The Dowager Countess was adamant in fighting for control of the local hospital. She had a good reason, her blue blood carried a genetic marker for territorialism. The wounds from the battle were severe, she even had to take flight to another country to convalesce. She was lucky, most of us just have to fight to the death.
There have been battles in Norway that never make the news abroad. Yet, they are as deep and hard fought as any you will find in a civil nation. The battles are over the will of the people, the dictates of a distant capital, and the struggle to maintain a sense of place in a dynamic world. There is an obligation to follow the law in a constitutional democracy. But some laws hurt or threaten, is there is an equal mandate to resist?
If you think Norway is a rich counry with no problems, then you are mistaken. Does the Kingdom of Norway have wealth? Yes, of course. But the pressures of modern governance, that is the dual thrusts of neoliberalism disruption and conservative parsimony, have assulted the small towns of Norway. As an Iowan, so many of struggles and fears I hear from people around Norway sound uncomfortably similar to those I know in the Hawkeye State.
In the south of Norway, Agder, I commiserated with teachers about the pressures of school consolidation. Theirs was a small school but proud, with a rich history and an intimacy between faculty, staff, students, and the community for which I’m envious. “But according to the numbers…,” starts the explanation, the per pupil costs were too high (I personally find it galling when we attribute agency to inanimate things like numbers. Numbers never say anything, only people do. Someone used judgement and claimed the per pupil costs were too high. But if you have been convinced that numbers speak then it is difficult to resist, no one has ever won a debate against a number). So their cozy school is doomed. Can policy makers account for per pupil happiness?
In north-central Norway I experienced more distressed conversations. Here the battles were two. One was a change in airport priorities, one town would get the upgrade and another town’s airport would be closed. Additionally, the medical facilities were facing back-biting economic strangulation to force a change. In the arrangement, the medical specialties were purposely divided between three communities instead of being housed in an “efficient” single location. The small towns rightly understood that hosting a medical specialty was a statement about their right to exist in a world where efficiency was a new god that directly challenged their ancient god of community.
Recently in the Arctic I got to experience the outpost of Vardø, please take a moment to find it on map. Vardø is hard to get to but it has a remarkably long and important history in a nation full of towns with long and important histories. In some ways Vardø reminded me of so many towns in the Midwest and Great Lake States. Maybe you’ve heard the slur, “Rustbelt?”
On the edge of Norway, on the edge of western civilizaton stands Vardø. Outposts naturally hold perilous positions. In Vardø the weather is mercilessness. The Russians are next door. And the updowns and downs of the fishing industry have left their marks on a town that is a shell of its glory days, think Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1978 and today.
Vardø weathers literal and figurative existential storms. Like so many other small communities in Norway, or Iowa for that matter, Vardø resists. They resist having more of their administrative duties and positions reallocated to central locations. They resist going quietly, in Vardø the Norwegian flag flew longer in defiance in than anywhere else in occupied Norway. They also resist through art.
The art of Vardø is compelling and surprising. The handiwork of God and man is evident, the latter being more sublime than the former. Vardø resists through declarative street art, most sanctioned, some guerrilla, none kitsch.
When the Hurtigruten makes a port of call, the passengers have one hour to cross the gangplank to see what they can. The most northern fortress in Europe is a predicable stop. While it certainly is a meritorious visit, solitary tree notwithstanding, there is so much more that cannot be seen in an hour. In fact it would be an insult to try.
The memorial to the witch burning is best visited alone. You need to hear and feel the wind, not the voices and footfalls of others to appreciate the magnitude of despair. The street art too necessitates serendipitous viewings. To walk with no plan in mind other then to be confronted with a work that is familiar but strange at the same time. Do I know that face? Have I heard that phrase before? Those were typical questions that came to my mind.
The small communities of Iowa and Norway are homes. Of course they are home to people but also potential. In our plethora of small towns exists infrastructure, utilities, housing…present but underutilized. We spend tax dollars to subsidize the building up of infrastructe in larger cities where it seems like they don’t need it while we wring our hands that our small towns are dying.
In a democracy you get a vote and a voice in the process. But even in peerless democracies like Norway, there are many who feel like they are ignored or worse exploited. There are options: vote, lobby, organize…or fight. In defending her attempt to vote, Susan B. Anthony testified that she would not pay the fine, she would fight. She enligsted a Quaker maxim to her defense and said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Many small towns complain. in Vardø, their obedience is to their centuries old community. Putting up a fight might be common, but in art, their resistance is special.