This is not a political piece. Not really. It’s more like a whole bunch of memories, strung together, and a plea for a reversal of the change I see sweeping the nation I love.
I am a Swedish neocon, and a Jew, so I guess I am basically a unicorn. I was born in a sleepy town on Sweden’s west coast in the early 1980s, when the country was an inch from being a full-blown East German state. I should be a socialist feminist performance artist, or a hipster filmmaker, passionate about gender-neutral daycare and sourdough bread. But I got lucky, and I broke away from the herd.
I first stepped on U.S. soil in the spring of 1990. My father had spent his high-school years in Texas in the early ’60s, and now he wanted his daughter to see what he had seen and love what he loved. And boy, did I ever. I was 9, and that trip would end up shaping my life forever.
I’m not sure if I can fully convey the cultural shock of going from Sweden to Dallas in the 1990s, or if it is even wise to try. Because how can I describe what it is to taste your very first doughnut or go to Toys R Us at that age and see row after row of wonderfully girly Barbie dolls? I came from the country of meh to the nation of yeah. And it was nothing short of magnificent.
I was lucky enough to spend my summers there, in the heart of Texas, and with every visit I gained a growing awareness of the differences between your country and mine. America was loud. It was uncomfortable and alive. People were different, not only from Swedes, but from each other.
It was the small stuff. There were flags flown publicly; people showed national pride while maintaining a strong sense of individuality. They prayed at the dinner table, and even in schools! Women were allowed to choose to be home with their kids without guilt or government penalty, and people still got married and protected the institution of the traditional family.
In America I saw all these astounding, giant little things — and your amazing mix of rallying behind your country while at the same time demanding its leaders be held accountable, for your rights to be respected and your voices to be heard.
I lived with my dad’s childhood friend, Jay, an old-school Republicanwith a passion for history and politics. On my first visit he gave me a copy of the Declaration of Independence and patiently explained it word for word. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”: Those words jumped out at me. This document said not only that I should be free to chart my own course, but that I had a right to pursue happiness? That changed everything. That changed me.
Jay and I talked politics all the time, and every visit was a living lesson. He took me to the Alamo; we followed the Clinton impeachment, debated the Gulf War, and stood side by side on Dealey Plaza. And I fell in love, slowly but surely. I got to know a nation that was based on certain intrinsic values, that carried a responsibility for the world and saw freedom as a right worth living and dying for.
I went back and forth between Sweden and the U.S., between socialism and freedom, and it was like growing up not only on two sides of the world, but on two sides of history. I saw America helping to change the world and saving lives while Europe engaged in knee-jerk liberal analysis and Monday-morning quarterbacking. And every time the U.S. unapologetically went its own way, I smiled with pride, sleeping soundly at night knowing that just like in my bedtime stories, there was a hero out there who would always show up just in time to save the day.
But things have changed, haven’t they? In the past years I have seen the country I love so much change, moving toward the country I grew up in. I saw a president get elected on promises of change, and apparently things had changed enough by 2012 to get him reelected too. Despite his exit the changes have lingered, making commonplace what should be absurd and eccentric. Well, guess what? I know the change that your former president speaks of. I have lived it, and I live it still.
It is in your very nature to reject bullies, dogmas, and emperors in the buff, regardless of their political affiliation.
I know what happens when government trumps the individual, I know what it means when you apologize for the values that built your land, and I have seen the horrific results of a nation equating exceptionalism with brutality and deeming values moronic and obsolete. And I know one thing especially well: If you grow up in a country that doesn’t ask anything of you, you end up living an entire life without asking anything of yourself — expecting nothing, excelling at nothing, with no repercussions for failure and no incentive for growth. And it kills your very soul.
I also know, however, that there is a way back and a road forward, and I know you have it in you, because you taught me what it means to be free. It is in your very nature to reject bullies, dogmas, and emperors in the buff, regardless of their political affiliation. We look to you to lead us, and I know that you will.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”; I hope every single one of you get how amazing that is, in word and in meaning. To me, it captures what it is to be human, by highlighting not only our need for freedom and our right to life, but also the massive capability every single person is born with. This is something no government entity can ever replace, and no well-spoken leader should ever be given the power or pulpit to question.
You are exceptional, and coming to America taught me that I could be exceptional, too. Thank you for that. Thank you.
— Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a political consultant and writer who lives in Sweden.