Watching the world watching Sweden in the run-up to the September 9 elections is an infuriating pastime. Few countries fool people into thinking they can acquire a good grasp of its culture and society in a short period of time as does this cluster of 10 million people up by the Arctic Circle. Sweden is far from simple.
Is there crime? Yes. Problems in schools? Yes. Dissatisfaction with healthcare? Sure. Is Sweden on the brink of implosion? Not even close.
What a large portion of the international media pitch to us is that, in Sweden, a utopia is being dislodged by a dystopia. A previously pristine, egalitarian, peaceful welfare state is now rotting from the inside with murders, no-go zones, and widespread social discord. The primary evidence for the reality of this dystopia? The fact that the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in neo-Nazism, is pushing 20 percent in the polls, and has an outside chance of becoming the largest party in Sweden.
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The problem is that a utopia is just that: a mythological place. Yet, time and time again, journalists discuss Sweden as if the ad for Sweden actually matched what you get when you open the package. It isn’t. More murders in Sweden in 1979 than in 2017? Not discussed. One of the largest per capita weapons exporters in the world? Not relevant. Ranked in 2014 as a “high inequality” country where 10 percent of the population holds between 65-69 percent of the nation’s wealth? Let’s not mess up the narrative. IKEA left Sweden years ago to avoid tax? Let’s just pretend it’s still there. Large-scale flight of young people from smaller towns as post-industrialism and globalization hit? Can address that later.
No, in the international press, the utopian visions of the way Sweden “used to be”—sprinkled with not-so-subtle mentions of the country having once been “ethnically and culturally homogeneous”—serve a very important narrative function. Heaven’s juxtaposition is, after all, Hell. Of course, no one is literally saying that Sweden is Hell (well…maybe a few), but the overblown and misleading “Collapsing Sweden” narrative has been hard to avoid, and many Swedes reading these articles simply do not see themselves, or their country, in what they see and hear in the international press. Just a few days ago, for example, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled, “How the Far-Right Conquered Sweden.” Given that roughly 80 percent of Swedes will NOT be voting for the far-right, and that most of that 80 percent do not want their party of choice to enter into a coalition with the far-right, let’s just say this is a pretty loose definition of being conquered. Is there crime? Yes. Problems in schools? Yes. Dissatisfaction with healthcare? Sure. Is Sweden on the brink of implosion? Not even close. In other words: a regular country. But, when your benchmark is some naïve, unreachable utopia, “regular” can sound pretty horrific.
Here’s the thing about the dystopian vision: buying into it is ultimately corrosive and self-destructive. We need only look across the Atlantic, to the United States, to see how the acceptance and embrace of a dark, nihilistic vision of state and society, leveraged by political parties, breeds savage individualism, fear, mistrust and even violence. It is clear that politics in both the U.S. and Europe needs reforming. That media (and media policy) need reforming. But, Trumpism (and similar politics) isn’t about reform, it’s about encouraging the rejection and destruction of the very structures in society that can, if reformed properly, be agents for positive change. But that’s not what we hear. We hear that the media are all corrupt liars. The state is your mortal enemy. People who don’t look like you are out to get you. Universities and schools are Marxist indoctrination centers. Science is propaganda. There is no hope for the future in this vision, and no sense of collective justice. Just an eternal, self-perpetuating war between groups and individuals where no one wins.
So, as Sweden goes to the polls on September 9, one can only hope that the dystopian vision is not embraced. Many Swedes still have a core belief in the importance of social institutions and egalitarianism, and—to steal an idea from Voltaire’s Candide—such a belief must be cultivated and nurtured in order to have any chance for real reform and progress.