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.
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