Sure, the cleric in question – Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas – is a queer character (in the old-fashioned sense of the word), but what about the more general point? Should foreigners – including those who live here – criticize Sweden?
Arriving in Sweden, along with my delight at wide open spaces and pickled herrings, I certainly found plenty to grumble about. My eyes started to water when I saw the size of my first tax bill. I was also cheesed off when informed that along with the rest of Sweden’s population I was not responsible enough to buy wine at the weekends, and I couldn’t rent a normal apartment in central Stockholm, even though I was willing to pay, because “there’s a ten year queue.”
These are just my pet hates. The non-resident Fred Phelps (along with other, more sane, well-informed voices) was more rattled by the conviction of pastor Åke Green under hate crimes laws for railing against gay people. How frightful, that laws could stop priests quoting from the delightful book of Leviticus, he cried.
But every time I feel the chest tightening at some indiosyncracies of the country I have chosen to live in, I have to remind myself to keep schtum and get a grip. Nothing is more irritating than a whingeing foreigner. This is as true of a Brit in Sweden as it is of a young Somalian in Britain.
My Swedish chums in England used to bang on about what a dirty, foul-smelling, overcrowded place London was.
“Well, why the hell are you here,” I would ask.
“Just because we whinge doesn’t mean we don’t love it,” would be the invariable reply.
And so it is with foreigners everywhere. But there’s no doubt that moaning is unattractive, and grumbling about things that are part and parcel of Swedish life – the taxes, the booze shops, the way they put pedestrian crossings around every blind corner – without first asking why things are the way they are is not just irritating, it’s plain insulting.
In fact, we can often sound like teenagers in a high school debate – we know what we think, but we haven’t really worked out how to justify it yet. Without the history, the intuitive knowledge of a country only available to those who grow up there, we are often scratching in the dark, and resort to comparing Sweden unfavourably with home.
So, why does The Local have an opinion page, if not to subject readers to ignorant rants about Sweden?
Well, apart from the fact that evolution has given journalists a distasteful urge to fill space with the outpourings of our oversized egos, we think that there is something that foreigners can add to the Swedish debate: a fresh pair of eyes, a different angle on things that are exercising the nation.
But I hope that we will also listen to Swedish voices, and recognize that Sweden has plenty to teach the rest of the world, even men of the cloth from Topeka, Kansas.