What Ended up Happening in Sweden: Xenophobia and Globalism

Since the election of Donald J. Trump as the United States’ 45th president and the subsequent claiming of his win as a victory over globalism, I’ve been thinking a lot about why anti-globalism has become such a rallying cry among some white Americans. Their anger is somewhat delayed—scholars have written for years about the mixed bag that is globalization, particularly for countries in the developing world. Their markets and their cultures have experienced sharp challenges from the markets and cultures of industrialized nations. Americans’ anger might better be directed towards those corporate “elites” (not academic or liberal “elites”) who have contributed to the break-up of unions and the decimation of collective bargaining over the past few decades, and the developers and entrepreneurs who have contributed to the rise of big box stores and online purchasing to the detriment of what in previous election cycles was often called “main street.” However, their anger was largely directed at establishment politicians (deserved) and at supposed outsiders (undeserved), identified by modern white supremacists as immigrants and non-whites. These politicians and outsiders represent American decline to these voters, whether due to decadence or degeneracy. Crystallized in the “Make America Great Again” slogan, this anger is more powerful (at least for now) than anger against the brand of globalization that enriches the “one percent” at the expense of the rest of us. We will see what transpires in the coming weeks, however, as the stars of Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn rise, at least in Trump’s universe, relative to the momentary fall of Steve Bannon’s star.

The fear of degeneracy is most effective when it is linked to the fear of violence. In this vein, you recall, Donald Trump stirred up his conservative Florida rallygoers on a weekend in February by making a bizarre reference to the chaos that migration had supposedly visited upon Sweden. As evidence for why America should keep itself safe from refugees, he cited “what happened last night in Sweden” and then exclaimed how crazy it was that “Sweden—I mean, Sweden!” was experiencing . . . well, what they were experiencing was unclear. With his vague reference to something that happened in Sweden, Trump engaged in the dog whistle politics honed by his political party ever since the Nixon years. Sweden, we can assume, represents ur-whiteness to most Americans, and migration is seen as a challenge to white racial cohesiveness. This was certainly not a random comment on his part, given who Trump has been spending time with—populist, right-wing propagandists have long been stoking fears of cultural decay at the heart of Europe to support their rejection of multiculturalism (see Mark Steyn’s America Alone, which I taught in my first-year composition course about ten years ago), and these views have been amplified by Breitbart “reporting” and its tagging of articles with the racist meme “Sweden Yes”, a practice that began under Steve Bannon’s watch. Shortly after Trump’s comments and the riots in Rinkeby, Sweden that followed, Maynooth University media studies professor Gavin Titley posted an article that perfectly captures the ways in which Sweden is seen as ground zero for a Muslim take-over of Europe. After detailing the ways in which Sweden’s crime and rape statistics are misinterpreted to fit this narrative of lawlessness and Muslim encroachment into European societies, Titley concludes, “while such demographic anxieties and spatial fixations don’t hold up to analysis, they generate powerful, widespread tropes of white anxiety and cultural loss.” Now, this fear of degeneration has been linked to actual violence with last Friday’s truck attack in Stockholm, in which an Uzbek migrant and Islamic State sympathizer who had been denied asylum by the Swedish authorities stole a truck and drove into a busy pedestrian area, killing four people.

There have been a number of distractions since, what with Trump’s bombing of Syrian and Afghan targets and flying of planes to the Korean peninsula, but the supposed links between Sweden’s tolerant culture and the emboldening of radical Islamists are again being cited. In this light, it is instructive to think back to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about Sweden at that February rally, especially as Trump supporters are saying “I told you so.” A couple of days after the rally and Trump’s reiteration of similar statements at the CPAC meeting, I was surprised to get an early-morning Facebook message from my husband’s Swedish cousin. She was obviously enraged and wanted to reach out to an American to express her disgust. Her message began with some innocuous photos of the Skäggetorp neighborhood of Linköping, which has been identified as a “no-go zone,” a zone where Swedish police are supposedly frightened to go because the Muslim residents are a supermajority. She wrote, “What a tough woman I am! I cycle to my job through one of these so-called no-go zones. . . where Sharia law prevails and the Caliphate has taken over. [The] evening picture shows a Christian church that is illuminated.” I checked the news and saw that there had been riots in Rinkeby the previous night in the aftermath of an arrest, which of course seemed to confirm Trump’s alarmism and no doubt motivated her frustrated message. She is in the midst of a career change and will be working with the unemployed, including migrants, so the issue of xenophobia is close to her heart. She admits that these areas have problems with “krimnalitet” and need “resources and support for development in the right direction,” but she is angry at those who seek to “build up the fear in our countries.”

In her country, those who prey on Swedes’ fears are often members of the Swedish Democratic party. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has called them a “Nazi and racist party,” which of course are fighting words in Europe. Sweden is generally a very open, tolerant culture. In 1974, as has been reported in the media of late, Sweden amended their Constitution to include multicultural values. The Constitution pledges to protect minorities against discrimination and further promises to “promote the opportunity for all to attain participation and equality in society. . . . Opportunities should be promoted for ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own.” However, I recently learned that Sweden’s efforts to value diversity in their society date from earlier than 1974. Karen Levitt, a Wellesley sociologist, came to the University of Zagreb a few weeks ago to give a talk on the need for new models for providing transnational social protection to immigrants (health care, retirement benefits, and the like) and to do a workshop with students on how museums balance nationalist and cosmopolitan aims. (Her 2015 book, Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display, was published by UC Press.) Swedish museums, she told us, were used early on to help farmers migrating to the cities to get used to their diversity, and in 1952, ethnographic museums were opened to further those goals. Recent exhibits at the Stockholm ethnographic museum have included an exhibit of Bollywood posters focused on how the world is polycentric, an exhibit on migration that encourages viewers to think about privilege and mobility, and an exhibit on societal norms and the importance of being one’s true self:. Even in the national Swedish museum, Levitt claimed, the Swedish nation is situated in a global context, and concepts like nationalism being a construct are everyday.

One can definitely see this spirit of tolerance and openness reflected in the “documentary” that allegedly inspired Trump’s February comments on Sweden, Ami Horowitz’s Stockholm Syndrome, which Trump saw excerpts of on Fox. Horowitz’s “documentary” stitches together fragments of interviews with people on the street, journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, and two police officers to argue that a naïve Swedish belief in multiculturalism and helping refugees has led them to turn a blind eye to Sweden’s skyrocketing rape rate. The film also stokes broader fears of a Muslim cultural take-over of Europe, or as Titley humorously calls it, “the rollout of Eurasia.” What is interesting to me about the video short is how every white Swedish national that Horowitz interviews has open-minded, generous things to say about migrants and rejects his claims. The women say that rape statistics have nothing to do with migrants and everything to do with men, and one woman asserts that racism fuels any reports otherwise. Everything they say sounds quite logical to me. However, given that the intended audience is conservatives and xenophobes who believe fervently in the evils of migration, these comments are supposed to inspire shock and frustration at Swedish liberal naïvete. Further, a key point that Hernroth-Rothstein makes is that migrants are not adapting to the Swedish liberal culture, and the government is making the error of asking how it can adapt to the migrants. This is underscored by Horowitz’s interview with a man, whom the audience is supposed to assume is a migrant, in Rinkeby; Horowitz asks if Sweden has a responsibility to adapt to the migrants coming in, and the man says “Definitely.” Consistent with this interview, respondents are usually only allowed to say a word or a phrase, for example “It is our culture” to explain women’s modest dress, and then the camera jumps to the next person.

Yet despite Horowitz’s manipulative use of rhetorical appeals, the importance of allowing migrants to maintain their home cultures and to encourage mutual adaptation still comes across. In the nineteenth-century, the U.S. didn’t adapt well to huge waves of immigrants. For example, they refused to hear the concerns of Catholics who didn’t want their children educated in American public schools that used the King James version of the Bible in instruction. Under the leadership of Bishop John Hughes in Boston, Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools in response. Still, one-way assimilation was remarkably effective. American Studies scholars are often familiar with the propaganda play that Henry Ford had his factory workers participate in once they had graduated from their English language program: they dressed up in their national costume, stepped into a big melting pot, and then emerged wearing American clothing and waving U.S. flags. The costs of one-way assimilation were dear, however, as former Stanford history professor George Frederickson explained in his “Models of Ethnic Relations,” an essay I’ve had my American students read a number of times. European immigrants lost their national, regional, and ethnic cultures in their embrace of white Americanness; we are now left with whites who have no connection to any culture besides capitalist materialism or an ethno-nationalist version of American culture that is scrubbed clean of its white supremacist history. It seems obvious to me that an intercultural approach, in which both host culture and arriving culture adapt to each other, would be preferable.

Certainly, Sweden and other European countries cannot be naïve about the hard work it takes to make interculturalism work. The European Commission defines interculturalism as the idea that the host culture and the arriving culture seek “to establish linkages and common ground between different cultures, communities, and people, promoting understanding and interaction.” This is intended to be an improvement upon multiculturalism, in which they say the focus is on the preservation of separate cultures. Interculturalism takes a commitment to social engineering, however, and not just in museums. Despite the progressive nature of Swedish society, segregation was allowed to happen as has been the case in so many other places: Britain, France, Belgium, and elsewhere. As Titley says, “In the recent era of European ‘integration’ politics, pretty much every centrist government has had their own ‘Sweden’: imaginaries of parallel societies, problemområden, ghettoes, parallelsgemeinschaften, ‘no-go’ areas and territoires perdus de la République that provide the ‘evidence’ of immigrant disintegration and multicultural failure.” Interculturalism requires bravery in the face of xenophobia and consistency and commitment, even in the face of terrorist attacks and other events that seem to undermine interculturalism. While April 12’s editorial from the New York Times hails Prime Minister Löfven for his commitment to preserving Sweden’s open society, Al Jazeera and Politico and others have been reporting that Löfven has been moving rightward for a few months, particularly in the area of immigration and border controls, in an effort to stem the tide of voters leaving his party for more centrist and conservative ones, including the Swedish Democrats. Let’s hope that in the aftermath of the attack in Stockholm, he truly retains his commitment to an open society and develops creative plans for fostering interculturalism. National cohesiveness is best achieved by being inclusive, not by building a fortress. That is the kind of globalism we sorely need.

From California to Croatia!

Newly arrived in Croatia and addicted to news of the impending Obama-Trump government handoff, I think that I was reading an article about Obama’s farewell speech, and one of the commenters was not enraptured with Obama’s last words like all the other commenters. He called Obama a “globalists [sic] puppet.” Though Obama had done a fair number of things I had disagreed with over the past eight years, I would never call him that. I started thinking about all the reasons globalism is so threatening to so many white Americans. I remain mystified, though, at the idea that Obama’s engagement with the world, whether in the form of trade deals or multicultural engagement, is seen by the poster and so many others as evidence of his being a “puppet.” A puppet, the metaphor assumes, is manipulated by others. Why could one not have a sharp disagreement with Obama over his endorsement of the TPP or be unsure about his plan to admit Syrian refugees without branding him as a puppet? More importantly for my work, what are the implications for racial politics of being seen as a puppet to multiculturalism?

My blog’s name, Globalistmuppet, started as a joke when I told my husband that I didn’t want to call my blog Globalistpuppet for obvious reasons: I would sound like a puppet myself or attract trolls who believe globalist puppets are at the root of American problems. However, Jim Henson’s muppets have been a multicultural mainstay of my life, as I was born in 1969, the same year that Sesame Street first aired. And, no matter how silly, the name Globalistmuppet has stuck with me. I am the type of global citizen who is much more interested in the multiculturalism celebrated in the Grover photo than the globalization of capital indicated in the Kermit photo on my blog’s masthead, but as a State Department speaker commented at our Fulbright orientation in July, open markets and open, migrating cultures come together. I will use a photo of my own as soon as I can, perhaps of my hand puppet of The Count, a symbol of transnational, Transylvanian-American global citizenship if there ever was one. Alternatively, I call on my puppeteer friends to make me a globalist muppet!

I hope to use this space to reflect on some of the things I’ve been learning about American exceptionalism and American multiculturalism here in Croatia. The long and the short of it is that everything and nothing that the U.S. is going through right now is unique to it. My Croatian students are intrigued by American racial politics as if they are studying aliens from another world even as they readily admit parallels to these politics in Croatian, Balkan, and European Union contexts. I have also been thinking of my American students and how their learning will be enriched by making these connections between their world and this relatively faraway world. So far, my blog entries are driven by direct engagement with students, faculty, and people I am meeting in my travels. Once I return, I hope to keep the blog up, drawing on my experiences with students in my world literature and composition courses, students in Las Positas College’s new Umoja learning community for African-American students, students in LPC’s new global studies major, and students joining me on study abroad trips. Maybe I can even do some collaborative learning with the classes of faculty I’m meeting here.

I should also say that this is the first time I’ve had a blog, and it makes me a little nervous. I’m used to publishing articles that are researched and written in areas in which I have some expertise and are peer reviewed and extensively edited. This will not be that. I hope to push myself to write about things I’m noticing and connections I’m making that I’m not so well-informed about, so I welcome encouragement, questions, and corrections from my readers. I may make edits and corrections in response to that feedback as I go along. And, of course, this blog is not an official U.S. Department of State site. The views expressed on this site are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. With that, “why don’t we get things started!” as the opening song to The Muppet Show puts it!