Socialism’s Cult of Mediocrity in Action


Sometimes a simple little news story sheds a bright light on an entire society or social philosophy.  The Local reports that when Katarina Lindberg, the bureaucrat in charge of school dietary programs in the municipality of Falun in central Sweden, got wind of the fact that Annica Eriksson, a gifted and dedicated cook who works as the cafeteria lady at one of the schools in that town, was doing a bang-up job of providing students with first-class, nutritious meals – bringing in her own fresh baked bread, providing a healthful and tantalizing assortment of main dishes and vegetables, and doing it all without any increase in cost – Lindberg reacted at once.  Reacted, that is, by ordering Eriksson to “bring it down a notch” because “other schools do not receive the same calibre of food – and that is ‘unfair.’” Henceforth “the school’s vegetable buffet will be halved in size and Eriksson’s handmade loafs will be replaced with store-bought bread.”

Students and parents were “outraged” by this news, and Eriksson was plainly displeased.  “It has been claimed that we have been spoiled and that it’s about time we do as everyone else,” she said.

It’s just one story from one little school in a town that I never heard of and that you probably haven’t either.  And who knows?  Maybe all the outrage will even lead Lindberg to revoke her order.  But never mind.  This, in a nutshell, is the Scandinavian socialist mentality at work.  Such thinking, of course, is not unique to Scandinavia, but the Scandinavians do have a special gift, or penchant, for it.  Before the great Muslim onslaught, these countries were among the most homogeneous on earth, with very little in the way of ethnic or economic diversity, and they liked it that way.  Not long after I moved to Norway I realized that the expression I heard most frequently was “Like barn leker best,” which translates literally as “Similar children play best together” and which is related to our English expression “Birds of a feather flock together,” although it has more of a prescriptive than a descriptive feel to it.

At the root of the sensibility I’m describing here is the Jante Law, in which Danish/Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, in a 1933 novel, codified the unspoken and essentially unconscious rules that, then and now, govern the way in which Scandinavians learn to think about themselves, their identity, and their ambitions in relation to the world beyond them and their relationship to others.  The ten rules are as follows:

1. Don’t think you’re anything special.

2. Don’t think you’re as good as us.

3. Don’t think you’re smarter than us.

4. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.

5. Don’t think you know more than us.

6. Don’t think you are more important than us.

7. Don’t think you are good at anything.

8. Don’t laugh at us.

9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.

10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.

The Jante Law mentality has helped Scandinavians to coexist in a remarkably peaceful way.  It has also, in the past, led to educational policies that actually punished promising kids for doing too much better than their classmates – the lesson conveyed to those kids, loud and clear, being: you mustn’t show off,  you mustn’t stand out.  What matters is not developing your potential to its fullest but maintaining cohesion, consistency, harmony, equality of results.  To reward excellence of the kind that cafeteria lady Annica Eriksson represents, and thereby encourage others to emulate her, thus potentially bringing the whole society up to a somewhat higher level of accomplishment, is verboten.  No, the idea, instead, is to drag excellence down to ordinary levels in order to avoid conspicuous inequality – to keep, in short, from spreading unease and insecurity on the part of the less intelligent, less talented, and less driven – those who stand no chance in hell of ever being world-class in anything.  As bad as being excellent is being innovative, doing something differently, going that extra mile – the proper socialist reaction to which is: why rock the boat?  Why upset the other passengers?  As Eriksson told her local paper, from which The Local picked up the story, “It’s supposed to be standardized throughout the municipality. We’re supposed to follow what they say….so I’m not allowed to do as I did before, but must follow orders.”

For years, here in Norway, a handful of contrarian social commentators (that rarest breed of all in these parts) have been waging a low-level campaign against the mediocrity that this kind of socialist engineering breeds.  They’ve been especially concerned with mediocrity in Norwegian education.  In 2009, when an immigrant from Poland wrote an op-ed explicitly calling Norwegian schools mediocre compared to those in Poland, writer Hanne Nabintu Herland attributed their mediocrity to a “naive confidence that Norway is the world’s best country,” adding that naivete isn’t “so far from self-satisfaction, and from there it’s a short way to mediocrity.” She noted that mediocrity is a hallmark of Norway, because “we can afford to relax” and because of an “equality terrorism [likhetsterror] that paves the way for a society of mediocrity in which one hardly makes demands…for fear of hurting the weakest.” She noted a recent statement by then foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre to the effect that “there is no need to cultivate the best because they manage to cultivate themselves.”   More recently, in September of last year, Aftenposten editor Knut Olav Åmås described the University of Oslo as an institution mired in mediocrity owing to a habit of hiring its own graduates and being satisfied with their less-than-stellar research and teaching.

To be sure, if postwar Scandinavia has been an incubator of socialist ways of thinking, recent decades have seen these ways of thinking spread, and gradually take root, across the Western world.  More and more American children are now bred on ideas right out of the Jante Law.  And Americans who have had their yes open in recent years would not be terribly surprised, I think, if a school bureaucrat in their own backyard made a decision similar to the one that Katarina Lindberg made in the case of Annica Eriksson.

For me, the first thing that the school-lunch debacle in Falun brought to mind was Kurt Vonnegut’s magnificent, dystopic 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” and Chandler Tuttle’s well-received 2009 short film, 2081, that was based on it.  The tale is a brief and straightforward one: in the year 2081, America has become a nation governed by a fanatical insistence on absolute equality.  This requirement is enshrined in constitutional amendments and strictly enforced by agents of the office of the U.S. Handicapper-General.  On threat of hefty fines and long-term imprisonment, the physically attractive wear masks to cover their beauty.  The unusually intelligent are fitted with devices in their ears that emit shrieking sounds to continually interrupt their thoughts.  Ballet dancers are “burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot” so that their dancing will not be any better than anyone else’s.  Nobody dares to stand up to these sacrosanct, draconian rules – until, suddenly, along comes Harrison Bergeron, an unusually tall, strong, and intelligent fourteen-year-old who refuses to hide his light under a bushel.  He boldly challenges the tyrannical strictures of his society – but his rebellion proves as brief as the story itself.

Vonnegut’s story gives us an unforgettable picture of the socialist mentality taken to its chilling natural conclusion.  Like the news out of Falun, Sweden, it’s a cautionary tale of the very real perils of socialism – an ideology that, in some people’s description, can seem positively benign, but that in practice is a thing of evil, the enemy of all things bright and beautiful, and – perversely – of the very excellence that Sweden’s own Nobel Prizes for science and literature (the winners of which, coincidentally, will be announced over the next few days) are meant to celebrate.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.

  • Robin

    Thanks Bruce. I already knew that both UNESCO and the OECD are using the model of education in Scandinavia to be the preferred model globally. The Jante Law fits in perfectly with the idea being pushed in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada to make Competence for All the goal of education. Competence means generic skills of getting along and working well in teams married to desired values, attitudes, and beliefs.

    In fact once you locate what College and Career Ready actually embody as the new goal for K-12 being pushed by federal DoED and the College Board and the accreditors it also fits in perfectly with the Jante Law mentality.

  • Lady_Dr.

    Thanks Bruce. On his first day in office I sincerely hope Romney kills Obamacare, the EPA and the Dept. of Education (the latter two a result of Jimmy Carter's failed presidence). Immediately America will become a better place.

  • Omar

    Remember that radical left-wing politics started with the Jacobins and the French Revolution. Indeed, the Jacobin-led unrest was aimed at King Louis XVI, who was an American ally in the American Revolution against the British. The Jacobins were often called the first Communists (since they came before Marx). Then, after the French Revolution, the Jacobins committed the "Reign of Terror" against their opponents, falsely branding them as "royalists" and "reactionaries". That just showed how the left opposed America's ideals even back then. People should have just rejected the left's politics after what happened with the Reign of Terror.

    • Edohiguma

      It wasn't Jacobin led. The Jacobins were one of the groups in the beginning, nothing more. They simply hijacked a basically good idea because they wanted power.

      The French Revolution was essential for parliamentarianism to appear in Europe. Without the ideas of the French Revolution being spread across continental Europe by Napoleon's wars the revolutions of 1848 would have been impossible. In the wake of these revolutions absolutist countries like Austria-Hungary slowly introduced parliaments.

      • Omar

        First of all, the French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon. That rise happened after the Reign of Terror, which inspired Communists and other far-left radicals. It is a well-known fact that the Jacobins committed the Reign of Terror, see link here about the origins of left-wing politics: http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/guideDesc.asp?… . In fact, the French Revolution itself and the Reign of Terror inspired Marx to write the "Communist Manifesto" in 1848. Second, the United States and Britain already had legislatures by the late 18th century. Parliamentarianism already existed in America and Britain before the French Revolution. The Revolutions in 1848 were based on the ideas of the Enlightenment and democracy, much like America's democracy. The Jacobins (led by Maxwell Robespierre), on the other hand, wanted to replace everything with their "world view". Unfortunately, many countries followed the Robespierre example of a radical dictatorship, rather than George Washington's example of a classical liberal democracy, and end up oppressing their fellow countrymen. The largest difference between Washington and Robespierre was that Washington wanted liberal democracy, which America accomplished, while Robespierre wanted a totalitarian dictatorship, which France had accomplished after deposing the monarchy. That's one of the main differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Today, the free world embraces American-style democracy. Even France embraces American-style democracy. However, all of the leftist/Islamist despotic regimes embrace Robespierre's vision of totalitarianism. That's the reality.

  • JakeTobias

    Another irony: Kurt Vonnegut was a socialist.

    And talk about a telling little detail, from his personal life; Kurt once boasted in an interview, how not one of his children were the slightest bit interested in the Apollo moon landing. Not one of them. They could plainly see, he said, there wasn't anything there. So why go, right?

    Even as a child, I could see that there "wasn't anything there", but was still as excited as everyone else. You either get it, or you don't. And what Kurt did to his own children so uniformly, I don't like to think about.

  • Schlomotion

    I agree with the substance of this article and am interested in what might be Mr. Bawer's specific and widespread examples in America of this phenomenon.

    • JoJoJams

      Schlomo, is that really you?? lol ~ you sure you don't want to have a nice rant about how wrong the writer of this article is, and how it's all the JOOOOOSS!!! fault??
      Ok, enough poking you. I just am shocked you actually posted something agreeing with the writer, and nothing about those "evil" jews. I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you! (but pleasantly so – as this shows you have a chance at being a decent human being.)

  • flyingtiget

    are you sure that you can blame this on socialism/ I was told that Scandanavians see their country as one big Viking ship and the government's job is to make sure that the loot is spead out evenly.

    • Ozzy

      Good point! Defeat Socialism bring back Piracy!

  • Ray Olson

    Well, I've heard of Falun. It's the capital of Dalarna, which is the province in which three pairs of my great-grandparents were born and from which, with their eldest children (my grandparents, their youngest, were born in Minnesota), they emigrated. And I can attest that the Jante Law obtained as a set of folk mores among successive generations in those immigrants' descent. The JL diminished in force, however, among those successors, until now it is enshrined as comedic schtick in the monologues of Garrison Keillor, though it has long been a staple of intragroup Scandinavian humor in America.

    I don't think the 10 rules of the JL furnish bad guidance for everyday social intercourse, for which hauteur and conceit are poor tactics and commonality and humility good. When they are made into real law, however, they do, indeed, demand and enforce injustice. The irony in the case of Sweden (and Norway, at least, too) is that as law they forbid progress within progressivism.

  • dmw

    As a teenager, I heard my dad remark several times: "If we all played the piano, it'd be an awfully dull world."

    I think he may have been quoting someone else, but it nevertheless stuck.

  • Edohiguma

    This goes farther than that. Just recently Japan had some executions of really brutal killers. Some Norwegian woman politician came out screaming about how Japan dared to do this. She then proceeded to claim moral superiority by saying that, despite that the insane lunatic Breivik killed some of her friends (her friends being the anti-semitic stormtroopers who initially believed that Breivik's insane shooting spree was a "simulation of Israeli crimes"), he didn't get the death penalty.

    No, Breivik will be free again in 21 years. They can't even lock him up after that because, according to a verdict by the EU human rights court, such indefinite high security lockup violates the human rights of criminals (aka really brutal murderers), which was set in a trial over such inmates in Germany.

    That's the Scandinavians for you. Cater to criminals. Shaft the victims. Ban justice because some politicians have delusions of grandeur and moral superiority.

  • Guest

    When was called to the medical faculty, Univ. of Lund, Sweden from a good position at the Univ. of California in 1978, I was given a paper with the 10 Jante Laws on it and was told these were the rules. I could not believe my eyes and saw it as a bad joke. They totally smashed my career and made it impossible for me to return home to the USA. I'm still stuck in Sweden, living off and anon on unemployment compensation between working at the few teaching jobs I can get. I am not alone – there are quite a few foreign nationals here who have had the same experiences as I have.

    Interestingly, it's far between any Swedish Nobel Prize winners! Contrast this with the Univ. of California, where there is freedom to develop, do research, to think and to be excellent in their careers.

  • https://www.facebook.com/mskachole Manvendra Kachole

    IThis site needs to be made available in regional languages in all Asian and African countries where socialists and communists and Marxists and leftists still dominate the media, public perception and political economy.

  • Thomas Wells

    "I'm awfully glad I'm a Delta. Deltas don't have to think. There are more Deltas than anybody else. We don need no stinkin' Alphas.

  • Sol Landet

    Altough i am Italian and currently living in Italy, I am a former follower of the Jante law (funnily I was always oppose to socialism). Is when I discovered the existence of the Jante Law that I started to not fear my real essence. In Italy a writer say: 'School should encourage talents not punish them! Mediocre people aren't useless, they still can have success in their life, in base to their abilities!'
    Since I am not scandinavian but an 'uncivilized' italian, that thing was rather diluited in me. Also schools where i went were rather conservative and israel supporter, teaching was good and they praised talents.
    So is not my impression that scandinavians seems to think all in the same way. It's creepy. Not even us italian (most italian say we are unable to think for ourselves) think all the same.