The approach of the New Year and departure of the old inevitably brings a flurry of "year's best" lists. This even applies to nations, which some organizations make it their business annually to rank in order of wealth, quality of life, and what-have-you.
Surprisingly often, the Nordic countries come out on top. This placement is usually a reflection less of objective reality, however, than of the list-makers' enthusiasm for the Nordic welfare-state model. The criteria, in other words, are formulated in such a way that the Nordic countries will inevitably end up on top. Hence Norway, for example, is repeatedly named by the United Nations as the world's richest country — forget that prices and taxes are so high that even business executives lunch on dry sandwiches brought from home in aluminum foil.
Now it's Sweden's turn. The Economist Intelligence Unit, associated with the Economist magazine, has awarded the title of world's most democratic country to Sweden. For many observers, this is not only wrong — it's staggeringly, outrageously misinformed.
Sweden is, after all, a country in which the people are fed by their political, press, and intellectual establishment an unvarying diet of propaganda promoting the socialist welfare state, demonizing Israel, and whitewashing Islam. As for America, the official view was neatly captured in a post-September 11 editorial in the nation's largest newspaper, Aftonbladet, which assured readers that the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington weren't Sweden's enemies but simply hated "U.S. imperialism," a reasonable position given that "the U.S. is the greatest mass murderer of our time." Such views, taught in Sweden's classrooms and enshrined in Sweden's state-approved schoolbooks, are reiterated daily by Sweden's mainstream press organizations, all of which are either government-owned or government-subsidized.
Dissent is powerfully discouraged. In Sweden, whose murder rate is currently twice that of America and where Muslims now constitute over 10% of the population and are disproportionately unemployed and prone to violence, the Swedish press routinely depicts America as crime-ridden. Polls show that the majority of Swedes are deeply disturbed by their country's dramatic social changes and highly critical of the policies that brought them about. Yet the crime and violence generally go unreported, so only rarely does any of the criticism seep into the press. Though two-thirds of Swedes question whether Islam is compatible with Western society, this issue is simply not open for public discussion.
To quote Jonathan Friedman, a New Yorker who teaches social anthropology at the University of Lund, "no debate about immigration policies is possible" because Sweden's "political class," which controls public debate, simply avoids the topic. Recently, the city of Stockholm carried out a survey of ninth-grade boys in the predominantly Muslim suburb of Rinkeby. The survey showed that in the last year, 17% of the boys had forced someone to have sex, 31% had hurt someone so badly that the victim required medical care, and 24% had committed burglary or broken into a car. Sensational statistics — but in all of Sweden, they appear to have been published only in a daily newssheet that is distributed free on the subways.
Instead of reporting on such worrisome findings, politicians and the press alike focus on the evils of America and Israel. Last year, for instance, Sweden's state-owned TV network ran a series of "documentaries" about America that included Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." Viewers were protected from the fact that it had been shown to contain lies and fabrications. The series also included a sympathetic account of Stalin's atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom Swedish TV described as having been executed not for history's most colossal act of treason but "for their Communist sympathies," and something called "Why We Fight," which explained America's military actions as motivated by the avarice of military contractors.
Swedish book publishing is similarly unbalanced. Recently Michael Moynihan, an American writer based in Stockholm, toted up the English-language political books that had been translated into Swedish since September 11. His long list included several works apiece by Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, plus volumes by the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the anti-American journalist John Pilger, and the "Holocaust industry" critic Norman Finkelstein. On the entire list, only one author was not a leftist.
When voices of dissent do break through in Sweden, they're often punished. During the runup to the Iraq war, the Swedish government censured the independent TV channel TV4 for running an "Oprah" episode that presented both pro- and anti-war arguments. TV4 was charged with violating press-balance guidelines when in fact its offense was being too balanced — it had exposed Swedish viewers to ideas from which journalists had otherwise shielded them.
Only one sizable party in the country, the Sweden Democrats, articulates most Swedes' concerns about their country's immigration and integration policies. Again and again, it has been the object of breathtakingly undemocratic treatment by the political establishment. Earlier this year, for example, the government closed down the Sweden Democrats' Web site because it had published a cartoon of Muhammad. Stig Fredriksson, head of the free-speech organization Publicistklubben, complained bitterly. But the incident was hardly reported in Sweden — and, of course, barely caused a ripple abroad. If the Bush administration had closed down a Democratic Party Web site¸ there would be scare headlines and editorials thundering about dictatorship — and rightly so. But when Sweden's rulers did it, it was apparently acceptable — because they did it in the name of political correctness.
Sweden Democrats have been the targets of events that recall China's Cultural Revolution. Staged "people's protests" by members of the "youth divisions" of other parties have led to the firing of Sweden Democrats from their jobs. A few weeks ago, a junior diplomat was dismissed when it became known that he was a member of the party and had criticized his country's immigration policy. On several occasions, thugs loyal to the ruling parties have broken up Sweden Democratic meetings and beaten up party leaders. And this is a nation in which a party led by an admitted communist was, in recent memory, part of the ruling coalition.
The Sweden Democrats enjoy considerable public sympathy. But given Sweden's oppressively conformist political climate, that sympathy is of necessity largely sub rosa. Mr. Friedman has suggested that one reason why the party has no seats in Parliament is that Swedish elections aren't really secret — other people at the polling place can look at your ballot and see which party you support. The stigma attached to voting for the Sweden Democrats is just that strong. Another reason is that the major parties have worked together vigorously to keep the Sweden Democrats out of the public square. The success of this collaborative effort is reflected in the fact that Sweden is the only major Western European country whose legislature contains not a single representative of a party critical of its immigration policies.
In 1972, the British historian Roland Huntford titled his book about Sweden "The New Totalitarians." He is echoed by a number of observers today who describe Sweden as an example of "soft totalitarianism." Are they right? That's a matter for debate — though it's a debate that won't take place in Sweden.
Mr. Bawer is the author of "While Europe Slept" and lives in Oslo, Norway.