Splendor in the Nordic Grass

Once upon a time, the Swedes taught Americans how to have good sex, make great films, and build socialism. Not anymore:

Four vacationing Swedish police officers helped out after two homeless men began fighting on a New York City subway – and showed it’s possible to subdue violent suspects without hurting them. The officers — Samuel Kvarzell, Markus Asberg, Eric Jansberger and Erik Naslund — were riding an uptown No. 6 train Wednesday on their way to see “Les Miserables” when they responded to the subway driver’s call for help, reported the New York Post.

A bystander began recording cell phone video after the officers pulled the pair apart. The video shows one of the brawlers sitting calmly on the floor, flanked by two of the Swedish police officers, while two others kneel on the other man – who is more unruly – to hold him face-down on the floor.

“How do you feel?” one of the officers asks the seated man, who says he feels fine. The other man struggles, but the pair of officers calmly keep him pinned to the floor. “I can’t breathe,” he screams, as he rises occasionally from the floor but is unable to escape.

“Take it easy,” one officer repeatedly tells him. “Sir, calm down, OK? Everything is going to be OK.” The man eventually calms down, and he admits to the officers that he’s not injured after they ask.

The Swedish officers held the men until New York City police could board the train and take them into custody. “We came just to make sure no one got hurt,” Asberg said. “We were trying to stop the fight.”

Of course, not every police interaction ends with a suspect’s death or injury — but social media users pointed out the difference between the way the Swedish officers behaved and recent tragic cases involving American police.

This Raw Story piece reminded me of an article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. “The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison” profiled a maximum-security prison in Norway. After opening with a breathtaking account of her drive up to the prison—replete with narrow fjords, winding roads, and lush fields of rapeseed, barley, and cows—the reporter explained why we were bearing witness to all this splendor in the Nordic grass:

I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-­appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.

As we stood on a ridge, along with Jan Stromnes, the assistant warden, it was silent but for the chirping of birds and insects and a hoarse fluttering of birch leaves disturbed by the breeze. The prison is secluded from the surrounding farmland by the blueberry woods.

You get the idea. American prisons are profoundly unnatural, Norwegian prisons are as pastoral and peaceful as the countryside that surrounds them.

The two articles seem to be part of a pattern I’ve noticed of late in which Scandinavia is held up as a model for better policing and better prisons. Okay, it’s just two articles, but in the Styles Section, that makes a trend.

Given the casual sadism of the American system of crime and punishment—from prisons to policing—it probably seems churlish to even question the import of these articles. Anything that would make our hellholes just a little bit less of hellish, our police a little less murderous, has to be welcomed. Still, I can’t help but think that, overall, these articles signify a larger setback to the social imagination.

Fifty years ago, we looked to Scandinavia as a model of social democracy, of how we might push our laggard welfare state to something more generous and capacious than food stamps, unemployment, intrusive case officers, and miserly payments to mothers with dependent children. Now we look to the region for ways to build a more humane carceral state.

As the Times Magazine puts it: “The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.”

Or we marvel over how cozy (Les Miz!) Scandinavian police officers—who are not just white, but Swedish white—can be when they subdue black men in New York’s subways.

By all means, let us borrow our social lyric from Scandinavia. But, please, let it be Dancing Queen rather than the last scenes of Miss Julie.


  1. Abu Khanzeer April 26, 2015 at 8:17 pm | #

    I don’t understand this post.

    You do admit that the articles might not even constitute a real trend, with real implications for real politics. (I don’t see evidence that they do.) But then you conclude: “Still, I can’t help but think that, overall, these articles signify a larger setback to the social imagination.”

    Fair enough. But, supposing they do indeed constitute a real trend—as you “can’t help but think”—what kind of “larger setback to the social imagination” do they signify? Why can’t you help but think otherwise? And supposing that these articles do constitute a real trend, with real implications–and again, there’s not much evidence supporting that–what are they turning us away from, or to?

    I acknowledge that you do say:

    “As the Times Magazine puts it: ‘The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.’ Or we marvel over how cozy (Les Miz!) Scandinavian police officers — who are not just white, but Swedish white — can be when they subdue black men in New York’s subways.”

    But that hardly clarified things for me, or amounted to an answer to those questions. It makes for good rhetoric; but the Time piece concerned Norway’s penology, while your contrasting point concerns policing and pacification tactics. One is prison. The other is police.

    As an aside: to me–and I’m as latino brown as they’re swedish white–the major thing that went wrong here was that they actually called NYPD. It would’ve made more sense to let the dudes out at separate stops, rather than get the police involved. Suppose that was captured on film, and publicized, like this was. What would’ve you written then?

  2. Judith Osterman April 26, 2015 at 8:58 pm | #

    Splendor lying on the NYC subway floor in the compassionate but firm grip of Swedish cops.

  3. Mushin April 27, 2015 at 7:52 am | #

    My platform is prison exchange program for white collar crimes starting with “American Bar Association”

  4. rico April 30, 2015 at 12:01 pm | #

    this is definitely the worst post i’ve ever read on this blog, and i say that with love. the details of the subway story aside, what can *possibly* be wrong with building a more humane prison system, or with subduing violence on the subway using the least violent possible means? if the left has stopped looking to scandinavian models of economic policy, its because those fantasies are already incorporated into our ideological DNA, not because we’re giving up those fantasies.

  5. gstally May 3, 2015 at 9:41 pm | #

    I think it’s also important to note the difference not only between the officers of America and it’s neighbors but also between officers *within* America. Baton Rouge after Katrina had an influx of volunteer officers from all over to help with the NOLA refugees. The bad behavior of the native cops was reported en mass by New Mexico officers absolutely shocked and appalled by the “par for the course” manner in which such actions were received locally. Really worth looking into as it highlights both good and bad establishments within the US.

    Also, when I was in Austin, during the Occupy protests, I saw officers chatting peacefully and giving high-fives to the Occupiers. In addition, I don’t think it should in any way be forgotten that there were black officers both at the scenes of the incidents involving the deaths of Eric Garner (where in fact the commanding officer was a black female) and Freddie Gray (there are 6 officers being charged, 3 white and 3 black). There’s more on this, when you are dealing with the worst of the worst it’s very difficult not to see the worst everywhere you look. This is not uncommon amongst all those who work in fields prone to emotional burnout where you only see the sickest in and out while not seeing the greater impact of your efforts. Psychologists, those in the health field, teachers, and, yes, cops all are in fields, by nature, that are most vulnerable to this phenomenon. These are also fields that will bear the brunt of fluctuations in social problems that most of society, especially those in positions of wealth, power and privilege, are deliberately well insulated from.

    • gstally July 12, 2015 at 11:45 pm | #

      LoL, I just reread this and my rhetoric is very sloppy. I really want to clarify. I take issue with applying a charge of outright racism to individual cases where there there is no clear evidence of racism beyond circumstantial statistical trends. I do not believe in applying general statistics alone in explaining individual cases. You can point out observable causal factors in those individual cases and then take up general statistics to better explain where those factors came from but those statistical trends alone are not enough.

      Here’s just two cases I would take to be pretty clear cut cases of serious racism:


      Here would be a case in which I wouldn’t take to have any racism at all:


      I would not consider the shooting of Gil Collar to be an instance of racism, *even if Collar happened to be black*. I doubt many political commentators would be even remotely as generous.

      Mill’s “A System of Logic” is surprisingly relevant even today. If social scientists would take the time to read it, particularly topical is Book V: Chapter V: Fallacies Of Generalization, I am certain they would find it to be quite fruitful. If only…

      Ҥ 5. In the foregoing instances, the distinction is confounded between empirical laws, which express merely the customary order of the succession of effects, and the laws of causation on which the effects depend. There may, however, be incorrect generalization when this mistake is not committed; when the investigation takes its proper direction, that of causes, and the result erroneously obtained purports to be a really causal law.

      The most vulgar form of this fallacy is that which is commonly called post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or, cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. As when it was inferred that England owed her industrial pre-eminence to her restrictions on commerce; as when the old school of financiers, and some speculative writers, maintained that the national debt was one of the causes of national prosperity; as when the excellence of the Church, of the Houses of Lords and Commons, of the procedure of the law courts, etc., were inferred from the mere fact that the country had prospered under them. In such cases as these, if it can be rendered probable by other evidence that the supposed causes have some tendency to produce the effect ascribed to them, the fact of its having been produced, though only in one instance, is of some value as a verification by specific experience; but in itself it goes scarcely any way at all toward establishing such a tendency, since, admitting the effect, a hundred other antecedents could show an equally strong title of that kind to be considered as the cause.

      In these examples we see bad generalization a posteriori, or empiricism properly so called; causation inferred from casual conjunction, without either due elimination, or any presumption arising from known properties of the supposed agent. But bad generalization a priori is fully as common; which is properly called false theory; conclusions drawn, by way of deduction, from properties of some one agent which is known or supposed to be present, all other co-existing agents being overlooked. As the former is the error of sheer ignorance, so the latter is especially that of semi-instructed minds; and is mainly committed in attempting to explain complicated phenomena by a simpler theory than their nature admits of. As when one school of physicians sought for the universal principle of all disease in “lentor and morbid viscidity of the blood,” and imputing most bodily derangements to mechanical obstructions, thought to cure them by mechanical remedies; while another, the chemical school, “acknowledged no source of disease but the presence of some hostile acid or alkali, or some deranged condition in the chemical composition of the fluid or solid parts,” and conceived, therefore, that “all remedies must act by producing chemical changes in the body.” We find Tournefort busily engaged in testing every vegetable juice, in order to discover in it some traces of an acid or alkaline ingredient, which might confer upon it medicinal activity. The fatal errors into which such an hypothesis was liable to betray the practitioner, received an awful illustration in the history of the memorable fever that raged at Leyden in the year 1699, and which consigned two-thirds of the population of that city to an untimely grave; an event which in a great measure depended upon the Professor Sylvius de la Boe, who having just embraced the chemical doctrines of Van Helmont, assigned the origin of the distemper to a prevailing acid, and declared that its cure could alone be effected by the copious administration of absorbent and testaceous medicines.

      These aberrations in medical theory have their exact parallels in politics. All the doctrines which ascribe absolute goodness to particular forms of government, particular social arrangements, and even to particular modes of education, without reference to the state of civilization and the various distinguishing characters of the society for which they are intended, are open to the same objection—that of assuming one class of influencing circumstances to be the paramount rulers of phenomena which depend in an equal or greater degree on many others.”

      Emotional Burnout is basically a fancy word for when people become jaded and cynical at jobs that seem to inculcate the attitude more than usual. The character Dr. Perry Cox, for example, is pretty much a poster child of the emotional burnout trope. While working at an inner city school a teacher imparted to me some wisdom from decades of experience “A lot of these kids are hopeless, you already know exactly how they are going to turn out. They don’t care, they just don’t give a damn. I learned a long time ago some people just don’t deserve an education.” This was at an Elementary School in reference to seven year olds. This may not be a case of emotional burnout, that’s a complex diagnosis that would require professional one on one analysis (not to mention there are many other sources from which that attitude could have been derived) but for an anecdotal explanatory purpose it’s pretty much typical of what you’d expect from emotional burnout. It’s not an excuse but an explanation. We pay cops to do their job like professionals in spite of how stressful it is and in spite of the abnormalities and difficulties that are inherent in law enforcement they are to be held to a much higher standard than the general population (in theory as reality is blatantly the reverse). I was putting forward it forward as one of many plausible explanations to consider when examining individual cases when officers engage in excessive force considering that some in remarkably similar situations don’t. Law Enforcement, by nature, will collectively encounter the bulk of all violent rapes, murders, muggings, pedophilia, etc that goes on in a city and while it’s not quite the levels Law and Order make it out to be it’s still nothing to sneeze at. The worst of the worst. In NO WAY do I think anything as crazy as “Emotional Burnout is the main factor for police brutality.” Why else would I point out the blatant racism of the BR police force, who got caught with their pants down in a particularly humiliating fashion. I find it VERY suspect that the 24 hour news cycle completely ignored that story in it’s entirety yet honed in non stop on the Zimmerman case where the facts were JUUUUUST so in their ambiguity that it made it just SOOOOO easy to pander to people politically and watch as everyone got on their side of the partisan Verdun. My two cents.

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