Page 1 of 2 Living with the far
right By Ritt Goldstein
FALUN, Sweden - As headlines of riots in
England glaringly depict the anger exploding with
the increasing pain of neo-liberal policies, it's
important to recall that much of Europe's hardship
was effectively blamed on societal outgroups in
recent years - particularly immigrants and
Muslims; the rise of Europe's far right having
targeted them for the economic suffering so many
now feel. In the 1930s, populist far right
groups rose with similar scapegoating, and such
tactics are far easier again today than
addressing the difficult structural problems that failures in policy and leadership have brought.
Scandinavia has a history of its lands providing societies that have been a model globally, fostering a deep-felt faith in the region's governments and its society. Given this, perhaps it's understandable that many Scandinavians see their own recent societal problems as originating through externally introduced factors, immigrants again bearing the brunt of such blame.
Just days ago, I read that the "Nordic far right is now so entrenched in the political establishment that experts say the 'extreme' label is no longer suitable", (Agence France-Presse/The Local, July 28), and just months ago a gunman was randomly shooting immigrants in the south Sweden city of Malmo. One of Sweden's English-language media outlets (The Local) headlined "Malmo shooter targeting immigrants: police". And then the tragedy of the Anders Behring Breivik's massacre in Norway.
While far-right gunmen aren't everyday events, this journalist can personally speak to less obvious assaults that defy belief, events that suggest a newly-felt legitimacy for the exercise of a "quieter violence", the exercise of an ugly bias that we term xenophobia.
Merriam-Webster defines xenophobia as "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign", and in April 2010, Sweden's Amnesty Press published an article titled "Framlingsfientlig retorik i politik och media" (Xenophobic rhetoric in politics and media). Framlingsfientlig is an interesting word, however, for while it is usually translated as "xenophobic", it might be literally translated as "enemy of strangers", the Amnesty article addressing some of the most readily seen symptoms of this problem's rise in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden.
More than rhetoric though, this journalist believes he has witnessed in Sweden what are the worst kinds of failures, failures by both local authorities and the legal system. When it's said that the Nordic far right is "entrenched in the political establishment", is this now part of what that means? To my eyes, it appears a foreigner, an immigrant, a so-called "stranger", can today often be met with a virtually insurmountable bias.
Notably, during autumn of 2010 I interviewed Swedish legal scholar Eric Bylander. Professor Bylander observed that political changes here might mean Swedish courts could be used as "a political arena in a way that hasn't been common in Sweden". Bylander also spoke of the potentially chilling effect that might have on those of foreign origins.
What has often come to my mind lately is Hollywood's depiction of "troubled' towns in the 1960s US Deep South, places with casual malice and brutality, and the assorted other unpleasant issues such films can portray. This is not to imply that every town in Sweden and every Swede suggests such a place, as that isn't what's occurring. But, particularly "troubled" areas do seem to exist, as well as an increasing acceptance of so-called framlingsfientlig ideas and practices.
While membership in xenophobic political parties is limited, the actual votes these groups have been receiving indeed exceeds their membership, with sympathies for aspects of their xenophobic agenda felt by even more still.
The Amnesty article noted that all four of the Nordic countries cited have framlingsfientlig parties. Today, those parties now hold seats in their nations' parliaments; though, only Sweden's framlingsfientlig party, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna or SD), has neo-Nazi roots. As to what such a political climate can mean, the Swedish daily Expressen headlined July 29 "The terrorist Breivik lived in Sweden" ("Terroristen Breivik bodde i Sverige"), reporting that it's thought he formed a large part of his political opinions here.
In a November 2010 Asia Times Online article, Rise of far right an ominous echo, I addressed the SD's election to parliament, quoting political scientist Cristian Norocel - of both Stockholm University and Finland's University of Helsinki - as observing that some of the SD's positions paralleled a number of aspects of "very early National Socialism [Nazism] in Europe." And the very fact of the SD's successes does provide comment on the changing nature of Sweden's attitudes and society.
As I reported in November, it was a quietly determined Norocel that told Asia Times Online "the thing that is worrisome is that the SD party platform appears to be very successful".
A notorious SD television commercial showed black burqa-clad mothers with baby carriages racing a pensioner for what government money was to be had. And again, it is easier to blame immigrants than address issues such as the damage massive tax-cuts and corporate welfare have meant for social programs.
In many ways though, it sadly appears today that the SD is the least of Swedish society's issues, for those that declare themselves members become openly seen as tied to the party's beliefs. What I consider far more disturbing are the "societal currents" that have allowed the SD's rise, and its increasing degree of societal acceptance ... an effective statement on the perceived "legitimacy" of being framlingsfientlig, an "enemy of strangers".
Many across the spectrum here long share in a kind of "nationalism" and "Nordic pride", though certainly in varying degrees. For some it's not that large a jump from "proud sentiments" to a certain level of prejudice against those that don't share the same background, the major differences between the far right and more mainstream elements perhaps best seen as those regarding the degree and visibility such discrimination is embraced and acted on.
It's been widely reported that Breivik's actions didn't occur in a vacuum, and it is the broader societal sentiments held by many that are politically mainstream, not members of the xenophobic parties, that indeed Breivik's nightmarish political act sought to begin to mobilize. As Breivik's news photos readily demonstrate, does one need to be primarily concerned with those that openly wear swastikas, or those whose clothing is only marked by designer labels?
I have long reflected on the Holocaust, the reasons behind it. As a very young man, I found myself sometimes pointedly asked why Jews simply hadn't left Nazi Germany (I am Jewish), only years later realizing this was simply a part of "blaming the victim", something that too many are always eager to do. Later, I asked myself how the German people could let the nightmare of Nazism occur, and it's only recently I became convinced that I likely have "seen" the answer.
I have come to believe that most Germans of the time truly didn't realize the horror that was growing, they just weren't able to grasp what was actually taking place ... until it was too late. I imagine they dismissed accounts of unimaginable atrocities as exaggerations, and came to slowly accept the politicization of the bureaucracy and what brutality they saw, rationalizing horror away as something that the victims somehow deserved, allowing individuals to at times even delight in nightmarish abuse accordingly. And as some might have gathered, I'm of the opinion that I've witnessed certain parallels between then and now.
In all fairness to Swedes and Sweden though, the country has also had a number of municipal corruption scandals make news within the past 18 months. I believe a part of what's ongoing has to do with the same problems as spawned these scandals, problems impacting more than just those not native-born, and a further measure of the deep-rooted societal issues scapegoating helps hide.
Notably, most of the "everyday" people one meets here seem among the most decent one can encounter, and indeed, quite a few are; but, there are others too.
Among those that hold the power to shape events, there are locales where another attitude seems too often evident. One repeatedly hears of the "insular" nature of power in many Swedish communities, but there is a difference between insularity and an arrogant hostility, a contemptuous disregard even sometimes shown native-born Swedes.
According to professor Olle Lundin of Uppsala University's faculty of law, a change has occurred over the "last 20 or 30 years", one he sees due to "influence from the private sector". Lundin perceives what he terms "entrepreneurial politicians" today dominating many of Sweden's municipalities, politicians he sees with a taste for building "shiny, big things", but frequently a disregard for both their constituents and accountability.
Lundin recently wrote a report on municipal accountability and controls, a report commissioned by an "expert group" established by the national government's Finance Department. He says a structural problem exists with "no division of power within the local government", no system of appropriate checks and balances accordingly.
Without effective checks and balances, certain "temptations" exist, the corruption scandals that have broken providing a glaring testament to this, as well as highlighting a further explanation of Sweden's societal pain.
At the heart of the corruption problems are "people who have become too familiar" with each other, according to Prosecutor Nils-Eric Schultz of Sweden's National Anti-Corruption Unit, with what's perhaps best described as "cronyism" appearing to have blurred the boundaries of law for many.
"If you are 'well-connected' locally ... there might be people then who are prepared to 'bend the rules' to give you favors and maybe they get favors back. And we know that this happens in municipalities," separately added corruption expert and political scientist Staffan Andersson of Sweden's Linne University.
Such relationships in a community not only are illegal, but provide an effective threat to any "outsiders" that encounter them, especially if such inappropriate bias is further heightened by xenophobia. And, it seems I have personally witnessed how such an environment can become extremely dangerous.
During the last week of July, my own apartment - a rental - was vandalized, a chemical substance that made me ill introduced to it, and I am ill still. I was able to find a person with a chemical background to come by and witness the circumstances, and with this witness statement reported the crime to police.
Interestingly, I live in the best section of town, a place where burglaries and street crime do not exist, and nothing was stolen.
This is the second time someone illegally entered my flat and spread something noxious in it, the first police complaint being made in November 2010, and nothing was stolen at that time either. Equally notable, these were not break-ins, so whoever is responsible may well have had a key. But I'm sorry to say this is almost the least of what I've endured over the past years here.