In Kajsa Norman’s new book, Sweden’s claims to be morally superior are found wanting…
Readers of ‘Nordic Noir’ crime novels will be well aware of Sweden’s villainous politicians, closet fascists, corrupt police officers and ruthless tycoons. Such characters are all the more enticing for being almost wholly imaginary features of what we regard as a fundamentally nice if rather boring country.
Kajsa Norman’s account of Sweden’s real-life hypocrisy and contradictions is subtler and more gripping than any thriller. She starts with a distressing account of a youth festival in suburban Stockholm in August 2015. In the crowds and darkness, teenage girls are groped and worse. The police briefly detain some of the culprits, but say they are powerless to do more. After a short early-morning radio report of the incident, the media go silent.
The perpetrators are mostly young Afghan men — a type of blame that “cannot be cast” in a society that is too frightened of stereotype or stigmatisation to tell the truth. The author’s outrage bubbles from the page. “Hundreds of young girls have been sexually molested, abused and humiliated. In a public place, at a tax-financed event, under the supposed supervision of responsible adults. In a country that claims to be one of the most feminist places on earth. And for some unspoken reason, there will be no action. No justice. No story.”
Norman is an expatriate Swede living in Denver, Colorado. Her previous books have dealt with Afrikaner life in post-apartheid South Africa and the nightmarish results of Venezuela’s socialist experiment.
Turning her attention, with some trepidation, to her native land, she combines an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s perspective. Sweden’s image at home and abroad, polished over decades, is of high-minded, harmonious prosperity, which often fuels a sanctimonious disdain for other countries. On investigation, she finds Sweden’s claims to be a moral superpower wanting.
“She combines an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s perspective”
One thread in the book is historical, highlighting dark episodes such as the sterilisation of “misfits” — more than 62,000 people, mostly women, about 20,000 of them entirely involuntarily. The policy continued as late as 1975. Among the possible justifications for sterilisation, she writes, were “extravagant or unkempt clothing, disinterest or exaggerated interest in one’s children, shyness, being too talkative, restlessness, unemployment, apathy, stubbornness, hubris, promiscuity, wastefulness, cheekiness, laziness, painted fingernails, obstinacy, dyslexia, black hair, cleft palates”. A related scandal was the forcible adoption of children on similar grounds, including “excessive affection” — overly tight family ties were thought to undermine loyalty to wider society.
The “unimind” — as she calls the well-drilled and now instinctive conformism of Swedish society — leaves it untroubled by this and other largely forgotten aspects of the past. It also, she argues, renders it unable to deal with the problems of the present, notably its open-door policy towards refugees (and migrants claiming refugee status, even on the flimsiest of grounds). In 2015, she notes, Sweden took in a record 163,000 asylum seekers, the highest figure per head of any country in the EU. They included 35,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly boys, and more than two thirds of them were from Afghanistan.
Such inflows could be manageable, she says, if Swedes would accept changes to their welfare and economic system, the Folkhemmet, or “people’s home”. This offers exceptionally generous conditions, but demands in return a level of social compliance unattainable by most newcomers. Many are left stranded on the margins of society, amid much mutual resentment. About half the country’s adult refugee population arrive with primary-school education or less. Unsurprisingly, many struggle to find a foothold in a pernickety (fluency in Swedish is a must) and highly structured labour market.
The lives of two outsiders run through her book. Samvel Atebekyan grew up in Armenia obsessed with Ingmar Bergman films. As a student in Stockholm, the closer he comes to perfect Swedishness, the more troubled he becomes. Swedes pretend to engage in discussion, he notes, but “usually they just sit with unlistening eyes, waiting for their turn to talk”. To most questions, it seems, there is only one permissible answer.
Moreover, given that all their material needs are met, why are Swedes not happier? Before he can finish investigating the melancholy and hollowness, he is deported back to Armenia, in a mystifyingly harsh, but incontestable bureaucratic response to his application for permanent residency. The unstated irony is that, amid the social strains of failed integration, Sweden deports someone who has even internalised angest — the untranslatable word that encompasses all kinds of discomfort, frustration, misery, panic and stress.
“The unstated irony is that, amid the social strains of failed integration, Sweden deports someone who has even internalised angest — the untranslatable word that encompasses all kinds of discomfort, frustration, misery, panic and stress.”
The book’s other main personality is Chang Frick, the son of a neglectful gypsy metal dealer and an abusive Polish-Jewish mother. Against the odds, Chang makes a success of his life, gaining a degree in metallurgy and running a successful business.
Nine months after the youth festival assaults, on an independent news website, Frick publishes the story of the event. Yet far from prompting a belated discussion of the mainstream media’s scandalous neglect of the story, he ends up under fire. Sweden’s liberal consensus is stiflingly narrow and rigorously enforced, with a determined disregard for truth, justice or context. In another example, Nyamko Sabuni, the Burundi-born integration minister, is denounced in the most hyperbolic language as a racist and is forced to resign. Her crime: trying to tweak policy on parental leave to encourage new immigrants to send their children to school earlier.
For all its seeming rigidity, the opinion corridor can change quickly — and with an Orwellian disregard for consistency; Sweden’s policy on refugees toughens sharply in the course of the events described in the book. A big beneficiary of this stifling and arbitrary consensus is the anti-establishment Sweden Democrats, who raised their share of the vote from 14 per cent in 2014 to 18 per cent in this September’s election, attracting blue-collar votes from the once mighty Social Democrats.
Despite the leadership’s attempts to cleanse the party’s fascist history, the Sweden Democrats are demonised by the mainstream media and politicians. Norman is no sympathiser, but she points out that the supposedly extremist group is the third most popular party among voters with an immigrant background. Unlike the middle-class Swedes, who police the national consensus, this segment of the population, she notes, is particularly exposed to the crime, fraying public services and other social stresses arising from botched migration policy. “It’s their cars that go up in flames.” Her lucid and insightful book suggests other things in Sweden are smouldering too, not least its reputation.
Sweden’s Dark Soul: The Unravelling of Utopia is published by Hurst.
EDWARD LUCAS writes for The Times.
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