‘Evil can murder a person, but never defeat a whole people’

Recent events in Norway have been utterly shocking. The mass killing of young, politically-engaged people at summer camp means that the effects of the murder travel back to each district of the country, as party members travel home, or fail to return. Since the killings, there have been vigils and demonstrations against the violence, and there is clearly a period of collective shock and horror that spreads beyond the immediate location of the bombing and shooting. The public responses have been marked by mass expressions of grief, political defiance, but also of love.  The Norwegian Labour party estimate that 200,000 people joined a procession in Oslo yesterday, holding aloft roses while listening to speeches and songs, and many tens of thousands more processed through Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Stavanger and other towns and cities across the country and in neighbouring countries. The overriding theme of these marches, online debates and speeches by politicians and royalty have been expressions of love, the need to reach out to each other, be close to one another and hold each other, and to preserve the values of open democracy and care for fellow citizens that define what is it to be Norwegian, a member of ‘this little land’. At moments like these, it appears that we see the imagined community being embodied in overwhelming demonstrations by people who wish to stand up for shared beliefs. They follow in a tradition of sympathy processions, such as the one that followed the racist murder of young Benjamin Hermansen in Oslo in 2001. The processions reflect, in many ways, the particular political cultures of this fascinating country built on a mass social movement for welfare democracy, and on a nature-nationalism that finds its expression in outdoor life.

The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, described the island of Utøya as the summer paradise of his youth, and the place where he became political engaged. Spending the summer on an island or in the mountains is definitively a Norwegian thing to do, and it is indicative of the state of political life in Norway that the Labour party was able to attract several hundred young members to a summer camp, something that British Labour party officials could barely dream of. The island is owned by the Labour party’s youth organisation, AUF, and has since 1950 held summer camps for young party members. Stoltenberg was leader of the youth organisation from 1985-89, like several Labour leaders before him, and was due to address the summer camp the day after the shootings. He is reported to have been writing his speech when the bomb went off outside his offices in central Oslo. He has since been widely praised for his stoicism, his appeals for people to care for each other, and his defiance against attacks on the open social democracy that the Labour party stands for.

Many of my friends and colleagues who know that I have worked in Norway over more than a decade have asked me whether I know anyone who has been killed. My answer has been that I am not aware of anyone I know having been directly involved, but that in such a small country, with such extensive social networks, I expect to hear before long of someone I know having been affected. All of my Norwegian colleagues will be affected, at least indirectly, because elements of the warped logic of the perpetrator of these crimes is well known to them. It appears, from news reports about the perpetrator’s engagement in online discussions, that he participated in racist conspiracy debates[1], that are extreme versions of the kind of everyday racism that Norwegian anthropologists have critiqued and discussed for many years. Marianne Gullestad wrote, held public lectures, and engaged in public debates for many years to try to dispel casual racist ideas that linked into nationalist ideologies[2], and Thomas Hylland Eriksen has worked no less relentlessly to counter myths about a homogeneous Norwegian nation[3].

Many other anthropologists have written both scholarly and popular articles on similar lines, attacking racist and nationalist views. The brutal evidence that people still believe in myths about Nordic purity can only cause dismay and exasperation. In a country where Social Anthropology is one of the more popular subjects for study at university, and where anthropologists retain a high media profile, the persistence of racist ideologies and acts and their resistance to rational argument raise difficult questions. Public anthropology is based on the idea that public debate is a form of enlightenment, that we can collectively crush racist ideas by demonstrating their falsity. While the horrific crimes committed by Breivik are the exceptional work of a disturbed personality, small scale racist attacks are not uncommon, and the violent ideas behind them are coming closer to the mainstream as European and American politics move further to the Right.

Norway is also a country where nationalism is a key idiom of expression. Independent for only just over a century, the work of nation-building is ever-present. And although the mode of nationalism is increasingly celebratory and inclusive, it is strikingly dominant. Norwegian flags are hoisted at holiday cottages, embroidered onto bags and clothes and waved incessantly at nation-day celebrations, and discussions about what makes good Norwegians and Norwegians good are hard to avoid. Signe Howell has written about the dominance of national discourse in kinship, and vice versa, through the way that foreign babies are transformed into part of the broader national family, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen has written about the use of the Norwegian flag and costumes. Responses to the tragedy this weekend have included the massed flying of flags, using flag symbols as facebook identifiers, and so forth. Central public figures responded immediately in national-terms, including politicians, journalists, artists, royalty and other commentators. In the face of an attack made explicitly on the nation-state, the response has been to reclaim the nation’s symbols. That such a violent event is interpreted through a dominant idiom is not surprising, even while the details of the violence are utterly shocking. The tying together of national symbols with talk of love reinforces a sense of moral good associated with the Norwegian nation, and reappropriates the nation from racist nationalism. But in this endless tussle between a nation of care and an exclusive people, it seems that racism is the shadow-concept[4] of nationalism. Nationalism is alive and well, and racism continues to creep along in its underbelly.


(Title citation from Jens Stoltenberg’s speech to the Rose-procession in Oslo July 25th 2011)

[1] See Øyvind Strømmen:  http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/debatt/article4181827.ece

[2] e.g. Gullestad, Marianne 2002. ‘Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism and Racism’ The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Mar.,), pp. 45- 63. And her book ‘Plausible Prejudice’.

[3] Available online in Norwegian at: http://folk.uio.no/geirthe/Typisk.html

[4] see Strathern, M. ‘Sharing, Stealing and Borrowing Simultaneously’ in ASA 47 Strang and Busse (Eds) 2011, ‘Ownership and Appropriation’. Oxford Berg

Simone is a discipline-crossing anthropologist, having worked in planning, geography and anthropology departments. She is currently Reader in Cultural Tourism at Leeds Met University, and Reader in Energy Studies at Durham University, Department of Anthropology, where she is Director of the MSc in Energy and Society.

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