Report from Sweden: Spring is in the air

Blogger Steve Kelman notes changes of all sorts are afoot in Sweden.

I have been in Sweden for a few days, returning home from Israel. The people of Sweden are obsessed with issues of light and darkness, and cold and warmth -- not surprising since in the middle of the winter the sun doesn't rise until 10 a.m. and in the middle of the summer it is as bright as mid-day by 2 am. Perhaps because it is so cold, and perhaps because they are so anxious for winter to end, in Swedish consciousness “spring” is in the air as soon as it has started getting lighter and there are a few days in a row where temperatures are over freezing. So the Swedes are talking a lot about the arrival of spring these days. Indeed, I saw an interesting factoid in the newspaper that, in a survey several years ago, Swedes voted "first day of spring" as their favorite word! (In Swedish, with its Germanic construction of lapping concepts together into one long word, "first day of spring" is indeed one word – vardagsjamning, which literally means "the spring day when day and night are equal."

Speaking of spring, the Swedish media have pretty much universally praised what is called here (and elsewhere, at least in Europe) the "Arab spring," and -- interestingly for a country with Sweden's pacifistic traditions -- supported the U.N.-backed military intervention in Libya. Both leading Swedish newspapers criticized the Swedish government for not being quicker to pledge a Swedish military contribution to the effort, especially given the high-quality home-grown planes the Swedish Air Force flies. A lead editorial on the subject in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's most-important daily, was called "Swedish Free Rider," and noted, "For decades, Sweden has argued that the U.N. Security Council is the right forum for decisions about military intervention. But when the U.N. finally has united against Khaddafi, Sweden has placed itself at the sidelines." Stung by the media criticism, Sweden's foreign minister announced that Sweden would participate in the effort as soon as it was asked to do so.

Speaking of the military, I went to the theater to see a new Swedish movie, which was preceded by ads, as movies have been for decades. One thing that was interesting was that about one-third of the ads were actually in English with no subtitles, a sign of the effort Swedes make to learn English. The ad that most caught my eye was a recruiting ad for the Swedish army, now all-volunteer since the recent elimination of the draft. The ad begun with black-and-white footage of what appeared to be American soldiers or marines, traipsing through jungles, deserts, and shores with various high-tech equipment in tow. A cool American voice said several sentences to the effect of (I am now blanking on the exact wording), "We can't promise you jungles, we can't promise you the coolest equipment." The scene then switched to all-color with Swedish soldiers in Swedish scenes such as training in a forest, and a Swedish voiceover stating: "But we can promise you an education that will lead to a job, and we can promise you that you will make a difference."

Finally, in the last election, an anti-immigrant and (many believe) racist party called the Sweden Democrats got over the 4 percent of the vote needed, under Sweden's proportional representation electoral system, to enter into parliament. All the established parties announced they would not cooperate with the new party. Recently, though, in a concession of sorts, the established parties agreed to be willing to pair votes with absent Sweden Democrat parliamentarians, like members of the established parties pair with each other. This is not insignificant, given the tight parliamentary balance, where Sweden Democrat votes sometimes can determine the outcome. One of the Sweden Democrat representatives had a weak heart, it was explained, and allowing the Sweden Democrats into the pairing system was presented as a sort of humanitarian gesture.

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