Peter Shelton

Take That, Patriot Act!

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on August 4, 2011

The attacks in Norway two weeks ago by a right-wing extremist relate to my experience of that country only insofar as the pictures show a conventionally good-looking blond man. Out of a population of 4.9 million, there are probably 2 million good-looking blond men in Norway.

Roughly 98 percent of the population is either native Norwegian or have immigrated from other Scandinavian and northern European countries. Fewer than 2 percent are Muslim. So, why was Anders Behring Breivik so certain he had to galvanize “Christian Europe” for a repeat of the Battle of Vienna 1683?

The Norway I got to know, however briefly in the pre-Olympic winter of 1993, was a place I felt instantly at home. Yes, I am a White Anglo-Saxon (lapsed) Protestant, a skier, and a fan of “Lake Wobegon.” So, I could be predisposed to feel at home in a snowy, mountainous country populated almost entirely by people who look like me, and who speak English – many of them better than most Americans do.

(A woman with the Lillehammer Organizing Committee was telling me about the traditional Norwegian breakfast I was devouring: creamy oatmeal in a hand-carved wooden bowl from the province of Telemark. I asked her why everyone’s English was so good. Her look said, Duh, but she answered politely with a smile: “No one else in the world speaks Norwegian.”)

Norway is part of the world (see Nobel Prize, Oslo Accords) but very much its own private perfection (see aquavit and smoked salmon). The list of superlatives is long. Here are a few. Norway has roughly the same dimensions as California (it’s a little smaller), but because of the fjords, Norway’s coastline is approximately 16,000 miles long; California’s coastline measures 840 miles.

Norway is arguably the richest country on earth. Its per capita GDP is $84,000, second highest in the world after Luxembourg. Norway has the largest capital reserve per capita of any nation on earth. Deficit? What deficit? Foreign Policy Magazine ranks Norway last on its Failed States List.

The place didn’t feel Beverly Hills rich when I was there. It felt rich in an egalitarian, resource-deep, historically modest, athletically vital way. Norway’s got oil and timber and seafood and shipping. They invented skiing. There are 5,000-year-old rock carvings up north that clearly depict skiing hunters.

Eighty percent of Norwegians ski at least once a year. There are 900 miles of Nordic trails in an around the capital city. Access is free. “It would be an insult to the Nordic ethos to charge money for access to trails,” an engineer named Rolv told me. I joined Rolv and a dozen of his friends on a kind of orienteering/treasure hunt, on skis, in the hills above Lillehammer. We ranged from a ski area across nearby farms and pastures. One checkpoint was just behind a mustard-colored farmhouse, on the side of its weathered barn.

“You ski where you choose,” Rolv said, “except in somebody’s garden. To ski, to hike, camp, pick berries, to enjoy the gifts of nature in the mountains is viewed as a basic civil right.” Private property is valued, but the freedom to roam is valued even more. Take that, Tom Chapman!

And yes, Norway is a capitalist welfare state, a combination of free market and state ownership in key sectors: oil, hydroelectric generation, the largest bank and the largest telecom company. About 30 percent of the stock value on the Oslo Stock Exchange is owned by the government. Taxes are high. When I was there, the Swix Wax employee I stayed with gave up about 40 percent of his income to taxes. He drove an old Volvo. But he and his wife and children enjoyed free medical care, from cradle to grave; free education, including university and post-graduate training; an exquisite passenger train and bus system. Poverty and unemployment are essentially nonexistent.

Couples in Norway with a new baby get 46 weeks of paid leave – the mother and the father. Around Easter the whole country shuts down, and a majority of Norwegians, including King Harald and Queen Sonya, ski into mountain cabins to drink aquavit and toast the return of the sun. I sensed a reservoir of well being there I have never felt anywhere else. Take that, Grover Norquist!

My point is, Norway is hardly going down the tube, immigrants or no immigrants. So, what led Anders Behring Breivik to feel he needed to lead a Christian, white-supremacist revolution?

It makes me think about the origins of the word berserk. A Berserker was a Viking term for a warrior who fights outside himself, with a controlled fury. There may be a streak of Viking fierceness running still in Norwegian blood. They do have a small force in Afghanistan. Their planes are bombing Tripoli.

But this guy was just plain berserk, a delusional xenophobe fed by on-line Muslim-haters in the U.S. and elsewhere.

No, Norway has already made it clear it will not veer from its course of tolerance and openness. They will show the world by their lack of overreaction. Take that, Patriot Act!

One Response

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on August 4, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Fine article, fine thinking. So much I didn’t know about Norway.
    We’re glad you’re here, not there.

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