Friday, June 10, 2005

Norwegian and American Friendship

June 6, Lillehammer
A snippet of June 2 in Oslo

Professor Ole O. Moen said he’d speak for 45 minutes. An hour and a half later, the Valhalla Study Travel group wasn’t ready to let him go.

This blog entry was going to be short. It isn’t. Some of the content seems blunt, but the manner in which Ole Moen delivered it epitomized a cherished friendship in which honesty is possible without offense. And Jon Roar Bjørkvold’s comment at the end is a beacon of optimism.

Moen is associate professor of American civilization at the Institute for British and American Studies at the University of Oslo in Blindern. He is a leader of the European Association for American Studies and the Nordic Association for American Studies. There’s a lot more to his credentials, but, in summary, he knows a good deal more about America than most of us do.

He opened his lecture on the relationship between Norway and the United States with Norwegian emigration. Two push factors were growing hunger as the Norwegian population burgeoned and farms shrank and “a Teutonic hunger for land.” Pull factors included 1) the American dream, 2) letters from America that sometimes included paid tickets, 3) waves of economic opportunities and the need for labor, and 4) democratic ideals.

Moen named shared values that connected Norway and America during waves of immigration, as they do today:
· Strong-willed, independent people, who desire freedom
· Self righteousness
· Self complacence
· Self conceit.

Differences he pointed out include Norwegian Janteloven. The opposite of the American attitude that you’re as good as anyone else, Janteloven is about modesty (sometimes false), envying those who are doing better than you are, and not speaking up unless you have something to say. Moen has taught American and Norwegian students in the States and Norway. American students speak up (“the perfect right to be an idiot”), whereas it’s hard to get Norwegian students to speak their minds.

Many factors have kept Norwegian-American relations strong:
* The America letters
* Music traditions at American colleges founded by Norwegian immigrants
* Museums such as Vesterheim in Iowa, which Moen calls one of the best ethnic museums in the world
* Pride in American brethren, including Thorstein Veblen, though the importance of his economic theory is overlooked because of his personal lifestyle
* Post-WWII Marshall Aid for European Recovery Program
* Norway’s spearheading and headquartering of NATO in its early years
* Norwegian Trygve Lie’s service as the first United Nations secretary. Chosen in part because he was acceptable to the United States, he had to step down because the Russians thought he was too pro-American.

From Moen’s perspective, how do Americans look at Norway? "American brainwashing" that "America is best" leads to lack of respect for and curiosity about other cultures — an inability to understand that people might actually prefer their own countries to America.

Moen received two Fulbright Scholarships. Senator Fulbright called it a “devastating proposition” that if things are different from what we are used to, they must be inferior. That’s why Fulbright Scholarships are long enough for participants to learn the language and culture well.

(Two of St. Olaf’s four recipients of Fulbright Scholarships this year are Norwegian majors who will study in Norway. St. Olaf requires all students to take three or four semesters of a foreign language, and two-thirds of the students study abroad. Kudos!)

Moen posits that Americans’ fear of foreign languages and ethnic organizations is fear of fragmentation, of falling apart. This is part of super-nationalism that puts shared, overarching values above ethnicity.

Super-nationalism is a source of America’s success, but unchecked it can take a bad turn. Moen cited examples: the McCarthy era, the post-9/11 period, and conformity (the tyranny of the majority).

What about the current relationship?

As a small country, Norway is dependent upon the world community. England intervened to endorse the Norwegian constitution in 1814 and independence in 1905 because F. Nansen had friends in England. England (and the U.S.) also saved Norway during WWII.

Small countries must rely on laws, and they need institutions such as the United Nations. When a country becomes powerful, it doesn’t have to rely on law. During the Cold War, Soviet power kept U.S. power in check. Most empires need a check on arrogance and power. Moen asked us to consider the fates of the Roman and British empires.

He opined that if Norway had as much power as the U.S. does, they wouldn’t do nearly as well with it.

Moen is concerned about the present level of anti-Americanism in Europe, which is really anti-Bush-ism. We are experiencing no anti-Americanism. Europeans, like others around the world, are able to distinguish between a people and the actions of their government.

Aftenposten, a right-of-center newspaper, came out against the U.S. war in Iraq. Within NATO, Norway is sometimes considered too eager to please the U.S. — a lackey. Yet, the Netherlands and Norway are the most critical (70 to 80%) of the present U.S. administration.

For 30 years, Moen has been doing commentary on America for Norwegian media. He was on television for 28 days straight after September 11, 2001, when the outpouring of sympathy was tremendous. It is Bush’s virtual unilateralism in Iraq that has offended European allies, especially France and Germany.

Present grievances against the U.S. include not signing the Kyoto Accords, the land mine treaty and the law of the seas, plus insisting on exemption from the International Tribunal. Moen compared these grievances to those Thomas Jefferson listed against England. They mean we look at things differently, mainly because of size.

During television interviews, Moen has said of allies’ criticism of U.S. policies, “If you have a good friend who goes astray, you tell him.”

Moen was honest with Study Travelers. His deep knowledge and long personal relationship with America and Americans made his forthrightness feel to me like friend talking to cherished friend with care and concern.

In Oslo, musicologist and author Jon Roar Bjørkvold spoke to the Viking group about the power of music. He was choked up much of the time, as were many of us.

He, too, noted Norwegian concern about America’s direction, saying, “We love America. We don’t want to lose America.” Of the St Olaf Band, Choir and Orchestra at Oslo Konserthuset, he said, “THIS is the America we love.”

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