An experience in a Swedish hotel lobby prompts thoughts about the endurance of Western civilization.
“Is Swedish culture worth preserving?” Several years ago, at a Nordic conference on integration policy, a Norwegian participant, Hege Storhaug, asked this question of Swedish government representative Lise Bergh. “Yes, what is Swedish culture?” Bergh replied. “And [by asking that] I've answered the question.” As Storhaug later noted, Bergh's reply was a perfect reflection of Swedish leaders' contempt for and rejection of their own culture – a mentality that, Storhaug worried, might ultimately spell Sweden's doom.
“What is Swedish culture?” I was reminded of Bergh's rhetoric question the other morning when I was making my way across the lobby of a hotel in Sweden. Suddenly a double column of about a dozen teenage girls and boys, dressed in long white robes and carrying lit candles, began to process into the room, softly singing the traditional song “Santa Lucia.” I hadn't realized it was Saint Lucy's Day, on which such processions by children and teenagers (formerly just girls, but now also boys) are common in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden. Tourists all around me responded to this unfamiliar spectacle by yanking out their cameras or cell phones and snapping pictures, but since I've seen my share of Santa Lucia processions and was in a hurry, I rushed right past them, my mind on other things.
Not until I reached the end of the lobby did something tell me to stop and turn around. For the next minute or so I stood there and watched as the girls and boys made their way slowly away from me and into the hotel bar and restaurant. To my surprise, I found myself being deeply touched; it was moving to think that Swedish kids (especially boys) of that age would be willing to don long white robes and participate in something that you might well expect them to regard as corny, embarrassing, and old-fashioned.
As I stood there, I remembered Bergh's comment at that integration conference. Certainly, I reflected, this was one part of Swedish culture. It was not a big thing, by any means, but it was one of the many little things that come together to make up the culture of a nation. It should perhaps be pointed out that for Swedes, who by and large are not very religious at all, the Santa Lucia processions tend to be less an expression of faith than a cherished ritual, like putting presents under the Christmas tree. For most of the young people in the hotel that day, I would guess, taking part in a Santa Lucia procession was not about religious belief but about embracing the customs of their people – the traditions handed down to them by their parents and grandparents.
That, I guess, is the best way to explain what it was that touched me in that hotel lobby. And it touched me because there is so much that is happening in Europe – and especially, I think it is fair to say, in Sweden – that seems to spell the doom of such delicately distinctive traditions. In writing about her exchange with Lise Bergh at the integration conference, Storhaug mentioned an event that had taken place some months earlier. In a speech at a mosque, Mona Sahlin, who at the time was Sweden's minister of integration (and who wore a veil for the occasion), asserted that many Swedes envy immigrants – by which she plainly meant Muslim immigrants – because they have a culture and a history to bind them together, while Swedes only have “töntiga” (“cheesy”) things like Midsummer Night.
One can hardly imagine a more breathtaking betrayal of one's own country and culture by a high-level public servant – a woman entrusted with a position in which she wielded extraordinary power to either enhance or undermine her nation's, and her culture's, ability to survive and prosper. Watching those teenagers singing “Santa Lucia,” I marveled at, and took comfort from, the fact that in one European country after another, there are still many people who continue, quietly and respectfully, to preserve their national traditions, even as a relative handful of elite types, including elected officials like Lise Bergh and Mona Sahlin, mock and dismiss those same traditions as “cheesy” – so desperate are they to please and pacify “new countrymen” whose own traditions, however aggressive and brutal, they are pathetically eager to extol. What is sad is that the Berghs and Sahlins, however small their numbers, possess a huge power to destroy. For anyone who cares about the preservation of Western civilization, the manifest determination of such people to offer up their own cultures on the altar of multiculturalism is nothing less than terrifying.
And that is why, as the white-robed girls and boys disappeared into the hotel bar, and I turned around and headed for my room, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wistfulness. Could the glow of their dozen little candles possibly be bright enough to overcome the darkness of the Berghs and Sahlins, and of the imported culture of brutality that they so reflexively appease and eulogize? Or was that glow, as it were, the last light of a setting sun?
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