A couple of years ago, at the height of the Danish cartoon crisis, I was cycling down a Copenhagen street when I glimpsed something extraordinary on the kerbside: a miniature Danish flag, fluttering in a breeze of car-exhaust, planted firmly in the centre of a fresh dog-turd.
I was impressed. There were various political demonstrations going on all over the city, but this tiny, powerful protest was by far the most original. Agitprop, transmitted quite literally at street level: now how inspired is that? While ostensibly stille og rolig ("quiet and peaceful" – a phrase much favoured by beleaguered Danish Muslims), and discreet to the point of politeness, it managed to pack quite a punch. Energized, I reported the sighting to my friend Helle. She nodded benignly. "You haven't seen this before? It's kind of a tradition, you know."
"You mean when people are pissed off with the government, that's how they show it?"
She looked baffled. "No. It's what you do if you see some dog's mess in the road. You stick a flag in it."
My guerrilla-art disappointment was turning into outright confusion. In nationalistic Denmark, children's birthday cakes positively bristle with red-and-white flags, and in private gardens they are raised to mark all manner of occasions from football matches to the births of grandchildren. But this was plain weird.
"To... celebrate it?" I asked tentatively, still feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
"No. To draw attention to it. When someone sees some dog-shit that people might accidentally step in or cycle over, they stick the flag in to make it noticeable. It's a pragmatic solution to dog-fouling."
"But why are people walking around with miniature Danish flags in their pockets in the first place?"
"In case they come across some dog-shit," responded Helle, as though I were the loony.
Helle was born into a famously high-trust society. In Denmark, responsible citizenship – often zealously practised – is the norm. It is the only country I have ever been in where it is possible to leave the equivalent of £200 lolling, tongue-like, out of the cash machine for an hour, as a distracted friend recently did, and retrieve it because an honest citizen with a pocketful of emergency dog-shit flags has handed it in at the bank. Even when off his face at
two o'clock in the morning, a Dane will wait for the little green man before he staggers over the road.
Not for nothing was it a Dane, the philosopher Knud Ejler Løgstrup, who came up with the principle of Ethical Demand.
"It is a characteristic of human life," he wrote, "that we normally encounter one another with natural trust. Only under special circumstances do we ever distrust a stranger in advance... we never suspect a person of falsehood until after we have caught him in a lie." Even today, in a climate where ethnic tension is high, and the immigrant population is seldom given the benefit of the doubt, two thirds of Danes still say they trust their fellow-citizens. Putting faith in anything else, however, is quite another matter.
"Put a vish in one hand and a gob of spit in the other," my Danish father used to retort when confronted by any expression of optimism. "Then decide vhich veighs most. Sink about it! Haha! Hahaha! The gob of spit! Ha!"
This favourite dictum – which he claimed originated in his native Jutland, famous for the epic dourness of its populace – encapsulates a morbid attitudinal trait whose resonant subtext is this: You really plan to put faith in the intangible? Sucker and double sucker! But his philosophy was typical of many Danes: acknowledge what's there, and mistrust what isn't.