Chapter 22

Hoisting the flag with the Christian cross

The first good news I hear on Labour Day apparently has nothing to do with politics. I listen to the NRK radio news broadcast in the morning. The female reporter tells listeners that a new study has shown that the possibility for Norwegian children to survive blood cancer has increased dramatically over the last 25 years. 25 years ago only 3 % of the child patients suffering from blood cancer could be saved from death. Today 90% of the little patients show no symptoms of blood cancer five years after they have been treated for the disease.

            I did not know that the mortality rate had been as high as 97 percent. I am happy on behalf of the children who can now be saved from what used to be almost certain death.

            Why did I write that this news apparently has nothing to do with politics? The way we deal with blood cancer, or leukemia, has to do with politics. We have organized society in such a manner that all Norwegian children suffering from blood cancer can be treated.

             It is not hard to conceive a Norwegian society where only the children of the rich and the mighty could be treated for a deadly disease. It is only to go a hundred years back in time. Then the poor youngsters of this country died from tuberculosis, while the sick sons and daughters of the rich were sent to sanatoriums to breathe in the fresh air of the countryside or the mountains and become healed.

             Progress has indeed been made. On May 1st the working class of this country can congratulate itself and proudly declare that it played a vital part in the process that gave us a public health system which can defeat blood cancer and treat every child, be it that of a wealthy shipowner or that of a recently arrived refugee couple from poverty-stricken Somalia.  

            But isn’t the triumph over blood cancer a triumph for our Christian heritage? Certainly good Christian nurses, doctors and scientists have been important in the struggle against blood cancer. But Christianity alone could not have solved the problem. A hundred years ago Norway was a Christian country, probably more Christian than it is today. At that time equality in our health care system did not exist, inequality prevailed. A powerful force was needed to make headway for the principle of egalitarianism, and that force came from the Socialist movement and the trade union movement, nationally and internationally.

            Brazil of today is a Christian country, and has the biggest Catholic population of any country in the world. If you are a poor child and grow up in one of the hillside favelas in Rio de Janeiro and get blood cancer, your chances of being treated and cured are not the best, I would suppose. If you are a suffering child from a well-to-do family on the posh waterfront at Ipanema Beach, your chances of survival are possibly as good as those of a Norwegian child. Brazilian medicine is on a high level, but it is not an universal medicine for all Brazilians. The poor and the working class in Brazil have a long way to go in their struggle for equal health care for everybody.

            I have promised that I should not discuss too much politics in this book. Excuse me, it was too tempting on May 1st!

            If you, dear reader, are a capitalist and want to argue with me and give me your opinion of the great wonders the capitalist monopolies have worked in the medicine industry, let’s postpone that quarrel to another day. Today is May day, and my day.

            Now I have to go out and run up the flag. It is not a red flag. Like everybody else in this country who celebrates May 1st with a flag on a flagpole, we use the red, blue and white Norwegian flag, which has a Christian cross in it.

             In the 1920’es radical poet Arnulf Øverland said that we should eradicate the cross from our flag and hoist it clean and red. This point of view got very little popular support in a new nation. It was seen by the majority of Socialists to be too propagandist, as an unnecessary insult to the Christian members of the trade union movement, and as contrary to the strong wish for continued national independence, symbolized by the flag.

          We had gained our full independence as late as in 1905. From the Danish rule of Norway ended in 1814 until 1905, the king of Sweden was also the king of Norway. Our foreign policy was dictated from Stockholm. When Norway broke the union with the Swedish kingdom and became fully independent, nationalism of course was widespread in our country, not least in the working class. This nationalism was -  mainly -  not of the unhealthy kind that fosters racism and imperialism. It was a nation-building ideology. Workers wanted to build a modern, electrified and industrialized nation. Sailors hoisted the Norwegian flag on the ships in a strongly expanding, modern merchant marine.

              In May 1st parades both the national flag and the Socialist red flags were carried, and they still are. Many workers combined their Socialist ideology with belief in Christianity, and they still do.    

            On our national holiday, Constitution Day, May 17th, marking the end of Danish rule and the making of our own constitution, parades are arranged all over Norway. These are not military parades, but parades dominated by children. The biggest parade, in Oslo, is a parade for school children.

              There has been an ongoing discussion if the flags of other nations could be carried in the Oslo parade. This spring the major of Oslo, Fabian Stang from the Conservative Party, cut through the chauvinistic nonsense and said that he permitted the children of our new countrymen to carry the flags of their nations of origin in the parade if they wanted to. I lifted my hat for Mr Stang, whom I normally detest.

             Flags of Moslem countries may now be carried in the parade up Oslo’s main street, Karl Johan (named after a Swedish king), and shown to the royal family who stands on the balcony of the Royal Castle greeting the thousands of marching children.

            Sometimes I envy the citizens of the United States of America their flag with stars and stripes in it, and no Christian cross. I would have liked our Norwegian flag to be like the French Tricolor, with stripes only. But I can live with our flag with the cross. No problem.

            In the rainy morning I run the flag up.

            From the Far East good May day news also comes over the radio. In big cities like Bangkok and Jakarta the masses have taken to the streets to protest against the steep increase in food prices, especially the price of rice.

            Quite unexpectedly the world’s poorest face a possible new hunger crisis. A year ago economists were not aware of the rice-price problem coming up. Now the food price problem has hit with full force in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the USA there is a rationing of rice in the supermarkets. Americans hoard rice. Maybe there is no real reason for this hoarding mentality in God’s own country, but it is a sign with a lot of significance.

            My thoughts go to the inhabitants of the slums of the big cities of the Far East. May they succeed in their demonstrations and protests!

            I put on my red tie and drive to Moss to participate in the local parade. On my way I go past the city hall. Outside there are three different flags on the flagpoles. One is the Norwegian flag, the second is the city flag with the crow symbol in it, and the third is a quite new flag. It is the red, blue, yellow and green flag of a national minority living within the state borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, the Sapmi (Lapp or Lapplander) nation.

            When I was a boy, this nation was not recognized in Norway. Its culture was thought to be barbaric, its songs heathen, its language a dying language which was to be replaced by the Norwegian  language. The traditional Sapmi way of life, herding big flocks of tame reindeer, was looked upon as a practise from the Stone Age.

            How things may change!

            And how some things continue. Many of the Sapmi families still herd their reindeer on the big plain of Finnmarksvidda in nothernmost Norway.

            I salute the Sapmi flag. 

            The May day parade is to start at a bridge crossing the waterfall of the Moss River. There are not too many paraders in the rainy weather. But we are a crowd of 200-300 people, all united in a parade arranged by the local branch of Landsorganisasjonen, the national trade union. People wear raincoats or carry umbrellas.

            The wind is southerly. We stand close to the Peterson Paper Mill, the landmark of Moss, which is located on the riverside. It is an old factory which has produced chemical pulp, cellulose, for generations, and is called Cellulosen. From Cellulosen comes a stench that is stronger than the normal stench from Norwegian paper mills. This characteristic rotten smell is named the Moss smell  (”mosselukta”). It is known throghout Norway, and the citizens of Moss are mobbed for it. The  factory owners and managers have over the years told us they have taken measures to implement technical eqipment to reduce the smell and thereby improve the town’s environment. These efforts have proven to be futile. Citizens of Moss comfort themselves by saying that the smoke the factory chimneys belch out smells of money.

             Now the smoke luckily drifts away from us, to the north.

            I meet today’s speaker, Per Østvold,  who is the leader of The Norwegian Transport Worker’s Union. We know each other since we were once members of the same party, AKP. Today he is a member of SV, the Socialist Left Party, which is one of the three parties in our government..

            I say hello to friends and acquaintances and congratulate them with the 1st of May.

            I find the banner with the slogan I intend to march under; ”Stop the war in Afghanistan!”

            The band starts playing ”The Internationale”. The red flags and the Norwegian flags carried in the front of the parade are dripping wet with rain, and so are the standards (”fanene”) of the trade unions.

          Off we go.

         We march through the streets of little Moss. But we know we are not going in a lonely march on this day. The world marches with us.

            The parade ends at a music pavilion near the city hall. Union boss Østvold enters the podium in the pavilion. I listen not to eagerly to his speech about pension reform. We have a system where people can retire at 62 years of age and receive a considerable pension, called the AFP. But as a freelance journalist and author I was never included in this system. Now I am simply to old to care about pension reform!

              I don’t bother about the controversial changes made in the AFP, which Østvold defends. I await a regular pension (”folketrygd”) when I become 67.

            When he mentions Afghanistan, I listen more carefully. But not surprisingly Østvold supports the red-green government’s policy; Norway shall still participate in the war in Afghanistan, led by the US forces. Norway is a member of NATO, and formally the Norwegian force in Afghanistan is a NATO force, operating under at United Nations mandate. But the warfare is mainly an American affair, and the US forces have the upper hand and the command.

             I am, as you have understood, opposed to our role in the war. So was a majority of the Norwegian population. Recent opinion polls show that this majority has become a minority. In this minority many are Christian believers.

            Christian believers, in my opinion, stopped Norwegian participation in the invasion of Iraq. At the time of the invasion we had a prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, from Kristelig Folkeparti. Bondevik was educated as a priest. He had been in favour of sending Norwegian troops to Afghanistan, which was done. But he was firmly against the invasion of Iraq. This position was strengthened by his close contact with the Christian grassroots and the clergymen opposing war.

            In Oslo a demonstration was arranged protesting the plans for a US invasion and Norwegian participation in this invasion. 60 000 attended. Not bad for a city with a population of half a million. I went in the demonstration parade shoulder to shoulder with firm Christian believers. This changed my view of the Christian community in Norway. I thought I should enter into a dialogue with Christians, and this I have done.

            In the cabinet Bondevik fought a hard battle with the Conservative cabinet ministers Jan Petersen from the Department of Foriegn Affairs and Kristin Krohn Devold from the Department of Defence. Both were in favour of war on Iraq. Bondevik won that struggle. For this he has my eternal respect. 

            It was a pity that the Bondevik government sent a small contingent of soldiers to Iraq after the invasion was over, and the USA had proclaimed victory in the war and started the occupation of Iraq. President George W. Bush then included Norway in his ”Coalition of the willing”. What a shame! I thought.

            When the red-green government took over in 2005,  the Norwegian soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq. But the red-greens inherited the Afghanistan war from the Bondevik government, and they go ahead with it.

            When I discuss with Christians, I strongly recommend them to argue for the withdrawal of the Norwegian force in Afghanistan. If they consider this to be at too drastic measure, they should advocate peace talks which include the Taliban.

              If you Christians want to challenge Moslems, you should do it with words, not guns, I say. And they listen. We have a dialogue.

             A very young woman enters the podium in the music pavilion. She the second and last speaker of the day. She is Julie Rasten from the Rødt party, my party. She delivers a strong appeal about the environment, and gives us oldtimers a scolding for not having done enough to protect our planet and prevent climate change.

             It is always refreshing to be scolded by the youth.

             I admit that I have written too much about politics in this chapter. Sorry. In the next chapter, I promise you, we go to church. 

       Chapter 21

Chapter 23