Afterschool equation

Much is being said about the prospects of a property tax in Oslo these days. No party wants that more than about a third of Oslo’s household should be eligilbe for the property tax. I’ll try to return to that topic shortly.

Faksimile av innlegget på trykk i Klassekampen 19/8
Faksimile av innlegget på trykk i Klassekampen 19. august 2015.

First, I’d like to share a letter that was on print in Klassekampn a few days ago. Here, I show how small the property tax is going to be compared to other fees charged for public services, even if SV were to get a majority in the city council to support our proposed tax. The parties on the left don’t simply want a property tax to get a laugh. We want it because we believe our city needs more money to provide its citizens with the services they deserve.

Here’s the letter:

This letter i, perhaps, somewhat unorthodox in its presentation. However, I believe Klassekampen’s readers will humour me. Consider the following equation:

Likning som beskriver likhet mellom betalt eiendomsskatt og utgifter til aktivitetsskole

Let B be the market value of a property in millions of kroner, and solve the equation with respect to it. This gives:

Likning løst for B. Svaret er 7,43 millioner

Now, we can consider the significance of the other values. They are as follows:

  • 0,8 – the property tax reduction factor for market values
  • 3 – the proposed lower threshold for the property tax in million kroner
  • 106 – calculation aid, 1 million
  • 0,007 – the highest legal rate of property tax, 7 per mille
  • 11 – the number of months in which afterschool is payable
  • 1874 – the monthly fee for half-day service in afterschool

It should now be clear that the lowest market value on a household’s property which makes that household stand to lose more on the introduction of a property tax than it stands to gain from free afterschools is 7,43 million. I believe this equation shows that the combination of these proposals will be of economic benefit to most households in Oslo with kids in afterschool.

Teaching competencies in Oslo and Trondheim

The last post about teacher densities in Oslo and Trondheim led to questions about the relevance of the comparison. Teachers in Oslo might have a higher level of qualifications, and this might make up for their relative scarcity. Unfortunately, I’m unable to give a prompt answer to this question, as I don’t have access to sufficiently detailed statistics.

However, Grunnskolens informasjonssystem contains statistics on the number of worked teacher years fulfilling the formal requirements for teaching competency according to the level and subject in question. According to these data, Trondheim is far superior to Oslo! Raw data can be found here.

The fraction of worked teacher years fulfilling the formal requirements for teaching competency. Source: GSI
The fraction of worked teacher years fulfilling the formal requirements for teaching competency. Source: GSI

The formal prerequisites for teaching competency doesn’t necessarily correlate with academic competency. Oslo might have a higher fraction of teachers with university studies complemented with short teacher preparation courses, while Trondheim might have a high fraction of teachers with university college diplomas.

It is also possible that there are differences in cateogorization and in the manner statistics are being reported. The extension of teacher preparation courses (PPU) from 30 to 60 ECTS credits might have played a role for Oslo. Trondheim also used to have a different model for these courses which may have led to a larger pool of teachers in that city.

If that is the case, it is an example of the inherent weakness that comes with building systems that are heavily based on quanitative data: The quality of the indicators determine the quality of the system. Increasing the amount of resources spent on increasing the quality of the indicators entails a risk of misallocation: Those resources might well have been better employed in actual teaching.

Teachers per student in Oslo and Trondheim

I made a figure for the launch of Oslo SV’s election campaign that we didn’t use because we were concerned that the calculation method that I’ve used isn’t exactly the same as the usual one, when these matters are discussed. However, I certify that the numbers are right. You can check them at Grunnskolens informasjonssystem, and you can download the raw data here. This is the figure:

The figure shows that there are more teachers per worked student year in Trondheim than in Oslo, and that this is a persistent pattern.
Students per worked teacher year (y-axis) in elementary schools in Oslo and Trondheim. Source: GSI (see main text for details).

In my opinion, this shows that it’s a realistic option to increase the number of teachers per students in Oslo’s school. The discrepancy is a policy choice by Høyre. It also demonstrates that in a municipality where SV participates in a majority coalition, we choose to make the number of teachers per student a priority. It’s a fact one might want to make a note of.

The best schools in the country?

This post was revised on August 13th to take into account errors found in the second figure. The errors do not have any consequences for the main conclusion.

Oslo SV has chosen «More teachers – fewer tests» as the slogan for our efforts to make a better school for Oslo. I’m not going to write about that today. Rather, I’ll begin my writings on this topic with a post that shows how the right-wing parties’ portrayal of the school in Oslo hits off the mark.

There is much good to be said about the public schools in Oslo, but that’s not to say that its virtues are the results of Høyre’s policies or that they’re very much better than schools elsewhere in Norway. Høyre, however, likes to boast that Oslo’s schools are the country’s best, even the world’s best  — no less. Can this be right?

This, obviously, is a very difficult question to answer. How do we ascertain that one school is better than another? Is the best school the one where students’ mean grades are the highest, or the one which instils the highest self esteem in its graduates? Do any of our measuring tools gauge how pupils «evaluate the consequences their actions have for others, and judge them with ethical consciousness», as the Norwegian Education Code stipulates?

I won’t try to tackle these problems here. Instead, I’ll perform two very simple analyses based on criteria that Høyre likes to use. It turns out that the results of two of the most important tests in Norwegian Elementary school hardly support a claim that Oslo’s schools are the best in Norway, let alone the World.

Oslo, it turns out, is not the average Norwegian county. One of the factors distinguishing Oslo from the other counties is that its labor market shows a high demand for workers with higher education.  I’m not going to discuss whether this is the reason why more people in Oslo have higher education, beyond pointing out this fact.

Keeping this in mind, and knowing also that the parents’ level of education plays a major role for their children’s academic achievements, let’s look at some numbers — mean scores on final exams in the Norwegian elementary school by county:

Final exam results for 10th grade students as a function of the average number of years of education in the parents' generation. Source: As described in the post's final paragraph.
Final exam results for 10th grade students as a function of the average number of years of education in the parents’ generation. Source: As described in the post’s final paragraph.

Where in this figure do we find Oslo? At the far right. Quite clearly, pupils at Oslo’s schools score better on their 10th grade exams than the national average. However, the figure also shows the huge gap between the parent generation’s highest completed education in Oslo and in the rest of Norway. If we make a model that corrects the exam scores for the number of years the parent generation went to school in average (the straight lines in the figure), Oslo doesn’t perform better than expected. On the contrary, the scores are exactly what we would expect them to be.

How about the national tests («nasjonale prøver» in Norwegian)? We’re frequently told that Oslo’s schools score particularly well here:

Update August 13th: Due to an error in the sorting of the data used for the original plots, the original post found no correlation between the parent generations’ level of education and National Test scores. The figure has been updated and verified.

National Test scores per county as a function of the mean number of years of education in the parent generations. Source: UDIR / SSB
National Test scores per county as a function of the mean number of years of education in the parent generations. Oslo’s scores in the upper right portion of the plot. Source: UDIR / SSB

However, as the graph shows, the county-wide mean for Oslo does not fall outside the bounds of statistical prediction when the parent generations’ level of education is taken into account. The plots highlight the fact that the National Tests are not able to uncover any difference in educational achievement that is not explained by the parents’ level of education.

Some final words: There are many good things to say about Oslo’s schools. They are the workplace of highly qualified and dedicated teachers. Acknowledging this, however, shouldn’t stop us from questioning how Høyre is marketing its alleged results in its showcase county. The analyses presented here are unpretentious, but they highlight some important issues that are rarely raised when Oslo’s schools are discussed.

The statistics on educational levels (table 08921, numbers from 2014) and population numbers (table 03031, numbers from 2014) were collected from Statistics Norway.  Final exam scores and national test scores were collected from the The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training (preliminary final exam scores (2015), national test scores (2014)).

On The International Women’s day, March 8th 2015

I want to congratulate all women on this occasion!

As a father of three daughters, I see how narrow gender roles affect play and future aspirations from an early point in life. Is it an insignificant problem, when I address my concern that the expectations of society could take away my daughters’ opportunities to live out their full potential?

The continued attacks on the «Daddy quota» and the laws ensuring legal rights to abortion are clear examples that the struggle is not won once and for all, not even in Norway. The pay gap between men and women and the violence directed at women are examples of issues where we still have a long way to go, even in Norway.

Still, there’s no doubt that the women’s and workers’ movements have made great progress, when we compare our conditions to those of women in other parts of the world. It is ironic that the forces who at every crossroads have fought progress in our country today criticize the women’s movement of being myopic. When the criticism comes at the same time as development funds for projects targeting women’s living conditions are being cut, their arguments are preposterous and hollow.

Let us use this day to struggle for women’s right to be independent and free, whether in the work place or in private life, whether their struggle is fought for their own sake or in solidarity with others. Congratulations and forward to new progress!

Political opportunism

UPDATE 2015-03-08: The premise of the first paragraph of this text is wrong. The picture was taken during a visit by the Norwegian parliament’s foreign affairs committee to Nicaragua in 1984, and the soldier on the picture is a member of the sandinista guerilla. The picture was used as an illustration to an article about Lied intending to attend the bogus El Salvador elections. This trip had gained approval by conservative party leaders, but was cancelled when it was heavily criticised in Norwegian media. I thank the photographer for pointing this error out to me, and apologize for the error.

This post was published in the Norwegian daily Klassekampen on Saturday October 18th, 2014.

This picture shows Harald U. Lied, Member of Stortinget , for the Norwegian conservatives, Høyre. He is depicted during a visit in El Salvador as an observer for the International Democrat Union. The picture was taken in 1984, at which time Høyre was the leading party in Norway’s centre-right coalition. At this time El Salvador was referred to as “The Land of Death Squadrons”. During the Salvadorean civil war, more than 20 % of the country’s population was driven to take flight as refugees. Lied and Høyre took part in the legitimization of the military junta’s war against the country’s inhabitants.

Picture of the conservative Member of Stortinget, Harald U. Lied, grinning while holding an M-16 with a paramilitary operative at his right.
Photo facsimile of Harald U. Lied, taken from Verdens Gang, Friday March 23rd 1984. Original photo: Øyvind Brigg

It is the single most ugly picture I know from Norwegian politics. It was taken in a class society which was willing to massacre its own people in order to survive. It shows a smiling apologist for this society, whether Lied was inexcusably naïve or incomprehensibly cynical. After all, he’s depicted with an M-16 in his hands, grinning.

In my opinion, this picture deserves attention right now, because, once again, the question about whether the Socialist Left party is in particular need of a thorough revision of it past political allegiances has been put on the agenda. The party’s own Bård Vegar Solhjell, the conservative think tank Civita’s Bård Larsen, and Frank Rossavik, political editor in the conservative daily Bergens tidende, each in their own way have drawn parallels between the party and its predecessor’s historical follies in relation to Eastern Bloc countries and what they see as an acceptance of the authoritarian in recent resolutions passed by the party on the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role therein. Still, I don’t know of any images of Norwegian socialists posing with automatic rifles in Eastern Europe.

So, can it really be asserted that the Socialist Left party in particular is in great need of publicly distancing itself from its past policies? Hasn’t the party’s politics already discussed and criticised their own and the party’s viewpoints far more frequently than politics of any other parties? Have the conservatives, Høyre, ever publicly renounced Harald U. Lied? No. So why doesn’t Bård Larsen accept a less hypocritical stance — at least until he has condemned how Civita’s rich uncles in The Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, with the Høegh-family at the helm — have put themselves in a position where they can pay his salary with blood money earned by supplying the South African apartheid regime with oil. Perhaps what we should really demand is that the shipowners condemn themselves.

Frank Rossavik should perhaps consider if there isn’t a continuity from every Norwegian party’s silent acceptance of NATO-member Portugal’s slaughters in Africa to their silent acceptance of Turkey’s present de facto support of Daesh’/ISIS’ ongoing massacres of Kurds in Kobane. Foreign Minister Børge Brende hasn’t uttered a single critical syllable, and there has definitely not been any partisanship-transcending Norwegian approval of sanctions against Turkey, following similar non-existent proposals from the EU. And so far we haven’t even mentioned Saudi Arabia and the Norwegian goverment’s subservient relations with that regime of decapitators’ masters — in more than one sense.

Neither the seriousness of the controversies, policies implemented while in government, a relative lack of will to reconsider nor present political events adequately explain why it is necessary to put the allegation of double standards in the Socialist Left’s foreign policy on the agenda or publicly renounce such a phenomenon. An astute political analyst such as Rossavik clearly understands this, but loves to hate his ex-party. It’s an idiosyncracy we’ll have to endure.

On the other hand, Bård Vegar Solhjell is simply wrong in his presentation of “The Third Way”: Such a policy can’t force the Socialist Left to applaud or avoid mentioning, when Norway follows NATO’s bidding and contributes to an escalation of tensions in our region by contributing to expeditionary forces in the Baltics. Such a course of action indeed does make NATO part of the problem, and extends the geographical area influenced by the Ukrainian civil war. That is what the criticised National Assembly resolution of September 6th deals with. And — of course — none of this in any way stands in the way of the Socialist Left unambiguously condemning Russia’s violations of International Law, as the party did on May 25th.

A Third Way can’t accept that the measures taken against aggressors are so different, depending on their geopolitical alignment. If it does, it de facto supports one bloc. A Third Way can’t support one geopolitical actor’s escalating militarism against another. Indeed, it’s odd that this self-evident matter is so frequently disregarded. Is this political opportunism?

Squeeze the integration policy!

The original Norwegian version of this post contains material that relates directly to the resolution on Integration Policy which was up for discussion on the session of the Socialist Left party National Board of Representatives 5th-6th September 2014. The English version has been edited to frame the analysis in a broader, societal frame.

A confession

I’m a racist. I think racist thoughts all the time. Perhaps not as often as I think about sex, but often enough that I’m frequently ashamed of myself. A surprising number of people will argue that this sounds like a paradox, given that I’ve got both a sister and a daughter who don’t look “ethnically Norwgian”. Seeing that I’ve not only got friends, but family ties with non-white children, it ought to be impossible for me to judge people by the colour of their skin, right? Nonetheless, I felt a sense of fear and unease as a guy who looked like he might be Romani passed me on his bike this morning. I immediately corrected myself, mentally. I don’t act racist — I try to be nice. But why did I feel like that? No Romani has ever hurt me or been a nuisance to me in my everyday life in any other way than silently sitting by the roads I walk with their beggar cups (which I regard as a human right). The obvious answer is that my thoughts were a distillate of the stories that I’ve been exposed to about Romani, many of which are not particularly nice — but neither are they my responsibility.

Romany granny. Photo: Anglos. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Romany granny. Photo: Anglos. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Polls have shown that in Norway, those who hold the most negative views about immigrants are those who’ve interacted the least with them (Norwegian .pdf pp143f). This illustrates the same point: The stories about immigrants are far worse than reality, and those who only have the stories to relate to therefore form opinions that are more negative than those who have real-life experience. Discourse is a term that describes a collection of stories in a given field. When it comes to how we as humans relate to people around us, discourses about Otherness play a significant role. We frequently define ourselves in opposition to someone on the outside of our community (in an abstract sense). We do this on a micro level, in the form of gossip, on a macro level, in the form of e.g. political antipathies, and sometimes it’s even done between countries and people — as in the Russian Slavophile discourse, which defines Russians and Russia in opposition to Europe. Some such discourses are entwined with shame, mostly because we know they’re unethical. I’ll return to this matter later on. For now, it will suffice to write that racism and xenophobia can be seen as outgrowths of discourses about the Other. This means that we should carefully consider which stories we hand on, and how we frame different subjects.

A third way?

Here, I’ll present an example of a framing that I consider to be unfortunate. Let’s begin by considering the construction of the term “integration policy”. The last part is “policy”, which in this specific context describes how the general society has decided to act on a matter. The first part is “integration”, which describes the process through which people — in a collective or singular sense — who are not yet full members of society can acquire full membership. Integration policy, thus, is the action society takes when it approaches an arriving minority. It’s a common fact that whoever defines a problem will incorporate their impression of reality into their definition. As far as integration policy is not informed by a perspective where the majority is forced to consider itself critically, society will always define the problems of integration in a manner that puts the responsibility in the hands of the arriving minority. The discourse on integration is necessarily a discussion about the Other.

This is reflected even in the policies of one of Norway’s most liberal parties, my own Socialist Left party. A resolution on integration policy passed in 2010 contains passages that are typical of the present Norwegian discourse on immigration.

Two opposing views have dominated discussions on integration. On one side, there are those who believe that minorities ought to become as similar to the majority as possible, and therefore have to give up their identity. On the other side, there is the view that different cultures in a society should cherish their differences and have separate values and ways of life, even when these are opposed to fundamental common values. The Socialist Left party works towards a third way in integration policy.


The third way is built on an insistence that there exists a set of fundamental common values and duties, but that a large space remains in which differences in ways of life, culture and religion may be realised. The Socialist Left party considers diversity to be a value in its own right. Democracy, gender equality and social equity are non-negotiable, fundamental values in the society we strive to build. We will struggle against all attempts to compromise these values, also when they are motivated by religion or culture.

Another passage which, despite an ambivalence, makes the point that Norwegian values stand in opposition to those of the Other, reads as follows:

A well-functioning multicultural society is preconditioned on a set of common rights and duties. The Socialist Left party strives to base the Norwegian society on democracy, gender equality and social equity. These are universal rights which have a strong standing in Norway as a result of political and social struggle over many decades, and not something that can we can take for granted as “Norwegian values”.

The construction of otherness

Let us now recall the construction of the term “integration policy”, and hold it up against this professed “third way”, and we see that when society’s approach to an arriving minority is considered, even the Socialist Left considers the arrival as a threat to society’s fundamental values. This is not a third way. Rather, as has been pointed out by several scholars in the fields of culture, racism and security policy (all are pdf links to research papers), it is a fundamental part of one of the most problematic discourses on Otherness that Europe presently has to deal with: That which tells stories of an alleged Islamic threat and has substituted religion and culture for race to perform an act of intellectual necromancy and raise the spectre of racism once again.

Facies rasa. Photo: Carsten Frenzl. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0
Facies rasa. Photo: Carsten Frenzl. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Thus, even one of the Norwegian society’s most progressive voices is unable to avoid placing the blame for societal malfunction on the arriving minorities. In doing this, better explanatory variables are overshadowed, and more precise definitions of societal problems deferred: The negative discourse of integration is continued and the stigma placed on the Other increases. If there is a third way, surely it must aim to move beyond this negative discourse.

Breaking the taboo

Above, the entanglement of some discourses about the Other with shame was discussed. The discourse on integration, it seems, is growing — even though it has such entanglements. The “integration perspective” is introduced on a growing number of fields, and frequently in areas where it would, until recently, seem absurd to find such a perspective. One such case is that of head garments as part of public uniforms. In Norway, a sikh served in His Majesty’s Royal Guards with a turban in the eighties (see facsimile). It was considered a curiosity. When the use of hijabs in the Defence was discussed quite recently (or even more acutely, hijabs on police officers or judges), it was framed as a threat against fundamental societal values. Now, however, there’s many more than that single Sikh, you might argue, it’s the sheer numbers that has made this an issue. However, that’s simply not true — the issue is largely a hypothetical one.

Facsimile of news clipping from Retriever: The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten writes about a Sikh who was allowed to use his Turban during service in His Majesty the King's Guard. License: None, cf. Åndsverkloven §22 (Norwegian IPR law).
Facsimile of news clipping from Retriever: The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten writes about a Sikh who was allowed to use his Turban during service in His Majesty the King’s Guard. License: None, cf. Åndsverkloven §22 (Norwegian IPR law).

I find an interesting parallel to this in Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality”, where he shows how the concept of sexuality as a part if human nature and identity, not to mention the term itself, is a relatively recent invention. He writes about how the sexual is taboo, entwined with shame, and regarded as something primal, over which it is attempted to achieve control by explicitly thematizing it in public. “We must dare to have this discussion,” is a trope that is widely recognised as a cliché (at least in a Scandinavian context). It has been masterly deconstructed by Swedish MP for The Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), Ali Esbati. But the fact that we have acquired knowledge about the function of this trope has not stopped us from being its thralls.

The collective self-denial of individual liberty

As Esbati deconstructs the trope of alleged moral courage, Foucault shows that the modern public discourse on sexuality is really limiting, despite, or rather because of, its incessant explicitness. As with racism, the taboos of sexuality are so stubborn that it is still possible to frame plays on one of literary history’s most dominant tropes that of the whore versus the madonna as an emancipatory project. A treatment of this which is both acadmically stringent and stands in historical continuity with current Norwegian discourses can be found in Gro Hagemann’s work (cited from Svein Atle Skålevåg: «Kjønnsforbrytelser, sedelighet, seksualitet og strafferett 1880-1930» (“Sex crimes, Vice, Sexuality and the Penal Code 1880-1193”, in Norwegian):

Suffragette Waltz. Record cover from the USA, 1914. License: In the public domain.
Suffragette Waltz. Record cover from the USA, 1914. License: In the public domain.

[In Hagemann’s view], the defining schisma of the cultural debates of the 1880’s was a divide between an individualist cultural radicalism on one side and a societally oriented cultural conservatism on the other side (exemplified by Monrad), which was concerned with the collective morals. In this conflict, the question of women’s emancipation became “the debate’s most flammable issue”.


The opposition between individualism and collectivism constituted a “moral dilemma”, which, for its part, was immanent in the fabric of the feminist project, in Hagemann’s opinion. “The debate about vice accentuated an ambivalence that had been latent in the women’s movement from the very beginning. And over time, a shift in the relationship between the two positions took place. While the cultural radicals in the 1870’s and 80’s broadly speaking supported an equity-oriented feminism, women’s organisations in the 1890’s to a greater extent reflected a values-oriented conservative position focused on gender differences.

At this point, it seems appropriate to highlight which side in these debates which used traditional values to frame the Other as a threat: Those who would conserve the societal status quo, the sexuality and societal order which they had come to regard as normal.

The attack on normality

Returning to the term “integration” in the Norwegian context, it is clear that the opposition our – Other is an inherently conservative framing of the issue. Frequently this is embellished with lists of phenomena belonging to the Other: Typical themes of “integration” are forced marriage, women and children’s exposure to domestic violence, social control, extremism, genital mutilation and demands of separate boy and girl classes. Here, I would like to restate some of the main points of Ali Esbati’s piece, which I referred to above: The result of these debates on integration isn’t that we arrive at new solutions. The result of framing the problems as issues of “integration” is also not the formulation of a powerful policy to bridge differences in the general society. On the contrary, the debate on integration serves as a quasi-legitimate coat rack for emotions that can’t be legitimately expressed in other contexts, and lists of the above type leads the thought toward the general typologies for demonisation of the Other (Norwegian, .pdf). To many it is even an opportunity to thematize taboos — as long as it is done within certain rules.

Tidemand: Farmer from Vossevangen. License: In the public domain. (via Ola Nordmann goes west
Tidemand: Farmer from Vossevangen. License: In the public domain. (via Ola Nordmann goes west

Integration policy thus becomes an excuse to collect all problematic issues where immigrants are overrepresented under one umbrella. People of Norwegian ethnicity are wildly overrepresented among persons committing internation tax evasion crimes (in a Norwegian context) and among persons who serially import women from Eastern Europe and Asia in order to marry and beat them. We don’t make Norwegian-political resolutions to discuss these issues. To many, even the notion of doing so seems absurd. But it doesn’t seem absurd to collect all forms of problems where immigrants are over-represented in integration policy, and thus use this field to underscore the attack that immigration, allegedly, mounts on “normality”, “the Norwegian”, or “tradition”.

A positive project

Having mounted an attack on the notion that a third way has successfully been paved out — what do I propose in stead? Is there a positive project to be found in this criticism? In my opinion, the first step is to make the matter of integration as small as at all possible. We need to include the Other in the We that formulates policies regarding Us. Integration policy needs to become a matter of the mere first steps: The help, support and incentives that are the new arrivals’ very first meeting with our society. Next, we need to get used to the phrase “this isn’t about integration, it’s about the social or material circumstances.”  Integration policy can only be ethical if it remains entirely positive in its perception of the Other.

Many of the subjects that are currently treated as matters of integration will continue to be important in political discourse. However, in stead of integration policy, consisting of the perspectives of the welfare, regulatory and judicial institutions on immigration (or the Other), we need to address specific issues in specific contexts: People with a different country background than Norwegian are probably over-represented in the target group of the Child Protection Services (CPS), at least in Oslo. That’s a matter of CPS policy and not immigration policy, because it concerns the CPS and not a public institution of immigration.

What about my racism — can I get rid of it? Hopefully, I can, but there’s an obvious need for a lot of help from everyone else. To paraphrase a frequently misunderstood quote by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norwegian newspaper article): We need to deconstruct integration policy until it’s impossible to speak of integration as a singular phenomenon or immigrants as stereotypes ever again.

Bjørneland, politics and principles

Skjermdump fra PSTs blogg
Update, August 23rd: Bjørneland wrote a blog post during August 23rd, which at first sight appears to be moderate version of her key note address to the Nordic Law Practitioners’ Conference (NJM) (.pdf, ~400 pages). This, however, comes very close to spin, as the blog post refers to correspondence between the Ministry of Justice and PSS from July this year, concerning specific legislation. The address to NJM, however, concerns the capacities, which in Bjørneland’s opinion should be available to a security service. In the address, she calls for new legislation on three areas: Data retention (“Tese 3”, s41), data acquirement (“Tese 4”, s42) og stordata (“Tese 5”. s43).

The head of The Norwegian Police Security Service (PSS), Benedicte Bjørneland, in a keynote speech at The Nordic Conference of Law Practitioners, stated that analyses based on big data are necessary to safeguard national security. This entails the storage of all communication data of certain types about all people in Norway.

Screen grab of the GUI from one of the Five Eyes databases.
Five eyes user interface. License: Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The EU Data Retention Directive was ruled unconstitutional by several national constitutional and supreme courts, and was therefore scrapped by the EU commission, because it was incompatible with the civil liberty that is the foundation of liberal democracies. In the Norwegian debate on the directive, several examples were put forward to illustrate how even banal data can be highly sensitive.

The Norwegian data retention law, passed to comply with the EU directive before it was scrapped, was, however, not nearly as far-reaching as what Bjørneland has advocated. It would mean a system where police services could be given access to an archive with a limited time scope, if they managed to secure a court ruling on a case by case basis. The PSS head, on the other hand, appears to want real-time access to data streams and an all-encompassing database, as is known from the disclosures of Edward Snowden.

Security Service overreach is not something with a pretty history: The Norwegian Lund Commission, Guantánamo and the rendition system, Abu Ghraib, the Five Eyes-cooperation’s opportunistic circumvention of national privacy laws and Snowden’s disclosures about NSA operators considering nude pictures which they happen upon as «fringe benefits». Taken together, these cases show that neither a specific, Norwegian kindness-syndrome nor a history of liberal, transatlantic democracy can rein in a relentless craving for information.

No, it appears that some of the most crucial features of the rule of law, is the limitations that the state places upon itself. The executive branch shouldn’t attempt to influence the judicial. The police doesn’t investigate nor collect evidence against citizens, unless it has a suspicion that can be defended in court. Security services shouldn’t be given a carte blanche, but should continuously be made to justify their aims and measures to civilian, laymen supervisors.

Prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib. Having Western democracies in charge is no guarantee for ethical practice. License: Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib. Having Western democracies in charge is no guarantee for ethical practice. License: Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Professional ethics, politicians who refrain from commenting court procedures, judges who choose not to have lunch with security service prosecutors – these are simple measures to enforce such principles, not substitutions for them. When Bjørneland wants to abolish the presumption of innocence, and as consequence acquire a capacity that far exceeds anything the STASI of GDR ever disposed of, we all know that the PSS of tomorrow or the day after that will be an institution that is superior to any of the dicatorships that we fear, when it comes to respecting human rights and privacy.

Still, we know just as well that errors will happen. The professional culture will slip in some cliques. The chair of the Intelligence and Security Supervisory Board (ISSB, no. EOS-utvalget) could be injured in a car accident and become addicted to opiates. That is why we draw lines in the sand, lines that we can’t accept that waves of security hubris erase.

With Snowden’s disclosures, we were once again reminded of how easy it is to let things slip, if we don’t keep up some absolute limits for lawful conduct. In this perspective, Bjørneland’s statement has proven twice that security services need to be kept under independent supervision: Both because it appears so simple to forget, and be enticed by the importance of knowing everything. The PSS head, has lost her head! And because this has become sufficiently mainstream within the PSS that its head could make such a statement in the service’s name, without anyone stopping her.

It would probably be wise if the leader of the ISSB, rather than being a former Minister of Defence, were a former Amnesty Lawyer or mass media editor. At least until the public has been convinced that the lessons from the surveillance and intelligence scandals of the last decade have been learned.

Albert Einstein and Tax Havens

This post was printed in Dagbladet on July 25th, 2014, as a reply to an op-ed by Hans Eirik Olav. As it wasn’t published in English, and you can’t print links, I’ll publish it here, as well.

Screen shot from Dagbladet's opinion section online.
Screen shot from Dagbladet’s opinion section online.

In an exceptionally pompous op-ed titled ‘J’accuse, Hans Eirik Olav, charged with tax fraud, writes in Dagbladet July 20th: «Albert Einstein understood; that tax is an enemy of innovation, productivity and growth — an enemy of the world’s poor.»

How Olav came up with this impression, I do not know. When the independent socialist journal Monthly Review was first published in 1949, however, Einstein wrote an article titled Why socialism?‘.

Broadly speaking, Einstein professes a rather orthodox socialist criticism of private ownership of productive capital. He points out that the distribution of value produced under this principle of organising production leads to the result that those who don’t own the means of production don’t acquire ownership of the values produced. Einstein voices his support of a planned economy and social ownership to productive capital, yet acknowledges that socialism has challenges of its own.

The article is probably mainly of historical interest, and yet it remains relevant in many ways. The following passage, in particular, gives an interesting perspective on Olav’s op-ed:

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. (…)

[This] crippling of the social consciousness of individuals (…) I consider the worst evil of capitalism.

Developing countries are at particular risk with regard to capital flight and tax evasion. The total effect of this is difficult to determine, but it seems safe to assert that brave entrepreneurs who heed the moral call of Hans Eirik Olav and deny their states income, are stealing values that easily surpass total investments in development. Tax havens threaten states’ ability to secure basic human rights.

Benjamin E. Larsen
Labour relations officer, Oslo Socialist Left party


A culturally biased interpretation of law

This post is an edited translation of a text that was first published on the Norwegian feminist blog The Norwegian version was published in the daily Klassekampen April 24, 2012 (see picture below).

Faksimile av Klassekampens utgave av artikkelen
Facsimile of the article published in Klassekampen April 24, 2012.

The hunt for beauty has found a path to the crotch. Designer vaginas are perhaps not a part of the mainstream, but the demand for surgery that aims to beautify the female genitals appears to be on the rise. Legal regulations (at least in Norway), however, seems a little unclear. The Law on Genital Mutilation (Norwegian: Kjønnslemlestelseslova) states that whoever makes irreversible changes to female genitals should be subject to legal penalties. Still, no plastic surgeon has been charged or prosecuted with such a crime. The parliamentary deliberations, which in Norway serve as a source for legal interpretation (link to Norwegian text here) states that the law targets a specific cultural practice. Is that reasonable?

Before continuing, I’d like to explicitly condemn the genital mutilation or so-called «circumcision» of young girls. No-one in their right mind would claim that we should tolerate such practices in Norway. However, if my interpretation of the law stands up to scrutiny, the consequences when it concerns adult, consenting women appear absurd.

In the parliamentary deliberations mentioned, some actions are explicitly excluded from the regulations in The Law on Genital Mutilation:

«The prohibition does not apply to procedures which have a medical reason, e.g. procedures that are necessary during the delivery of children, the removal of genital organs in the course of cancer treatment etc. Corrections of congenital defects, e.g. hermaphroditism, as well as legitimate sex reassignment surgery are also not prohibited.»

This seems to be a reasonable exclusion from the scope of the law. The list of exemptions is not exhaustive, but mentions examples in two main areas: Procedures that are medically necessary and procedures that relate to sexual identity in a strict sense. Does this include genital plastic surgery? In an interview, a Norwegian plastic surgeon performin such surgery, Halfdan Simensen, tells a online celebrity site about his business (link):

«As with breasts, labia come in all shapes and sizes, and almonst anything is normal. But individual freedom is an important point here, and having performed about 500 procedures of this kind, my experience is that they serve a real need. Unfortunately, many gynecologists don’t care about what the women themselves feel.»

In online fora for women, genital plastic surgery is discussed. Some share experiences about problems which obviously need medical attention. Others relate how bicycle seats and underwear are uncofortable. Many stories are about beaty ideals.

One user, for example, explains:

«I don’t dare to wear a bikini, because it makes a big lump appear between my legs. And I’m very afraid of getting intimate.»

Another user appears to have greater issues with her self-esteem:

«The problem is that I don’t want to give birth before I’ve done it [have a labioplasty, my note], no midwife would want to receive a child from my ugly loins…»

Whatever one thinks about these statements and the plastic surgeon’s appeal to heed women’s feelings about genital plastic surgery, it’s difficult to see how the parliamenatry deliberations supporting The Law on Genital Mutilation take into account its subjects individual freedoms and feelings:

«One of the purposes of this bill is to regulate those instances which are not covered by The Penal Code. In particular, consent from a legal and capable adult to a minor procedure could be exempt under The Penal Code. The Ministry proposes that the prohibition applies whether the women has consented to the circumcision or not.»

The Law on Genital Mutilation thus prohibits procedures that permanently alter the genitals of adult women with full mental capabilities, even if they have explicitly consented to them. But isn’t culturally dependent genital mutilation objectively different from genital plastic surgery?

Let’s see what clinics have on offer. One clinic, Plastikkirurgisk institutt, explains in detail which procedures are offered:

1) «reduction and shape correction of the labia minora»

2) «reduction and toning of the labia majora»

3) «shape correction of the clitoral area»

4) «increasing the volume (labia majora, entire genital complex) with the patient’s own fat»

5) «vaginal rejuvenation, i.e. reduction of the inner diameter of the vagina»

6) «liposuction of the genital complex»

According to the definitions put forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), these procedures clearly belong within three of four defined main groups of genital mutilation. The group that is not covered is that which contains the most harmful procedures – among them the so-called pharaonic variant or infibulation – where the labia majora are sewn together.

Bilde som viser de ulike formene for kjønnslemlestelse skjematisk. Et normalt underliv, type I, der klitoris eller bare klitorisforhuden fjernes, type II, illustrert ved at også deler av de indre kjønnsleppene er fjerna, og type 3, der det i tillegg til fjerning a v disse kroppsdelene sys sting på tvers av de ytre kjønnsleppene, slik at hele genitalområdet lukkes.
Schematic illustration of a normal genital area and female genital mutilation of types I, II and III in the most common variants.

Going into details, according to the definitions in the WHO report Eliminating female genital mutilation, a «shape correction of the clitoral area» to some extent falls under FGM type I, partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. Any procedure that alters the shape of the clitoral area will likely entail the removal of parts of the clitoral prepuce.

«Reduction and shape correction of the labia minora» will be covered by type II, removal of the labia minora only. A variant, type II a, defines as FGM procedures that only target the labia minora

The other procedures will all be covered by the WHO definitions of type IV, a cover-all category for all other harmful or potentially harmful practices that are performed on the genitalia of girls and women. Piercings are explicitly mentioned – body artists beware! Stretching of the labia minora is another phenomenon that is mentioned. Such stretching is not a part of the debate on FGM in a Norwegian, European or North American context, but the WHO’s reasoning for including it is highly relevant to the present discussion:

Labial stretching might be defined as a form of female genital mutilation because it is a social convention, and hence there is social pressure on young girls to modify their genitalia, and because it creates permanent genital


Cutting the vagina or the introduction of harmful substances to make it tighter or to increase one’s own or the partner’s sexual pleasure is also mentioned. «Vaginal rejuvenation» would surely be covered by this definition.

How do the plastic surgeons draw the line? The aforementioned Halfdan Simensen says:

«I reject few, but I want young women to have a referral from a gynecologist and an approval from their mother.»

How then, does he, hypothetically draw the line between an ethnic Norwegian 16 year old, bringing a letter from her mom and saying that «she can’t live with her hideous crotch» and another 16 year old with Senegalese roots who says «I can’t stand the thought of walking around with an unclean, uncircumcised vulva – please remove my labia minora,» while her approving mother waits just outside the doctor’s office.

Or even worse: What about legal adults? If the law currently in effect is interpreted not to prohibit the purely cosmetic surgeries, the only reference in legal texts supporting such a position would be the followin passage in the parliamentary deliberations:

The ministry states that it considers it to be very important that immigrant cultural norms are taken into consideration, but not that any norm is worthy of protection, when the norms in question are repressive or physically destructive.

It could be argued that the immediate harms of cosmetic surgeries are minuscule when compared to genital mutilation. The Law on Genital Mutilation considers the immediate harm when judging the severity of the criminal surgery/procedure. A precondition for a ruling that a case of genital mutilation is «severe», entailing a sentence of up to 8 years of prison, is that

«the procedure leads to illness or incapacity to perform work that lasts more than two weeks, or that an irreparable injury or harm results from it»

A user in a women’s online forum relates her experience with labioplasty:

«I’d got a leave from work for 2 weeks and 3 days. Way too long leave, I thought. Gosh, was I wrong! [I] had such a swelling that I couldn’t leave home for 10 days, and it only subsided after the 13th day. and after three weeks was almost back to normal»

In practice, this means that the only objective legal difference between cosmetic genital surgery and severe genital mutilation, when adult, consenting women are concerned, is the cultural environment in which the desire to have the procedure performed orginates. If the decision is made on the basis of beauty ideals originating in Western culture, whoever performs the procedure seems not only to go free from legal penalties, it’s even allowed to market the procedure and perform it on legal minors. If the decision is made on the basis of other cultural norms, especially African, whoever performs the procedure must face charges.

If this is indeed the legal situation, the part of The Law on Genital Mutilation that concerns adult, consenting individuals, quite surely will be covered by The Law on Discrimination (link to Norwegian text). If we’re not willing to go so far as to prohibit scalpel prettiness, we should at least consider how we relate to the question of being an adult and taking on the responsibility for one’s own body. There is solid, general wording in The Penal Code covering coercion and bodily harm. Is it really necessary to have an extra law just to penalize Africans?