The USA’s Problem with Sweden

Americans have long had a problem with Sweden. Trump’s invention of an Islamicist terror attack there a couple of days ago is just the latest example. It wasn’t just a question of news distortion, though it seems clear that the television programme that gave him the idea – Fox News, of course – was grossly misleading and misinterpreted. (See

But there’s a history of this kind of thing. If it’s not crime, rape and atrocities caused by immigrants, then it’s gloom, alcoholism and high suicide rates, attributed to Sweden’s welfare state. In many Americans’ eyes, these national characteristics define the place. The following piece in today’s Guardian is good on this: Living in the USA, as I once did, I came across this over and over again. I once read in a newspaper, for example, that the Stockholm murder rate was higher than Chicago’s. Most of these ‘facts’ were as grotesquely unreliable as that.

In recent years, ‘Nordic Noir’ may have been partly to blame. (An American friend of mine, a distinguished academic, once told me he was putting off a trip to Sweden after reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. I’ve tried to keep him away from Midsomer Murders, lest he cross England off his list too.) Some Americans also appear to think that Sweden is cold and dark all the year round. Then of course there’s the misery-laden culture: August Strindberg, Ingmar Bergman and so on (see; and the Swedes’ reputation for taciturnity. Swedes don’t seem to have much fun, unless they’re drunk. All untrue, of course. (Well, mainly.)

But the chief reason for this common American image of Sweden must go deeper. It’s rooted in the Americans’ whole dominant national culture, which predisposes them to believe it. From this point of view, Sweden as it is – as I know it to be – must be, frankly, impossible. Its people are – generally – law-abiding, moral, hard working, happy and prosperous. Crime is low, and productivity high. Sweden can be generous to refugees, without more than the minimum of social disruption. – And yet: religious attendance in Sweden is probably the lowest in Europe; its penal policy liberal; its prisons sparsely populated; its welfare provision surely enough to deter all enterprise; its trade unions powerful; its working days short and legal annual holiday allowances hugely generous; no-one carries guns (except for hunting); children are looked after by the State from a very young age; health provision and higher education are free; classes and the sexes are roughly equal (for most of them); and taxes are pretty high, certainly by American standards.

By Americans’ economic, religious and penal criteria, all this should spell disaster for the country. Which is what makes it difficult for them to accept all the rosier pictures that occasionally come out of Sweden: the ‘Swedish model’, and all that. And which led Trump to conclude that, if Sweden was admitting all those Muslim refugees – this was what he was talking about – the country must be suffering for it. There ought to be a jihadist massacre there. In other words, the wish, or the theory, or the prejudice, is father to the thought. (Or to the ‘alternative fact’.)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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7 Responses to The USA’s Problem with Sweden

  1. “And which led Trump to conclude that, if Sweden was admitting all those Muslim refugees – this was what he was talking about – the country must be suffering for it. There ought to be a jihadist massacre there.”

    Let us hope that Trump’s comments do not act as incitement to those on the right in Sweden. It would be expecting too much to think that the ‘Swedish model’ was immune – at least at the fringes – from the kind of atavistic nativism that affects the rest of Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Swedish Right is certainly latching on to Trump’s remarks – trying to show that they are substantially justified. A fracas last night over the arrest of a drug dealer in Rinkeby (a largely immigrant suburb of Stockholm) has been played up to this end. One alleged picture of the ‘riot’ showed black rioters in vests (it’s below freezing here), and police with riot shields labelled ‘POLICE’ (the Swedish for Police is ‘POLIS’). I looked for it this morning but it seems to have been taken down.
      Incidentally, Sweden isn’t perfect! I’ve blogged about its shortcomings before. But immigrants don’t appear to be a major problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. TJ says:

    And yet Swedes have often had an idealised view of the US with 1.3 million emigrating there by 1900 mainly from agriculture. In the 17/18th American religious freedom was appreciated; in the 19thc its republicanism and civil rights; in the early 20thc its living standards, and post-war its popular culture from cinema to jazz, and even the Vietnam way didn’t dent this. I was surprised when I first visited Sweden in 60s to hear young people speaking English with an american accent, but perhaps they were Americans!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true. But bear in mind that the earlier Swedish emigrants to America, up to, say, WWI, went there with the idea of forming communities in their own images (or according to their own ideals), and not of conforming to what we would recognise as American culture today. Even now much of Wisconsin and Minnesota bear a fairly Swedish character. I seem to recall Wisconsin’s capital being called – in jest, no doubt – the ‘Socialist Republic of Madison’ just a few years ago.
      Nearly all Swedes under a certain age speak English perfectly; quite a lot with American accents, though English pronunciation is regarded as classier. It depends who taught them. Quite a lot of American draft-dodgers came over during the VietnamWar, and became teachers.


  3. Phil says:

    How on earth do Republicans explain Canada?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point. I don’t know. During all the times I’ve lived and visited there, I don’t remember Canada being mentioned once. (Now it is, as a possible refuge from Trump.) It was not even a source of jokes, like Ireland is to us Brits and Norway to the Swedes. It’s as though it didn’t exist. Why is this? Maybe Americans still feel sore at having failed to conquer it in 1812, when they tried. (‘Second War of Independence’, my foot.) Or it appears just as a thin line of snow to the north of them. Or as the USA-lite. But I haven’t really got a clue. Maybe American friends and followers can help me out?


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