Norway and the loss of innocence

 

There were so many troubling threads to the attacks in Norway that it is difficult to unbundle them all.  There were the 600+ comments on the initial New York Times article, many of them speculating that it was the work of Islamists and venting about the Arabs’ supposedly corrupt and martyrdom-obsessed civilization.  Few of these commentators are likely to take up arms and slaughter children at a youth camp, but their prejudices were of a piece with those of the martyrdom-obsessed Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik who turned out to be responsible for the attacks.

Now we have the loss-of-innocence nostalgia op-ed, also in the Times, from the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo.  I can attest that this nostalgia predated the attacks; indeed, it is a kind of Norwegian national condition that was much in evidence on my visit in 2007 on assignment for Travel + Leisurethat article is about this very issue and can be read here — and seemed, even then, so willed and unrealistic as to shade into delusion.  But here it is, as Nesbo tells it:

Still, until [the attacks on] Friday, we thought of our country as a virgin — unsullied by the ills of society. An exaggeration, of course. And yet.

In June I was bicycling with the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and a mutual friend through Oslo, setting out for a hike on a forested mountain slope in this big yet little city. Two bodyguards followed us, also on bicycles. As we stopped at an intersection for a red light, a car drove up beside the prime minister. The driver called out through the open window: “Jens! There’s a little boy here who thinks it would be cool to say hello to you.”

The prime minister smiled and shook hands with the little boy in the passenger seat. “Hi, I’m Jens.”

Norwegians love this image of themselves.  They work hard to sustain the idea of an egalitarian society, even as the discovery of North Sea oil made a long-poor corner of Europe exceptionally wealthy.  They pride themselves on not being a boastful people but, in fact, they boast all the time, it is just that what they boast of are the indulgences they can now afford but still deny themselves and of the virginal innocence of their society in a globalized age.  Note that line about “An exaggeration, of course. And yet.”  That is Norwegian style boasting: they knew this innocence was wishful thinking long before the attacks but because it seemed so humble to talk about themselves that way yet was, in fact, so flattering they perpetuated it as if it were true, even though a stroll through the central Oslo neighborhood of Grønland — with its Pakistani call centers, Somali cafes, and Moroccan clothing stores — provided irrefutable proof that Norway had already globalized whether Norwegians acknowledged it or not.

But what is the consequence of this delusional innocence?  For the immigrants, it is a near-total exclusion from Norwegian society.  As I wrote in my article for Travel + Leisure “Taking the Oslo tram four stops from Majorstuen, near Vigeland park in the prosperous and mostly blonde west, to Grønland in the east is to get on in Scandinavia and get off in New York – or maybe Mogadishu or Lahore.”  Also, though immigrants receive generous benefits from the government they face the constant threat of mass deportation, as was the case when I was there with a large group of Afghanis whose political refugee status had been revoked after years in the country.  For Norwegians, the failure to acknowledge the reality of their changing society contributes to a betrayal at home of the humanitarian values they advocate abroad and to the rise of a far right that includes the Progress Party, at times the most popular party in the country, in which Anders Behring Breivik was active.

Grønland is a short walk from the government building that was Breivik’s first target and, given his anti-immigrant views, one can speculate it was partly in reaction to the national delusion about Norway’s innocence that he ended up out on the radical fringe.  Presumably, Breivik hoped the attacks would awaken his countrymen to the immigrant menace within; my hope would be that it forces them to cast aside the myths they tell each other and, instead, to apply at home the same embracing humanitarian values that Norway espouses abroad.

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As a coda, there are other non-political dimensions to Norway’s self-image as a small town place with no money.  I wrote:

In Oslo, there is no escaping the fact that Norwegian austerity, admirable though it may be, is a bit of a drag.  Sometimes, it seems as if Oslo’s residents are not demonstrably committed to urban living: the weekdays spent in the city are an obligation only relieved at the weekend by a return to the countryside, to nature, to a rustic, grounded existence that affirms them.  Public funds are lavished on bridges connecting a remote village to an even more remote and smaller hamlet, while the capital feels a little like a spinster aunt who always wears sensible shoes and never spends any money on herself.  Vanity, as it turns out, can be good for a city.  What is the Eiffel Tower, really, except a boast written in iron about late-19th century French engineering prowess?  Norway, too, has its great engineers but they are off building practical things like tunnels and bridges and oil platforms, while the Eiffel Tower is loved precisely because it is that rare thing: an essentially useless piece of engineering, a form, a declaration, and nothing more.  Architecture is the language in which cities communicate who they are, or how they hope to be seen; in Oslo, often, the architecture has nothing to say and the city, too, seems quiet and unsure of itself.

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6 Responses to “Norway and the loss of innocence”

  1. chikashi miyamoto says:

    As for self-deception, the story of a friend reveals that self-deception is often not comprehensive.  He was in Oslo on business 10 days before the killing spree and found the city to be creepy, partly given the fact that ordinary women were carrying around Glocks.  Side arms are perhaps a requisite accessory in a very safe city?

    • Clund2008 says:

      Haven’t seen many women (ordinary or extra ordinary) carrying Glocks around Oslo. Are you sure your friend didn’t confuse Oslo with Tegucigalpa or Arizona?

      • Sean Rocha says:

        No, definitely no Glocks in Oslo — or guns of any sort, really, except for hunting — but there were other things that made Oslo a little creepy. The heroin addicts shooting up right on Karl Johans Gate, for example, or with their pants by their ankles looking for fresh veins. Or the strung out kid flailing around on a tram cracking a window with the cast on his (already broken) arm, while all the passengers pretended not to notice. Or (for one of a more Latin disposition) the very bizarre Norwegian relationship with alcohol, which occupies a couple rooms at the museum and allows ten drinks in short order on a Saturday night but looks askance at wine at dinner on a Tuesday. This kind of thing.

        Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the other posts on my site. Please considering subscribing: the link is in the upper right corner of my home page and requires no registration.

        Regards,

        Sean

    • guest says:

      I live in Oslo, and I’ve never even seen a gun. Not even the police carry guns here, so this image of Oslo is absolutely beyond reason and just made me laugh. Maybe he was in Detroit or something?

  2. Oslo says:

    As a Norwegian living in Oslo, I can partly relate to what you’re writing. But I must say that I know you’re not completely right! There are some things here that clearly are observations that are made from someone who’s just “passing by” and doesn’t really know much about the city. You’re article clearly show a lot of generalization towards the inhabitants of Oslo.

    “Sometimes, it seems as if Oslo’s residents are not demonstrably
    committed to urban living: the weekdays spent in the city are an
    obligation only relieved at the weekend by a return to the countryside,
    to nature, to a rustic, grounded existence that affirms them.”
    It may seem weird to other cultures, but most Norwegian loves the outdoors. We use a lot of money on skiing tracks, walking paths and so on, why not use it? It’s “typically Norwegian” to go hiking or skiing during weekends, even if you live in the city. The tracks are only 20 minutes away by subway or tram, and most people appreciate this a lot.  This is not a demonstration against urban living, nor do we live in the urban city “to be cool”. We enjoy both, why shouldn’t we? I’m surprised this is thought of as weird, to be honest.

    “Also, though immigrants receive generous benefits from the government
    they face the constant threat of mass deportation, as was the case when I
    was there with a large group of Afghanis whose political refugee status
    had been revoked after years in the country.”
    Well, the immigrant situation is bumpy, where is it not? But this sentenced seems to have misunderstood something. When people come to Norway illegally, they live in special asylum seeker houses while their case is being investigated. Sometimes they get citizenship, sometimes they’re denied citizenship and sometimes, if it’s likely that the situation they escaped from is going to resolve or no longer be a threat within a certain time, they get a temporarily residence permit. The reason for gaining citizenship in Norway is based on weather or not your life is threatened where you now live. It is VERY rare to be deported after you’ve gained a citizenship – so very few immigrant “face the constant threat of mass deportation”. Just go and ask them.

    “Norway, too, has its great engineers but they are off building
    practical things like tunnels and bridges and oil platforms, while the
    Eiffel Tower is loved precisely because it is that rare thing: an
    essentially useless piece of engineering, a form, a declaration, and
    nothing more.  Architecture is the language in which cities communicate
    who they are, or how they hope to be seen; in Oslo, often, the
    architecture has nothing to say and the city, too, seems quiet and
    unsure of itself.”
    This is very true! On a side note, most of the worlds “grand buildings”, including the Eiffel tower, were built during times of great success for the nation to whom it belongs. Norway has always been poor, until, historically, very few years ago. The oil were discovered during the 70’s, and since then we have mostly been building reasonable things. Oslo is also a result of this, with next to zero city planning, just random buildings thrown together. But just wait, we’re building and modernizing Oslo’s coast line as we speak. Come back in ten years, will you? 😉

    • Sean Rocha says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive response to piece on Norway. No doubt, my impressions are those of a visitor: some will be wrong for that reason and others might be right even if that is not how Norwegians see themselves. I agree there is nothing is inherently bad about the Norwegian fondness for nature — on the contrary, it is admirable — but for a lover of cities like me and seen from the perspective of Oslo there is no mistaking that it has produced a kind of neglect of the urban space; until, as you say, quite recently, with the Opera House and other projects being the kind of declarative architecture that suggests urban pride. And I would say, too, that there is no mistaking the ethnic, cultural, and racial component of this anti-urban outlook: the countryside — and in particular, the semi-mythological ‘simple’ country life during the centuries in which Norway was poor and overlooked and sent its children off to America — was a more homogeneous place. Maybe, it is true, that immigrants do not face the ‘constant threat of deportation’ (that impression may have been caused by the very public Afghan trek from Bergen to Oslo to protest their deportation) but with an anti-immigrant political party being, periodically, the #1 or #2 political force in the country I believe it is fair to say that many, maybe most, immigrants live with a level of political insecurity that does them and Norway no good at all — and, at its most extreme, produces the violence we just witnessed.

      I hope you enjoyed the other posts on my site. Please considering subscribing: the link is in the upper right corner of my home page and requires no registration.

      Regards,

      Sean

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