Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Sweden's self-deception

The country of contrasts' cradle-to-grave welfare system no longer offers the guarantees it once did



On the day that Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister, died of stab wounds on Sept 11, another less-publicized killing added to the nation's dismay. In western Sweden a 5-year-old child identified only as Sabina was abducted and stabbed to death by an inmate from a psychiatric institute, able to come and go at will in part because the cost of looking after such patients in this land's cradle-to-grave welfare system is becoming too high.

In a way, both killings achieved the same effect, injecting darkness into light and reflecting the duality of a nation whose roots lie as much in the bleak alienation of the playwright August Strindberg or the somber cinematography of Ingmar Bergman as in the quest for harmony and tolerance. This, after all, is a nation that has offered the world Strindberg's Miss Julie, a dark drama of class and sexuality, and ABBA, a band that sounds curiously purged of both.

It is a land, according to the sociologist Ake Daun, whose rural history and harsh seasons have molded a pragmatic Lutheran work ethic to confront long, cold winters bereft of sunlight, offset by brief summers that dapple the spangled lakes and dark forests of this far-flung country.

Its people, Daun wrote in a major study, are prone to melancholy, silence and compromise, not given to loquacity or confrontation. But, like the range of Strindberg's writing from plays to autobiography and poetry, this is a nation that does not fit easily into stereotyped categories, a land convinced of its own exceptionalism, a land that can also produce violence.

For all its appearance of strait-laced, egalitarian reticence, this same land in the 1970s gave the world a model of spare interior design, women's emancipation and sexual permissiveness, somehow combining a remarkable personal prosperity and comprehensive welfare with the world's highest suicide rate.

From its art, it seems a land of inner tensions: Anders Zorn's Midsummer Dance in Stockholm's National Museum evokes a pastoral 19th-century Sweden swirling with the stylized movement of rural celebration among people whose faces seem oddly closed to one another.

That rural idyll has given way to an urbanized society that Swedes have long sought to engineer: In its quest for the perfect society, Sweden continued the forced sterilization of the "socially unfit," first started in the 1930s, into the 1970s, long after the eugenics program of the Third Reich had been discredited.

Above all, in a remarkable political run spanning most of the past 70 years, the dominant Social Democrats built what they once called the folkhemmet -- the People's Home -- a sense of nation as protector and sanctuary with its own codes of behavior setting it apart from the rest of Europe.

With killings like those last week, it is that sense of security that is being challenged as Sweden seeks coordinates for a world in which the habits and benefits of Nordic isolation can no longer be shielded from a rapidly integrating Europe to the south. It was that unresolved tension between old and new that, in part, drove Swedes -- particularly young women -- to vote resoundingly against joining the European single currency in a referendum last weekend.

Indeed, as the killing of the five-year-old Sabina seemed to show, the welfare state on which Swedes base part of their proud self-image no longer offer the guarantees it once did, forcing this ever-introspective land to quest again for coordinates or to retreat into itself.

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