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 https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/02/20/filmmaker-criticized-for-reporting-that-spurred-trump-s-sweden-c/21717885/.)
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: https://www.theguardian.com/cmmentisfree/2017/feb/20/sweden-donald-trump-crime-muslim-immigrants. 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 https://bernardjporter.com/2016/12/07/scandi-gloom/); 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’.)