When Albert Camus died, he was described in French newspapers: Un grand moraliste!
That was the best thing you could say about anyone.
Today, moralist is the worst insult in the political debate. You should not moralize over others – just to think something about others is to meddle in things you have nothing to do with, and the one who is called moralist has three seconds to defend himself and throw away the hot potato: I am not a moralist at all, I only defend freedom of speech, Sweden, or human rights.
There is one person in Sweden who dares to do something else, and that is Nina Björk.
Because it takes courage.
She says: wait a minute, why is it an insult, isn’t this a symptom that we only have one value, that of money? she writes in Happily ever after. In the book, she claims the right to be moral, the right to look at politics as something other than a calculation with pluses and minuses.
To shake up the present, which just follows the rails, it is required that one not only pulls the brake but that one uproots the very foundation, the very railway of thought, and asks oneself, what is it really built of? That is what has become Nina Björk’s hallmark. She examines the unspoken consensus of our time. The words, the thoughts, the phrases that people use without thinking, she makes us say many times until they sound unrecognizable. Why is it good to have a job? Why do we want a nice looking home? Why do we think it is so obvious that all cultures are equally good at the same time as we just as obviously believe that foot binding is wrong?
Much can be provocative for both the socialist and the capitalist, who both believe in work. But Nina Björk cannot be contradicted with a factual statement or by googling a crushing answer, you must think.
I remember the first time I heard her speak, at an environmental seminar at Konstfack. She made an analysis of the magazine mama, which claimed it did not want to supply any pointers. Why are pointers wrong, Nina asked, and it was like the whole audience was cracking. They had never thought like that! In our postmodern times, everyone should “just ask questions, not deliver any answers” and “not patronise people”. For some reason you always have the answers, but you must not tell them to anyone else. (The funniest example is question columns in newspapers. Which, in accordance with the spirit of the time, never gives the person any advice, but only: “I understand how you feel, do as you please.”)
Now, Nina did not stay there. She went on to say that mama was full of pointers, what a mother should consume, what she should enjoy, what she should do in her own time, but it was apparently not called pointers.
That advertising is not seen as propaganda, while people still pretend to be traumatized that the National Board of Health and Welfare once wanted us to eat six to eight slices of bread a day, is symptomatic of the gap that Nina describes, between what we say and what we do. Incidentally, the said advertising was paid for by the bakers’ trade association and designed by LRF, which only used the National Board of Health and Welfare as an argument for selling its products, but that has been forgotten.
In Nina Björk’s thinking, one can discern two lines, the feminist and the socialist.
With Under the Pink Blanket in 1996, she got large parts of Sweden to become feminists, even PM Nilsson after reading it on a mountain trip. She was called the Feminist with a capital F in interviews and became an idol for the young non-parliamentary left movement and the most prominent of the wave of Swedish feminist writers who debuted in the early nineties, with Carin Holmberg’s It’s called Man Hatred and Pia Laskar’s Anarchafeminism.
What Nina Björk did so well was that she wrote about difficult things in a simple way. She distinguished between sex and gender so that everyone could understand. She explained why affirmative action was a good thing, and why you so naturally go into the bathroom with the symbol skirt even though you are not wearing a skirt.
Already then, she had adopted her special style, which has no equivalent in Swedish criticism: the isolation of the argument, the refinement of thinking. Nina Björk does not associate forward by thinking what someone else thinks and taking a position based on that. Nor does she use ad hominem. The persons are completely uninteresting, what their background is, and how they came to their conclusion. Nor does she use empiricism. Facts, percentages, sums are missing in her texts. This means that the text does not stand and fall with facts. The only thing that exists is the argument. She does not seek to take opponents apart, and therefore never uses their worst arguments when they have messed up. She does not come from behind, she says, choose your weapons, and then we will see what they say about you. She always uses the opponent’s best, most archetypal arguments and tries to draw them to her own conclusion.
That is precisely why she is completely unique in the Swedish public: she is truly a democratic thinker. She does not use jargon, which makes her texts eternal. It is also precisely because she takes the words seriously, as she said in Sommar i P1 in 2001.
How far it has gone since then, you think about when you hear her example. Nina Björk always uses a concrete example when she wants to present a thought.
The example was that Expressen’s sports columnist Mats Olsson had refused to write about women’s soccer. “Women’s soccer, women’s soccer, women’s soccer. So, now I have done my duty.” Expressen used the quote in its advertising, where Olsson was praised for “not leaving anyone untouched.” To touch has become more important than to argue.
“You have to shape up. I no longer have time to listen to someone who wants to touch just for the sake of touching. Herewith I declare provocation to be an out-of-date stylistic technique in cultural life. You can quit now,” said Nina.
There would only be more provocations, but Mats Olsson now writes about women’s soccer, in words like “a completely amazingly good match.”
Today, Under the Pink Blanket appears almost like a queer feminist manifesto with its idea of gender as performance. One must then understand the time it was written in. In 1996, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus was on the bestseller list, and a Jungian backlash threatened to reverse women’s progress with thoughts that mothers should be at home and that woman represent chaos and man order.
Had Nina not written Under the Pink Blanket, and had it not made such an impact, we might still have had it as in Norway where these thoughts are still considered completely normal.
But then her analysis became universal! Everyone thought like that! Queer became close to official policy, and it could have been easy for Nina to ride it and become one of Sweden’s many Ulrikas who still advocate what was edgy in their youth.
She could also have leaned back as a literary critic, where she had delivered both analyses of gender and modernity worthy of Ebba Witt Brattström in Song of Sirens, and one liners in DN Kultur, as when she wrote in 1998 about Bridget Jones’ Diary that no one should read it because you “have already read it. And seen it. But hopefully not lived it”.
But it is up to good writers to know when their critique of society becomes hegemonic.
And then Nina put in a new gear.
In 2007, the text Shit Dreams makes its entrance.
That text is a good example of how Nina works. It begins with a universal reflection, which could be taken from anyone:
“Our home is starting to get pretty broken. The floor lamp has tears in the shade. The coffee table stands on rickety legs and the dining room chairs are odd. Therefore, I have made a list: “To buy when we get money.”
Today I tore up that list. I’ve changed my mind.”
The text ends:
“We have built a society where we must be dissatisfied with old kitchen tables and inherited cousin clothes for the children. We have built a society where we must dream of refrigerators and dressing rooms. We have built a society of shit dreams. It’s time to realize that. The earth has already realized that. It reacts with heat. How we react to that heat determines the future.”
The text struck like a bomb.
But why then, really? Had not people criticized capitalism all along? What was new about it? Well, Nina aimed straight into the most sensitive, our homes. She did not talk about the need for capital to accumulate, she showed how it manifests itself directly in our dreams. That is why it had such an effect. “Shit dreams is 2007’s most unpleasant concept,” wrote Expressen’s editorial columnist. Rarely have so many widely differing debaters been seen attacking such a short text for such different reasons. One time Nina was an angry adolescent rebel, the second time she was an elite who looked down on others because she herself had inherited things. They could not decide why they were angry.
Few left-wing intellectuals can dream of such an impact.
When many have children, they become bourgeois, but for Nina it was the opposite. When she had children, she became anti-capitalist.
The following year, 2008, her dissertation Free Souls is published, also written with a popular address, and it begins:
“That was how it began. I had got my second child and thought I was discovering something: that we live in a culture that basically denies what it is to be human.”
In the naked infant, she sees a biological body that needs sleep, food, and clothing, but also a relational being, a dependent being, who needs to be taken care of and who cannot pay. She sees how the whole modern identity in the bourgeois novel is created by denying this dependence. Human nature as a dependent being, a human being born without being able to walk, not like a turtle, they need no socialism. But we humans do. Nina finds the raison d’être of socialism in human nature, where in the past so many have only found inequality, precisely because she does not start from the grown man, but from the small child.
And in this, the new Nina Björk is also born, who will increasingly criticize capitalism.
In 2012, Happily ever after came out, which became the then left-wing leader Jonas Sjöstedt’s book tip, and in 2016 The Dream of the Red – which I thought should be called Under Rosa’s blanket, the book about Rosa Luxemburg, which explains the basic principles of Marxism in a simple way. How cool it was that the country’s foremost feminist gets involved with Marxism, I probably did not understand until later.
If Nina Björk, who had been a feminist, had been seen as a radical, she as a socialist would often be mentioned as a conservative, perhaps because she took her starting point in human biology. We have had the opposite treatment there, I think – Nina was embraced as a feminist and taken apart as a socialist and for me it has been the other way around. If you have forgotten what one of Nina’s latest books is about, you cannot read the reviews because they don’t say anything about it. It’s sad to see her standing in the arena, asking her opponents, the country’s liberals and right-wing thinkers to choose weapons, but they do not heed the call but shout “fire” and evacuate the stands.
But also, maybe because she does something you absolutely should not – she interferes. She really believes in the choice – not the choice of electricity company, but the choice in Sartre’s sense. That whoever chooses, chooses for all. There are no private choices, all choices concern us all and politics is about interfering. How people take care of their children, how they live, what they hold up as desirable. She is like Elin Wägner in that, in looking at caregiving and motherhood as something that we humans should have as an ideal, not something that we should reject.
By the way, it was through Elin Wägner that we got to know each other. In 2007, I had written an article about Wägner in bang, and Nina wrote about it in DN. Then we met at a freelance meeting, and she said, it was brave to write about Wägner but you may not know it, that it is out of date?
– No, I probably do not know.
– No, you do not know.
Then we became acquainted, and as a friend she is an ordinary friend. It’s unusual in this world, in this trade. Many people you get to know through writing are sensitive to where the wind is blowing. If they suddenly disagree with you about something then they are gone, and your secrets are out online. Nina is not like that. She’s like anyone, someone you could have gotten to know in high school.
She’s actually genuinely kind.
And that also characterizes her role in the debate, where she is not at all interested in winning. She wants to sort things out. That made Expressen’s reviewer Karin Olsson flabbergasted in the review of Nina’s latest book If you love freedom. “Nina Björk is generous to her debate opponents”, Olsson wrote, “you almost get a little amazed, used to being at no mercy in the cultural debate.” Nina does not want to humble, she wants us to think together, and this coupled with the fact that she is not afraid of the big words: nature, existence, gender, and talks about them in a way that we can understand, regardless of age or background, makes her a truly popular thinker.
As Lenin said: if you throw nature out the door, it will come back through the window.
And I think that is a good justification for why Nina should have this award. Congratulations my fine friend!