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Liberal America Has A Sweden Fetish

by Jesse Hirsch

March 20, 2017
Swedish Fetishism may include coveting idyllic countrysides, lively urban centers, and universal healthcare. Also: great ski gear.

When New York City shut down last week for a blizzard that never came to be, a particularly quirky hashtag popped up on Instagram and Twitter feeds across the Eastern seaboard:  #hygge, the Danish lifestyle movement fetishizing all things cozy. Yet, according to The Cut and Vogue, #lagom is the Scandinavian trend we need in 2017.

Named after a Swedish concept (roughly translated as “not too much, not too little”), the phenomenon is just the latest instance of America’s longstanding fascination with Sweden, known for its attractive, leggy populace, austere design aesthetic, and unusually cheery music.

For left-leaning Americans, however, the nation’s primary appeal stems from its reputation as a progressive utopia, arguably Scandinavia’s most successful example of mixing socialist politics and a capitalist economy. Offering “free” college, universal health care, and a robust social safety net, Sweden’s egalitarian reputation became an especially poignant fantasy after the 2016 election. Then, on February 18, Trump opted to defend his controversial travel ban by vaguely invoking a phantom Swedish terrorist incident, baffling his constituents and renewing our fervor for the apparent liberal wonderland. 

That night, Leif Pagrotsky, Sweden’s consul general in New York City and one of the nation’s top diplomats, was watching the Saturday evening news. The “attack” was news to Pagrotsky, news to everybody in Sweden. So he spent the rest of his weekend researching whether there was anything to Trump’s claims. By Monday, the official Swedish response had been determined: a polite, quizzical note sent to the White House, along the lines of “Pardon?”

Pagrotsky’s own response was more sardonic. After a Twitter user discovered that “the biggest incident of Sweden last night was a horse called Biscuit being rescued from a well,” he tweeted, tongue firmly in cheek, “Thanks to your prayers… #MakeBiscuitDryAgain.”

Pagrotsky, a dapper 65-year-old, is a Nordophile’s dream. He has exceedingly fine manners and exactly the minimalist chic office decor one might expect from a man who’s been called the “ambassador of IKEA meatballs.” Grinning slyly over a demitasse of strong Swedish coffee, he recalls, “I wanted to circulate the news that Biscuit had been rescued, so everyone could sleep well at night.”

Though he was amused, Pagrotsky doesn’t think Trump was firing randomly. The seasoned politician has seen his wee country of 10 million garner an outsized share of U.S. attention, used as a political “ball in your ping-pong match” for decades. The same perks that delight progressive Americans have turned Sweden into a useful bogeyman for conservatives who fear the creep of socialism.

Leif Pagrotsky has seen his wee country garner an outsized share of U.S. attention—a political ‘ball in your ping-pong match’ for decades.

Back in the 1960s, Eisenhower called Sweden’s social welfare system a breeding ground for “sin, nudity, drunkenness, and suicide.” In 2009, when the U.S. government was bailing out major corporations from failure, Bill O’Reilly wrung his hands over the idea that we might morph into Sweden. And Marco Rubio fired shots at Bernie Sanders last year, suggesting he’d make a great Swedish president. (Pagrotsky is quick to point out that Sweden has a king, not a president—and that “The New Yorker is very good at cartoons.”)

Despite the toxicity of Trump’s Sweden claims, Pagrotsky says he’s grateful that so many Americans are eager to learn more about his homeland. He fondly recalls that after O’Reilly insulted Sweden, Jon Stewart sent a crew to the country to uncover its faux horrors. Pagrotsky was interviewed for The Daily Show segment; he’s still recognized by strangers.

Still, Pagrotsky believes our view of Sweden can be rather two-dimensional. We revel in its perennial ranking as one of the top 10 nations on the World Happiness report, its low unemployment and crime rates, and even its charming leaders like Pagrotsky himself, who gladly participate in gay pride marches and kick off their shoes for summer vacations.

Yet Sweden is no Shangri-la, and Pagrotsky believes it’s unwise to focus only on the positive. Days after Trump’s impetuous comment, a small riot broke out in one of Stockholm’s suburbs, which Pagrotsky attributes to general discontent among a poor and disenfranchised immigrant community. “A few cars were burned, no one was seriously hurt, but we are not such a dramatic country,” he says. “These things are upsetting to us.”

Eventually, it was revealed that Trump’s initial comments were inspired by a largely discredited documentary called Stockholm Syndrome, which had recently been featured on a Fox News segment. It presented a Sweden being torn asunder by open borders—Muslim immigrants robbing, raping, and killing the native population, while draining the country’s finite resources. As incendiary as the film was, Pagrotsky admits that his country struggles with immigration, as well.

In response to a global migration crisis in 2015 (specifically the news of thousands drowning in the Mediterranean), Sweden opened its borders to refugees from some of the world’s most desperate nations—Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. But when no other European countries besides Germany followed suit, Sweden was quickly overwhelmed. The borders closed up again, and tiny Sweden experienced a tough reckoning.

My job is to make people understand what we do and why we do it. It’s not to say the rest of the world is stupid.

“It was a very hard decision,” says Pagrotsky. “You see, our immigration policy is based on compassion, an attempt to alleviate suffering. We do not accept immigrants because we need more workers, or because people need more servants in their homes.”

Pagrotsky will not condemn or criticize Trump, at least not to a reporter. He says you can guess his views based on past political alignments (he leans left), but it would be foolish to “close doors” by spouting off his personal views. Though he likes to promote “Swedish values” like workplace equality, and sometimes these values can run afoul of U.S. policy, Pagrotsky says his country is far from perfect; it’s dangerous to assume that anywhere on Earth is.

“My job is to make people understand what we do, and why we do it,” he says. “It’s not to say the rest of the world who does not do it is bad or inferior or stupid. That's not my thing.”

When I ask him about a Swede I recently met who claimed that approximately 99.999 percent of Swedes “hate Donald Trump,” Pagrotsky grows circumspect. “I think, perhaps this is an exaggeration,” he says, a light twinkle in the eye. “I would guess it’s more like … 90 percent.” Then he laughs—it turns out his tossed-off figure is verifiable. “Actually, I read a poll.”  

Portraits of Leif Pagrotsky by Martin Adolfsson courtesy the Consulate General of Sweden. Top images via Getty (left to right: by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives and Michel Setboun) and Pixabay.

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Liberal America Has A Sweden Fetish