At a rally in Melbourne, Florida on Saturday 18 February, Donald Trump drew his supporters attention to “what happened] last night in Sweden” in an attempt to highlight problems that the Scandinavian country has experienced with immigration and refugee resettlement. He was largely mocked, by Swedes and non-Swedes alike, for the kind of fear-mongering and sensationalism that men like Michael Forbes know all too well. Swedish ministers asked what drugs he was on; late night talks shows gleefully vowed to ‘never fjorget.’
Yet only two days later, in a kind of clairvoyance Paul the Octopus would give his right tentacle to possess, conservative and mainstream news outlets were ablaze with reports of rioting in the Rinkeby neighborhood in Stockholm, an area known for its large immigrant population. It was, it seemed, time for the other side to rejoice: reports from Fox News, RT, Breitbart, and the Daily Mail covered the ‘dramatic’ events that lasted through the night and in the end comprised a dozen burned vehicles, a number of busted shop windows, and zero arrests from crowds of about 40 people said to be throwing stones at police officers. Even the Washington Post, CNN, and New York Times features articles about the riots happening in the wake of Trump’s comments; indeed, the Stockholm News reported that the ‘Riots in Sweden’ had topped the US News circuit, for probably the first time, ever.
What are we to make of this? Is Donald Trump right about Sweden when he suggests that its longstanding policy on refugees, immigrants, and integration has failed? Should all the haters be making some toast to serve with all that egg on their faces?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. First, Donald Trump’s mention of Sweden did not come from hours spent poring over crime statistics reports or meetings with think tanks or extensive consultations with European partners reporting on their own fact finding missions. It came from an interview on Fox News with Ami Horowitz, a filmmaker who traveled to Sweden to film a documentary about the integration of refugees there. In the substance of the film, as well as in the interview, he refers to Sweden as the ‘rape capital of Europe’ and areas like Rinkeby as ‘no-go’ zones. He also makes reference to an interview he conducted for the film with two Swedish police officers, whose comments seem to be affirming a significant increase in violent offenses and sexual assaults, largely at the hands of immigrants (both newly arrived and descended from).
Of course, the filmmaker is himself operating from a particular perspective: his film, “Stockholm Syndrome,” is accused of being an alarmist work, and his interviews with the two police officers were heavily edited to change the meaning and intention of the officers’ statements. The two men called Horowitz, am American filmmaker previously recorded throwing rocks at Palestinians, a ‘madman’ after he aired their interviews about the rise in firearms during a Fox segment about immigration. While this may make for compelling television, it is neither scientific, nor is it particularly benevolent. This is a man promoting his work on a channel looking to boost its ratings. It may be informative, and may well have increased the geographic knowledge of the American public (not one of our strong points), but it is not tantamount to scientific evidence.
It should not go unnoticed that the President of the United States gets his information from television news programs, and that he often gives statements based on this information. Apart from the legitimacy that his position may lack based on his sources, crafting an official position after the top stories on any news channels inevitably leads to an ordering of preferences and priorities that are haphazard at best. Ask yourself, if Fox News had not run the interview with Horowitz, would Donald Trump have made Sweden’s integration problem a point of fact in his speech? If he’d watched a different segment, a different program, or even a different channel would it have been a different country on his checklist?
Nonetheless, Donald Trump did indeed discuss the problems Sweden faces with a sizable immigrant population, and two days later, riots broke out after a drug arrest of a Rinkeby resident and lasted through the night. Moreover, high-density immigrant areas in Sweden have had sporadic periods of violence, and some of them have contentious relationships with both the local authorities and visitors, including journalists, which can become violent confrontations. And indeed, while crime has not increased with any significance and the Swedish government has gone out of its way to dispel a link between crime and immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment does run high in Sweden. The recent opinion piece by Sweden Democrat leaders in the Wall Street Journal, though factually disputed and condemned (not least by the @sweden Twitter account run by the government and administered by a citizen every week), touched on a rising tide of frustration with Swedish immigration policies.
But we must ask ourselves, if Donald Trump hadn’t mentioned Sweden at his rally and if his opposition hadn’t gotten such a great laugh at his expense, would it have been an international story? How many of us knew about the riots in Husby, Stockholm, in 2013? There, in another neighborhood heavily populated with immigrants, a week of protests and rioting resulted in at least 7 injured police officers and extensive property damage. How many of us knew that Sweden has had problems in these neighborhoods since 1975 but has reported a decrease in crime for 2016? Honestly, how many of us thought to ourselves, “man, I was wondering when he’d get to talking about Sweden, because that is a powder keg ready to blow.”
For those of us that aren’t specialists in Swedish integration, if it was a riot we were looking for, there were no shortage of those across the globe that might well have been the story of the week. Along with Sweden, there were riots reported in France, Poland, Anaheim (California), South Africa, India, Bulgaria, Greece, Iraq, Italy, and Brazil, all in the past two weeks. This is not even to mention the sustained and nationwide riots that took place in December in Venezuela, and the level of violence that the Brazilian riots have reached. Some of these involved anti-immigrant sentiments, some of them just the humdrum combination of widespread social inequality, government corruption, and dwindling social resources. Had the programming schedule of Fox News been different, we might have heard about any of them.
This is not to say that Sweden is not facing a real problem, and that they may well have to reassess their refugee policy in the face of a political threat from the aforementioned Sweden Democrats, a right-wing populist party with a similar program to the Front National in France or UKIP in the United Kingdom. There are real problems, and regardless of the media spin it does or doesn’t get, those problems need to be addressed. But anyone who believes that Rinkeby is on the brink of an Intifada might do well to actually speak with people who live there. Likewise, commentators like Nigel Farage should perhaps refrain from calling Sweden the ‘rape capital’ of Europe and instead study the progress that Swedish lawmakers have made in widening the definition of the term to include varying degrees of sexual assault, making it possible for offenders to be prosecuted more vigorously. Yes, Sweden is facing considerable challenges but to say that Sweden was ‘rocked’ by riots is to add hyperbolic fuel to an already overblown fire and serves only to distract from the very real problems that the country faces.
Ami Horowitz didn’t invent the Swedish case, but what he did do was to present it completely out of its context and then present facts in that case as incontrovertible fact, in a very different context. Then Donald Trump said something, some of us laughed, then something tangentially related to that thing he said actually happened, and then it was a news story.
But it was not because of the thing itself but of the context in which it happened. This should be a real wake-up call to any of us following, reading, or discussing events around the world. Context matters. It may matter more than facts, because it is the thing that allows us to situate facts into a framework, to make sense of the things that we hear and see. Facts have become something of an object of ridicule in these past months, and people with varying levels of power have seen how easy it is to manipulate or even dismiss facts that don’t conform to their objectives. It’s surprising, disheartening, and infectious on all sides. But it’s the context of things; it’s really all about the context of things. Because without context, all of the messy contingencies of the world, truth doesn’t really have any meaning at all, does it? It is perhaps not a post-fact world that we should fear, but a post-context world.