THE BLOG

Copenhagen Sketch

Copenhagen. Royal Library of Denmark. The paradox of a monarchy, a real one, scrupulously attached to its etiquette and protocol, as I had the chance to observe at a gala last night at the French embassy, but one that is also, and without any contradiction, one of the most egalitarian societies that I can name. The reconciliation of liberty and equality, the taste for liberty not attenuated by the narrowing of disparities in wealth, the manner of artfully marrying the spirit of Tocqueville with that of Cabet (not of Marx) -- I raised these themes in a column last week. Isn't Denmark a fine example of this rare miracle?

French ambassador François Zimeray. The last time I'd seen him was several years ago in Chad, in the dust and poverty of a refugee camp near the border with Darfur. Today, the resplendent sash of his office. The magnificence of Thott Palace, in which he dwells with the grace of the lettered diplomats of a disappearing tradition. And, on the lips of that man who had been, until a few weeks ago, France's ambassador for human rights, a man sent in the course of his job to the most desolate spots on the planet, a tireless surveyor of vast cemeteries without markers and without records, where killing is as natural as breathing, on the lips of that man was a question that I believe was quite sincere: "How long will I be able to tolerate so much comfort?"

The beauty of the libraries. The giddiness that overcomes me whenever, as today, before rising to speak, I find myself in one of those miracles of civilization that are the great libraries of Europe. Danilo Kis would say that he knew of nothing more concrete, nothing more directly connected to the real world, than a well-designed library. Hannah Arendt went even further -- explaining, in so doing, the suicide of Walter Benjamin: "How was he ever going to live without a library and subsist without his considerable collection of citations and excerpts?" Books or death. That's where we stand.

Denmark is the country of Kierkegaard, the European thinker who was the first to take up the challenge that Hegel threw down when he declared the "end of philosophy."

It is the country of King Christian, who, legend has it, wore the yellow star in solidarity with his Jewish subjects during the dark days of the Nazi occupation. A legend, yes, I learn from Bo Lidegaard, editor of the large daily, Politiken, and author of a book that already has become the standard authority on Danish Jewry during World War II. Good King Christian never rode across Copenhagen on horseback with the yellow star sewn to the lapel of his uniform. But what is not a legend is that he rejected the idea that Danish Jews should wear it. What is not a legend is that the Danish people as a whole protected Jews, helped them slip into Sweden, and, above all -- above all -- waited for them to return without, as was done nearly everywhere else, purloining the property they left behind. A small country; a great people.

It is the country of the pilots in the Libyan war, the most recent one, the one initiated by France to help the Libyans free themselves from Gaddafi's long dictatorship. Not many European countries joined Nicolas Sarkozy and provided material support for that high-risk operation. Not many sent their soldiers to risk their lives alongside those of France to aid an Arab people in their struggle against tyranny. Tiny Denmark was one of the few. As it is again in another conflict that has just begun, this one in Mali, led by the France of President François Hollande. Naturally that is where I began my speech at the library: brothers in arms and spirit, the two forms of courage that Michel Foucault said were seldom seen marching in tandem. Yet, in those two cases, they did.

Naturally, I visit the people at Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that became world famous nine years ago for publishing, at the same time as Philippe Val's Charlie Hebdo, the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Would they do it again? With the same courage? Probably. But whether they would receive the same support, whether they would be held up as the same global symbol of freedom of expression under siege, whether enlightened opinion in France and across Europe would rally today as they did then behind journalists facing death threats--of those things I have become less certain. Such is the confusion of the times, where we have the tendency to mix everything up together: the right to satirize religion and the right to call for people's murder; the right to blaspheme and the right to beat up on Jews, gays, or Arabs!

But the most-discussed subject during those days in Copenhagen was, alas, the Goldman Sachs affair -- that is, the purchase by the American brokerage firm of a large share of the capital of Dong Energy, the Danish state energy supplier. It was useless to state and repeat that Goldman Sachs had acquired only a minority share, useless to point out, again and again, that Goldman Sachs's bid was the best that Dong received in terms of know-how and finance. None of that sank in. It is as if the devil himself had arrived in the kingdom, as if we had been suddenly confronted with the face of the Antichrist. Nothing seems likely to stop the surge of anti-Americanism sweeping a country that had seemed inoculated against this sort of Far Left-Far Right passion. Another sign of the times? I felt as I were in France -- and that says it all.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy