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Obama in Sweden, the New "Old South"

Dalarna, Sweden

Mr. President, on September 4th you will be coming to Sweden, a country I arrived in sixteen years ago.  You will be coming to a country famed for its Nobel Prize, the so-called ‘Swedish-model’ for an equitable society, not to mention Ikea, Volvos, Ingmar Bergman, and so much more.  But over my sixteen years in Sweden there’s been change, an immensely popular article that was recently published here being, ‘The country we called Sweden no longer exists’ (this English version being from The Local, the original, Swedish version, published in Scandinavia’s largest paper, Aftonbladet).

President Obama, perhaps there are some things that it might prove useful for me to share.

Make no mistake, sir, I personally welcome your visit, my impression being the vast majority here feel similarly.  However, for myself, the fact that you are the son of a Kenyan man of Islamic heritage (who came to the US on a scholarship) is key.  To my eyes, the fact that a black man with an immigrant background was elected to be America’s ‘Chief Executive’ provides an object lesson much needed.

In 2005 the Swedish government did a report titled ‘The blue/yellow glass house’ (Det blågula glashuset) – it addressed ‘structural discrimination’ in Sweden.

Equality and Civil Rights

Sweden is a country that was struck by ‘social unrest’ only this May, with many seeing questions of ‘discrimination and prejudice’ as responsible.  A CounterPunch article I did at the time observed: “Contrary to what many believe Sweden to be, while the country’s borders may indeed be open, certain ‘cultural borders’ within it are another matter, assorted reports documenting the prejudice minorities and immigrants daily live with.”  As to how bad Swedish circumstances can be – in April 2012 CP published another piece, ‘Living as a “Sub-Human” in Sweden’. 

‘Living as a Sub-Human in Sweden’ discusses the similarities between many Swedish towns of today and those of the American ‘Deep South’ of another era.  With the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 28 August 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech having just been celebrated, perhaps a few words upon ‘Civil Rights’ might be considered during your meetings in Stockholm.

Mr. President, while you were elected to America’s highest office, the UN’s International Labor Organization has documented “Discrimination against Native Swedes of Immigrant Origin in Access to Employment”.  Prejudice is such that another headline from The Local read ‘CV name-change leaves foreign student reeling’, the article’s summary observing: ‘A Romanian student in Uppsala has been left seething after a CV experiment in changing his name to sound “more Swedish” pulled in unprecedented success.

’

Sweden and its ‘good ol boys’



Sir, I am aware of no Henry Kissingers or Zbigniew Brzezinskis in Sweden, and while there is certainly much positive to say about this nation and its people, I personally can attest to the devastating consequences its ‘good ol boys’ are ever so casually capable of.  As in America’s Deep South, there are occasions when a ‘culture’ can develop that brings problems for some, for those seen as what some might term ‘the other’.  

A Swedish governmental report from November 2012 was titled ‘Främlingsfienden inom oss’ – I believe one might translate that as ‘The enemy of strangers within us’ or ‘The xenophobe within us’.

President Obama, I won’t point out the inherent paradox in your warm welcome to a country where official reports arguably suggest your career would be far different if you had been born here, and I can only hope that the ‘object lesson’ inherent in this visit won’t be lost on those welcoming you.  As a friend of mine once mentioned to me, “the term ‘human being’ has just one definition”.

In all fairness, sir, I see much of the problem here as stemming from the pain of ‘neoliberal reform’, with my perception being that xenophobia has risen proportionally with this.  Of course, throughout Europe, the far-right continues growing through scapegoating societal minorities, and for obvious reasons, the mainstream political parties that have been part of creating the pain so many feel do nothing to accept the blame for it.  But, while growing prejudice and discrimination, plus the debate regarding this, distract from the real issue of the ‘reforms’ which have disenfranchised so many, societal cohesion is arguably diminishing, Sweden’s recent ‘unrest’ (or, as called by some, ‘The suburb’s revolt’ {förortsrevolten}) seeming to suggest evidence of this.  But, I do see ‘the problem’ extending further.

Sweden, the new ‘Old South’



In the American Deep South of Dr. King’s day, assorted Hollywood films portrayed not only bigotry, but corruption…the ‘good ol boy’ kind.  Here, there is a Swedish word, ‘vänskapskorruption’ – one might literally translate this as ‘friendship’s corruption’, though, the Deep South term ‘good ol boy’ I personally see as equally fitting, others perhaps preferring the term ‘cronyism’.  

Just this Summer, Dagens Nyheter — Sweden’s ‘paper of record’ — did a four-part series regarding the problem of municipal corruption, an issue I’ve both written upon and personally experienced in the town I long lived in, Falun.  And like America’s Deep South of another era, the problem stems from a ‘culture’ which developed, one which those who areen’t ‘outsiders’ simply see as the ‘way of things’.

Just a year ago, August 2012, a national prosecutor even provided commentary upon this.

In a report titled ‘Nine suspects await Falun corruption investigation’, Swedish Radio (Sweden’s equivalent of the BBC) noted: ‘”It is evident there’s an unhealthy culture here,” says Forsberg’, Forsberg being “Thomas Forsberg, prosecutor at the national anti-corruption unit”.  But, while six folks were indicted for corruption this winter, I see the real issue as the effects which a combination of corruption and prejudice have upon ‘outsiders’, particularly when such questions arise regarding the range of local authorities…as occurred in the Deep South of another era.

When I first came to Falun it was 1997, and the town had been named among the most beautiful in Sweden.  This year, I’ve seen Falun repeatedly named among those towns which ‘stand out’ (utmärker sig) as places where corruption occurs. 

As prosecutor Thomas Forsberg observed, it’s “evident there’s an unhealthy culture” that’s developed…and, some might term such a ‘culture’ simply the accepted ‘way of life’ for those in power within it.  Of course, Hollywood has long popularized what kinds of nightmares that can mean, and the article I wrote a year ago, ‘Living as a “Sub-Human” in Sweden’, details much of what I, and others, have encountered.  However, anyone can say anything, and so perhaps it’s worthwhile if I mention something about myself.

I once wrote laws, not articles



Today, most recognize me as simply a journalist and commentator.  For those with a good memory, I’m credited with breaking the news on a Bush administration ‘citizen spy’ program which would have given the US more citizen informants than the notorious East German Stasi had in its heydays.  Perhaps I should add that the program, Operation Tips, was killed by Congress within days of my English-language story breaking.  I also enjoy the honor of being one of few journalists in modern times to have had an article of theirs (‘Foundations are in place for martial law in the US’) read in its entirety on the floor of Congress, the C-Span recording of this still worth watching. 

Sir, I’m sixty-two years old, and during the vast majority of my adult life I’ve been an unabashed Progressive trying to advance the public’s good.  And, it seems some things don’t change.  But, as I personally have discovered, sometimes the ‘unimaginable’ does happen.

In July 1997 I was effectively compelled to leave America, my personal exile beginning with efforts to seek police accountability, the laws I once wrote instead of articles.  Notably, my legislative efforts were widely hailed at the time, including with an editorial by Connecticut’s largest paper, The Hartford Courant – ‘Consider A Statewide Review Board’.  

My idea had been to provide an elected ‘Statewide Civilian Oversight Board’ for police, but there were some that didn’t like that idea.

The price of courage?



While aware of a certain level of ‘risk’, I pushed ahead, chairing a hearing in Connecticut’s legislature upon the proposal, also advancing my legislation in both a number of states and at the Federal level.  An hour video of the highlights of the Connecticut hearing was widely broadcast within the state, Connecticut then being my home.

As to how dangerous seeking police accountability might be, The Courant had run a news story in 1994 titled ‘Colchester Officers Accused Of Death Plot’.  The first line of the article reads: ‘A state police informant says he was offered $10,000 by two town police officers to make “disappear” a man who had lodged a brutality complaint against the officers.’

The ‘rewards’ of my accountability efforts included: an explicit death threat; being shot at; having the steering unscrewed on my car; the destruction of my home and office, and assorted regular and serious harassment.  A private detective even found that my car was emitting tracking signals, allowing me to be followed…and, repeatedly attacked. 

Those that may benefit from a lack of accountability seldom seem eager to embrace anything impacting their effective immunity, the reactions of those in question often seeming in proportion to the liabilities they might potentially face.

For me, complaints to the appropriate agencies and authorities proved useless, or worse, on some occasions resulting in further victimization, a pattern confirmed by expert testimony provided on the video of the 1996 Connecticut hearing.  I’ll add that several months before I fled The States, a distraught colleague had contacted me, saying “they’re after my children, they’re after my children!”  About two weeks later, one of her sons had been killed by police, shot dead in an incident one observer described as ‘driving while black’.

In 1998 a European political newsletter, Fortress Europe Circular Letter (FECL), documented the circumstances described, their article titled “US CITIZEN DENIED ASYLUM IN SWEDEN – USA A ‘SAFE COUNTRY’?”  And in June 2001, even Britain’s The Guardian reported upon the events surrounding my sanctuary bid, the support my asylum application was receiving…’European parliament committee urges Swedes to rethink’.

In October 2006 I received ‘humanitarian asylum’ in Sweden.

Of justice, prejudice, and politics

Sir, the fact of your presidency speaks to political abilities and awareness few possess, and having such, it also speaks to your knowledge that — in today’s world — the interpretation of rights and laws is too often a function of politics and power, not statute.  Since receiving asylum I was assigned an apartment that effectively poisoned me, Sweden’s paper of record, Dagens Nyheter, titling their article “De gav mig en giftig soptipp” (They gave me a toxic waste dump).   

It is a strange thing that when my new life should have begun, asylum instead brought only severe injuries. 

Aside from ‘powerfully elevated’ levels of mold, testing by the municipal landlord’s insurance company revealed the apartment had an ‘unusually high level’ of both chloroform and benzene.  The benzene level was over six times the Swedish limit for ambient air, and both chloroform and benzene are carcinogens.

Notably, it was only a few years after my exposure when a malignant polyp was removed from my colon. 

Today, after enduring two more such apartments and the loss of almost all my belongings, and with medical certificates stating in 2008 that I was 75% disabled from ‘building-related symptoms’, my circumstances could be better.  As both Swedish authorities and courts repeatedly failed to act, despite extremely substantive documentation, Falun’s local paper, FaluKuriren, printed two articles which might be seen as summing up the circumstances.  The first was ‘Dom i mögelrättegång förvånar advokat’ (‘Judgment in mold trial surprises attorney’), the second being ‘Kommunal lojalitet viktigare än lagen?’ (Municipal loyalties more important than the law?).  But, some see another possibility, namely that some quiet words from Washington might be to blame.

Mr. President, I personally feel the problem here is the same as the one which existed for many in America’s Deep South of another time, the issues of prejudice and corruption which sometimes seem to know no bounds.  Of course, perhaps such things are partially why there was ‘social unrest’ here this May, and why my own dream is that your coming may lead to awakening and change.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

 

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Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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