One of my favorite story motifs is of the king who travels incognito to learn what is really happening in his land. This idea shows up not only in folktales and fictions, but also in reality: Caliph Harun al-Rashid did it in 8th-century Iraq, while Turkmenbashi, the deceased leader of Turkmenistan, did it in his days as Soviet boss of that desert land. King Abdullah of Jordan also disguised himself and walked among his people shortly after he came to the throne.
But it’s not only Eastern potentates who like to walk among mortals on occasion. This week we can add to the list of incognito leaders a man I had never heard of until two days ago: Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway.
Of course it stands to reason that Norway has a prime minister, but Norway being Norway I don’t pay much attention to what goes on over there. Aside from the mass murderer Anders Breivik and the black metal killer Varg Vikernes, I probably couldn’t name a single living Norwegian. Now at least I can add Jens Stoltenberg to that list.
But I digress. The reason I heard about Stoltenberg was because he decided that it was time to move among his people, to listen to them directly, and to that end he spent part of one day driving a taxi equipped with a hidden camera. His reasoning, on the footage I saw, was clear:“As prime minister it’s important to listen to people’s opinions, and in taxis people really say what they mean.”
Given that it is probably many years since Stoltenberg has ridden in a taxi, I am not sure how he knows this; perhaps it is a vestigial memory from the days before his ascension to the dizzying heights of state power in Norway. (Do they have a king there? I think they do, although – being Scandinavian and no doubt very groovy – he almost certainly won’t wear a cool gold hat like the monarch of my homeland.)
But still, I like the idea of prime minister as taxi driver. It’s true: Sometimes people do say what they really think in cabs. Unfortunately, Stoltenberg went about it all wrong. He made no effort to disguise himself, and almost immediately every passenger he picked up recognized him, and then every conversation that followed was pretty banal – moaning about overpaid fat cat CEOs, platitudes about education… dreadful stuff, totally standard for European politics. Why, it’s almost as if it were all just a PR stunt undertaken because his party is tanking in the polls!
Well, if so, it worked, because not only do I now know who he is, I also know there’s an election coming up in Norway and his party is tanking in the polls!
If Stoltenberg had really wanted to know what “the people” think, then he would have worn a giant beard and a hat, and put on some cheap clothes, and driven a cab that was not a Mercedes in a bad part of town. But instead of subjecting himself to that gritty, urban experience, the organizers even hired five “passengers” in advance to get in the cab with him! They claimed it was because they wanted “diversity,” but I suspect it was the opposite: They were terrified that a racist or a sociopath or an ugly person or a black metal freak might get in the car with the prime minister and start saying things beyond the realms of socially acceptable discourse, about immigrants, or the death penalty, or whatever.
Even so, I still find myself half-liking Stoltenberg for carrying out his totally contrived stunt. Wherever you go – whether it be the worst kind of totalitarian hellhole or an officially “nice” liberal democracy like Norway – leaders live in isolation, surrounded by courtiers and lackeys and other members of the elite. They don’t send their kids to the same schools as us (which explains why the state education systems are so bad in the US and UK at least). They don’t eat in the same restaurants; they don’t go to the same places on holiday; they don’t drive their own cars; they don’t do their own shopping; they don’t worry about going bankrupt. Primarily they worry about staying in power, or putting one over the other guy. (Some, of course, are true believers, and they are the most dangerous of all.)
Well for a brief moment, Stoltenberg stepped away from that, and even if he learned nothing, he at least drove some regular folk around town, and did it badly, which requires some humility, and that is a good thing. As for people’s opinions, I have a top tip for him and other world leaders: There’s this thing called the Internet, and it’s full of people’s opinions.
It’s amazing! You can go to almost any newspaper, click on an article and scroll down to the comments below. Here, blessed by anonymity, ordinary folk unburden themselves of private thoughts and rages with alarming abandon. They’re much more open than they are in taxis, and they say the kinds of things that nice, friendly Norwegian prime ministers – and indeed leaders of almost any persuasion – really don’t want to hear. But I suspect Stoltenberg already knows that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.