It was only a matter of hours between the
blast in central Oslo and my most extensive and exhausting engagement with
international media since I started out as an anthropologist in the 1980s.
Between Friday night and Wednesday, I spoke on radio, on television (via a
mobile phone), to newspapers and magazines from China to Chile, and wrote articles
for nearly a dozen publications in five countries. Priorities shifted in a
matter of hours, our holiday house was turned into a makeshift media centre,
and the computer was online almost 24/7.
personal and professional engagement with the terrorist attack on Norway is easy to explain. First,
although rightwing extremism is not my field of research, cultural diversity in
Europe and Norway is, as well as nationalism and ethnicity. Secondly, I have
first-hand experience of the new, Islamophobic kind of nationalism, having been
on the receiving end of relatively unpleasant attacks from these quarters for
several years. Actually, I am the only contemporary intellectual mentioned by
the terrorist in his writings and YouTube video – a symbol of everything
that went wrong with Norway. I have asked YouTube to remove the video.
few words about the articles: The earliest piece, for OpenDemocracy,
was an initial attempt to make sense of the catastrophe and to begin reflecting
on the consequences for Norwegian society. It overlaps substantially with
articles in Sydsvenska
Dagbladet and Information,
which, respectively, cover southern Sweden including Lund and Malmö, and a
smallish, but select left-leaning audience in Denmark. The title of these Scandinavian-published
articles, ‘Men who hate social democrats’, plays on the Scandinavian title of
the first novel in Stieg Larsson's trilogy (‘Men who hate women’). I then
focused on some unpalatable aspects of Internet networks; the new, Islamophobic
right does not march or create organisations, but consists largely in loosely
connected networks on the Web and Facebook. A long version of this article was
published in the social democratic Dagsavisen (Oslo), a shorter version in the liberal/conservative Svenska
Dagbladet (Stockholm). At the suggestion of Sean Carey, I also wrote an
even shorter article for The
Guardian, choosing to focus on the same topic.
Sweden's largest evening newspaper, asked me to reflect on the consequences of
the shock for the Norwegian self-understanding. (Many foreign journalists have
been interested in the same topic, seeing Norway as a peaceful, almost empty
place of great natural beauty.) I first contrasted the serene scenery of Utøya
with the brutal atrocities that took place there, ending the analysis with a
brief critique of Norwegian nationalism, pointing out that Mr Breivik was 100 %
Made in Norway, a perverse end-product of some of the murkier currents of
Norwegian nationalism and contemporary Islamophobia. The quest for purity in
his mind is, provocatively, mirrored in the purity of the lovely landscape around
someone who has been the victim of vitriolic attacks from the new right for
years – I have been labelled cultural marxist, spineless
multiculturalist, nihilistic cultural relativist and so on (add invectives as
you like) – and who figures prominently in Mr Breivik's pantheon of evil
ideologues, I finally felt a need to clarify my own position on these issues. I
therefore wrote an op-ed for the liberal/conservative Aftenposten (Oslo) where I explained the
difference between multiculturalism and diversity, outlining my own position,
which was somewhat different from the posititions attributed to me by rightwing
nationalists (who often accuse me of trying to deconstruct and destroy the
entire country – would have been quite an achievement, by the way).
I co-wrote, with the author Jostein Gaarder (Sophie's World), an op-ed article for the International
Herald Tribune (also published on the New York Times website) where we
emphasise the need to take right-wing thought seriously, especially when it
masquerades as a defence of democracy and liberal values.
writing? Doubtless. An attempt to come to terms with the unthinkable?
Definitely. Anthropology? I hope so – among other things.
Oslo, 1 August 2011
(This text was first published on Anthropology Works).
20 August: I have subsequently begun to elaborate on some of the implications of 22 July for national identity in Norway, arguing the possibility of a strong collective identity based on citizenship and demos rather than ethnos and history. In my regular column in Dagbladet's Magasinet, I wrote about the flag as a multivocal symbol, and in Klassekampen, I contributed an article about what the people of Norway have in common, to do with the small scale, the high level of trust and a form of cultural intimacy based on shared experiences rather than ethnic origins.
8 September: There is still more. A debate about the freedom of expression and its limits is currently taking place in Norway, with some repercussions elsewhere. I sent some of my thoughts to Open Democracy last week. A guest editorial in Anthropology Today is also under way, with a very different focus, namely the displays of community and cohesion typical of the Norwegian reactions to the terrorist attacks. This editorial was to some degree inspired by the memorial service for one of the Utøya victims, Diderik Aamodt Olsen (19), whose family had asked me to speak at the service. It all suddenly became tangible in a new way.
1 April 2012: That guest editorial was published last year. More recently, I published an essay in Norwegian, in Nordisk Tidskrift, about the post-Utøya political climate in the country.