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April 04, 2012

On "our" terrorists

Two weeks ago, I was in the centre of Oslo, very close to the government district where last July Breivik’s bomb killed 8 people and injured 92, following the news of another terrorist killing children in a different corner of Europe – Mohamed Merah in Toulouse – and reflecting about our perception of terrorism. Last summer, a barbarian act was originally blamed on Al Qaida, and the perception changed when it occurred it was a white supremacist. In France, the opposite happened.

I grew up in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s, infested by the terrorism from extreme Left and extreme Right. Some of the worst terrorist killings happened in my central neighbourhood , and I sometimes heard the shots and the ambulances and the screams. A lesson I learned very early when starting political activism in the 1980s was that there is a sentence you cannot say: “I disagree with the methods of the terrorists, but...”. By saying that, you give them the oxygen they need to grow. Terrorists NEVER have a political point, you cannot extrapolate any of their sentences to say that they make sense. Saying that they have a point when they write, say, that “workers are exploited” is as unacceptable as saying that Hitler had a point when he wrote that World War I was atrocious. Because in terrorism (like in genocide) you cannot split the meaning from the means, the words from the context: the means are the total denial of the democratic process and of humanity, and therefore the words have to stay outside.

Oslo newcomersThe way Breivik was treated highlighted initially a strident difference in the way terrorists are perceived. When the nature and motive of the crime emerged, some populist politicians (e.g. from the Northern League in Italy) said exactly the unspeakable: that they disagreed with the means, but “he had a point”. Imagine saying that of 9/11 or of the Red Brigades. But OPK, these may be just people outside democratic civilisation. More striking was the immediate humanisation of the terrorist: we learned that he had a difficult relationship with his father and various other problems, and soon he was diagnosed with psychosis, which might avoid him a sentence. When young men set bombs or blow themselves up in Israel, Iraq, Madrid, London, we never hear that they had difficult relations with their fathers or that they suffer from psychosis: they are just “the evil”, “the enemy”, completely dehumanised. When however the terrorist comes from among ourselves, we immediately feel the need to medicalise him, to treat him, not to take him seriously. Soon rightwingers from all countries started explaining that Breivik had nothing to do with the Right, with anti-immigrant discourse, with Christian integralism, that he was just a nutter, that it would be instrumental to qualify him politically. Strangely enough, Islamic terrorists keep being called Islamic terrorists. The whole of Islam, the whole of Palestine may be associated to the crimes of a handful terrorists – but western civilisation cannot. Oklahoma and Utøya are just criminal events, but 9/11 and 7/7 are the product of certain cultures. Double standards of the worst kind.

Now, with Merah, a symmetric thing happened. As soon as the identity of the killer emerged, the humanisation happened from the Left, although I have not heard anybody saying that “he had a point”. We learnt that he grew up in demonised communities and reacted to exclusion from French society...

This attitude, rightly, upset many, and a good example is writer Olivier Rolin in Le Monde des livres of the 31st March, expressing his outrage at the “banaliser derrière des prêts-à-porter sociologiques”: yes, Merah was a young misfit – but then so were many of the Einsatzgruppen massacring Jews during the war: would we extend this kind of humanisation to them?

Quite strikingly, le monde published Rolin’s angry piece to the side of one by writer Salim Bachi titled ““Moi, Mophamed Merah”: a literary attempt to enter the mind of Merah (Bachi had written a book titled “Moi, Khaled Kelkal”, on the terrorist whose bombs terrorised Paris in September 1995, and “Tuez-les tous!” on 9/11). What a mess.

Is it too much to ask for a bit of clarity, for the sake of human coexistence? There are three very distinguished levels of judgement here. One is at the level of psychology and criminology: in that context, “humanisation” is the obvious thing. At the other opposite, there is the study of the context, and again there is nothing inherently wrong with historical and political studies of factors that tend to promote terrorism (just like, to use again the extreme comparator, one can study the context of Nazi rise and of the Shoah). Yet the specific remits of these levels of analysis should be always made clear. Because the third and most important level is the political and moral judgment of terrorism: and at that level, if we are to be human, there can be no “I am against terrorism, but...


March 27, 2012

"Lean production" in Stockholm City Hall (and lean cuisine in Scandinavia)

Thin ice, from the Oslo-Stockholm trainAfter a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...

In Stockholm, among other King's Speech in the Golden Hallthings, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.

Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.

PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.

ÖstermalmstorgJust to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.

But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.


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