If you’ve heard of the Seattle Freeze, then a quote near the start of Solveig Torvik’s new book, “The World’s Best Place: Norway and the Norwegians,” might sound familiar. “A Norwegian will not talk to you without good reason,” states a cross-cultural communications expert. “And saying hello is not a good enough reason.”
This perhaps can be forgiven when you consider Norwegians’ generosity; they are often the first to contribute to victims of natural disasters around the world and pitch in more per-capita than virtually anyone else. And that charity begins at home. With its enviable longevity rates, its cradle-to-grave health care, its free education – not to mention its stupendous natural beauty and millions in annual revenue from North Sea oilfields – Norway is routinely named by the U.N. and other entities as the best place to live.
Torvik discussed her book, which delves beneath the surface of this seeming utopia, on Tuesday evening at the Nordic Heritage Museum. An enthusiastic audience of around 65 included many transplanted Scandinavians. A former longtime Ballard resident and journalist – she retired as associate editorial-page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – Torvik now lives in Central Washington. Her first decade of life, however — the 1940s — was spent in the picturesque fjord village of Aalesund, where she was “imprinted with Norway’s values and sensibilities,” she said. Her family then immigrated to Salt Lake City.
Speaking from a lectern on a stage, Torvik wore a shiny fitted animal-print jacket and black pants for the occasion. “Norwegians don’t like to spend money, take risks or discuss unpleasant topics,” she said. “They are modest, fiercely egalitarian, they despise the rich and they won’t speak to strangers.” This egalitarianism can be credited with driving the country’s social welfare experiment that “aims to provide life’s necessities to every citizen.”
On the one hand, given Norway’s history, this accomplishment is astounding. The country entered the 20th century in “grinding poverty,” Torvik said, and remained so for decades. A cousin of mine, in fact, tells of helping her mother wash clothes in the nearby river in Oppdal as late as 1960. On the other hand, Torvik worries about what has been given up in order to maintain this standard of living. How far should government go to provide for welfare, she asks, and what happens to individual initiative and personal responsibility? Despite the fact that Norway has just 4.8 million people, Torvik believes Americans can learn from its experiences.
“The World’s Best Place” is chock-full of facts and engaging anecdotes, ranging from a wimpy police response to pickpockets in Oslo, to the country’s proclivity toward binge drinking on the weekends (one chapter is entitled “Drunk and Disorderly”), to a Muslim group’s desire to purchase a hearse. The latter were confounded to learn that it would need to feature a Christian cross; naturally, they preferred a crescent moon. But the officials they appealed to were equally confounded — why would they not want a cross?
In Oslo, 25 percent of residents are immigrants; of those, 80 percent are people of color, Torvik said. Immigrants began arriving several decades ago from Somalia, Pakistan and other nations. For Norwegians, absorbing people who are quite different from themselves into society is a challenge.
“Norwegians used to be quick to criticize Americans for their shoddy treatment of blacks,” Torvik said. “Now that Norway struggles with its own racial minorities, they are silent.” Charges of racism tend to fall on deaf ears. Equal-opportunity programs have never existed; Norwegians see them as potentially playing favorites and detracting from the culture’s focus on society as a whole vs. the individual.
The country’s work ethic is another area that has changed radically. “Norwegians used to be known as hardy, tireless workers,” Torvik said. Today however, she noted that on average, when weekends are counted, Norwegians with full-time jobs work only half the year. “Yet commonly they say they are stressed at work,” she added, and there is a 25 percent absentee rate from work.
Also, it is “astonishingly easy to go on disability,” she said. Half the work force is employed by the government, and the unemployment rate has grown from 2.4 percent to 3.6 percent over the past two years, according to the website Trading Economics.
“When Norwegians agreed to tax themselves, everyone agreed to put something in so everyone could take something out,” she said. “Now many able-bodied Norwegians refuse to put anything in. Will the glue hold that cements Norway’s social and welfare compact?”
This, of course, is a question for those running the country – the members of Parliament or the Storting. As a former political reporter, Torvik said she is probably most concerned about Norway’s system of government and its lack of transparency and accountability to voters.
“They have no elected representatives; lawmakers have no constituents and offer no constituent services,” she said. Norwegians do not vote for the person, but rather, the party; “that way, they cannot be held individually accountable.” Compared with their American counterparts they are very far removed from voters; “they might as well be governing on the moon.
“This accountability deficit … serves to disenfranchise citizens,” she said.
The news media, as well, apparently do not see themselves as watchdogs of government. In fact, in some cases information is “filtered beforehand by the subjects of news stories themselves,” Torvik said. “Government ministers ask to see quotes before publication, and Norway’s leading newspapers agree to this. … This highhanded behavior by Norway’s political class suggests a contempt for the role of the press in a free society and for the citizenry.”
Ultimately though, despite Norway’s problems, Torvik believes her homeland has fashioned a remarkable society. “The nation’s core organizing principle, concern for the common good, is the gold standard to which any enlightened society should aspire,” she writes in the book’s afterword. “In Norway as in the U.S., the ongoing challenge is to strike the elusive balance between too much government protection of citizens and not enough. In the U.S., we typically opt for too little. Norway, in my view, has opted for too much.
“The good news is that, thanks to its wealth and the fundamental intelligence of its people, Norway is uniquely positioned to remedy many of these flaws and to set the bar even higher for countries that aspire to be recognized as the world’s best place to live.”
“The World’s Best Place” is available for purchase as an e-book; for information click here.
Here is an interview with Torvik from TVW’s “Author’s Hour” last June.
(Contributor Karen Rathe lives in Ballard and teaches journalism with the University of Washington Department of Communication. Exploring her Norwegian roots is one of her greatest passions.)