Thursday, July 28, 2011

Norway – A Room of One’s Own (Uncertainty)

Norway – A Room of One’s Own (Uncertainty)

Until last Friday whoever would have asked “what might possibly be wrong in Norway?” would have been met with puzzling looks on the part of the experts, for what we are dealing with here is a senior member in the ivy-league of nations and not just one another infamous country in the ever so media-popular Middle East or elsewhere in war and famine savaged lands. Norway – idyllic northern playground of socialism, wealth and tranquility – what might possibly be wrong with Norway? Nothing really. However today after the Oslo blast and the deadly massacre in the island of Utøya both the question and the answer have changed and so far we do not know the answer but the question unmistakably is “what went wrong in Norway?” As it is often the case with a tragedy of this nature, our minds are still somewhat wandering in the dark and we have begun to look for an explanation.

Apparently there’s nothing wrong with Norway as far as we can see from the ever so dignified and human reaction on the part of the Norwegian government to the catastrophic events and the concomitant promise that terrorism will be met only with more freedom and more democracy. We all wanted to know how this tragedy fell upon the peaceful Norwegians and quickly enough, saving us time for popular wisdom and conjectures, the media of the world began doing the job for us. The obvious first plausible explanation was of course a terrorist attack against the West carried out by Islamic extremists and then the relationship of Norway to the Arab world was brought under fire by the critics. When we found out that the perpetrator was an ethnic Norwegian – Anders Behring Breivik – the situation changed dramatically and then – to the relief of many people – we were speaking of an attack by a right-wing extremist.

Even though so little information was available, the media of the world sat in front of their computers and began fishing out information about this man. First a file emerged from user comments of Mr. Breivik in the Norwegian web; file that without further ado, was Google-translated from Norwegian into English and posted online by a journalist who probably hadn’t had enough time to read the fifty pages of the manuscript and that he curiously labeled “The Political Writings of Anders Behring Breivik”, probably bringing political theory and writing to an all-times low level of discredit. The situation was further aggrandized when another manuscript emerged from the internet – a hefty book of over one thousand five hundred pages apparently written by Mr. Breivik in English and titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”. The content found in both manuscripts rang alarms all the world the world – except in Norway where the reception on both fronts remained more or less cool overall – and then journalists and experts all over the world took to the task of digging deeper into the meaning behind what we read.

In these writings Mr. Breivik quite speaks out his mind and goes to great pains to detail his views: He hates Islam and multiculturalism, condemns the entire political and educational system of Norway and Europe as a Marxist attempt to destroy European culture and lays out in different ways his project to restore Europe to former glory by a mixture of violent and less violent methods which include not only ideological indoctrination by means of youth movements and newspapers but also the extermination of Islamists and Marxists alike. The details are no doubt chilly but of no less concern is the ways in which mainstream media dealt with the subject: Journalists turned to experts in international affairs – a very misleading term as it explicitly makes out of the world a single continuum of facts that we receive from the news as “truth and world” – which they cited verbatim, commenting on the content on the manuscripts (one from a Google-translated version and the other from a copy just fresh out of the internet) as they read it for the first time and raised voices of outrage at this new situation in which the legitimate institutions of democracy and right are assaulted by extremist forces.

Given the nature of Mr. Breivik’s writings, it is surprising that none of the experts consulted were experts on Norwegian history or politics, European right-wing movements or neo-Fascism. At best the experts were able to establish the obvious – some connections to other right-wing movements (EDL in the UK, PVV in the Netherlands and the home-grown FrP in Norway) and then drifted onto even unlikelier connections that link Israel and also some scholars with dubious credentials directly with the attacks and then lastly the sources of Mr. Breivik’s ideology were highlighted and brought under fire to the avail of no one. Conclusions were gathered before they had even read the entire manuscript and whatever we had wanted to believe, we began to believe. It is not only that mass media fails to distinguish between fact and truth but that fact-free assumptions have taken the central stage of information.

There are two crucial aspects of the particular Norwegian case that have been completely overlooked and that I wish to address only in passing: Firstly, investigative analysis is of little use unless we address the fact that this kind of literature is not unique to Mr. Breivik and that in fact has been widespread in Europe at least, for a long time now; insofar as the act is inseparable from the book and that there are many of these books out there, we’re speaking only of one symptom and not of a unique or isolated phenomenon. It is also necessary to mention at this point that Mr. Breivik, just like the “liberal right-wing” movements in the past decade or Nazism, have not fallen from the moon into a peaceful conflict-free zone, but rather, they have emerged out of specific structural conditions already existent in our societies.

The ideological content portrayed in the book is not only restricted to a few dubious scholars but is deeply entrenched within the intellectual traditions of Europe – the apocalyptic mood, restorations of law and order, religious enmities, cultural superiority – and in the same books and schools of thought that we read in classes of philosophy and law. These cultural moods have prevailed in the European scene all the way back to Hegel’s pupils and were part and parcel of the struggle between German liberalism and conservatism in which conservatism was politically and intellectually suppressed, what ultimately led to imperial disintegration all over Europe and that ended in two world wars so that the older notions of left and right may be considered defunct already then in between Bismarck and Hitler. What we call today liberalism in Europe does not differentiate between right and left in practical matters (such as the economy) and does not come from continental Europe.

Already in the end of the 19th century, though no one remembers them now, the Leipzig School of Sociology had adopted this worldview based on a particular reading of Hegel and then in opposition, the Marburg School of Philosophy developed the intellectual platform for the coming century based on the critical reason of Kant and it is through them that Hegel’s critics, Kierkegaard and Marx, entered the intellectual scene and were instrumental in shaping directly or indirectly the spiritual life of the Western world and the role models for politics and philosophy. However, these ideologies still survived, they can be thoroughly seen at work in Carl Schmitt and they never entirely disappeared officially until the 1960’s when the new European university rose out of a revolution with Marxist outlook. Suppression of the past – which is what took place all over Europe – is a helpless tactic and the forces at work do not disappear from the social and political scenario even if the references are deleted from the textbooks – Germany and Austria come to mind immediately.

Secondly, Norway is also a very idiosyncratic nation similar to no one. The independence of Norway came very late and the idea of the nation is rather belated by both European and American standards; the constitution of Norway drew heavily on elements from similar British, French and American experiments, a new monarchy was shipped in from elsewhere in the 20th century after independence from Danish rule and the idea of national identity and the re-making of national history were quietly negotiated; leaving the country at the mercy of little autonomy in an international context. The passion for equality that apparently characterizes the Nordic countries – just like tolerance is admittedly a trait of the Dutch, arguable concept in both cases – played a role here because the Norwegian aristocracy disappeared in medieval times and the construction of the new modern state was for the most part the work of a small group of politicians, bureaucrats, artists and academics.

It was this tiny minority what formed the Norwegian elites and from then on began a series of tensions between the center elites based in Oslo and the periphery embodied in the peasants’ movement of the 1880’s. The official state in Oslo was met with a certain measure of resentment over dependence on the part of the periphery, conflict which was solved through politics rather than policies and negotiation over participative politics. What constitutes elites in Norway was constantly challenged and changed in the course of the 20th century but what did not change was the certain measure of discomfort about this central state that though a minority; has always not only ruled but also been seen with suspicion and resentment by many people.

National unity has been important especially after the discovery of oil but nevertheless its terms have been as unstable as the terms of national identity and autonomy, being a small country in the periphery of the European Union and other major economic blocks; for this reason intervention of the official state in private affairs is unparalleled to most other nations so that during the late 1990’s it was said in international economic contexts that Norway was the last Soviet state: Freedom of speech is rather limited outside the scope of established political consensus and economic growth is defined by politics by a much larger extent than by entrepreneurs. 

The two points outlined above are essentially important to bear in mind when analyzing the Breivik case because we must place ourselves against the background of this tragedy, how they are interrelated, why and what we can conclude from them: The ideological premises behind Breivik’s heinous deeds have not been taken seriously by the Norwegian and the European populace because having achieved the status of being the most perfect, peaceful and egalitarian nation on earth, Norwegians are not open to self-criticism on their society or politics and it is usually the case that criticism of the country abroad is ignored at home or quickly dismissed – something that fluctuates between smug and pride; attitude that is replicated by the minority political system itself so that dissenting political opinions are not socially acceptable, what becomes a grave accusation in such a small and socially homogeneous land. It is not only Breivik and its possible accomplices, intellectual friendships and supporters but Norway as a whole and Europe that need to scrutinize themselves and ask how it is possible that structural conditions were ripe for these movements, ideologies, suppressions of opinion and acts of horror, ultimately.

The history of Norway is by no means free of blame. There has been widespread Anti-Semitism and occasional outbursts of xenophobia, the participation of Norwegians in Nazi totalitarianism, the Norwegianization of the Sami peoples of northern Norway and the official state policy of demonizing dissenting opinions. As we know from this horrible life-example, the problems of the past are not going away when we build a wall around them and perhaps it is the time to deal with the past and the present without euphemisms and without mythical figures of demonization and ostracism. The government has earned much praise in saying that they will respond to terrorism with more democracy and more freedom, however nobody knows specifically what it means other than maintaining the status quo of pre-22/7 politics at the benefit of the minority political system.

Some have said not without sound arguments that this is the end of the extreme right wing parties as we know them and that Geert Wilders and company have been ultimately defeated because it is their spread of hate ideology what has somewhat made this possible. Without addressing the nature of the demands made by Mr. Breivik and his kind of people in manuscripts, protests and ultimately acts of violence, nothing could be further from the truth. Even at the risk of not liking or being comfortable with what some segments of society want to say, they must be heard instead of silenced and their questions must be addressed with more than ideology: An open confrontation with the past and the present has become a condition for the future.

Multiculturalism is a noble idea but the cracks are now evident, more so in Norway than for example in the Netherlands and Britain that truly have a history of multiculturalism. It is not because there is anything wrong with it but because multiculturalism has been understood in Europe as policy-making and never as a change of heart, as an act of love, and ultimately as a personal negotiation between the members of different fragile communities to agree on what is acceptable or not – in this point both the host authorities and the guests are to stand on trial for their misgivings. On the other hand Norway responds to terrorism apparently with nothing but love and this is just so wrong because both multiculturalism and terrorism must be addressed with a change of personal attitudes as much as with sound policies. More democracy and more freedom it seems to appeal only to the continuation of the same, that great as it might have been, Norway has to realize, it is already a long by-gone past. Yes. Everything that Norway was before last week, it is already in the past. What Norway is going to become, we don’t know but it is clear that it cannot stay the same. Policies are not enough to protect people from being discriminated or isolated behind thick invisible walls.

We are living in times of great uncertainty and anxiety, product of the breakdown of the traditional sense of community and many people attempt in vain to seek an already lost security under the wings of a culture understood as identity – in this sense the Muslim communities and disenfranchised Europeans are looking for the same things – and this loss doesn’t have to do with being losers or winners in globalization or local societies than it has to do with a nostalgia over having lost a sense of belonging and membership that provides identity and values. Identity in the modern world is not something stable or fixed and furthermore, both the cultural conservative project of restoring the past and the left or socialist or cultural Marxist project of maintaining untouched the fragile structure of the present, these projects are doomed to fail and this is why I asserted the paradigm is dead; in reality, beyond the realm of ideology, both are subject to the same anxieties and unsettling feelings of insecurity.  The true potential of Europe is its vision for the future and the ability to re-make political history for every generation and not a fixed potential for either conservatism or liberalism – that’s dead letter. Resorting to pessimism is also to no avail, for both the modern world and Western civilization cannot survive without Europe, unless we understand our civilization and the modern world as economic and social structures free of values.

The countless losses of lives in Oslo and Utøya are not an attack on specific political ideas or platforms and understanding them as such is allowing for parties and ideologies to capitalize gains on the horrible deaths of young people – these deaths were heinous acts committed against humanity and as such we must responded to it on the basis of our humanity, not as an abstract institution but as a community of people different as much as diverse. When it is said that “We’re all Norway” not so much as much it achieved as it could be by saying “I am a Jew and I stand behind Norway”, “I am a Muslim and I stand behind Norway”, “I am a Christian and I stand behind Norway”, “I am a liberal and I stand behind Norway”, “I am a conservative and I stand behind Norway”. There is no such a thing as collective responsibility here and each man must be held accountable for his own deeds to the same way that only he, beset by inner turmoil over his own identity can stand up against terror by demanding not only accountability of the criminal(s) but also the political openness that could prevent this from happening.

Yes, it is very difficult to live with so much uncertainty, but nobody said that freedom is an easy thing – Western philosophy and theology know this very well – and it comes with a price. There’s always the easy solution to keep silent, to capitalize on tragedies for ideological and political gain, to act as if nothing happened in order to move on. I can only conclude by telling the people of Norway that a little more than freedom and democracy is needed in order to move on. The future of Norway will not begin until we all accept that it is not only Breivik but our whole political institutions that need to be asked difficult questions; the future of Norway will not begin until the moment when we realize that the past as we know it – political institutions, ideological enfranchisements and social structures – is no more.

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