In Norway, where I live, May 17 is Constitution Day. In every city, town, and hamlet in this country, the inhabitants celebrate it by dressing in traditional garb (bunad) and congregating downtown, where they wave Norwegian flags and sing the national anthem. Local politicians and high school students give patriotic speeches. Larger communities hold parades with marching bands. In Oslo, the streets are crowded, and schoolchildren march past the Royal Palace, where the king and his family wave at them from a balcony.
This year, of course, was different. All the parades were canceled. Flags waved outside houses and from apartment balconies, but there were no public celebrations. The quiet little burg where I live, high up in the mountains of Telemark, remained quiet. But the establishment next door, an Indian restaurant and bar, was open again after its long lockdown hiatus, and townspeople showed up, some in bunad, some not, to drink beer and wish one another a hearty gratulerer med dagen (congratulations on the day).
The afternoon was mild and sunny. Over drinks at a sidewalk table, a friend told me that on the previous day he’d been buttonholed in the town square by a reporter for the local paper, who’d inquired: “What does May 17 mean to you?”
“What did you say?” I asked.
He’d drawn a blank, he said. For him, he told me, May 17 was a day for children.
“I can understand that,” I replied. “You grew up with it.”
He asked me what I would’ve said to the roving reporter.
“Well,” I said, “I’m a foreigner here, so my first May 17 was entirely new to me, and made a strong impression. I was struck by the sight of people in a free country waving their national flag without embarrassment and bringing their children up to do so. People don’t do that in many other European countries—Germany, Sweden. Here, children are brought up to appreciate their country, its history, and their freedom. I think that’s beautiful.”
As a caveat, alas, I could’ve added that freedom in Norway has become conditional: the government, along with state-run universities and state-funded media, relentlessly pushes socialist ideas, and, by way of taxes and duties and subsidies and regulations, manages to reach into every corner of every life, in a way that’s entirely at odds with the idea of perfect freedom.
Nonetheless, Norway is a lot freer than many other countries on earth, and that’s something that should be celebrated.
My interlocutor nodded. “I get you,” he said. “But to be honest, whenever I hear talk about freedom and stuff like that I just shut down.” To demonstrate his point, he closed his eyes, bent his head over, and covered it with his hands.
It was honest of him. And he’s not alone. To many people in the Western world his age or younger—and to quite a few older—talk about freedom just sounds like so much platitudinous nonsense. They’ve never known anything else.
What could I have said in reply? Well, I could’ve said that I’m old enough to have been an adult when the Soviet Union was still in existence. Partly because my grandparents had come from a place that had been overrun by the Nazis and that had then become part of the Communist world, I’d spent much of my teen years reading everything I could find about Nazism and Communism. I knew how evil they were. I knew how precious my own freedom was.
But that was just me. Sitting there at my local watering hole on May 17, I didn’t say anything. Perhaps I should have. But I wasn’t in a lecturing mood. And I didn’t want to argue. How much can you argue? It was a holiday, and a lovely day, and we’d spent weeks enduring the long and dreary pandemic shutdown, and this was one of the first chances we’d been given to enjoy our—yes—freedom.
So we sat there in the sun, and sipped our drinks together, and I held my tongue.