Book review: Theory of Everything only 25% annoying

theory-of-everything

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

This new book, by a native Finn transplanted to New York, may make Norwegian-American readers long to hop onto a Viking ship for a reverse journey back to the Old Country. (Same goes for those of Finnish, Swedish, Danish, or Icelandic ancestry.) Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist who became an American citizen three years ago after her marriage to a New Yorker, goes on for 418 occasionally repetitious pages about the superiority of her birthplace, and its sister Nordic nations, over her adopted country, in a narrative that struck this reader as about 75% convincing and 25% annoying.

Why annoying? It’s mainly a matter of tone: often merely factual, but sometimes hectoring and sometimes downright snide. Here’s an example. In discussing a leisurely four-day Finnish hospital stay for both new parents following a difficult birth, in a private room with the newborn in a crib next to them, as nurses hovered helpfully nearby and a physical therapist treated the new mother, Partanen ironically observes, “I am sorry to say that the bill came to a staggering $375.”

Partanen has a lot to brag about in her comparison between the U.S. and the Nordic countries (with emphasis on her native Finland). Health care is either free or very inexpensive, with the government providing it and not the employer. This process frees workers from dependence on whatever healthcare the employer is willing to provide, allowing them to change jobs without fear of losing their insurance coverage.

Education (K-12) also is free, with children starting school later and enjoying much less rigorous structure in the early years; standardized testing, which takes up so much class time in preparation and administration in the U.S., is almost nonexistent except for the final graduation exam (from high school). And college, which in the U.S. frequently is the source of terrible debt for students and their parents, is free as well.

Daycare and elder care are very low cost; sick leave is generous, as are the annual vacations (four to five weeks). Taxes are levied on an individual basis, not by family, and the tax document is usually a single-page form. Finnish income taxes, Partanen tells us, are much less punishing than we might think: in her last year living in Finland, she paid about 30% in income tax (though the VAT tax rate is a hefty 24%).

Why can’t we be more Nordic? For one thing, the U.S. is vastly more diverse and fragmented as a society. Only about 13% of the U.S. population is foreign born (compared with 5% in Finland), but our native-born African-American and Hispanic-American populations contribute to an extremely diverse culture for which “one size fits all” policies are less feasible than in Scandinavia.

Throughout the book, Partanen points repeatedly to “the Nordic theory of love,” a philosophy that underlies the Nordic countries’ emphasis on the support and welfare of every citizen. “The core idea,” she writes, “is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She notes that “A citizen of Finland, Norway, or Denmark is today much more likely to rise above his or her parents’ socioeconomic status than a citizen of the U.S. The U.S. has strayed from its own ideals, and in reality, Americans today enjoy less opportunity than do people of other wealthy nations. The land of opportunity needs to bring the opportunity back.”

Exactly how this is to be done is a mystery, though Partanen does suggest that each of the 50 states should adopt its own solutions to the issues of health care and education. Her book is designed as a wake-up call to Americans who “seem not to realize how terribly they are being treated. According to a UN report from 2014 surveying 185 countries and territories, only two did not guarantee any paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea and the United States. The United States is also one of only a handful of countries that don’t guarantee their workers any paid time off for illness—others include Angola, India, and Liberia.”

As Partanen tells us: “The secret of Nordic success is not big government. It’s smart government. And as many Americans themselves are already well aware, less big government, and more smart government, is something the United States desperately needs.” What is still unclear from her book is just how this gargantuan country, whose lack of internal political consensus is abundantly clear just now in the presidential race, is supposed to attain that “smart government.”

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the UW, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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