Anyone who's hung around in liberal circles and found himself in those perfunctory What's Wrong With America conversations has heard the refrain: "Well, in Sweden they have (fill in the blank): mostly free healthcare, free college, 13-month parental leave."
There's low crime, high living standards and cool modernist furniture. If they can achieve this, why can't we?
And it's not just Sweden (ABBA! Ikea! Saabs!) we idolize, but the rest of the Scandinavian/Nordic nations. The Finns have the best education system. The Danes are famously happy, and Norway, which in 2007 topped the first Global Peace Index survey as the world's most peaceful nation, may tap the deepest into our utopian fantasies.
Home of world-famous fiords and the Nobel Prize, Norway would appear to be the gold standard of both progressive values and pastoral perfection, an egalitarian wonderland where, in the vein of its fictional American analog, the heavily Norwegian-settled Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children have subsidized day care.
Of course, anyone who's willing to let reality occupy a fraction as much brain space as fantasy (including some liberals) can see the Scandinavia versus United States comparison for the facile, if enticing, argument it is. Norway, for example, has a population of around 4.9 million. That's close to half the population of New York City and a tiny drop in the bucket compared with the current U.S. head count of over 311 million. More important, until relatively recently the Scandinavian countries were largely strongholds of Germanic ancestry and Viking heritage that ran smoothly because there weren't a lot of differences to bridge — everyone more or less looked the same, shared cultural values, experiences and goals: like a willingness to trade the cost of high taxes for social security.
But as July 22's terrible events reminded us, Scandinavia's changing demographics — due largely to an influx of asylum seekers from Muslim countries (Norway's Muslim population is about 3%, more than triple the U.S. percentage) — have brought on social tensions that fly in the face of the idyllic stereotype. If previous violence, such as the suicide bombings in Stockholm late last year, cast an ominous shadow, the massacre in Oslo and on the island of Utoya signaled an official end of innocence.
Indeed, that phrase has appeared again and again in headlines since the killings, most of them accompanied by articles that are one part eulogy for a lost era and one part gentle admonition for the racism, some of it fretted over, some of it notably unchecked, that has flared up in the new Scandinavia. "Only in Norway have I heard someone order a taxi and request that the driver is white," wrote a Norwegian-raised columnist in the Telegraph.
Still, it's hard to let go of the dream. For a few weeks before the shootings, a friend spending the summer in Norway was posting dreamy photos of her kids swimming in glistening lakes and lounging in hammocks in endless green pastures. She's an American who married a Norwegian, and she knows enough about both cultures to feel some cognitive dissonance about the reactions she was getting from people back home, many of whom wrote gushing comments like "Get me on a plane immediately!"
After the attacks, my friend's posts suggested she was both shaken and chagrined. "So much for quaint photos of blond children in hammocks," she wrote. But soon, the pretty pictures returned. It was almost as if she wanted to reassure us dreamers that Norway's bucolic splendor had withstood the attacks, that the dream was still alive, that day care was still subsidized (and possibly involved hammocks).
Later, though, she told me in an email that she did feel an acute loss of innocence. But she also copped to the fact that it had less to do with the massacre than with the extent to which the bloom was already off the utopian rose. "People in Norway now have malls and tanning salons," she wrote. "They're more like us, and that is such a total bummer."
Tragically, since July 22, they share something else with us: homegrown terrorism, which is an even bigger bummer than tanning salons. Presumably neither will be coming to a Facebook post or liberal fantasy any time soon. Unless, perhaps, the government is funding those tans.