Origins of the Weirdness
So where did all this Prozac bliss come from? Simple, the same as Disney’s stories and North Korea’s Juche: the human imagination. Instead of basing the national identity on actual history and the character aspects that forged the nation (i.e. the Viking era ca. 793-1066 AD), Norwegian historians, writers, and artists set out to manufacture propaganda.
After gaining partial independence from Denmark in 1814, Norwegian’s felt insecure about not having a distinct culture. Concluding that the rural lifestyle best represented the Norwegian identity, the intellectuals set out to “package” the various aspects of rural life into a culture for mass consumption. However, instead of focusing on the character, free will, and human aspects needed to overcome hardship and build a nation, they chronicled on the superficial ones: clothing, food, and language dialects.
Like in North Korea, the more you look (including genetics) and speak the part, the more Norwegian you are, diametrically opposing the American approach. Our mass culture, also based on rural and frontier life, emphasized the character of those who took the ultimate risk, leaving everything behind to venture into the unknown, seeking a better life. We learned, through stories, music, and films, about dealing with adversity, driving on to overcome insurmountable odds, and adapting to a new life. Their dialects, clothes, and foods acted as background, making the story interesting, but not the focus. When the American population shifted from mostly rural to urban, the work ethic, flexibility, and adaptability carried over. Therefore, the character and human spirit attributes, from the past, are the culture. Those qualities enlighten current and future generations, allowing them to take the nation forward, not adhering to rituals.
View from Stalheim by JC Dahl – One of my favorites at the National Gallery
The Romantic Nationalism movement did yield timeless and historically significant work, especially the paintings illustrating Norwegian nature (i.e. JC Dahl), music (Edvard Grieg), and the literature that chronicled family hardships (Henrik Ibsen). However, the continued emphasis on the superficial and statism negates the positive.
Minnesota with four official languages!
Although Minnesota, settled by Ojibwe, Chippewas, Sioux, French, Nordic, Latino, and Somali people, the state conducts its business in English. Moreover, it is taught throughout the state. Even though we have a unique accent, everyone in America understands us. Conversely, Norway, which is not as diverse, has four official languages: two versions of Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk), Sami (Similar to Native Americans) and Kven (an obscure Finnish language spoken in Northern Norway). Bokmål is the most prominent and many international companies work in English.
Nynorsk or “Norwegian Ebonics” came about when Ivar Aasen (1813-1896), searching for the origins of the Norwegian language, returned with a whole new one. During his travels, he pieced together dialects and specific words from the various villages throughout the country, recognizing that everyone needed to feel special. Instead of depositing this academic work at the university, the government decided to adopt it as another official language, confusing everyone and furthering divisions while wasting taxpayer money. Every government website offers at least an option between Bokmål and Nynorsk while many others also offer Sami. (I have not seen Kven as an option).
Norway’s past, present, and future, like Switzerland’s, depends on global trade and innovation. With oil in decline, Norway cannot afford four national languages when considering the competing priorities (education, medical care, roads, defense). Adopting English as a second national language will not only make Norway more economically competitive, which strengthens the culture, but also make it easier for immigrants, especially the skilled ones, to integrate.
There was a movement long back to make “Ebonics” or standardized American ghetto dialects mainstream. However, Americans of all races quickly realized that it would only further divide the country and limit opportunities for those who spoke it to climb the economic ladder, making it difficult to move to where new opportunities may exist. Moreover, the effort hindered our coming together as one nation. One of America’s greatest strengths and Europe’s greatest shortcomings is the view on language.
America succeeds because a rancher from Montana can join the Navy, moving to California and then Virginia, becoming a commando, and then end up in Washington DC as a motivational speaker. An Italian cook will find it nearly impossible to learn software engineering in Poland and later take a job in Northern Finland that has been vacant for years. Hence, workforce mobility is one of America’s secret weapons hiding in plain sight!
The one day you get to smile and be yourself!
Every year, selected North Korean youth put on the “Mass Games, a display of color, music, and dance for the “Dear Leader,” a title shared by both Kim Jong-un and his late father Kim Jong-il. Although, Norway is the furthest thing from an oppressive regime, one cannot help but notice the parallel for the national days.
Like the Mass Games, Norwegian kids parade in front of the King with a lot of fanfare.
The Norwegian May 17th celebration is something like combining the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. It’s a rather incredible day, unlike any other. It would be sacrilege to critique it. However, it’s worth noting a few nuances.
The costumes or Bunads are loosely based on 18th and 19th-century rural clothing, rooted in Romantic Nationalism. Designers created lines of the costumes, men’s and women’s variants alike, worn on the National Day as well as special occasions like weddings, Christmas, Easter, and baptisms. Later 20th-century folk costumes were rolled into the mix.
The people in the era represented did not actually wear these outfits and definitely not on a daily basis. They only had “Sundays best,” which vaguely resembled them. Later the Bunad morphed into a costly status symbol, which many already indebted Norwegians take out loans to buy. Recently, a study in 2010 revealed that urban men (20-40) surpassed women as the primary purveyors of the outfit.
The Joseon-ot is North Korea’s traditional outfit whereas the Bunad is the Norwegian one.
One of the weirder things about this day is not that people are overly festive and in an outgoing mood but the reason. I was stunned on my first 17th of May by all the people just coming up to me and saying hello. Norwegians will tell you that “this is the only day that outgoing and spontaneous behavior is accepted.” My Norwegian friends literally told me that they are supposed to act naïve and closed, only able to express themselves when drunk or on May 17th. That explained why everyone thought I was crazy when I said hello on the bus. The anti-social behavior was taught and not natural.
Friendliness and openness are traits which are in line with nature itself.
On my first day of Freshman Orientation at Kansas State University, the late Dean Dollar (Professor of Electrical Engineering). He instructed incoming freshmen that in Kansas we were to smile and say hello when passing or standing next to someone. We were all family on the campus of 20,000+ students. Hence, American culture, based on actual history, builds on value and character aspects, invisible to the naked eye, rather than symbolic ones like in Europe. You don’t need to wear a cowboy hat to be American, just work hard, be honest, smile, swear that oath to our Constitution, and you are in!
Like in North Korea, Norwegian culture is not designed for the betterment of individuals, giving them the tools that will help them reach their full potential, but rather a means of control, suppressing the livelier parts the human being. They don’t want you to become successful but rather compliant. The only difference is the means of suppression. The North Korean’s use prison camps and persecution whereas the Norwegians use peer pressure and fear of social isolation.
Askeladden – Norway’s Mickey Mouse.
Like Kim Jong-un and the iconic mouse, Askeladden is a small but very capable character, relying on wit to overcome adversity. The youngest and smallest of three brothers, he symbolizes Norway’s relative position to Sweden and Denmark. Instead of fighting his battles straight on, he employs Machiavellian treachery to overcome obstacles and get ahead.
Folk characters, created by governments and others by the private sector, influence character development from an early age.
One of the more memorable stories, read during our Norwegian courses, was Askeladden som kappåt med trollet or “The Boy Who Had an Eating Match with a Troll.” The story depicts a kid from a poor family who comes across a troll while doing chores. At the troll’s residence, he challenges him to an eating contest. However, Askeladden hid a sack under his shirt, shoveling the porridge in there instead of his mouth. When the troll felt full, Askeladden suggested that he cut a hole in his stomach to let the food out so he could eat more. Offering proof, Askeladden cut a hole into the sack, hidden behind his shirt, letting out the porridge. Intrigued, the troll asks Askeladden to do the same, so he could keep eating. The boy ends up killing the troll, taking all of his gold and silver back to his family so they could pay off their debt. (note the symbolism.)
The people at the top of the socialist pyramid are always well fed while everyone else toils just to pay the taxes.
The socialist symbolism, portrayed by Mickey Mouse, Kim Jong-un, and the Norwegian peasant boy, counter the values of honest work, persistence, and determination that originally built the rich western nations. The purpose of fairy tales and stories (fiction and non-fiction) are to teach kids basic values, ethics, and morals that will make them into functional adults and productive citizens. My parents were quite conservative, reading me Biblical tales that offered lessons enduring hardship, staying loyal no matter the consequences, and putting others before yourself. Even if you doubt the Bible’s historical accuracy, they are a good foundation for character and moral reference, offering hope to those facing overwhelming odds.
Norwegian Culture: The Rule Book Approach
The purpose of culture is to ensure the survival of the state, not bound it to customs, making it inflexible. Norway spends a lot of money maintaining four national languages and a lot of other “cultural stuff,” reinforcing the fairy tales, instead of streamlining the system to the benefit of future generations.
A culture heavily dependent on rituals, symbols, and rules built on propaganda is rather fragile. Suppressing the human spirit leads kills self-confidence, fueling passive aggressive and jealous behaviors. National feelings of hopelessness and confinement, based on culture, incapacitate a society, making it nearly impossible to deal with seismic change. North Korea has to confront a failing ideology and Norway must find something else other than oil and fish to pay for the super state. Do the people have the right stuff upstairs to make a smooth transition to an economy that is more in line with the natural world and human spirit?
Moreover, the goofiness of symbol based culture may explain why immigrants, including myself, find it difficult to integrate fully. Anyone who had to struggle for existence or bear the consequences of their own decisions finds it impossible to drink the “Kool-Aid.” Like in all other European countries, no matter how much you learn the language, history, serve in the Army, pay the taxes, and love the country, you will never be “Norwegian” unless you have the lineage and genetics. That is where we (Americans) win, able to bring the best out of people just by basing acceptance on work ethic and loyalty.
Norway’s real culture emanates from the Viking age. Anyone who lives here should vigorously study the era. The stories are filled with all aspects of western societal development: heroism, tragedy, injustice, war, commerce, invention, and overcoming natural barriers. The Vikings founded Moscow and Kyiv, sailed all the way east to Bagdad and west to Newfoundland, and carried swords made from Damascus steel. Although Viking existence was brutal, when compared to their peers of the time, they were rather forward thinking. Viking women had considerable power and slaves were mostly treated humanely.
The Viking Ships Museum, in Oslo, is a must see. (This particular ship were owned by prominent Viking women of the day!)
Excited to attended the mandatory 50-hour Norwegian social studies course, required for permanent immigration and citizenship; I thought we would spend considerable time, learning about the Vikings. Instead, the teacher downplayed the era, apologizing for it, citing the brutality. We only had to learn the dates (ca. 800-1050 AD), which took about a minute. Then she shifted the history lesson to post 1050, focusing mainly on the age of socialism. Even us foreigners need real hero’s in our new country. Where America has Andrew Jackson, Norway has Olaf Tryggvason.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions. I met successful businessmen, Marine Jaegers (Special Forces), and other Norwegians who see themselves as descendants of Vikings rather than great grandchildren of fictitious peasants, wearing Bunads and eating rotten food. They send their kids to private schools, avoiding the indoctrination, and push them to excel.
They need to step up and take charge, leading the country out of the oil and fish economy to an industrial and technological one, like Switzerland’s. They possess the pragmatism, purpose, and directness needed to cope with the 21st-century challenges.