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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