Sunday, July 31, 2011

Welcome to the New Norway

Note: This article will likely appear published in Norwegian elsewhere, when it comes up, I will provide a link for the Norwegian, nonetheless this is the original version.

Welcome to the New Norway

“We have a good country to live in” is what a Norwegian interviewee told me exactly a week after the deadly attacks of which we all have heard, and I kept wondering to which extent normality had returned to Norway, how far had they embodied the words of Prime Minister Stoltenberg, delivering on themselves the promise of more freedom and more democracy.

My initial reaction was one of curiosity and then of surprise as I spoke to more and more Norwegians and found out that in fact nothing had changed and that life went on, business as usual. Regardless of their walk of life – a public servant, a film maker, a student of political science, a hotel chef and a party goer – there seemed to be a consensus among them that Norway was such a good country to live in and looking at the facts, there is no doubt that they’re correct.  

I kept wondering however, what could be so wrong with Norway that would bring up such headlines as last week’s – but then I found out that what happened in Norway was after all, the heinous act of one man – Anders Behring Breivik. With great dignity the Norwegians had managed to go on with daily life while newspapers and political commentators in Norway and elsewhere had a different take on this; we hear from them to no end the words “alarm”, “crisis” and “catastrophe”.

I decided to act with caution, kept myself from asking uncomfortable questions and began to dig elsewhere. Nothing of what I found was news to me and yet I remembered well the reactions of the street in France and the Netherlands when the multicultural order was challenged by violent events in the course of the 2000’s – The anxiety of the Dutch and the French was nowhere to be found among the Norwegians.

This is very admirable but I cannot help looking at it with some suspicion. Perhaps Norwegians are dismissing the issue too quickly and have focused on the acts of the perpetrator without some conscious self-examination about whether there might be more to it than just Breivik the man.  Behind this all there’s also a society where this has happened and speaking only against the incitement and hatred engendered by the people behind this all is righteous but not entirely a fair assessment.

The political parties and movements out of which extremist violence might have risen have not fallen from the moon, they have been in fact created by means of legitimate democratic processes and people have voted them in – not aliens or mass murderers but rather European citizens of flesh and bone, people beset by the anxiety caused by the dawn of the “new Europe” and who felt that they were not being represented by traditional parties, that they were not being heard and that someone had to do something about this.

There is a need now for an open confrontation with them about many key social and political issues, not only because the future of Europe depends on that but also because the consequences of believing that the social and political order is perfect and, thus must remain unchallenged are not only potentially dangerous but the writing on the wall in Oslo and Utøya as of last week. The confrontation with the uncomfortable is not just a matter of more or less political openness; it has become now a condition for the future.

The multicultural society that came under attack last week is a noble idea even in a country as small and historically homogeneous as Norway, but, the belief that multiculturalism is a policy that is to be dealt with by official channels and government bodies rather than peoples, is potentially dangerous.

Multiculturalism – in so far as it deals with something as unstable as culture and at the same time as concrete as peoples – is not a matter of policy but rather demands a change of heart, an attitude, acts of compassion or love, and ultimately an open negotiation about what is going to be acceptable or not, with both the host and the guest being upfront about their viewpoints, not being deluded by supposed friendships in between peoples that were never such – not even between Norway and its neighbors.

Multiculturalism demands a change of heart as much as policies and on the other hand, terrorism needs to be tackled with a little bit more than love – it also demands serious political decisions to be made. In both cases, policy without social change or the other way around achieves nothing but a temporary truce that can be breached anytime.

More freedom and more democracy cannot mean more of the same freedom and democracy. People must settle down in this new situation that has irreparably shifted things in the political and social landscape. Pretending that by keeping quiet because “we have a good country to live in” they will move on is nothing but an irresponsible delusion.

Going backwards to restore former glories of Europe as the conservatives want or prolonging the status quo of the present – that is, the present that was before last week – as the liberals want, are both dead options now. The new Norway has arrived without a working permit and is going to stay regardless of whether refugee status is granted or not.

What happened in Oslo and Utøya is not only an attack on multiculturalism or a political party – that would be the equivalent of assuming that 9/11 was an attack on the bank whose offices were in this or that floor of the towers – but rather an attack on the whole of Norway’s citizenry and must be understood as such without allowing for one moment on anyone to capitalize political gains on the basis of the crimes committed.

There’s no collective responsibility or collective guilt here, but the time has come for making ourselves responsible for the things that happen in our midst and this means nothing but the possibility to ask difficult questions not only to the perpetrators of this unprecedented act of evil, but also to ourselves, to the political system, to the structural conditions that gave to such ideas the power to act.

The new Norway is already the future of Norway and unless we let go of the moral comfort and speak out the truth about where our fears and hopes on ourselves and the others lie, we will not be able to stop the past from clashing against the future and becoming once again the writing on the wall of what we are avoiding to address.   

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