Deconstructing Peter Woladarski’s Editorial on the SD Poster Controversy

Deconstructing Peter Woladarski’s Låt SD vråla för sig själva i svensk politik  in Dagens Nyheter, August 9, 2015: An Analysis of Nine Key Problems

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Picture 1: SD poster campaign; Picture 2: August 4, 2015 protest against posters

By Jonathan Michael Feldman, Posted August 9, 2015 and August 10, 2015

Preface

At one point in time, some Swedes had a clear idea of the limits of decision-making by the professional managerial class in Sweden.  These persons questioned the hierarchical decision-making by planners who had few accountability constraints placed upon them.  At the very least in the case of planners, social movements represented one constraint upon these decision-makers.  Today, the elite consensus opinion in Sweden is that journalists, bureaucrats, authorities and the like have the right to plan for the public without a direct feedback system from social movements if laws and politicians have sanctioned the decisions.  At one point, some even argue that the masses in a social movement or even the collective actions of persons taking down posters sponsored by a Nazi-originating organization are less valid than these laws and politicians.  The problem with this point of view is that the majority is not always right, a lesson taught us by the tragedies of Nazi Germany, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and the continuing legacy of Swedish arms exports.  These were all more or less legal or backed by a top-down bureaucratic system.

In the following analysis, I reflect on how the editor of Sweden’s leading newspaper has analyzed and judged the protest movement against the Swedish Democrats’ poster campaign implicitly aimed at Roma people and judged by this movement as racist and demeaning.  I identify nine key problems.  These problems are rooted in the Woladarski’s assumptions about what a democracy is or should be, how consciousness is formed (in terms of the roles of SD, protests, the media, the educational system, and the like), and what is a question of  tactics, morality, rights, or politics.  I believe that Woladarski is wrong in his interpretations because of his fundamental reading of Swedish history, i.e. the Swedish system has worked and the test of time proves that it has worked.  This belief I believe is the elite consensus because of course the system works for these elites.  Yet, the system is now failing various Swedes who are concerned about economic equality, demilitarization, the environmental crisis, media accountability, and a number of other issues like who controls public space, how can citizens develop a more crticial understanding of reality and how can we make mass transportation systems work more safely, efficiently, and equitably.

The background for this analysis is partially found in a series of articles I have written about the Swedish system.  These were published in Counterpunch in 2010 and 2014 and more recently on this website.  The 2014 article was summarized in an article published in Ordfront.  My basic viewpoints build on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the Frankfurt School, the historical legacy of Swedish arms exports and my own efforts to promote research and public education about linking immigrant background persons (or “New Swedes”) to qualified jobs.

Picture 1,  PMCPicture 2, PMCProblem I: Confusing a tactical problem for a moral problem

Woladarski writes:

TV4 fick reklamfilmen på sitt bord och tackade nej – detta strider mot radio- och tv-lagens demokratiparagraf, hävdade dåvarande vd:n Jan Scherman.

Det blev ett väldigt liv, både från SD:s anhängare och motståndare. TV4 hamnade i skottgluggen. Hur man än agerade gjorde man fel, slog de tvärsäkra fast.

Commentary:

It is not correct to in my opinion to argue that whatever TV4 did would be wrong. Rather, for some audiences there was a correct position which other audiences would become alienated by.  This is always the case, but when it comes to slavery, genocide, racism, etc. we need to take sides.  The point about the subway posters being racist is actually less important than the fact that a Nazi-originating organization puts out propaganda.  Debating SD rather than just maligning them is a tactical question, not a moral question. I happen to believe the Left has not sufficiently attacked the premises of SD’s arguments, e.g. immigrants are always costing the society, etc.  So, I believe some of their arguments should be engaged, but that is not a moral problem.

Problem II: Confusing a moral problem for a tactical problem

Woladarski writes:

SD, å sin sida, verkade inte alls besvikna. Man hade uppnått en kraftig pr-effekt utan att betala en enda reklamkrona. Och efter några enkla retuscheringar i filmen fick man TV4 att ompröva sitt beslut och sända en “censurerad” version.

Commentary:

The argument is that direct and vocal attacks on SD have helped promote SD. The premise is incorrect because any SD propaganda that is not well understood is a byproduct not of the Left’s or anti-racists’ tactics but rather the poor quality of the media and educational institutions that provide weak cultural capital to properly decode or understand racism. This is the problem on the side of the receiving audience. The other problem is that SD is effective because the established mass media have helped promote SD with their superficial coverage.  That is the problem on the supply side of the communications chain.  If the Left were to give SD a larger profile by complaining against them, this tactical problem is the result of a moral commitment.  Thus, whereas before Woladarski confuses a tactical problem with a moral issue, here he takes a moral problem and makes it a tactical issue.

Problem III: Misunderstanding the Logic of Cultural Capital and the Utility of Crises

Woladarski writes:

Partiet som kommunicerar genom att chocka, som ser ett egenvärde i att bryta tabun kring hur man debatterar anständigt, som betraktar all publicitet som bra publicitet – även om det sker på bekostnad av utsatta minoriteter.

Commentary:

The idea suggested is that SD’s strategy is to win through a shock effect.  Any scandal is thought to benefit SD or is a contributing factor to SD’s growth.  The problem with the logic above, however, is that this scandal also contributed to a rather large demonstration against SD.  So, the logic of crises and scandals can cut both ways. Furthermore, we still have to account for the critical capacities of audiences who are negatively and positively effected by such shocks, i.e. why are they so low?  We have the problem of the need for even larger protests against such SD tactics and we have the fact that there is still a large audience that is convinced by such shock tactics. The size of that audience is not simply based on what SD does but the critical capacities of the audience.

Problem IV:  A Failure to Understand the Universal Superficiality of the Discourse; Confusing a Problem of Ethics and Tactics with a Problem of Rights

Woladarski writes:

Sverigedemokraterna sitter i Stockholms landstingsfullmäktige. Det ska mycket till – förmodligen rena olagligheter – för att tjänstemännen på det politiskt styrda SL ska kunna säga nej till partiet, om inte all politisk annonsering ska stoppas. Men det är ytterst en fråga för politikerna.

Later on he continues:

SL bör tillåta politisk annonsering, men den kan inte vara så koncentrerad och dominerande. Det ska vara möjligt att slippa den. Budskapen måste vari­eras med annan reklam och späs ut. Inte heller bör det vara möjligt att i agi­tationen angripa enskilda eller grupper av människor.

Commentary:

Given the lack of cultural capital by the reading audience, Woladarski has hit on something which he does not really advocate and opposes, i.e. ban all political advertising.  The level of information in these posters across the board, among all parties, is rather superficial.  So, why is this superficially provided information that is superficially understood in “the public interest”? Why doesn’t the Swedish media have a more critical understanding of what this interest is?

The formal rights of politicians to make decisions is not terribly meaningful to someone who sees that these rights have been ineffective in stopping  anti-Semitism and racism or gender inequality for that matter.  These political decisions have sustained anti-Semitism, racism, discrimination, economic inequality and the like.  In other words, what appears for Woladarski as a matter of formal rights, is rather much a problem of ethics and tactics.  The ethics of interest are the immorality of the system of oppression and the politicians who sustain that system. The tactics correspond to what the oppressed do when the politicians fail, as they have failed (for a long time).

Problem V:  Failing to Understand the Hegemonic System and Ideological Power

Woladarski writes:

SL bör tillåta politisk annonsering, men den kan inte vara så koncentrerad och dominerande. Det ska vara möjligt att slippa den. Budskapen måste vari­eras med annan reklam och späs ut. Inte heller bör det vara möjligt att i agi­tationen angripa enskilda eller grupper av människor.

Commentary:

This is his strongest argument in my opinion.  Yet, one can raise the stakes higher, i.e. how do we escape the exposure to superficial information in advertisements, in the mass media, and the educational system, i.e. how do we contest that?

Problem VI:  Conflating Ethics and Power

Woladarski writes:

Varken juridik eller aktivism av det destruktiva slag vi sett i veckan kommer att skydda svensk samhällsdebatt mot de yxhugg som SDbidragit med.

Commentary:

Here we have an excellent example of how legal discourse, references to the judiciary’s preferences and the force of law substitute for a conversation on what is ethical and what tactically should be done about it.  The idea that such laws are heaven granted or respond to majorities as if might makes right is rather naïve in my opinion.

Problem VII:  Seeing the Masses as the Only Gatekeeper and Letting the Culture Elite Off the Hook

Woladarski writes:

Yttrandefriheten förutsätter också att sådana yttranden får framföras – och bemötas med argument. Den dagen en folksamling tar sig rättenatt med våld bestämma vad som ska få sägas i samhällsdebatten är vi illa ute. Mobbens logik leder dit populisterna önskar: mot kaos och rädsla.

Commentary:

Woladarski is correct that mobs of citizens should not decide what is accepted for public debate, but there is a limit to this.  The first problem is the following: What happens when citizens who are offended, objectified and alienated by hate speech react to that speech?  Are they simply a mob? No.  The second problem is the objective reality is that the cultural elite, a few persons (involving hundreds), are basically deciding the limits of public debate as part of their professional duties.  Is this any better than a “mob” deciding?  My answer: No.  In fact, social movements might be considered less elitist than professionals currying to elite opinion.  Granted social movements can be top-down or less than democratic, but in that respect they would mirror the framing systems and hierarchy of elite opinion and professionals (be they lawyers, educators, or journalists) tied to and supportive of the status quo.

Problem VIII:  Failing to Understand Nuremberg, Civil Disobedience and Higher Ethics

Woladarski writes:

Varken juridik eller aktivism av det destruktiva slag vi sett i veckan kommer att skydda svensk samhällsdebatt mot de yxhugg som SDbidragit med.

Commentary:

The author fails to explain which activism he feels is destructive.  Does he feel that the tearing down of posters produced by a political party with origins in the Swedish Nazi movement is actually destructive?  If he feels this way, it seems his logic is based on the fact that the law, judiciary and the like are what we must protect, so the attack on the posters is an attack on that law, judiciary and the like that we hold dear and value.  The problem, however, is that this law, judiciary and the like are a foundation in mainstream society which SD uses to propel itself in the democracy.  Does this mean that might makes right and we should trash all laws?  Not necessarily, but we also have obligations to engage in civil disobedience actions against Nazis because the Nazi era taught us that laws are not sacrosanct simply because majorities support them.  Is this a slippery slope, i.e. the Nazis and SD could start attacking things that are legal and useful?  Yes, it is potentially so, but not if one understands how Nazis are historically differentiated and represent a special curse on society.  Is SD a Nazi party?  No, they are a Nazi-originating party.  They are useful politically to Nazis and they suffer from “the original sin” of being founded by Nazis and the accumulating sin of continually making racist statements, i.e. Jews are not real Swedes, etc.  How anyone with a shred of moral integrity could ignore this is sadly obvious to me, i.e. law is placed above morality because the most important thing is to keep the system going, even when it is plain rotten.

Problem IX: Ignoring the Lessons of Swedish History and the Pernicious Repressive Tolerant Culture

Woladarski writes:

Det bästa botemedlet mot förgrovning och förvrängning är att hålla fast vid anständighet och en civiliserad samtalston. Mot rasism måste motstånd resas. Men det ska aldrig ske på rasisternas villkor. När SD vrider upp ljudvolymen maximalt bör de andra partierna svara genom att återställa ljudnivån. När SD ägnar sig åt att sprida rädsla och mytbilder borde övriga reagera med saklighet och humanism – utan att undvika de verkliga samhällsproblem som SD försöker exploatera.

Det är att knyta an till kärnan i vår politiska kultur, som författaren och journalisten Per T Ohlsson beskriver i standardverket “Svensk politik”: besinningen, förmågan att kompromissa och lösa problem, att inte dra iväg mot det extrema.

Det finns en stor, tyst majoritet svenskar som längtar efter en politisk debatt som premierar saklighet och nyanser framför det gälla och chockerande.

Detta är en tradition som växt fram under närmare 200 år. Den är svensk, i ordets sanna mening.

Commentary:

Anyone seriously studying the history of anti-Semitism and racism in Sweden can’t honestly believe that this Swedish system has worked terribly well.  The continuities between campaigns to keep Jews out by Uppsala students and the repressive tolerance of anti-Semitism in Malmö are clear to see for those who are not blind to them. In both cases, anti-Semitism is sustained by an educational system that does not convince anti-Semites to change their views about Jews.  The pathology of hatred has not been rooted out because the system has tolerated it.  The fact that civilized debate has allowed arms exports to thugs, dictators and poor countries year after year is also part of the historical record.

For further reading, read this extensive analysis of the poster controversy and the movement against it.  Also, read about how Swedish Television also plays a role in complicating a comprehensive solution to the right-wing backlash against immigrants and refugees.

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