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Scandinavia has become a fantasy escape for my liberal friends

By Martin Gelin

Portrait by Agaton Ström

I have spent the past few years writing about Donald Trump and his devoted supporters. Sometimes, this makes me a bit nostalgic for my first years in New York, when I was more likely to interview rappers than Republicans.

Like most people who moved to New York in the early years of this century, I like to bore my friends with memories of my days hanging out with the Wu-Tang Clan. Everyone who lived in New York around the turn of the century has at least one Wu-Tang related anecdote. During my first winter in New York, in 2002, I conducted an interview with the rapper Ghostface Killah, the heart and soul of the Wu-Tang Clan. After the interview, he lingered for a while, and we had a more casual conversation over some Budweisers and fried chicken. Eventually, Ghostface started asking me questions about Sweden. To my surprise, he was mostly interested in the Swedish banking system.

— Man, you think you could hook me up with one of those Swedish bank accounts? he said, with the same sweet, pleading voice he used in his rap songs.

Eager to impress Ghostface, I told him that I would definitely see if I could set him up with a savings account at Handelsbanken, but I also apologetically informed him that Swedish banks didn’t really offer particularly competitive interest rates.

My friendship with Ghostface Killah never materialised, perhaps because he eventually understood that Sweden and Switzerland are different countries, and that Swedish banks are actually nothing special.

Since those days, the image of Sweden among Americans has improved quite a bit. Not only can most Americans now distinguish between Sweden and Switzerland, they also tend to know a surprising amount about us.

With the ascent of Donald Trump, something has shifted in the way Americans talk about Sweden, and Scandinavian countries in general.

No longer do they only ask me obsessive questions about the Swedish pop star Robyn or the Danish Michelin-starred chef René Redzepi, now they also want to learn about paid parental leave, responsible environmental policy, universal health care and tech start-ups.

Their interests seem to have moved from the aesthetic and cultural fields, to the political sphere.

American liberals who are frightened by the authoritarian turn of the Trump government see Scandinavia as a kind of fantasy escape.

However, whenever Americans overwhelm us with praise of Scandinavian countries, our instinct is usually to tell them that well, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Perhaps they would like to know that refugees who arrive in Sweden nowadays have their teeth measured to make sure they haven’t lied about their age? Or that thousands of cases of sexual violence and harassment came to light in Sweden during the #metoo campaign this past winter?

It’s not all that hard to deflate the fantasy balloon.

Swedes often tend to become weirdly uncomfortable whenever they hear praise about their country from other nationalities. But at a time when there is a real, existential threat to democracy across the globe, it’s perhaps no mystery why liberals in America and elsewhere look toward the Scandinavian countries, with all their faults, as a beacon of hope.

Yet, at the moment, the relationship between Scandinavian countries and America remains a bit disproportionate.

The transatlantic exchange of ideas and culture is mostly good for everyone, but Scandinavian countries, and certainly Sweden, for some reason, tend to import some of the dumbest ideas from America; such as silly political ads, zero tolerance policing or the ridiculous acronyms that real estate agencies use when trying to market hip neighborhoods.

Instead of anxiously imitating Americans, Scandinavians could express some confidence about the fact that their countries are presently seen as a calm contrast to the global storm of anti-democratic leaders.

August 3, 2018

Martin Gelin is a US Correspondent for Dagens Nyheter and the author of six books.