Something Rotten in
The State of Sweden

Part I: Barrage of Bad News

DESPITE THE ODDS AGAINST IT, the mainstream press occasionally provides at least temporary employment for highly competent professionals-- individual journalists with a broad knowledge of their subject, a willingness to understand other peoples and cultures on their own terms, and a large measure of personal integrity.

One such is Emmett Murray who, while representing a news agency in Central America some decades ago, immersed himself in the history, language, literature and politics of that region. Subsequently, he was working as an international news editor at the Seattle Times when he acted upon a company policy that encouraged employees to participate in public debate as private citizens. This Murray did, by responding to an editorial in his own newspaper which had blamed Cuba's Fidel Castro for, among other things, instigating the Puerto Rican independence movement. In his letter, Murray pointed out that Castro would have had to be well over one hundred years old in order to take credit for that initiative.

"I believe there is very strong control.... The U.S. government has the capacity to stage press conferences, orchestrate situations, invite people to special events, send out statements and press releases constantly and in such a way that people working in different media have to rush and just repeat. They have no time even to check the truth of such information.... The government has a great capacity to create parallel events, to distract attention...."

-- Edgar Chamorro, defector from CIA terrorists in Nicaragua

This exchange of ideas took place at the time of the Reagan administration's war against most of the people in Central America, and Murray had previously offended local supporters of that war with his accurate reporting of its background, lies and devastating effects. His ironic observation on the temporal limits of Castro's allegedly destructive powers provided Seattle Reaganites with yet another cause for complaint.

Angry representations were made to the management, and Murray was removed from the international news desk on the grounds that his letter to the editor disclosed a "lack of objectivity" in such matters. The silly editorials continued, Murray received little or no support from his timid journalistic colleagues, and the people of Seattle were deprived of probably their most capable and trustworthy source of information about the crimes being committed in Central America by their government and its hired terrorists.

At one point while all this was going on, Murray was approached by a Times
printer who expressed his bewilderment over the news out of Central America: "I can't make any sense out of it. The only information you get is what you read in the paper and what you hear on the radio and TV. How much of it can you trust?" he asked.

"It's simple," replied Murray, who more than anyone else in the Seattle area was qualified to answer. "Read and listen to the mainstream news and, until you have some well-documented reason to believe otherwise, assume that the truth is just the opposite."

Horrors of the middle way

To some extent, much the same can be said of international news coverage of Sweden, especially since the end of the Cold War. In recent years, there has been a steady barrage of bad news linking the Swedes to Soviet communism and Nazi Germany, a massive program of forced sterilisation, a dreaded form of economic mismanagement dubbed "the Swedish disease", and much more in the same spirit.

There do appear, as well, occasional positive items concerning the achievements of individual Swedes in such areas as athletics, design and the arts. But none of that is reflected in various forms of "serious" news coverage, which generally convey the impression of an essentially flawed society in deep economic and moral crisis-- oppressive, cowardly, hypocritical, and in many respects downright evil. Something is rotten in the state of Sweden, if one is to believe the dominant organs of the international press.

It has not always been thus. Sweden began to attract widespread attention in the 1930s, when it succeeded in minimising the worst effects of that decade's severe depression by means of an economic policy based on the theories of John Maynard Keynes. Other interesting developments in Sweden were the subject of a book by U.S. journalist Marquis Childs, The Middle Way, which received considerable attention in England, North America and elsewhere.

Sweden's "constructive compromise between socialism and capitalism", as Childs put it, attracted growing interest in the decades following World War II. A steady stream of economists, public officials and social scientists visited Sweden and other Nordic countries to study what were widely reported as successful innovations in health care, income distribution, urban planning, labour relations and many other areas. The public health care systems of England and Canada were inspired to a large extent by the Swedish example; and in the United States, the suggestion was heard with increasing frequency that perhaps one ought to emulate the "Swedish model" of society, as the Nordic model widely came to be known.*

In fact, the labour movement from which the Nordic model of society emerged had its origins in Denmark toward the end of the 19th century. Some of the first experiments with social insurance were conducted in Norway. For a variety of reasons, including the consequences of World War II, that model has come to be associated primarily with Sweden. But, in fact, the so-called "Swedish model" constitutes merely one variant of a basic approach to the problems of human society which is shared by all of the Nordic countries (see "The Nordic Approach to General Welfare

Inevitably, there was a backlash. It began to take shape in the early 1950s during the first presidential campaign of Dwight Eisenhower. While conceding that the Swedish model might at first glance appear to offer certain advantages, the general who would be president warned of the awful consequences: As a result of its socialistic policies, he said, Sweden had become a land of "free love, high taxes and suicide". These and similar horrors have dominated the general view of Sweden from across the Atlantic ever since, even among presumably well-educated individuals.

Visceral hostility

Rejecting the Clinton administration's proposal for national medical insurance in 1994, Senator Jesse Helms uttered the self-evident question with the self-evident answer: "Do we want the kind of costly health care system that they have in Sweden, where it can take up to eleven months to get a routine heart X-ray?" (As with numerous other subjects that Helms has sunk his teeth into, this was somehat short of the truth: Sweden's national health care sytem covers all residents at slightly over half the cost of the U.S. private insurance complex, which partially or entirely excludes a large portion of the population. The average wait for a heart X-ray in Sweden is about six weeks.)

Right-wing distaste for the Swedish model reached was most intense during the Vietnam War, the international opposition to which was led by Olof Palme. His eloquent denunciations of that atrocity and other tragic examples of U.S. aggression in the Third World left scars whose angry traces can still be read in the virulent scribblings of right-wing ideologues-- more than twelve years after Palme was "neutralised" on the streets of Stockholm. Prior to that, Richard Nixon had punished "that Swedish asshole" and his country by suspending diplomatic relations for a couple of years.

Right-wing hatred toward Sweden continues to fester today (see, for example, quotation of Mona Charen in Part II). As writer Christopher Hitchens has observed: "The Cold War may wax and wane, China may move from being official enemy to official chum, the army may succeed in defining the strangest regimes as certified 'moderates', but through it all the American right retains a permanent visceral hostility to one small, durable country: Sweden."

Impeachable reputation

But Palme's forceful leadership on issues of peace, disarmament and social justice also aroused widespread respect and admiration. "He was a beacon of plain truth and courage for us," recalls Bob Musil of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the organization awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. It was an opinion shared by many and, to judge from their comments and writings, it would appear that peace and social activists all over the world looked to Olof Palme's Sweden for living proof that war and poverty are not inevitable expressions of human nature.

However, it is not such interests which dominate the major economies, governments and mass media of the world. Since the end of the Cold War, those interests have consolidated their positions, partly through the aggressive marketing of neo-liberal ideology. They have never approved of Palme's Sweden and have been doing what they can to discredit it, which turns out to be quite a lot.

The need to impeach the reputation of Sweden became especially urgent during the final days of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders within the crumbling empire let it be known that they much preferred the Nordic model of society to the American way of life. This was not a welcome message in Washington and London: One had not gone to all the trouble of vanquishing the Evil Empire, merely to have it retreat to the middle way.

Furthermore, with Soviet communism out of the way, Swedish social democracy was situated no longer in the middle, but rather on the opposite side, of the serpentine path to human happiness. As such, it provided at least one possible solution to the problem implicit in the ironic taunt often directed from Russia to the United States: "We have deprived you of your enemy".

The Nordic model now constituted the sole feasible alternative to the brutal form of society preferred by the elites of the "New World Order". It was particularly annoying in that, if the truth were told, the Nordic countries provide much better conditions for the great majority of their citizens than do such bastions of neo-liberalism as England and the United States.

Golden protegé

Something clearly had to be done, and it has taken the form of an escalating ideological assault on the Swedish model, carried out primarily through the offices of the mainstream press. A golden opportunity emerged in 1991, with the election victory of a centre-right coalition headed by Carl Bildt, leader of Sweden's Conservative Party, and a protégé of England's Margaret Thatcher and Germany's Helmut Kohl.

Through the rigid application of neo-liberal dogma, the Bildt government proceeded with great alacrity and determination to drive the Swedish economy into the worst depression in its history. The resulting disaster for the citizens of Sweden has since with great success been blamed on the Swedish model, in particular the presumptive excesses of the country's social insurance system. This bears repeating: The Swedish economy was devastated through the dogmatic application of an alien economic theory by opponents of the Swedish model, who then proceeded to tell the world that it was all the victim's fault.

With a few notable exceptions, that is the story which the international press has been pleased to pass on to its various publics. The dissemination of this particular Big Lie throughout the world is a marketing success story which could not have been written without the willing and/or ill-informed collaboration of countless editors, reporters, economists and other equally astute commentators.

A common theme is that the selfish and ungrateful voters of Sweden are to blame, as in this bit of wisdom from The Economist in February of 1995: "They vote against politicians who threaten to cut benefits. 'The big mental problem,' says former prime minster, Carl Bildt, 'is the strong tendency to give priority to distributive policies over other policies.' His attempts to change those priorities led to his government's thumping defeat."

It is the same story in Sweden's mainstream press, of course. "Outside world looks askance at Sweden" is the headline of this 1995 article in Dagens Industri, Sweden's leading business daily. It summarises bad news in the foreign press about the nation's economic policy. "Several negative parallels have been drawn between Sweden and many of the heavily-indebted countries of Latin America", notes the article, which also reproduces typical headlines such as, "Curing the painful Swedish contagion".

Although the possibility cannot be ruled out, there is at this point no evidence that the steady stream of bad news about Sweden has been co-ordinated in any systematic way. Quite possibly, it is merely the haphazard product of a diverse assortment of actors who share roughly the same interests and, correspondingly, the same basic perspective on the human condition. All over the world, there appear to be well-paid and well-placed individuals who look at Sweden-- with its egalitarian tendencies, its history of involvement in issues of peace and global justice, its condemnation of great crimes committed in the name of freedom-- and do not like what they see.