Monday, February 28, 2011

If It Were My Home: Comparing Sweden to the United States

In my final post about Sweden, I'd like to share a wonderful Internet site that appeals to the geeky librarian in me for its beautiful presentation of data and ease of understanding for the reader.  This site is called ''If It Were My Home.''  It allows readers to compare two countries side-by-side.  I'm glad to see the instincts telling me Sweden is outperforming the United States were correct.  I wish I was wrong, alas, no.

The only category where we are outperforming Sweden is in income.  Given that our wealth is at the top, and Sweden is 25% immigrants, it feels much wealthier than America when you're there.

 Click on my title to go to the real site with extensive informatıon. Compare any two countries you want! Wouldn't it be cool if our countries felt competitive with each other about their statistical performance and started to compete on performance on our behalf?

Related posts:

There Is No Need to Save Face In Sweden

If This Is Socialism, Sign Me Up!

What Idea(s) Captured Your Imagination in 2010?

The Swedish Tourist Attraction That Didn't Attract Me

Monday, February 14, 2011

Visiting Sweden: If This is Socialism, Sign Me Up!

Sweden wowed me when I visited for one week last November.  I was stunned by the general prosperıty of the population, and to be honest, I didn't quite understand it.  For example, I spent time in Örebro, the 7th largest city in Sweden.  It's the same size as a city I lived in America whose downtown had been hollowed out and decimated by the move of manufacturing from America to China. Why hasn't Sweden had the same trouble competing?

In Örebro, every downtown shop was rented and many were selling magnificent fashion. There was one fashion boutique after another.  Imagine the best brands: Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, etc. all being on offer in the downtown of an American manufacturing town.  I can't. I could only assume the wealth hadn't 'trickled up' enough to move out-of-town.
 Surely I would find poverty in the public library.
Where are the homeless people
trying to stay warm?
 They weren't sitting in the cafe
all day either
Wait...nope just a sculpture.
I went into the public library of Örebro to count how many homeless people I could see.  If it matched a downtown library of an American manufacturing city on an equally frosty day, I would estimate in advance, that there would be about 20 homeless people.  I couldn't find one. NOT ONE! I went through every nook and cranny of that library too from the top floor to the basement.

I couldn't take my eyes off of Swedish old people over the age of 70.  I wish I had thought to take pictures.  Swedish old people are aging beautifully.  I saw person after person looking 10 to 15 years younger than their actual age. The Swedish universal health care system meant that the entire population was better cared for their whole life and they must have had the faces and bodies and teeth and health they deserved.  Not only did the old folks look great they were dressed fashionably in stylish clothes.  As I was chatting up one older gentleman in Sweden who told me he was seventy, he said with a mischievous twinkle "yes, but if I start speaking French, I'm a mere 60!"

Human beings aren't the only part of Sweden that looks great.  So does the land.  In Turkey, every ounce of topsoil and all the trees are gone from my neck of the woods - quite understandable given 8,000 years of continuous civilization.  In Sweden, the forests went on for miles and miles and the air and water were very clean.  Swedes say they are very lucky because they didn't pay the price other European countries did during WWII, but they aren't giving themselves enough credit for being incredible stewards of the environment.

When I would compliment Swedes on their nation, I would hear "oh, but we have terrible problems with income inequality [the link shows they really don't, at least compared to everyone else, Swedes must be comparing internally]. Plus, it gets dark too early in the day and it is cold." Now would a statement like that about income inequality come out of an American's mouth? I don't think we would even think such a thought.  Yet, our nation has more income equality than at any time since 1928.

I didn't actually get to see this but a friend in Stockholm told me there was an extensive series of tunnels underneath the City of Stockholm so that no neighborhood had to have a multi-lane highway going through it.  Just the idea of being willing to spend tax money on underground highways so as to not impose that on anyone (in America, above-ground multi-lane highways would get imposed on poor neighborhoods) stunned me.

Visiting Sweden I couldn't help but think of American intellectual Cornell West. He has a phrase for our current American experience: "we have become well-adjusted to injustice." If Sweden represents the socialism that is so often derided back home in America, sign me up!

Related posts:

A Week in Sweden

There is No Need to Save Face in Sweden

Daydreaming at Stockholm City Hall

Visiting the Nobel Museum

The Swedish Tourist Attraction that Didn't Attract Me

Monday, February 7, 2011

What Idea(s) Captured Your Imagination in 2010?

The idea that really captured and shocked my imagination in 2010 was this: American women are not progressing politically as I would have expected in the early 21st Century. We currently rank 85th in the world for female representation. 85th!

African-Americans, after all, can rightly celebrate political progress.  One hundred years after the founding of the NAACP, and 40 years after the civil rights era, America has a black President.  

What about the progress of American women? Lulled by Hillary Clinton’s success in garnering 18 million votes for the Presidency and the addition of two new Supreme Court Justices, I hadn’t actually kept up with how far we as American woman have to go to equal the gains of women everywhere else in the world.

Out of 13,000 members of Congress
in our history,
only 2% 
have been women.
                                             ~Name It, Change It. 

Two things raised my consciousness in 2010.  The first was a brand new organization founded by Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda called ‘Name It, Change It’ that points out sexism toward female candidates in the media. I have written here about the stunning effect of seeing America’s media-generated sexism gathered and catalogued on a daily basis. It’s shocking.

If you are an American feminist of either gender, I’d like to ask you to join me in changing the world by “liking” this organization through Facebook.  It has taught me a lot.  There are still less than 1,460 people who “like” this group. You would be among the cutting-edge politically by doing so. Both my conservative and liberal friends have signed up and been shocked by how dismissively their female candidates have been treated.

Only 31 women
have ever served as Governor
compared with 2,317 men.
                  ~Name It, Change It.

Here’s an example of what they taught me: scholar J.A. Schmitz's wrote an article highlighted through the website that pointed out that America’s system will not result in equal representation for females anytime soon.  Why? Because our system is set up to give incumbents an advantage in reelection.  Since 90% of incumbents are men, women are at an obvious disadvantage that could take years and years to overcome.

 The beautiful Stockholm City Hall
Council Chambers

Being an expat has also allowed me to compare the American system with other countries' systems. When I was in Sweden, I asked the Swedish tour guide at Stockholm’s City Hall, “why is it your country has made such incredible progress in electing women?”

My Swedish tour guide told me, “what I have always been told is that in a system that directly elects representatives such as America’s, it practically requires millionaire-status to run for federal office.  Because most women are devoting their prime years to running their families rather than making money, most millionaires happen to men.  In Sweden, a parliamentary system favors those who do the work.  Hence, more females are chosen and elected as representatives of their party.”

Parliamentary systems such as Sweden also lend themselves to quota systems that ensure more female representation.  While women are just as underrepresented in cabinet offices in Iraq as American women, their new constitution requires political parties to fill quotas for female representation. I don’t believe in quotas, but I can’t help but think that this minimum level of female representation will be good for women and children in Iraq.

I'll admit, I’m discouraged by what I learned.  I thought we would be farther by now. I had no idea how much farther we have to go.

What ideas have captured your imagination in 2010?

Related Posts:

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Swedish Tourist Attraction That Didn't Attract Me

During my week in Sweden, I could tell one aspect of Swedish culture that had wide appreciation among Swedes and foreigners alike was the Swedish monarchy.  Recently, there was a royal wedding between the beautiful Princess Victoria and her physical fitness trainer Daniel Westling.  Reportedly, their relationship was quite a love story warming the hearts of all lovers of fairy tales.

The Swedish Royal Palace gift shop was barely maneuverable due to tourists snapping up the merchandise related to this event. I noticed my complete lack of interest in this recent royal wedding - a reversal from my twenties.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles

When I was twenty-two years old, I fell head over heels for the fairy tale of my time: Prince Charles and Lady Diana.  I delighted in every minute detail of the wedding planning. I could not consume enough pictures of every fabulous thing Lady Diana said, wore, or did.  I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the entire ceremony. When I was married the following year, I asked my florist to reproduce EXACTLY the bouquet Diana had carried down the aisle. 

Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s relationship all turned out to BE a fairy tale.  In other words, a fictional story designed for public consumption that wasn’t true.  It was merely good for business and marketing a nation.  I feel naive and silly, in retrospect, for having expected that it should be otherwise.  Royal marriages don’t even have a tradition of being about love.

This female fantasy women have of being a princess doesn’t even need to be projected onto a specific woman. There's a famous business legend about a guy hired to help the Walt Disney Company grow their business.

As the new consumer products division chief, Andrew Mooney attended his first "Disney on Ice" show. While waiting in line, he found himself surrounded by young girls dressed as princesses. “They weren’t even Disney products. They were generic princess products,” he mused. Soon after realizing the demand for all things princess-related, the Disney Princess line was formed.  In 2009, that "Princess" division grossed an estimated $4 billion.

As a pure business proposition, the Swedes chip in under $2 a piece to support the royal family.  For their $16 million, they get a photograph-able family that can generate publicity and interest in Sweden more than any prime minister could.  

What I DO find myself attracted to in Swedish culture, is this group of people who have banded together to proclaim the idea of kings and queens a ridiculously outdated notion.  You can read about their ideas here.

Think about it, if we as human beings have gotten rid of stupid ideas like serfs and slaves, why haven’t we yet rid ourselves of the obsolete notion (on the other end of the spectrum) that chosen human beings should serve as "Truman Show" figureheads above the rest of us?

Maybe women have a deep-seated need for princesses.
What is a princess? I would define her as a pampered girl, indulged in consumption unavailable to others due to her birth rather than her innovative ideas or labor.  Her power isn’t exercised directly because she doesn’t, after all, have the responsibility to produce anything.  Her job is merely to “be,” not to “do.” Why? Because by being fashionable, beautiful, and of high birth she's...worthy. Ick.

That's why we women fall for it...being deemed worthy. But why do we need hereditary monarchy to be any of those things. Why do we need to be a princess to be fashionable, beautiful, of acclaimed parentage, or worthy? 

 Can't get enough pictures
of Michelle Obama's dresses!

I'm not saying I don't turn into a girly-girl the minute Michelle Obama's State Dinner Dress photos come out.  Hey, I am woman. I love pretty dresses. What got Michelle Obama there? The power and audacity of the ideas represented, not dated institutions that have outlived their Medieval existence.

I was bemused at yet another way I find Scandinavians to be global thought leaders. This group of Swedish people (called the Swedish Republican Association) made me think and I'd like you to think with me. If princesses didn't exist, what would young women dream of being? Could it likely be a healthier idea for humanity and relationships? A more realistic idea?  Can you imagine people of the future laughing at us for even allowing the idea of undemocratic monarchies to exist? For needing the “idea” of princesses?

What would you dream of being if princesses didn't exist?
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