Who's the Real Iron Lady of Norway?
A battle of philosophies.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/10/Erna-Solberg-and-Siv-Jens-010.jpg)As Norway’s non-socialist coalition government has been settling in, I’ve been poking around in New Wind over Norway, an assemblage of sixteen essays “about freedom and responsibility” edited by Hanne Nabintu Herland, a historian of religion, and written by some of the country’s more prominent non-socialist voices, including the heads of the two governing parties, Erna Solberg (Conservative) and Siv Jensen (Progress Party). Writing in Aftenposten, Knut Olav Åmås – who after the installation of the new government on October 16 left his job as that newspaper’s opinion editor to accept an appointment in the Ministry of Culture – described the book as “an expression of the ideological mobilization that has taken place on the right in recent years, especially around the think tank Civita and the journal Minerva, but also in Christian conservative circles.”
Ideological mobilization or not, it’s not every day one reads a Norwegian book in which (among much else) leftist groupthink is condemned, the EU is called “morally confused,” America’s “pluralistic melting pot” and “American values” are celebrated, and writers like Tocqueville, Hayek, John Stuart Mill – and even Ann Coulter and Mark Levin (!) – are quoted respectfully. How cheering to read a Norwegian author (Herland, in this case) who actually recognizes how absurd it is that many Norwegian cabinet ministers “have never had an ordinary job but nonethless direct policy in sectors they have little or no education in or practical knowledge of.” What a pleasure to see a professor from the University of Oslo casting a critical eye on the Norwegian political class’s obsession with minimizing economic differences – and, by extension, with encouraging sameness and uniformity across the board. How remarkable to find a Norwegian writer who dares to suggest that socialists view freedom as “the right to take part in the development of socialist society” and that they regard their ideological opponents as “obstacles on the road to utopia.”
The book is quite a smorgasbord. Position papers by the two party leaders – about which more presently – are followed by a series of “ideological reflections” in which Minerva editor Nils August Andresen wonders what Edmund Burke would make of today’s Europe, veteran Conservative politician Lars Roar Langslet calls for efforts to improve students’ Norwegian language skills and preserve Norway’s artistic heritage, Asle Toje of the Nobel Institute sums up the post-Soviet history of European socialism, and Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, the new head of the Ministry of Education, contrast socialist utopianism with the need for pragmatism. “Politics,” he writes, “is where the world of ideas meets reality….One ignores reality at one’s own risk.” (Such a proposition may seem self-evident, but not necessarily in the world of Scandinavian politics.) There’s a section on religion, consisting of a long, sweeping overview of Western Christianity by Herland and several shorter essays – it wouldn’t be too far off to call them sermons – in which theologians and pastors hail the enduring significance of Norway’s religious heritage.
Although there’s quite a degree of ideological variety here, there’s also plenty of overlap. In the political pieces, we’re told more than once about our debts to John Locke and Edmund Burke; in the sermons, we hear repeatedly about laïcité and about rendering under Caesar, etc. While there’s a good deal here that’s of genuine value, moreover, there’s more than a bit too much abstraction and generalization. And there’s a pronounced lack of bite, with some of the writers apparently reluctant to take on anybody by name. We’re reminded frequently that several of Herland’s contributors are politicians: Isakson, for example, in classic Conservative Party style, seems to try to have it both ways on immigration, reciting the tired mantra that Norway has been culturally enriched by its newcomers but adding that he wants tighter rules, and saying that integration “doesn’t work well enough, but much of it works well.” (Which, of course, can mean anything you want it to.) It’s the last part of the book – about the challenges posed by the influx of non-Westerners into Europe – that has some real edge. In a stirring philippic, Hege Storhaug deplores the death threats against Islam’s critics in Europe and the vituperation directed against them by politicians and the media. Hallgrim Berg denounces the lingering, toxic impact of Sixties radicalism on European democracy. And Iranian-Norwegian author Walid al-Kubaisi, in the book’s most personal (and only emotionally moving) essay, mounts a strong argument that Norwegian nationalism is not necessarily a bad thing.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Herland’s collection, however, is the contrast between the two opening essays by Solberg and Jensen, which reflect – and provide a vivid capsule lesson in – the contrast between the two parties that make up Norway’s governing coalition. Solberg, the Conservative leader, has barely finished clearing her throat before she’s telling us about her recent visit to a Ahmadiyya mosque, whose members, she writes, “experience peace because they’re Muslims, but…also find that it’s difficult to be accepted in society because they make some choices based on their faith, just by following the commandments they believe in.” Balderdash. In fact, Norway is a refuge for Ahmadiyya Muslims, who are oppressed, persecuted, beaten, and even executed throughout much of the Islamic world, where they’re considered infidels. But that reality doesn’t fit into the phony picture Solberg wants to paint of innocent Muslims being denied social acceptance by bigoted Norwegians.
That aside, exactly which Islamic “choices” and “commandments” is Solberg standing up for here? Female subordination? Forced marriage? Female genital mutilation? The stoning to death of adulterers, apostates, gays? Solberg insists that Norwegians must “respect” Islamic belief – if they don’t, she maintains, Norway will fail in its “family policies” and in its integration efforts. What, exactly, is she trying to say here? What’s her logic? What is she calling for? She doesn’t explain anything. And she can’t, because it’s all just empty, feel-good, head-in-the-sand rhetoric – in other words, vintage Solberg. She’s always dealt with the challenge of Islam by turning the truth on its head – by turning inside-out the fact that Islamic family values are utterly incompatible with real integration and that if one seriously wishes to integrate Muslims into a free society, the first step is to dismiss entirely the idea of “respecting” the tenets of their faith. This is, one is reminded, the woman who, in 2004, as Minister of Integration, welcomed a Pakistani Muslim leader to Norway by bowing to him with one hand on her chest – a gesture which, as she plainly knew, betokened female submission.
While Solberg’s essay is painfully toothless, Jensen’s is a call to arms. In her second sentence, in italics, she declares that her party is engaged in a struggle for values. “People who flee the Islamist regime in Iran,” she pronounces, “do not flee to Norway to encounter that negative culture here, too. It’s that negative culture that they’re fleeing from!” Also: “People who come here and want religious freedom…must also tolerate the fact that along with their right to practice their religion comes the right to criticize religion. People with Christian beliefs have had to accept this, and people of other faiths must do so as well. That’s how it is here in this country, and that’s how it will stay.” Unlike Solberg, Jensen tackles head-on the Muslim leaders in Norway who spread conspiracies about Jews and who refuse to reject the death penalty for gays. Perusing her essay, you’d scarcely know she was talking about the same country as the bland, sanguine Solberg, for whom the only Islam-related problem in Norway, one would assume from her essay, is anti-Muslim prejudice. Jensen is, moreover, terrific on Israel, individualism, and the free market; she approvingly quotes Ronald Reagan’s observation, in his farewell speech, that “’We the People’ are the driver; the government is the car.”
I happened to read this book at a time when I’ve also been making my way through the one-volume edition of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs. It’s impossible not to notice that the contrast between Jensen and Solberg bears more than a passing resemblance to that between Thatcher and the timid Tory establishment in the period before she came to power. On one issue after another, Thatcher’s party colleagues were reluctant to assert first principles, loath to articulate a vision, content for their party to be a somewhat milder version of Labour – just as Norway’s Conservatives today basically stand, more or less, for socialism lite. While her fellow Tories supported détente, Thatcher, whose “gut instinct was that this was one of those soothing foreign terms which conceal an ugly reality that plain English would expose” (isn’t that a wonderful line?), felt that “too many people in the West had been lulled into believing that their way of life was secure, when it was in fact under mortal threat”; while in the wake of Enoch Powell’s sensational 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech about the perils of immigration “it had been the mark of civilized high-mindedness among right-of-centre politicians to avoid speaking about immigration and race at all, and if that did not prove possible, then to do so in terms borrowed from the left of the political spectrum, relishing the ‘multi-cultural,’ ‘multi-racial’ nature of British society,” Thatcher refused to snobbishly dismiss the concerns of hard-working citizens whose lives were being transformed by radical sociocultural changes that didn’t affect upper-crust Tory suburbanites at all.
Most politicians in the Norwegian parties (other than the Progress Party) that are generally deemed non-socialists exhibit this same deplorable tendency to echo leftist and multicultural formulas – it’s this go-along, get-along attitude that has made them acceptable to the left. What has set the Progress Party apart from the beginning – and exposed it to the very same kind of patronizing criticism and ridicule, from both left and right, to which Thatcher was subjected throughout her career – is its stubborn, uncompromising belief in the same things Thatcher believed in: namely, individual freedom and the free market. Solberg and Jensen are both formidable women, and over the years both of them have been likened, sometimes by admirers and sometimes by detractors, to Lady Thatcher; but there’s no doubt in my mind which of these two leaders is Norway’s real Iron Lady.
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