Living in Sweden, a place where injustice may be just the new way of life

FALUN, Sweden—If Julian Assange enters Sweden, he won’t be coming to the country many people think of. In 2010, an article from The Guardian was titled “The new Swedish xenophobia,” its Swedish author forecasting xenophobia would “gain new strength, new strongholds, new legitimacy.” And it has.

On just 25 April, the Swedish Parliament held a seminar on discrimination in this nation’s justice system. It appears as troubled as some of Sweden’s citizens.

It was December when neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Stockholm, parading by the Jewish Community’s headquarters, their protest against a perceived ‘Jewish conspiracy’ too historically familiar. On 13 May, Swedish media reported that a Riksdag party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats (SD), had increased about 40% in popularity over the last month, 6.6% of Swedes now supporting them. Beyond this, in April the head of the Obama administration’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, actually came to Sweden, discussing what have been described as the Social Democratic mayor of Malmö’s repeated ‘anti-Semitic’ comments . . . all of these events speaking to disturbing changes.

I’ll add that discrimination here is certainly a fact for many more than Jews, as indeed it was in the Europe of the 1930s.

Further emphasizing the current milieu’s gravity, the trial of a man accused of randomly shooting immigrants in Malmö opened on 14 May, the victims mostly of Islamic heritage. According to the New York Times, the lead prosecutor also alleged in an interview that the fellow believes it was actually Jews that were responsible for the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center, highlighting the nature of the present hate, the threat immigrants and minorities are facing.

When I first came to Sweden, to Falun, it was 1997, and I genuinely found it a place that felt the closest on earth to heaven. But over the last years, I have seen changes, personally endured events, that earlier I could not even have conceived of.

Sweeping ‘economic reforms’ have reshaped Sweden and much of Europe. Effectively, there has been a massive redistribution of societal assets, one that has steadily resulted in the disenfranchisement of untold numbers, numbers that had once belonged to Europe’s storied middle class. But while the pain of this ‘reform and austerity’ is genuine, blame is being too often wrongly placed.

The poison fruit of so-called ‘reform’

Recent headlines illustrate that many have sought scapegoats, blaming minorities and immigrants instead of their political leadership. Statistics show the far-right’s message of scapegoating and hate has found an increasing audience, and while centrist political figures do condemn the far-right’s rhetoric, I have yet to hear one accept blame for the current upheaval their reforms and austerity brought.

In the first round of French voting, the far-right Front National polled 18%. In Greece, Golden Dawn—a party that reportedly advocates concentration camps for immigrants—received 7% of the vote, up considerably from the .23% they received in the prior election.

In late April, Reuters reported Francois Hollande, France’s newly elected president, describing the roots of his nation’s far-right leanings as “economic despair among ‘a suffering electorate.’” The fact of ‘austerity’ stricken Greece’s neo-Nazis celebrating a poll rise of about 3,000% makes further statement. Of course, if one ties the development of far-right feelings to economic privation, it would seem there’s ample room to argue that a ‘poison fruit’ has grown from the branches of Europe’s ‘reforms,’ and in Sweden ‘the reforms’ have proved particularly noteworthy.

Social democracy a museum-piece

Like much of the West, Sweden has embraced neoliberalism, but done so with extraordinary speed. Only this March, the US’s conservative Heritage Foundation happily intoned that Sweden has privatized and deregulated itself faster than any other advanced economy on the planet. And as the right wing US magazine American Spectator gleefully reported in September, “Sweden has been quietly turning social democracy into a museum-piece.”

According to The Local (Sweden’s largest English-language media site) a new Swedish Parliament report found that: “When unemployment, sickness and work-related injury benefits are added up, the maximum level of compensation in 2010 was only half the relative level available in 1975.” The article also noted one of the reports authors observing that Sweden is in “the process of abandoning the famed ‘Swedish model.’”

For many in Sweden, the changes have not been cause for celebration—they have only been quick and painful. This once egalitarian country now has “the steepest increase in inequality over 15 years amongst the 34 OECD nations,” Reuters reported in March, adding that the financial gap between Swedes is “rising at four times the pace of the United States.”

For tourists coming to Stockholm, a new bus to take is one which offers the so-called ‘class war safari,’ affording visitors a view of the truly ‘New Sweden,’ a Sweden increasingly of the rich and the poor.

Tax-reforms substantively aiding the wealthy and business (i.e., Sweden ended inheritance taxes in 2005), plus ‘corporate welfare,’ have effectively meant devastating cuts to social programs. But many Swedes mistakenly turn their wrath upon societal minorities instead of the political leadership responsible for present policies, immigrants being a particular target, but obviously not the only one.

While many appear in denial of any significant danger, it’s perhaps worth recalling that in the year prior to 1929’s ‘economic crisis,’ Germany’s Nazi Party polled 2.6% of the vote; but, by 1933 Hitler was Chancellor. Given this, it would seem prudent not to underestimate the potential effects of widespread economic suffering, and in Sweden, the suffering is increasingly substantive.

Disarray in healthcare and social services is obvious here. Seemingly regular news pieces now appear about ambulances that are called for but never come; medical ‘errors’ are making increasing headlines (a fellow with a broken neck sent home on painkillers); incontinent elderly in care centers have had their used diapers weighed to ensure ‘proper’ use; plus, unemployment compensation, sick pay, and disability benefits are similarly a shadow of their former selves, things such as education and child care taking substantive hits as well.

Glaringly, the pattern is repeated throughout this nation’s once great social service network. Of course, those political leaders responsible have not volunteered to accept any blame, the age-old evil of scapegoting arising along with Sweden’s far-right, conveniently diverting the electorate’s attention from those leaders who in reality should be enduring the public’s wrath.

Xenophobia, a societal contagion

Following the SD’s 2010 election to Sweden’s parliament, I interviewed political scientist Cristian Norocel for The Christian Science Monitor, reporting at the time that: “The SD has ‘managed to fish in very murky waters on both the left and the right. The party does not have just a racist political agenda . . . it is also a matter of welfare,’ says Mr. Norocel.” That article also notes Norocel added that “the party’s nationalism, its stance on immigration and perspective upon cultural stereotypes, plus its embrace of social programs, parallels many aspects of ‘very early National Socialism (Nazism) in Europe.’”

As a Jew that lost the European side of my family in the Holocaust, I often wondered how a people with the cultured civility of the Germans could have allowed Nazism to rise. I have recently come to believe the answer lies in an inability to perceive the consequences of events when they occur, the empty reassurances of widespread denial, of victim blaming, significantly aids in the growth of horror.

It is difficult to convey the venom I’ve heard directed towards immigrants, the rants being almost laughable if they weren’t so in earnest. And, as in the 1930s, racism is also a factor, a YouTube video link, “Swedish Racism: The Venus Hottentot Cake Vs. Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth,” illustrating the point.

Today, as I write this, this journalist’s own life is actually in jeopardy, i.e., over the last 18 months I have suffered three quite serious incidents of vandalism in my apartment. I’ll add that such crime is unheard of in the area I live. But, such threats are not the most severe that the new xenophobia presents.

Swedish governmental reports do detail substantive discrimination by the country’s authorities and courts against minorities and those of foreign origins. Of course, once xenophobia and racism become part of a nation’s official structures, decisions based upon them carry the full force of law.

I won’t dwell upon what this can mean for any in Sweden not born here of majority heritage, but in a time where predatory conduct is not unknown, substantive implications are apparent on both the personal and business levels.

Writing on Sweden for Asia Times in August 2011, I wrote the article ‘Living with the far right,’ the last paragraph of it noting that if “it seems as though many of the circumstances described are difficult to even imagine, I agree, except perhaps in the context of another era.”

Copyright © 2012 Ritt Goldstein. All rights reserved.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden. His work has appeared fairly widely, including in America’s Christian Science Monitor, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Spain’s El Mundo, Sweden’s Aftonbladet, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, Hong Kong’s Asia Times, and a number of other global media outlets.

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9 Responses to Living in Sweden, a place where injustice may be just the new way of life

  1. Pingback: Ny radioföljetong i P1: Brevet till fadern av Franz Kafka. Plus: Strindberg i Litteraturbanken! | Carinas blogg

  2. Pierre Simon

    The situation you describe is vividly painted in Stieg Larrson’s book Millenium. Sweden, unfortunately, like most western countries, has taken the path of right wing extremism. It started with the assassination of Palm. And it will get worst.

  3. Ritt Goldstein’s articles are invaluable in keeping us informed of how rollbacks are affecting Sweden – the place some of us in the USA used to think of as a model for social welfare. The truth is much more discouraging, but for that very reason we cannot refuse to face it. Thank you, Mr. Goldstein!

  4. Another reader from Sweden

    Miserable article as the author fails to point out just why and by whom the jews in Malmoe are harassed by and afraid to go outside. It´s not because of the Swedish Democrats whose politics in most areas are the same as the Social Democratic vision of Sweden were in the 1950s (svenska folkhemmet).
    As so can see from the pictures in this youtubevideo from a demonstation in Malmö ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMX-SzzJ8Y8 ) it´s the leftwing socialist freaks together with muslims showing their hatred for the Jews. You can see several hamas flags and antijew-messages.

    Blaming the rightwing for all of this hate shows just how unknowing the author is about the political situation in sweden. But mainstream swedish media loves articles like this as it tells the story the way Political Correct people wants to show it.

    The tax reform bullshit is yet another lie that the author swallows without even the slightest reflection. It´s is the escalating and out of control immigration politics thats bringing Sweden to it´s knee as the immigrants don´t get any jobs, takes social welfare money AND works in the black market OR want to become part of the swedish society.

    Shame on you!
    Ritt you poor mistake for a political journalist, how a about you come down to Malmoe, put on a jarmulke and walk around in the central parts of the city and see how long before you will get bullied by MENA-people.
    Falun is a small craptown where nothing ever happens.

    LIES LIES LIES!

    The fact is my dear americans is that sweden is run by seven parties all with an almost identical political agenda for the future of Sweden, which is stealing this once proud nations sovereignty and ushering it into a state in the socialist wet dream called united states of EU.
    The only political party showing their disdain for this is the Swedish Democrats so no wonder they get called names like rascist party, neo-nazies and other things by the rest.
    The only reason they allow the immigration to continue is for the social democrats to gain more votes in the coming elections and for the Moderaterna to dump the prices on work so Sweden can compete with low salaries on employment. We are still one of the countries with the highest taxes in the world and the most beautiful women too!

    • Ritt Goldstein

      Thank you for highlighting the tactics of the Sweden Democrats so well. There’s nothing like a good example to help people understand an issue. The SD is indeed ‘Net-savvy’…among other things.

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  7. Ritt Goldstein

    In a further comment upon the changing nature of Sweden, the latest polls show the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) — a party with neo-Nazi roots — as now the country’s third largest party, their popularity gaining an added 30% in the most recent poll. That makes an increase of 40% during April/May, and 30% for May/June…
    http://www.thelocal.se/41236/20120604/ .

    Welcome to the 1930s.

  8. Political culture is too vague a term to relaly ascribe anything like stability too. All nations stable or unstable have political cultures, it’s the content of that culture that help provide stability or instablity. Socialization again relaly isn’t a factor. It’s assimilation that is. Conformity and assimilation are not the same thing. Socialization implies conformity while assimilation means commonality about the most crucial elements but does not imply and in fact implies the opposite when you talk about America which values non-conformity. So to be an assimilated American you kinda have to adopt a love of the underdog and of non-conformity. America is rather rare but not unique in it’s cultural love of non-conformity. Socialization just means participation in that society and that you adopt the day to day get along kinds of things. For example in modern American society bathing on a daily or frequent basis is a necessary socialization. It allows you to interact with others. Not picking your nose in public, driving on the right side of the road. Wearing clothing in public are all examples of socialization. Stability is arrived because of a strong sense of nationalism and a core culture that is nearly univesal. Instability arrises from cultural conflicts and failure of society to assimilate large segments of the population. This creates separate and competing cultures. For example the current political situation in the US. This inevitably brings bloodshed if it goes on long enough. The conflict can simmer for centuries or for only a couple decades but sooner or later wars of words turn into real wars as the core values are so incompatible that conflict is necessary to subdue and assimilate one or both cultures or to split the nation into lands where each culture can be dominate in it’s own borders. Don’t confuse sub cultures with lack of assimilation. Sub cultures are just variations on the main theme. The core values are the same but the expression of them, the jargon, style of dress, favored activities and a host of other things are quite different. Sub cultures are also a means of peacefully changing core cultural values by slow gradual modifications A sub culture however that splits off and becomes an independent culture has cut their tie with the other cultures and set sail for war. Also don’t confuse the politicized core values idea. Both American political parties have polluted the word with their own interpettations. Core values just means the things that make a person a nationality. Loss of nationalism has historically and curently %100 of the time reduced the stability of a nation. Nationalism is essential to glue disparate peoples together as brothers with common cause and complaint.