THE VIEW FROM NORWAY

Eighteen months ago, Donald Trump called for more immigrants from Norway (aka white people). Norwegians seem content to stay home. Derek B. Miller, a Massachusetts native and author who lives in Norway’s capital, Oslo, offers some perspective.

Miller wrote the best-selling novel Norwegian by Night. He provides a sharp take on the country of his birth in a follow-up, American by Day. It’s as didactic (unfortunately) as it is witty (very) but worth examining.

A female Norwegian police chief, Sigrid Ødegård, travels to northern New York State to search for her missing older brother. Speaking with a younger American policewoman, Sigrid declares that American culture is all about individualism. “The way you perform individualism is through self-reliance. But acting self-reliant usually means acting alone.” That, says Sigrid, weakens America as a community. “You worry that working together undermines your myth of self-reliance, so you hyperexaggerate its value to mask the fear.” America, Sigrid warns, is “basically doomed.”

Yesterday’s cowboy movies and today’s superhero films establish the rugged individual—often a rogue—as a prized figure in American culture. The Hollywood icon John Wayne played those types to the hilt and was himself deemed an American hero. (For the record, he was acting).

Many Americans in rural areas and their relatives in red-state urban and suburban areas sized from Waco to Houston (I lived in Texas long ago) still cling to the myth of the rugged individual and reject the role of broad community. This while the carpool has replaced the roundup, the gas grill the campfire. Yet Montana author Ivan Doig, in novels like Dancing at the Rascal Fair, shows how important community was in settling the West.

Still, the rugged individual remains the conservative ideal. The mountain man went off on his own to trap, hunt and scrounge off the land with little or no connection to the new towns growing around him and certainly not today’s shopping malls to which conservatives flock. Self-reliance—forget Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—means everything. Failure warrants censure. Can’t find a job or one that pays a living wage? Can’t afford health insurance or medications? Can’t pay for college? Your fault. Me pay taxes—if I have a job—to help alleviate your problems? My right to say “Hell, no.”

Liberals often thrive in older urban environments, which historically drew large numbers of immigrants and retain many of their descendants. These Americans survived—and thrived—by organizing ethnic and religious communities, as well as supporting labor unions. Unlike many conservative communities (yes, they exist), these groups often formed coalitions with others unlike them but also looking to government, the broadest form of community, for solutions to difficult problems.

Individualism, Sigrid advises, is “why you all buy guns rather than build institutions. None of it makes you safer, but it does make you more American.”

Given the 40,000 annual gun deaths in the U.S. (2016, CNN) and a homicide rate seven times greater that Norway’s (2010-12, nationmaster.com,) plus many other grave problems, Derek Miller, through Sigrid, makes us think.

Perhaps Mr. Trump might have someone read the novel for him. Then he might understand why Norwegians no longer flock to our shores, and why instead we attract so many desperate people from other countries whose governments represent not the solution but the problem.

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8 Comments


  1. Jerry Robinson
    Jun 21, 2019

    I could not agree more.


    • David
      Jun 21, 2019

      But Jerry, if you agree with someone else, that dissipates your standing as a rugged individual. Although I think you can be rugged and community-oriented, too. I don’t like the idea of my paying for other people’s health insurance, for example, but I less like other people not having that coverage. Government might actually find a way to provide for all of our people—except, perhaps, healthcare insurance executives.


  2. Tracy Boxer Zill
    Jun 21, 2019

    I had to opportunity to hear Adam Gopnik speak this week. He echos much of Sigrid’s observation and posits that a Liberal Democracy is contingent upon people of differing backgrounds learning how to live with and respect each other. It’s more than just a “kumbaya” idea; it’s essential to the survival of liberal institutions.


    • David
      Jun 21, 2019

      I agree, Tracy. The United States is a fabulously diverse nation. We needs to respect our diversity to become more fabulous.


  3. Joan Sutton
    Jun 22, 2019

    Don’t forget that rugged individual image carved out by cowboy movies, included the all-important GUNS, guns that have been used to murder many thousands of innocent people, more than all the military casualties in all of our wars added up. Now we have many not so smart people wandering around with powerful lethal weapons. Just yesterday a 4-year old found a gun and shot himself to death – another bloody sacrifice on the insatiable bloody altar of the Second. Happens every day in the good ol’ USofA.


    • David
      Jun 22, 2019

      You’re right, Joan. The rugged individual relies on a gun, not society. I know people who are rabid gun owners (not all are) very much concerned with protecting themselves. Yet they live in conservative communities that consider themselves righteous and God fearing.


  4. Sandy Lipkowitz
    Jun 22, 2019

    Reading this made me think perhaps the rugged individual mindset, is why there are do many single people in the US. We (single people) are being told that we have to make it on are own, not be dependent on anyone else. Personally I think humans are social animals and thrive in relationship. I think this being so self reliant is not healthy, on so many levels. Most of these mass murders were done by loners.
    The happiest countries in the world are the
    Scandinavian ones and they provide best for their citizens. I think we have a lot to learn from them.


    • David
      Jun 23, 2019

      We do have much to learn, Sandy. The American frontier has been long closed. We’re a mostly urban/suburban society yet we uphold 19th-century values in a 21st-century world. I believe American can be greater, but not as the Oval Office would define greatness. Hopefully, the 2020 presidential election will take us in a better direction with eyes on a future that includes all of us rather than retaining thinking fixated on the less attractive traits of our past.

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