A day or so ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an intriguing article by Ariel Kramer, an American living in Gothenburg, about the difficulty of discussing the migrant crisis in Sweden. It’s a subtle piece, and well worth reading in full, but here are some extracts:
Some weeks ago, my significant other, a native Swede, and I hosted a dinner party where he specifically asked me not to express my views on the refugee crisis to avoid an uncomfortable situation. To me, this was unfathomable. Even if their opinions were different, I was still interested in having an open discussion. I wanted to understand the reasoning behind their opinions.
Puzzled, I reached out to an American expat in Stockholm who has lived in Sweden since 2013 to see if his experience matched mine. Although he asked that his name not be used, he said: “If you have an opinion that slightly differs from what’s seen as popular or safe, you can easily be labeled as a racist.”
Kramer is not exaggerating.
One reason for what seemed to me a dearth of discussion might be the way that Swedes see themselves. Gunnar Gilberg, Gothenburg University lecturer for sociology and work science, said: “One explanation of why the migration debate is so sensitive in Sweden is probably the Swedish self-image of being a moral superpower. Many in Sweden really want to be good people and there’s a black-and-white perception of who the victim is and who is guilty. If you are critical, for example, of immigration in Sweden you can be quickly seen as morally deviant.” He added that this collective mindset has tended to block debate among politicians, journalists and opinion leaders.
That’s true – and it has also led those same politicians, journalists, and opinion leaders to block debate in the country at large (perhaps throwing in a threat of prosecution or two to make sure that all Swedes get the message).
But, even in Sweden, untoward thoughts have a way of slipping the leash. In this case, as Kramer notes, the beneficiary has been the once obscure Sweden Democrats:
Until recently, the only political party noticeably voicing concern was Sweden’s nationalist party, the Swedish Democrats (SD), known for its anti-immigration views. All seven other parties have shunned SD from debates on the topic and showed minor concern over the effects the refugee crisis has had on Sweden. The result is a polarization of views on immigration for months on end, and the underlying growing concern is reflected by opinion polls now showing SD support at nearly 20%.
Reasonable people can disagree over immigration, but the refusal to engage in serious debate on the topic (and, indeed, the insistence that even wanting to have a debate was somehow suspect) can only be seen as a major democratic failure.
After speaking with several Swedes, I was finally able to get a few to open up. Even so, not many were open to being quoted. I believe this speaks volumes. Swedish Reporters Without Borders president, Jonathan Lundqvist, recently wrote an article on the subject, saying, “The true measure of how well-functioning freedom of speech is, is how we treat those who fall outside the mainstream: the provocateurs, politically extreme, [the] satirist, the different, the tough and tenacious. It is as true in China, Iran and Eritrea as it is in Sweden.”
Patrik Gargolinski, a lawyer and native Swede, said he suspects this mindset of being afraid to stand out is rooted deeply within what is known in Sweden as Jantelagen or the Law of Jante. Jantelagen is a negative term used to describe a feeling of individual superiority instead of emphasizing the collective over individual achievement.
There’s a lot to that. The Jantelagen is something that can be seen throughout the Nordic region (the term derives from a book written by a Danish-Norwegian author), but in Sweden it reinforces — and is reinforced by — the importance that so many Swedes attach to consensus.
When it comes to immigration, that consensus is quite clearly fraying. How much of that is due to the fact that Swedes now feel freer to speak out and how much is due to an underlying change in public opinion is something that would be very interesting to know.
Meanwhile in Germany, that rather more confrontational country some way to Sweden’s south, voters seem to be becoming a touch irritable.
According to a new INSA poll for Focus, 39.9% of Germans want Chancellor Angela Merkel to resign over her handling of the refugee crisis compared to 45.2% who do not think she ought to resign.
In theory, at least, the 39.9 percent are right and the 45.2 percent need their heads examined. Merkel, a mediocrity made large by a high quotient of low cunning, has now firmly established herself as Germany’s worst postwar chancellor. If there wer any justice, and if she had any honor, she would resign. But the 39.9 percent should take care. Merkel’s successor is unlikely to be much better and may — incredible as it may seem — be even worse.