with diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world. Yes, I am a stranger in a strange land, wondering why so few think like me. And, yet on a recent trip to Denmark, I met many people who could be Mary Ellen clones–or at least Mary Ellen cousins. Could that be because my grandfather emigrated from Bulgaria and my parents were Roosevelt Democrats, with a far more “collectivist” way of thinking? Or having been raised Catholic, with concomitant images of being part of the body of Christ? Simply assuming we are all connected as automatically as many Americans only think in terms of the individual?

Have no idea, but while in Denmark, I felt as if I’d come home–at least as far as shared beliefs. I was originally invited to Denmark in order to lecture to students about our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to juveniles. What happened is that they, very gently, ended up lecturing me.

I found genuine befuddlement over certain core American beliefs and assumptions, beginning with our justice system.

The word victim was never mentioned. The focus is entirely on the offender. If the juvenile commits a crime he is either mentally ill or a product of a dysfunctional environment. (Though “dysfunctional” was never used. Destructive. Distressed. Difficult.) Students were genuinely repelled by my counter argument that many Americans believe in the “bad seed” theory. Or are shaped by the doctrine of original sin. Not being a religious people–but whose values are quite New Testament oriented–Danes can’t conceive of an inherently defective human being.

Old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time is a laughable concept. Not that Danes believe in long punishment for anyone. A life sentence is 16 years, though there are a few who are mentally ill or who commit serial crimes, who “may never come out.”

Danes are appalled by our income inequality and cannot understand why we accept one percent owning 40% of our nation’s wealth. When I responded that Americans believe they will someday number among that one percent and therefore applaud those millionaires and billionaires, the students merely shook their heads in bemusement.

Our fascination with guns does not compute. Nor does our predilection for solving problems through violence.

Health care is a right, not a privilege. Just flip that around and you have the thinking of at least 50% of Americans.

Danes expect a certain level of help from the government–free health care, a social safety net that will allow even the long term unemployed to survive, reduced day care, free higher education, good roads, trains and infrastructure, and have no trouble with the government enacting strict environmental policies. And, may I add, these many benefits have not made the Danes a lazy people. They do complain about immigration–largely Muslim–and about too generous benefits for foreigners who do not have their work ethic. How true that complaint is I can’t say. But overall, they assume a certain level of government intervention is necessary to assure a basic standard of living and they are willing to pay for it.

We aren’t. And the irony is that, save for corporations, many Americans end up paying nearly as much in taxes as do the Danes. The difference is the Danes get something for their taxes.

We don’t.


Mary Ellen Johnson is the Executive Director of The Pendulum Foundation, a non-profit that serves kids serving life. Mary Ellen is also the author of several published books, including The Murder of Jacob, about a 15-year-old who killed his abusive parents, Listening to Jay and the Americans, Walking in the Rain. She is also the “godmother” of The Redemption Project.


Groove of the Day 

Listen to Abby Lappen performing “Clone Me”