Comparing the incomparable: multicultural Swedishness versus national statehood of the Baltic States II

Här följer den andra och avslutande delen av mitt och statsvetaren Andreas Johansson Heinös samtal med den litauiske filosofen Tomas Kavaliauskas om Sverige och de baltiska staterna, som finns publicerat i boken Conversations about European Transcultural Memory (Vilnius 2014).

Frågorna och titeln på samtalet har formulerats av Tomas Kavaliauskas.

Första delen kan läsas här, och hela boken kan laddas ner här.

T. Kavaliauskas

The ethnic tensions in the Baltic States also revolve around the issue of occupation or liberation in 1945 on May 9th. Memory politics whether May 9th denotes liberation or occupation do not coincide in Russia and the Baltic States. Neither Polish nor Lithuanian national narratives coincide on Vilnius territory and its cultural heritage. Recently Belarusians are active claiming the rights of Lithuanian Grand Duchy and there are ideas of changing the name of the state from Belarus to Litva.

Thus, on the one hand, having in mind the significance of memory politics for the Baltic States, it would be unwise to conclude that the Baltic States should copy/paste Swedish effort to deconstruct essentialism of the fatherland as the context here is very different; but on the other hand, nationalism is a myopic ideology that often promotes xenophobic views, therefore, its tolerance is also unwise no matter what the context is. Justification of nationalistic sentiments sooner or later lead to territorial disputes and destructive desires to restore “justice” of the distant past, which leads Europe nowhere. Thus, if we agree that the prerequisite for peaceful Europe is transcultural memory politics, then the Baltic States should be more open for a new way of identity construction.

But the challenge is to overcome conflicting memories between the Baltics and Russia, between Lithuania and Poland and Belarus. Could Swedish case provide examples of successful management of historical self-contradictory narratives?

A. J. Heinö

To some extent, I guess it is fair to describe Sweden as a success story in this field. While century-old grievances still haunt large parts of the continent, few in Sweden even have the most basic knowledge about 17th and 18th century wars with Russia and Denmark. The fate of the Swedish minority in Finland is politically dead. In most European countries, the loss of rights for co-ethnics in a neighbouring country would cause a political reaction but Sweden is probably the only country in Europe totally lacking of what Rogers Brubaker once termed ”homeland nationalism”, i.e. nation-states acting in the name of the nation, even outside of its borders.

But there is a downside to this as well. No society can do without the tools necessary for handling group related conflicts. ”Memory politics” is a peaceful tool for this. In Uppsala, the fourth biggest city in Sweden and home to quite a large number of Kurdish immigrants, there have been several attempts to erase a monument for Fadime Sahindal, a young Swedish-born women of Kurdish background who was the victim of a high-profiled honour killing in 2002, being shot dead by her father. The Kurdish groups have protested against this, claiming that although it was wrong that she was killed, she should still not be regarded as a role model for young women and that a monument celebrating her work – she was politically active, once even holding a speech in the national parliament – would be regarded as an institutionalized disrespect for the Kurdish minority.

This is a type of conflict common in all multicultural immigrant societies. The values of minority and majority sometimes clashes, and in a democracy you can deal with it in a peaceful and hopefully constructive way. But the problem in Sweden is that we lack the tools for a constructive dialogue. Instead of learning to deal with difficulties, Sweden has chosen to neglect the problems.

Remember, even though the ‘official’ self-image of Sweden is that of a multicultural society, Swedishness is not being regarded as a part of that cultural pluralism. Instead, Swedishness is understood as something ‘un-cultural’, as a progressive and modern identity having been transformed beyond the state of being a particular culture, instead now being a reflection of universal ideas. And that is a very troublesome starting point if you want to formulate a common, inclusive narrative.

N. Bernsand

In terms of relations with countries which historically have been Sweden’s significant others with repeated wars and changes of common state borders, first and foremost Russia and Denmark, the legacy of the past has been largely successfully overcome. Toxic memories from 20th century wars and expulsions on the former Eastern border are rather part of the complex of Russo-Finnish relations. In the case of the Southern border you could indeed find a few regional patriots somewhere around Lund who would argue that the former Danish provinces should be awarded cultural autonomy based on history and ethno-regional cultural specificities. In this province, starting in the 1980s a local memory literature has emerged describing the atrocities associated with the Swedish take-over in the 17th century. This literature is widely available in local public libraries all over the region of Skåne – and nowadays on websites – and is certainly read by some; but this nascent regional movement has failed to gain any political weight whatsoever and is represented to a much lesser degree in local public debates than 15 or 20 years ago. In short, the debate space that theoretically could have been awarded to these issues from the 1990s has been taken up by larger Swedish identity politics relating to national identity, immigration and integration. To put it a bit crudely, the potential political exploitation of regional past grievances in Skåne was killed off by immigration without any real battles ever being fought.

It is more questionable, however, whether Sweden has been successful in overcoming internal toxic memories. The Swedish Travellers, a group of Sinti Roma origin that in 2012 celebrated its 500th anniversary in Sweden and was one of the few ethnic minorities in the country before the large-scale immigration waves took place in the late 20th century, is a case in point. Although historically the relations between this group, the Swedish peasant population and local and state authorities have been, to say the least, complex, during the 20th century Travellers were most severely affected by the darker aspects of the establishment of a modern, rational welfare state. Travellers were greatly overrepresented among children that forcefully and often on dubious grounds were taken by the authorities from their families to be placed in foster homes or orphanages, where they often faced abuse and humiliation. Although laws and regulations did not specifically single out this group, in actual practice Travellers were also overrepresented as victims of sterilisations, enforced or “voluntary”, from the 1930s up until 1975. Traumatic individual and family memories are abundant in this group. On the collective level, Travellers showed remarkable strength in keeping the group intact as an ethnic community in times of acute assimilatory pressure. However, intergenerational cultural transmission, not the least in the field of language, was significantly disturbed, resulting in often weak knowledge of Traveller Romani among the younger generation. In fact, the Travellers I have met personally who have a native command of the language learnt it growing up with their grandparents.
At the moment some progress has been made in the field of transitional justice in relation to the Travellers, as e.g. some individual victims of enforced adoptions are finally granted economic compensation. Work is ongoing, with the involvement of representatives of Travellers, on a White Book (Truth Commission) on the abuse of Roma and Travellers by Swedish authorities, although some of the assumptions behind this endeavour have been questioned. However, the lack so far of a thoroughly popularized, properly contextualised and specific apology from the Swedish state for historical abuse and injustice against Travellers causes resentment in the community.

Again, as for drawing on the Swedish experience as a source of inspiration for the management of Baltic memory conflicts, it is not obvious how this experience would be relevant. Firstly, as was seen in the example of the Travellers, Sweden cannot be said to have handled the more acute and vivid memory issues in an exemplary way. Secondly, whereas in the Baltic States the most toxic memory conflicts relate to events of the 20th century, Sweden’s wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were fought before the advent of modern mass politics and the political instrumentalisation of national identities. Thirdly, as for possible later instrumentalisation of historical conflictual relations with external others it is disputable to which extent the historical legacies have been overcome by specific memory policies. They were indeed affected by the advent of modernist Swedish identity, which in general terms was forward-looking and discarded the past as irrelevant. For sure, there has since the 1990s been an upsurge of interest in Swedish history, including the Great Power era, and in 2011 came the first modern book, written not by a professional historian but by journalist John Crispinsson, on Swedish historical memories from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. However, this has not had any political implications, and even marginal Swedish ethno-nationalist discourses are thoroughly focused on the territory of contemporary Sweden.

I share your arguments about intolerance, and perhaps indeed a peace-building memory politics, e.g. in the Baltic States, would be facilitated by the search for new ways of identity construction. Certainly, a proper discussion of this aspect of your question would demand at least an article of its own. Just a short suggestion that might work with the hermeneutic perspective you propose in your article about Russian and Baltic narratives on the May 9th Victory Day celebrations: perhaps it would be productive to build on the identities that already exist and are truly felt by individuals and groups in society. At least one might be careful with the lurking Utopian temptation, underpinned by universalist liberalism or whatever else, to crusade against the plurality of meaningful identities and self-images – be they ethnic, religious, regional, national or imperial – in the hope of engineering new and better ways to identify and connect. As with modernist Swedish identity, when the larger circumstances change the assumptions supporting them, such identities might change anyway. Perhaps trust in the positive qualities of collective identities combined with a smaller degree of situational policing would be preferable to radical reform requiring major policing and system-level social engineering.

T. Kavaliauskas

Carl Ulrik Schierup and Aleksandra Ålund in the article ”The end of Swedish exceptionalism” identify the year 2008 as the end of peaceful multiculturalism due to riots that disclosed incongruities and ethnic tensions. Gottsunda area in Uppsala was creatively called as Ghettosunda. If Sweden ends being a role model for multicultural success story, and for that we do have a date – the year 2008, then should we conclude that we should be even more careful introducing Swedish anti-essentialism to the Baltic States?
Is it possible to find here sort of Aristotelian golden mean between extreme multiculturalism and ultra-nationalism blending the two into sort of ethnic-cosmopolitanism? Ethnic cosmopolitanism then would mean ethnic diversity and heterogeneous society with such a respect to the individual‘s cultural context that his or her ethnic essentialism would be cherished, however, on the condition that this individual and his/her group does the same regarding other ethnic cultures in overlapping neighbourhoods, thus, maintaining cosmopolitan diversity and integrity.

To what extent has Swedish multiculturalism crossed the balance between national identity and cosmopolitan culture building? Do you accept the thesis of C. U. Schierup and A. Ålund that 2008 is the year of backward multiculturalism? What does it mean then for Swedish identity memory of its 20th and 21st centuries? Is it somehow reflected in school history books?

A. J. Heinö

Standing in the middle of the action, it is always tempting to over-emphasize the historical importance of what is going on. No, I don’t see 2008 as a turning point. Five years on, few in Sweden even remember the riots in Gottsunda, and there have been other similar events during the last decade.

If one should identify one event that marks the beginning of something new, it is the murder of Fadime Sahindal in January 2002. She was a Swedish-born woman of ethnic Kurdish background who was active in the case of honour culture and eventually was shot dead by her father. Just two weeks earlier, Mrs Gudrun Schyman, the leader of the socialist Left Party held an infamous speech at a party congress there she argued that women in Sweden lived under similar patriarchal structures as the women in the Taliban ruled Afghanistan (her speech afterwards being remembered as ‘The Taliban Speech”). Although attracting immediate criticism, it was still something that a leading Swedish politician could say, and get away with. Many leading intellectuals at the same time argued along similar lines that it was racist to claim that certain cultures treated their women worse than others, and that the whole concept of ”honor killings” were racist. But the murder of Sahindal did change all that. It opened up for a more critical discussion on the downside of cultural relativism, such as the alleged reluctance of authorities to act in cases where the perpetrators belonged to ethnic minorities. To some extent, it was our Ground Zero for Multiculturalism and the start of a return of more open discussion on assimilation (although it is called ‘integration’ in the Swedish discourse).

But, the question is whether Sweden ever really did enter the multicultural way. I wrote an article a few years ago with the title ”We have never been multicultural” – meant as a paraphrase to Nathan Glazer’s classic “We are all multiculturalists now”. My argument was that although Sweden adopted a multicultural policy towards immigrants in the mid 1970s not that much changed in reality. Yes, non-citizens achieved the right to vote in municipal and regional elections, and yes, immigrant children were offered a few hours of free education in their mother tongue every week. But Sweden never truly became multicultural in terms of offering minority cultures a specific role in Swedish society. Except for the Sami minority, no immigrant groups of minorities have held any group rights. The state did expect immigrants to assimilate, or return to their homelands, the legislation was merely meant to offer equal rights for the immigrants while they remained in Sweden. No Swedish political party have ever argued for a multiculturalism that would give group rights to minorities, or that would truly challenge the monocultural model of the Swedish society.

N. Bernsand

The most interesting thing about the quoted article is the authors’ concerned predictions about the end of the Swedish Sonderweg, and, as has already been mentioned in this conversation, Swedish society is clearly much less sure of itself and its ability to handle present challenges. In some policy areas discussed in the article, such as citizenship, Swedish exceptionalism is however alive and kicking: no language tests for citizenship, contradictory laws granting asylum-seekers who are denied residence permit and expected to leave the country far-reaching social rights and benefits if they chose to hide from the authorities, bizarrely enough with the simultaneous risk of being deported by other Swedish authorities at any moment.

As for the riots in the suburbs, I wouldn’t say that 2008 was such a fundamental year, and I doubt it is remembered in school text books. What the suburbs reveal is a tendency of various groups and individuals in Sweden to vote with their feet. Suburbs in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, and in later years also in many mid-size cities originally constructed for migrants from the Swedish countryside, have in the last decades seen rapid out-migration of ethnic Swedes, as well as of many others who have been able to move up the scale socially. Predictably the newcomers often tend to settle in those areas where their ethnic kin and relatives already live, however many Swedes, if they can afford it, also tend to settle in socially and fairly ethnically homogenous Swedish middle-class areas. Often this social act is coded in terms of ‘safe area for the kids to grow up in’, ‘good schools’ etc. This tendency points to an important way Swedish society deals with large-scale immigration outside of the political field and beyond surveys on toleration.

Your proposed ideal of a blend between multiculturalism and nationalism uniting recognition of cultural diversity, harmonious inter-group relations and, I suppose, respect for individual freedom, sounds on the first glance not very different from some common academic varieties of normative multiculturalism. It is noteworthy in this regard that high-lighting similarities between multiculturalism and nationalism is a key feature of the pro-immigration liberal critique aimed at multiculturalism (i.e. not at cultural diversity itself but at certain normative conceptualisations) that has been a common feature in the Western European, including Swedish, political and medial debates. To provide an academic example, I recently visited a conference on the future of multiculturalism in Great Britain where multiculturalism was challenged by some participants under the banner of interculturalism, a term that occasionally can be heard in various Swedish contexts as well. Normative multiculturalism was in this liberal discourse portrayed as groupist, essentialist and disrespectful of human rights discourse, as engendering alienation rather than integration and as driving otherwise liberally inclined citizens in the hands of the critics of immigration. Basically, liberal discourse on nasty nationalism here reoccurs as discourse on nasty multiculturalism.

T. Kavaliauskas

How does fiction literature, documentary films or entertainment films or art exhibitions reflect transformations of Swedish multiculturalism or shifts in national self-perception? For instance, if the word “fatherland” has become derogative, perhaps there is postmodern intertextual usage of this word in an ironic and playful way, be it in art exhibitions or in literature or in film?

A. J. Heinö

It used to be, in the 1960s at least, but today, I hardly think that many Swedes even would understand a reference to the word ”fatherland”. It is something related to American movies, but totally absent in Sweden. It is now so old-fashioned, it is even too old for irony.
But instead, we see the emergence of a discourse on Swedish racism which demonstrates quite an impressing naivety among Swedish intellectuals. As many other European nations, we have had our own debate on Hergé’s infamous colonial narrative about “Tintin in Congo”. The trouble with these debates is that the arguments are not homegrown but imported from America. Of course it would be wrong to only look at the national context, but the problem is that artists and intellectuals are looking to far away for inspiration and thus drawing the wrong conclusions. White and Black are not relevant identity categories in Sweden, as they are in the United States or even Great Britain. But due to the lack of understanding of how categories of nationality and ethnicity function – a direct result of the anti-nationalist norm – many are left with just the simple categories of skin colour. When the Swedish prime minister commented on mass unemployment in Sweden and claimed that there was not mass unemployment since unemployment among “middle aged ethnic Swedes” were very low, he was just making a basic fact. Sweden has, comparative to other European countries, a high unemployment for youth and for immigrants, but comparatively low for other groups. But the comment triggered a totally senseless debate on the word ”ethnic Swedes”. Many, otherwise intelligent people, were arguing that there was no such thing as an ethnic Swede, and that the prime minister was racially dividing the population into the categories of us and them.

N. Bernsand

A fairly large corpus of books and films exploiting themes of multiculturalism and ethnic relations has emerged in the last decade, in different genres and styles. While some of these books and films, like Marjaneh Bakhtiari’s Shibboleth, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Ett öga rött or Ruben Östlund’s Play are intelligent and thought-provoking, they often engender debates of a more dubious quality, taking interesting and complex works as starting-points for high-pitched and predictable discussions.

Furthermore, changes in and challenges to prevalent concepts of national identity can be portrayed more or less overtly. It has e.g. been argued that the huge popularity (in Sweden too, by the way) of British crime series like Midsomer Murders can partly be explained by a kind of pre-super diversity escapism, seen in their overwhelmingly traditional English scenery with few references to current everyday multi-ethnic realities. Maybe, in a similar vein, it is no coincidence that the most prominent authors of the Swedish crime fiction boom (often with books subsequently being made into films and TV series and exported to international markets) focus on ethnically Swedish characters and settings. From this perspective, it does not really matter that the protagonists of quite a few of those books join the fight against prejudice, intolerance, and the fictionally omnipresent old Swedish village Nazi. What does matter is that the protagonists and the milieus are predominantly Swedish. If the bad guys are Swedish racists the good guys are Swedish anti-racists (sometimes with the token non-Swede of course). And that is indeed a very Swedish story.

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