About Progress

Last Saturday, I published a post in Norwegian about the populist Progress Party, currently a junior partner in a Conservative-led government around here. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be widely read (my blog was notoriously ignored and sadly neglected), but to my great surprise, it began to spread epidemically on Facebook within hours. The newspaper Dagbladet reproduced a distorted version of the gist (their reporter revealed a limited understanding of punctuation), stirring up a bit of controversy for a few hours. The other major media, to their considerable credit, respected my wish not to engage. I was busy (with, ironically, a conference on identity in situations of accelerated change) and had no desire, besides, to participate in political debate. Sensing a breeze brewing in a teapot, I emptied the teapot to prevent the tempest from developing; in a word, I took the post down. Notwithstanding, here it is again, with somewhat modified language (fewer colloquialisms and double entendres), and a bit of necessary context for the non-local readership – but it can doubtless be misunderstood again. Enjoy!

So, then: The Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet). Is it, as many have claimed, a soft fascist party drawing sustenance from suspicion of others and contempt for weakness in Harald Ofstad’s sense (Vår forakt for svakhet – ‘Our contempt for weakness’), of which the voters do not realise that they may end up as the next victims? That is to say, (pardon my French) a ‘white trash’ kind of party depending on its voters being lowly educated, not understanding their own good and therefore voting against their objective interests? Or is it rather, as not least many Norwegian politicians from other parties staunchly affirmed after the last elections, a perfectly respectable, democratic party in the best tradition of the Enlightenment? (The party entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives a little over a year ago.) Not a word about the fact that the terrorist Breivik, as foreign media repeatedly pointed out, had been a party member for years? (In Norway, it consistently leads to an outrage whenever this fact is merely mentioned.) Many in Norway remember that the party chairman Siv Jensen exclaimed, following the 22/7/11 explosion in the city centre, that ‘this is an attack on Norway’, but they also recall that she did not repeat that sentence when it became clear that the atrocities had not been committed by a group of Muslims, but one of her own black sheep. It is true that Breivik went from right-wing populism to right-wing extremism when he lost his belief in democratic institutions, but the boundary is not fixed once and for all. At the same time, it is doubtless true, as the party has claimed, that he left the party in 2006 because it was “too liberal”.

The answer is “none of the above”: it is a fascinating, but not a fascist party. It contains diverse elements, combining impulses from different strands of Norwegian populism, including anti-authoritarianism, scepticism of the stranger, disdain of centralised bureaucracy and a strong belief in “common sense” (but oblivious of the fact that common sense is a cultural system which varies between life-worlds.)

Norwegian politicians and commentators of nearly all hues have responded with indignation to a widespread view among foreign observers and scholars, namely that the Progress Party is a member of a political family which also includes Geert Wilders, Marine LePen, Pia Kjærsgaard and the Swedish Democrats. Scholars tend to agree that Progress is more libertarian than the others, but their general politics closely parallels that of other right-wing populists. (The major newspaper VG ran an interesting comparison between Progress and the Swedish Democrats recently (http://www.vg.no/nyheter/utenriks/sverige/frp-og-sverigedemokraterna-hvor-like-er-de/a/23295580/), which revealed that the similarities were striking, and not just concerning issues to do with minorities and immigration. Yet, spokespersons of the party are adamant in their denial of any such connections, and have even been known to deny that the party is a populist party.

It has been objected to the linking of Progress to other European anti-immigration parties that its history is different. Notably, it is said that the party founder Anders Lange (1904–1974) was a libertarian whose aim was mainly to reduce taxation dramatically in postwar social democratic Norway. But Lange supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and Ian Smith’s white supremacist state in Rhodesia, was critical of interracial marriages, and had served as secretary of the right-wing Fedrelandslaget (‘The Fatherland League) from 1930 to 1938. (He would later join the resistance against the German occupation.)

Although the Progress Party certainly has its moderate wing, represented e.g. among government ministers, as well as many moderate and committed local councillors around the country, media stories are published regularly about party members, often in official positions, making outlandish statements about foreigners as well as Norwegians of foreign parentage. One recently spoke of Norwegian jihadists as ‘half-apes’, while another expressed a wish not only to cleanse Hedmark county of Muslims, but to ‘exterminate Islam from the world, because it is such a horrid (grotesk) culture that one shivers when hearing about what they do in the countries where they rule’. Among their MPs, Mr Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who represents my hometown, is especially vocal in condemning the alleged threats to Norwegian culture represented by immigrants. He has stated that ‘Islam cannot stand freedom values’, and that integration into the society should, inter alia, be based on ‘unconditional love of Norway and our Christian heritage’ (sic). When asked about the content of the ‘Norwegian culture’ that is threatened by immigration, he nevertheless finds it difficult to respond, similarly to his party chairman Siv Jensen when asked to substantiate her allegations that ‘Islamicisation by stealth’ was taking place in the country.

Only last week, the minister of children, gender equality and inclusion, Ms Solveig Horne, expressed the desire that people (presumably men – women were not mentioned) with a medieval view of women ought to pull themselves together. Well, I assume many would agree with this particular perspective. Alhough lots of people like the Middle Ages (especially in fantasy literature), few would like to live then. But how can this kind of analysis form the basis of a political action plan? My personal anxiety concerns the future possibility of establishing a functioning community of disagreement, if we, the citizens, have to discuss politics in these terms. During the early years of this century, parallel societies, which were hardly on speaking terms, seemed to emerge in Denmark as a result of a sharp turn to the right politically and a fundamental disagreement as to the meaning of the word ‘we’. Will something similar happen in Norway? It is too early to tell. Many commentators in the media have argued that the experience of being in power has had a mitigating effect on the party’s more boisterous tendencies, while others may equally well argue that the terms of discourse are being shifted in a particular direction for exactly the same reasons.

There are people who think that academics shouldn’t have opinions. They ought, allegedly, to be engaged in objective research instead. But the premise is wrong. Objective research is a fiction. Moreover, although the snug comfort of the seminar room is, arguably, far more pleasant than the unpredictability of the public sphere, academics may occasionally morph into intellectuals, that is talking and writing about matters which are not really our business. Finally, there is something about the relationship between social anthropology – my discipline – and the Progress Party, that recalls the structuralism of my student days, where the binary, the contrast, was the seed of enlightenment. For among anthropologists, it is assumed, as a matter of basic methodology, that nothing human shall be alien to us (humani nil a me alienum puto). As regards the Progress Party, it may sometimes seem as if the situation is the exact opposite.

* * *

I’ve also written elsewhere recently, not about Progress as such, but about the discourses in Norwegian society about the terrorist attack:


Hardcore frihet

Det er anarkisten Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty, med bakgrunn blant annet som fotograf i Gateavisa, som sammen med Svein Gullbekk er kurator for Kulturhistorisk museums jubileumsutstilling om frihet, og det merkes alt før du har satt føttene på innsiden av utstillingslokalet i Frederiks gate. Den ærverdige bygningens yttervegg er nemlig dekorert med sitater om frihet, og det er særlig George Orwells maksime du tar med deg inn: ‘Frihet er retten til å fortelle folk det de ikke har lyst til å høre.’

Deretter bærer det opp i tredje etasje, hvor du blir møtt av et fullt fungerende røykebur omtrent av samme type som finnes på enkelte flyplasser. Retten til å røyke er en frihet som er sterkt truet; spørsmålet er om den i størst grad trues av formynderstaten eller av ikke-røykernes frihet til å slippe å plages av andre røyk. En utmerket diskusjonsoppgave for en besøkende skoleklasse, om de da overhodet får lov til å snakke om tobakk i timen.

Så kommer du endelig inn i selve utstillingen, eventuelt etter å ha inntatt en brukerdose nikotin, og den viser seg raskt å ha et collage-preg som er uvant for museets stamgjester. Det største rommet formidler resultater fra et omfattende forskningsprosjekt om tingplassenes betydning de siste tusen år i Nordvest-Europa. Det handler om beslutningsprosesser og forholdet mellom øvrighet og individ, rettssystemer og former for frihetsberøvelse. Dette er den mest konvensjonelle delen av utstillingen, men i samme rom som norrøn politisk historie blir forklart, er det også stilt ut en mengde forstyrrende elementer i form av gjenstander fra museets samlinger – groteske masker, krympede hoder,  byster og hodeskaller. Om de ser på deg med frihetens blikk, skal imidlertid være usagt.

Andre deler av utstillingen går mer direkte inn i samtidens debatter om frihet. Det gjelder særlig tre av rommene. I avdelingen om ytringsfrihet rettes søkelyset mot sensur, forbudte bøker og fribyforfatterne som har fått beskyttelse i Norge. Besøkende kan sette seg til og lese en forbudt bok, eller en akademisk bok om frihet, i salongen. Men ytringsfriheten kunne ha vært problematisert. Etter massakren i Rwanda i 1994 ble blant annet en radiostasjon og en popsanger dømt for å ha oppfordret til folkemord, altså for å ha brukt ytringsfriheten. Her ligger nok et glimrende tema for en klassediskusjon, enten det er på ungdomsskolen eller på doktogradsnivå.

Deretter følger et rom om Hells Angels og ett om homsebevegelsen. Begge tematiserer frihet på forbilledlige måter. Hells Angels insisterer på retten til å leve utenfor systemet, og er nærmest organisert som et stammesamfunn der æresbegreper og lojalitet er viktigere enn respekt for statens lover. Deres liv som skjeggete fredløse, portrettert i stort format av fotografen Marcel Leliënhof, gir med nødvendighet assosiasjoner til utstillingens første del om politiske prosesser i en tid da staten ennå ikke var etablert. I hvilken grad er det riktig å si at den velmenende staten begrenser den enkeltes frihet ved å gjøre borgerne til en trygghetsnarkoman saueflokk?

For den homofile og lesbiske bevegelsen er det lett å besvare spørsmålet. Helt til avkriminaliseringen av homofili i 1972 var deres frihet sterkt begrenset; siden har homofile utvidet rommet for livsutfoldelse. En sammenligning med Hells Angels og deres frihetsbegrep kan være instruktiv. Riktignok legger utstillingen størst vekt på de mer spektakulære uttrykk for homofil frigjøring, men den påpeker også at det finnes flere forståelser av frihet blant homofile og lesbiske. Der enkelte ønsker full normalisering, foretrekker andre et mer alternativt liv, uavhengig av borgerlige normer og verdier, på en måte som har noen likheter med englenes frihetsforståelse.

Fremdeles er det mer. De to siste rommene er vanskeligere å knytte direkte til frihetstematikken, selv om de er interessante i sin egen rett. ‘Minus fem’, der faglig ansvarlig har vært Terje Emberland, dreier seg om nazistenes forkjærlighet for det norrøne, vikingmytologi og ‘det ariske urspråk’, som de fant i norske helleristninger (!). Her går det også frem at de få jødene som levde i Norge, ikke var udelt populære i den øvrige befolkning. Og i etasjen nedenfor fortelles den fascinerende historien om hvordan gullet fra Norges Bank ble smuglet ut av landet etter at tyskerne angrep i april 1940. Hva dette har med frihet å gjøre kan diskuteres, men et forslag kan være at gullet ga en økonomisk frihet som gjorde det mulig å finansiere både motstand mot nazismen og ny infrastruktur etter 1945.

Det  er altså en løst sammensatt utstilling, og den feirer friheten uten å si hva den består i. Snakker vi om Statens frihet, som ble etablert virtuelt i 1814 og reelt i 1905; eller snakker vi om individets frihet fra staten? Kan ytringsfriheten diskuteres i lys av forholdet mellom negativ og positiv frihet (frihet fra og frihet til), om ikke annet for å unngå forfall til festtaler? Og nå som homofile og lesbiske har oppnådd formell frihet og likhet, hvilke andre grupper faller utenfor? Sier det noe om de rådende frihetsbegrepene i Norge at det sittende regimet foreløpig har tatt imot 65 av to millioner syriske krigsflyktninger, og nekter flyktninger som er blitt skadet å slippe inn? Slike spørsmål blir ikke stilt eksplisitt, men innvendingen er i grunnen urimelig, for en utstilling er ikke en fagartikkel.

‘Ja, vi elsker frihet’ er mangslungen og tidvis forvirrende. Det er nødvendig å dunke ekstra hardt på enkelte av puslespillbitene for å få dem til å falle på plass. Samtidig representerer den en lekenhet og assosiativ rikdom som gjør den til et klart høydepunkt i strømmen av grunnlovsmarkeringer, og den er uten tvil det gærneste dette gamle museet noensinne har funnet på. Det er bare å gratulere.

Morgenbladet, september 2014


Abu Nidal and his children


Some years ago, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car trying to make its way through the city centre of Lahore. The traffic was confusing. Cars and motorbikes swerved in and out of the gaps between vehicles, made sudden stops, flashed their lights unpredictably and meandered back and forth across the road, almost as if they’d had a drink too many, even if it was in the middle of Ramadan. ‘Only one piece of advice will do here,’ explained the driver, a secular Pakistani intellectual whose wry sense of humour helped him stay sane and alive. ‘Don’t look at the blinking lights and the waving arms, just watch the movements of the wheels in front of you.’ I later realised that he was not just talking about the traffic, but was commenting obliquely on the unhappy political situation in his country, where wealthy landowners, powerful officers and religious leaders competed for power, and where the middle class had never been given a proper chance. Listening to what the politicians said would only be distracting and confusing. In order to understand politics, you had to watch what they were actually doing.

During a visit in Israel and on the West Bank earlier this year, the memory of this experience kept returning to me, and it has not faded after the recent campaign in Gaza. You have to look at the wheels, not at their gesturing and palaver. Yes, it is relevant that Hamas are religious fanatics, and that Fatah are corrupt and inefficient, but in order to understand the relationship between Israel and Palestine, you must dodge the distortions of the communication agencies, avoid the lightning conductors and count dead bodies and transgressions instead.

OK, let’s start. How many walls have the Palestinians built, how many Israelis have they tortured and killed, and how many Israeli children on their way to school do they herd into narrow metal cages, where the children are sometimes forced to stand for an hour or more, in scorching heat, with no explanation? How many recently built Palestinian towns are currently to be found in Israeli territory, and how many Palestinian roads are de facto closed to Israeli vehicles?

One day, I was taken on a visit to Abu Nidal, who lives in a village near Jerusalem. The wall, or security fence, has been built in the West Bank itself, with the result that Israeli territory has, in practice, been expanded with a few square kilometres here and there, and this in turn entails that many Palestinian villages are on the ‘wrong’, Israeli side of the wall. It is unpleasant and not least time-consuming to have to pass through Israeli checkpoints and soldiers every day in order to get on with your business, but if you live in one of these villages, you have no choice.

Abu Nidal turned out to have little in common with his notorious namesake, the militant Palestinian activist who died in 2002. This Abu Nidal was a kindly man in his mid-sixties, who lived in one of the more spacious houses of the village with his daughter and two of his sons. A new Israeli settlement could be seen on a hill nearby, the apartment buildings and greenery surrounded by security fences. In the opposite direction, some of Jerusalem’s suburbs could be discerned in the distance. The security fence ran just below the property, behind it a recently built road for Israelis only. ‘I lost half of my olive trees when they built it,’ he explained. The Israeli state did offer some compensation to him and others in a similar situation, but as a matter of principle, they did not accept it. Abu Nidal speaks Arabic and Hebrew, but little English, and he was interpreted by the anthropologist Efrat Ben Ze’ev, the author of Remembering Palestine in 1948, a study of the collective memory work on both sides.

For years, Abu Nidal made good money with a construction company taking assignments largely from Israeli. He was now retired, but kept a spacious orchard where he grew olives, citrus and vegetables. We sat down in the shade in front of the house, where his unmarried, bare-headed daughter served us strong, sweet coffee. ‘This didn’t use to be a problem,’ he commented, shaking his head, ‘but she now has to cover her head just to go down to the village and do her shopping.’

Abu Nidal no longer believed that his children could make it in their home country. There are limited economic opportunities for those who live on the shrinking West Bank, and jobs in Israel are scarcer and less secure than they were only a few years ago. Increasingly, Israeli prefer to hire immigrants from countries like Thailand and China rather than Palestinians. Many wish to leave, and some succeed. One of his sons recently managed to get a permit of residence in Sweden, where he lives and works as an electrician. The situation is less promising for his other two sons. One of them suffers from damages inflicted when he was imprisoned, with his father, in Israel. He is no longer capable of working. The other son used to work in the Israeli settlement nearby, but lost his job and is now unemployed. Abu Nidal despaired over his inability to help his adult children. He rolled himself a cigarette from homegrown tobacco.

‘I hear that the Swedes now take war refugees from Syria,’ he said. ‘Why can’t they take us as well?’ I shrugged. Palestinians are not considered legitimate political refugees in Europe.

‘But what about Norway?’ he continued. ‘I hear about people who have gone there and are doing well. What if my son travels there, loses his passport and applies for asylum? He might even say that he is Syrian if necessary. He might then be able to find a job enabling him to support himself?’ Again, I had to disappoint him. I thought about the now abandoned Palestinian camp at the Jacob Church (Jakobskirken) in Oslo, which was supported by several NGOs but ignored by the authorities. This country has not been particularly understanding towards undocumented refugees, and after the change in government, it takes an even less generous stance than before.

‘If he knows people who can help him find a place to live, he might be able to get a job in the informal sector,’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t recommend it. Sooner or later he’d be exposed; Norway is a fairly small, transparent society. The chances might be better in a large country such as the UK or France,’
Abu Nidal nodded and extinguished his cigarette. We changed the topic and talked about the Palestinian authority, the relationship between Fatah and Hamas, the internal problems of corruption, nepotism and personal rivalries, and the brutal Israeli occupation. Just as we were about to take our leave, he reminded us of what kind of society they had once dreamt of.

‘We were envisioning a society where it would be possible to live together without religion being an overriding factor, where religion was politically irrelevant. Where you had your rights and your value because you were a human being. And just look around yourself now.’ There was no need to elaborate. Yes, there has been a shift, and secular dreams now seem less realistic than ever. The change does not merely concern local life in the Palestinian territories, where Abu Nidal’s daughter and other Palestinian women now have to cover their hair when going out, but religiously conservative Jews are also becoming more influential in Israel. On both sides, the present-day territory is being read on ancient maps. Many Israeli speak of the West Bank using the Biblical designations Judea and Samaria, and at the anthropology conference in which I had just taken part, in Jaffa, an elderly Israeli colleague commented, during a plenary session, that the number of kipas seemed to have increased perceptibly in just a few years. Looking around the auditorium, I did indeed notice a fair number of kipas.

Abu Nidal’s story is a reminder of the fact that only a few decades ago, belief in a better world was still alive, even in this tormented, overheated territory wedged between Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean. Today, scarcely anybody dares believe in positive changes at all.

On the plane home, a few days later, I was reading David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind from 1988, completed before the first intifada and published years before the building of the wall and the Israeli invasions in Gaza. But even then, optimism might be hard to come by. Grossman mentions a research project where several thousand Israeli and Palestinian children were invited to talk about their nightly dreams. Many had dreamt of encounters with the other group, usually of a violent nature. And, among a few thousand dreams among Jewish and Arab children, not a single one expresses a hope for peace, Grossman concludes. Alas, it is not difficult to imagine what the result could have been today. And yet, the grimness of the situation does not prevent Abu Nidal and thousands like him to hope for a better future for their children. Admittedly outside of their damaged homeland, which at the moment only seems capable of producing hatred and bitterness.

En overopphetet verden

Noe har skjedd med verden de siste årene: Alt går fortere enn før. Det er fem ganger så mange som reiser på ferie til utlandet enn bare for førti år siden. Mens bare et par prosent av afrikanerne hadde tilgang til Internett så sent som i 2006, er tallet nå nærmere 20 prosent. Vi bruker dobbelt så mye energi som i 1980 (og veldig lite av det er fornybart). Tyngdepunktet i verdensøkonomien har flyttet seg østover i rasende fart. Kinesiske investeringer og varer finnes nå overalt, mens europeerne er mer opptatt av å diskutere grenser og identitet enn økonomi. Og folk flytter på seg både mer og på nye måter. Noen forskere snakker endog om super-mangfold som en ny samfunnstype, en rastløs samfunnsform der mange av innbyggerne er på gjennomreise.

Denne nye verdenen, med sine akutte og galopperende økonomiske, kulturelle og økologiske kriser, er tema for forskningsprosjektet jeg leder ved Sosialantropologisk institutt. Tittelen er Overheating, overoppheting, og viser ikke til klimaendringer, men hastighet. I fysikken er jo varme og hastighet det samme. Spørsmålet vi stiller, er hvordan folk i ulike lokalsamfunn reagerer på akselererte endringsprosesser. Vi skriver globaliseringens samtidshistorie nedenfra, slik globaliseringen erfares av helt alminnelige mennesker i land som Peru, Filippinene, Canada, Sierra Leone og Australia.

Mange, både forskere, journalister og andre, skriver om globalisering. Men de fleste av dem har et makroperspektiv; de ser altså det store bildet, men går ofte glipp av detaljene. De er som en mann i helikopter som sirkler over kloden med kikkert og telelinse. Han kan gjøre rede for globale tendenser og forskjeller mellom land og regioner, men befinner seg vanligvis for langt borte fra vanlige folks tilværelse til å kunne si noe bestemt om hvordan forandringene blir opplevd og forstått av deg og meg. Og da er det noe vesentlig som mangler.

Sosialantropologer holder seg stort sett unna helikopteret. I stedet krabber vi på alle fire med forstørrelsesglass og studerer hvert enkelt sandkorn på stranden. Der ligger vår styrke som vitenskap, i studiet av det lille, det lokale, det unike. I tillegg sammenligner vi ulike samfunn, og i Overheating-prosjektet har vi dessuten som mål å kombinere blikket fra helikopteret med blikket fra forstørrelsesglasset. Vi ser det store i det lille og det lille i det store. Men vi begynner med det lille. Det er nemlig der antropologien har sitt fortrinn.

La oss si at du bor i det vestafrikanske landet Sierra Leone. For femten år siden fantes det ikke en skikkelig vei der du bodde, bare jordveier og tråkk som ble til gjørme i regntiden. Nå finnes ikke bare asfalterte veier, det er til og med tilløp til bilkø! (Det kaller jeg akselerert endring.) Eller sett at du i alle år har bodd i nærheten av et skogholt, men oppdager, idet du står opp en dag, at trærne er hugget ned og at noen er i ferd med å anlegge en plantasje for biodrivstoff. Etter et par uker ser du at de fleste som jobber der er kinesere. Du lurer naturlig nok på hva som skjer. Og du vil stille noen spørsmål: Hvem kan jeg skylde på, hva kan jeg gjøre, og er utviklingen bra eller dårlig for meg og mine?

Denne typen spørsmål tar Overheating-teamet opp i lokalsamfunn på fem kontinenter. Vi studerer lokale reaksjoner på raske endringer, som både kan være positive og negative, og ofte ambivalente – forandring har både gode og dårlige sider. Deretter knytter vi lokalsamfunnene sammen og kobler dem opp mot globale prosesser. Målet er å skrive en historie om verden i det tidlige 21. århundre, hvor både de store systemene og enkeltmenneskene får sin rettmessige plass. Vi vil vise at sosialantropologien er en viktig bidragsyter til den store samtalen om hva det vil si å være menneske og hvor vi er på vei.

Aftenposten, 15/10-14