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Arthur Herman: After COVID, Afghanistan debacle, Viking wisdom can help America in crisis

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Can the distant past offer answers to the crises afflicting Americans today? Even if they were, would these Americans listen?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Twenty years after September 11, Americans are wondering what to expect after COVID and our debacle in Afghanistan.


In September 2001 I published a book called “How the Scots Invented the Modern World”. It showed how a small ethnic group – the Scots of Scotland – became the bearer of the seeds of modernization.

The book revealed how leading 18th-century Scottish thinkers, including Adam Smith, established the basic assumptions about capitalism, self-government, and the power of individual enterprise that spread around the world, including in America, with transformative results – one of which was the US Constitution.


Published in the shadow of September 11, my publisher and I thought the book would be almost forgotten in the tumultuous and chaotic weeks that followed. America had real enemies and real problems to face. Who was going to care what Adam Smith said or did 200 years ago, or how Scots like James Wilson and David Hume influenced the US Constitution?

It turned out that a lot of people did. The book became a New York Times bestseller and a bestseller in the UK and Canada.

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The Scottish experience in shaping the modern world and America suddenly had a huge resonance with post 9/11 readers. Right or left, liberals or conservatives, they recognized in the themes of the book a message on the importance of civilized values ​​and freedom, and the self-confidence that we were going to need in the face of barbarism and terror. .

My new book, “The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World,” deals with much more than the dreaded Normans who roamed the world 1,200 years ago and laid the foundations for globalization – or their Scandinavian descendants who became settled in America and were part of the American dream.

It is also about the links between freedom and community, and how a polarized nation can become one again.

The answer lies in the cultural skills the Vikings forged in a harsh and ruthless homeland and passed on to their descendants – then to immigrants coming to America.

The first element of this package was a strong commitment to family and community. The Danes have a word for it: Samfundssind or social spirit (samfund meaning “society” and sind “spirit”). For Vikings at peace or at war, there was no survival without collective survival.

The Vikings’ willingness to venture into the unknown for the good of the community and the family has universal value.

This necessary cooperation built a framework of solidarity and trust that permeated all aspects of life, whether it was digging a new field to plant in a bog and forest or fishing off a rocky coast. windswept, to fight with rivals and foreigners or to sail across the Atlantic. to the shores of North America – or centuries later to rebuild his life on the American border.

The second element is a belief in the value of hard individual work, which Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the manufacturing instinct, a “willingness to do the next thing and do it as well as possible.”

You can see this work ethic in building a long ship or writing a symphony like Danish composer Neils Gade or creating a disease-free strain of wheat like the Norwegian American biologist did. Norman Borlaug – or in the creation of a quantum computer. It’s an instinct that doesn’t just look for ways to benefit ourselves, but the community as well – perhaps as much, if not more than ourselves.

Beside this belief in hard work, however, was the desire to allow individuals to take extreme risks, for the same reason: for the good of all. It was just as the case of the Viking adventurers crossing the Atlantic, or later of polar explorers like Roland Amundson or Liv Arnesen of today, or of the Norwegian resistance fighters venturing into the frozen North to end the nuclear program. of Germany during World War II.

Swedish-American Charles Lindbergh took the same extreme risk with his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, knowing that his feat would not only make him famous, but change people’s understanding of the importance of air travel – and ultimately air power for America in World War II.

Today, we recognize that the Vikings’ willingness to venture into the unknown for the good of the community and the family has universal value. We can see that theirs was a freedom that rested on the foundations of a shared culture built on mutual trust, which their descendants then brought to America and became part of their new homeland.


These are the same values ​​that I believe are now waiting to save us from the storm and even lift the shadows of September 11, two decades later. They are the antidote to the toxins of the Critical Race and Awakening Theory; they are the tonic that will restore America’s self-confidence.

These values ​​will once again make American leadership a beacon of light in the world and make American might a force to be respected – a force imbued with the spirit of the Viking heart.