Stockholm syndrome: Sweden sounds more and more like America

Steve Kelman takes the pulse of Sweden during a recent visit.

I am in Sweden to do one of my periodic appearances on the morning TV show Nyhetsmorgon, speaking about the United States. (This time my theme was the Republican presidential field. If for some weird reason anybody wants to see this — it's in Swedish! — here's a link.)

It is always interesting for me to take the pulse of this country, which in some ways is very much like the United States but in others is very different.

Swedes have sometimes been criticized for being too smug about how well everything works in Sweden — often, stated or unstated, in comparison to the United States. Right now, the Swedish economy is doing quite well. Exports to Asia, Sweden's strong niche manufacturing companies and declining unemployment all contribute to its fiscal health.

But I noticed a trend in Sweden toward more willingness to accept the United States as a social model from a column in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the country's leading dailies, titled "Safety and Trust in Times Square." The column reported that the tables and chairs New York City officials placed in Times Square for tourists to use — part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to introduce more pedestrian zones in Manhattan — were left out all night with no chains attaching them to the sidewalk and were still there in the morning.

That would never be possible in Stockholm, the column said. The reason? A greater culture of mutual respect and social control in the United States. I thought that suggestion was amazing given Sweden's history of low crime, high trust and high social control compared with the more Wild West individualism of American culture.

Something else that has caught my attention is the coverage in the Swedish media, both print and TV, of Turkey's elections June 12. On June 11, the leading Swedish daily ran the elections as its major foreign story, and on election day, the major newspapers each had several articles and commentaries. There are some Turkish immigrants in Sweden — indeed, the Sveriges Television correspondent in Ankara is a Swedish Turk who interviewed people for his stories in Turkish (questions and answers were subtitled) and then did his report in perfect Swedish — but not so many. The media’s interest seemed to be focused on how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's moderately religious Muslim party is significantly tweaking Turkey's traditional secularism and Western orientation.

Some Americans regard Europeans as terminally "soft" on Muslim attacks on the West and too willing to accommodate extremism, extreme nationalism and hate. So what was interesting about the tone of the reporting was the extent to which Swedes sounded like many Americans in their concerns about developments in Turkey. While recognizing Turkey's high economic growth and increasing influence in the region, the articles expressed concerns about attacks on civil liberties (including the jailing of many critical journalists), what will happen to the status of women, and even Turkey losing its ability to mediate between Israel and Arab states. One commentary, titled "Erdogan Turns Back the Clock," complained that "Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's defense against his critics has turned into open anti-Semitism and nationalism."

Another commentary also complained about nationalist extremism and disapprovingly displayed an election poster showing Erdogan pointing his finger in a dressing-down sort of way at Barack Obama in contrast to the previous prime minister's deference to the United States. Several of the articles noted with alarm that in an editorial in The Economist of London, Erdogan said a vote for the opposition was part of an Israeli conspiracy against him.

In all, Sweden's coverage sounded much more like it could have been the U.S. media than I would have expected.

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