Monday, April 18, 2005

So, we're poor?

Oslo girl meets the aggressive attack on the Norwegian idea of wealth in a sober manner, carefully pointing out how Bruce Bawer's article in the New York Times is highly biased - and in this case against Norwegian culture.

I read Bruce Bawer's article fairly baffled, and try to make his observations on the Norwegian culture fit the country I live in. My packed lunch is a result of my poverty? Wow, I didn't know. And the problems in the health system and the educaitonal system is a result of poverty, and not of the recent political trends? Well, about time somebody told us!

The article reads as if Bruce Bawer has a hard time adjusting to Norway. He was shocked that a hospital was out of cough medicine. I was shocked at the lines at the clinic in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, when I had to wait at the desk with high fever, swaying at the edge of fainting, while the staff were arguing about whether they could take my credit cards, as they did not accept the travel insurance. Individual, surprising experiences shape our opinions of other cultures. Bruce Bawer describes the packed lunch as a hero wrapped in wax paper, American concepts for an American mind in order to understand a genuinely Norwegian item. Other words in the article which expresses cultural differences is for instance the use of the word "frugal". Bruce Bawer uses frugal as if it is a bad thing, as if it's undesirable to use your appliances until they are worn out, or your furniture while it still serves its function. In a world where we are already drowning in the mountains of garbage from the consumer culture, we should express our wealth by throwing more stuff out? "Frugal" is not a failure, but a virtue seen from this side.

This article is interesting because it reveals the same as I experience every time I go to the United States. The place appears to be so familiar, but when ever I learn a little more about the culture, I discover that it is alien, that things do not mean what I thought they did, and I can not use my Norwegian background to interpret the American society. Bawer's words on the Norwegian social system are familiar - yes, we know it's not as good as it should be, and we're discussing that constantly in Norway - it is his interpretations of the little things which are so - off.

And yes, the article fits neatly into the Norwegian "how do we look from outside" project. Which, of course, means that it gets a LOT of attention in Norway. Nothing like noticing Norway for flattering Norwegians, even if you just don't get us!


Mike @ Vitia said...

I was interested to read Oslo Girl's account, one much more measured than mine. But I think I may be guilty of the same misunderstanding that Bawer performs, only from a different perspective: Bawer's myopic conservatism prompts him to privilege American consumer/disposable culture and so dismiss Norwegian thrift. My far more leftist politics lead me to idealize the idea of Norway as a place, in my mind, more egalitarian than anywhere else in the world. Was it George W. Bush who declared (perhaps inaccurately) how proud he was to live in a country where anyone can get rich? I'd much rather live in a country where no one goes poor. Is that Norway, or do I -- like Bawer -- just not get you?

Torill said...

I think you are closer than Bawer, but it is not the whole truth. All Norwegians are ensured a minimum standard of living, which means housing, food, clothes, utilities. Education is free and the student loans and grants are manageable, so getting an education does not depend on the wealth of your parents. The health system is functional, being sick does not put you into personal debt.

When that is said, there are of course holes in this system. At the moment the trend politically is towards a larger degree of privatisation. This means that public schools are being systematically built down, and the standard is quickly deteriorating. The same happens with public hospitals. Taxes are being cut, mainly for the people who pay a lot, which means the wealthy, and the middle class and lower middle class carries the load of Norwegian public expenses. These issues, which are grave, are however not a result so much of Norwegian poverty as of current political trends. And thus, since it is not a matter of neccessity but ideology, it can still be changed. Believe me, we are looking forwards to the election this autumn!

Stickman said...

I totally agree with you, Torill. I'm a Norwegian who's been living in the US for a number of years, but Bawer's description seems to fall short of its target. His own values and his obvious extreme bias leaves me confused as to if we are in fact talking about the same country. His consumerist views and total disregard for cultural phenomenons also leave me baffled. How in the world did this make it to the New York Times?