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Trouble in Paradise

from the magazine

Trouble in Paradise

On Sweden, social welfare, and riots Summer 2013
The Social Order

The six days of riots in Sweden last May, led by immigrant youth, were greeted in the rest of Europe with a certain quiet satisfaction. No one likes to have a moral exemplar held up constantly before him, and the riots suggested that the exemplar was not so exemplary after all.

Not without a certain moral grandiosity, and probably from a sense of guilt at its own good fortune, Sweden—or at least its political elite and its large social-democratic middle class—decided to start accepting refugees from countries such as Iraq and Somalia, beginning in the 1990s. A gulf soon opened between the pays légal and the pays réel. Officially, all was welcoming, generous, and equal; in reality, urban ghettos were springing up, with all their attendant problems. Perhaps Sweden has been generous toward its newcomers; by most European standards, the unemployment rate among the children of immigrants is low, though it is twice that of the general population and reaches 40 percent in some places. But generosity does not necessarily produce gratitude. Why do you hate me, goes the old Hindu proverb, when I’ve never tried to help you?

No sooner had the youths of the housing projects begun to loot and burn the People’s Home, as the Swedes like to call their country, than the battle broke out to find meaning in such unexpected behavior and, of course, to apportion blame. How had so many years of enlightenment ended in such an orgy of insensate rage? Naturally, some commentators tried to link the riots with the Swedish government’s recent cuts in spending on social programs. These reductions have helped Sweden achieve Western Europe’s highest economic growth rate and lowest unemployment rate. Without them, unemployment among the foreign-born, currently 16 percent, would probably have doubled or tripled—and then commentators would have blamed the riots on unemployment. The argument that the welfare reductions caused the riots does not prove that the subventions were wise in the first place—only that, once given, they have proved difficult to withdraw. Indeed, it is these subsidies that have made it possible for many immigrants to avoid integrating or learning Swedish. The combination of social security and vast cultural difference is dangerous.

The Left in all countries has sought to avoid understanding this. A Norwegian social-democratic newspaper called the riots a Swedish Arab Spring, thereby unconsciously revealing the racism of Norwegian social democrats. Arabs, Somalis: they’re all the same. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, a Guardian editorial about the riots made me smile: “What worked for the asylum seekers of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s that has stopped working now for Somalis and north Africans? [This question] needs to be openly debated and honestly answered.” If there is one thing that we fear and attempt to stifle in Europe, it is open and honest debate.

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