Ah, Sweden. That liberal bastion of neutrality and openness. Not to mention Ingmar Bergman films, long summer days, beautiful blondes, gravlax, IKEA. (Let's skip ABBA - that's a bit more embarrassing.)
Or maybe that should be Sweden, home of seething, barely contained anti-semitism, racism, and distrust of all the "foreigners" who move there and simultaneously take the jobs of real Swedes while not working and simply accepting government money.
Comedian (and I use that term loosely) Sonja Abrahamsson raised a few eyebrows, but apparently little more than that, while tweeting on @sweden's Twitter account this past week. A number of her tweets were bizarre comments or questions about Jews (I won't bother to give any examples here, as there's no point in promoting Abrahamsson, who, incidentally, needs to work on her English skills). How this was supposed to either market Sweden as a wonderful tourist destination or amuse the 52,000+ followers of @sweden is unclear to me.
However, it does bring up important issues about how Sweden, and many other European countries with high percentages of immigrants, sees itself and its future.
Is Sweden a country that truly wants to welcome all people? Or does it just want the reputation of being like that? Or does it regret that it got that reputation and now wants to cleanse itself of those unwanted others?
During my years living in Sweden, I heard numerous xenophobic and anti-semitic comments. I was told directly by potential employers that they'd rather not hire foreigners. I guess they'd rather have foreigners go on welfare, as it gave them something to complain about. I was also warned against living in or even going into certain neighbourhoods, as "blacks" or "Arabs" or "Chinese" lived there, as though it made more sense to create a segregated society. I was regularly told "jokes" about foreigners of all types, Jews, and Muslims. So funny.
A surprising number of Scandinavians have in recent years voted for far-right political parties and have started to demand stricter immigration laws. This isn't the place to discuss their desire to purify their countries or to protect their culture and identity, but I do often wonder what a "pure Swede" might be or what "Swedish culture" is supposed to consist of.
Abrahamsson's tweets, while stupid and not really worth reading in and of themselves, speak to several larger issues in Sweden, and elsewhere. One is the already mentioned topic of who belongs in which culture, and which culture belongs where. What would a Sweden full of foreigners look like? Would it still be Sweden? What would that mean?
Another issue is regarding what is acceptable to say in various contexts. One of @sweden's rules for its microbloggers was that they were not to incite racial hatred. I can't claim that Abrahamsson was doing that, but she was somewhere on that continuum, and she was at the very least making derogatory, ridiculous comments about Jews. I can't help wondering if there wouldn't have been more of an outcry had she been referring to just about any other group of people; somehow, even in this politically correct era, it's still acceptable to make snide remarks or tell jokes about Jews.
Even though there has been a minor commotion about Abrahamsson's Jewish comments, she hasn't stopped. Even as I write this, she is posting about there being so many Jews in advertising - way to go with the stereotyping, Sonja. Meanwhile, she claims that not all Swedes are the same, so why would she think any group is monolithic, as some of her earlier remarks have implied? Oh, and incidentally, a certain number of Swedes are Jews, but I'm guessing she hasn't thought about that. She acts as though Swede and Jew are exclusive categories.
Why @sweden lets Abrahamsson continue her inane tweeting is something I can't quite comprehend. She is promoting the idea of an insular, racist country that doesn't welcome or accept those who are different. That doesn't exactly make people want to get on the next plane to Stockholm.
I suspect they'll just go to their local IKEA instead. You can pretend you're in Sweden there, and the people are friendlier and more open, too, at least if Sonja Abrahamsson is anything to go by.
Follow B.J. Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bjepstein