Jan 20, 2013

Speaking up for difference

-       I am sorry Mr. Minister for Social Security, but that’s about the most cynical I have ever heard.

I am right at the middle of my speech, and I could here a pin drop if there was one, and feel the organizers and the booking agency arranging the conference stop breathing.

I am referring to a Question & Answer with the Minister for Finance, Anders Borg, in the public radio some years ago. A cancer sick woman was concerned about her financial situation after the government cut in the sick leave benefits. Anders Borg’s response was:

-       So, when are you planning on being back at work?

That, Mr. Minister, was the most cynical I have ever heard.

The occasion is a conference on the theme The Swedish Welfare State, and I have been invited to talk on the subject. It’s not that I am an expert in these matters, but they were interested in my American and Swedish perspective, and then of course, I have my story. The view from my couch in between the walker and the dumbbells.

Preparing this speech, I knew I would be talking to people handling people like me. The Social Insurance Agency, The Swedish Pensions Agency. But also academic researchers and politicians. A bit impressed by the company I felt this was my chance to make a little bit of difference.

The invitation came in September when I was stuck in front of the TV with my back out in Seattle. And watching The Republican and Democratic National Conventions gave me aha-experiences when it came to Swedish politics that made me stunned.

I realized that the rhetoric of the American Republicans wasn’t as far from the Swedish Moderates (our right wing) as they were in my mind. As the Moderates has been in government for six years now and realized their politics it has become our everyday life, and we have gotten used to their mantras. And what scared me was how the Republican speeches weren’t as foreign to me as they used to be.

Now, to be clear: The Right in the US is yet far away from the Right in Sweden. In fact, over the years I have always expressed the Swedish Right a lot more liberal than the American Democrats. And that’s what makes watching the Democratic Convention an eye opener to me.

Because listening to those speeches felt like…home. Or, should I say, like home used to be. It felt like listening to the Swedish Social Democrats, and I would say a lot of those speeches would fit right in to one of their conventions. And I found myself with the surprising and slightly uncomfortable feeling of “I want that for Sweden too!” Holy cow, was that a somersault of my mind…

So, this was where I was at preparing for that speech. Now, to get someone of a different opinion to listen is a fine art. Also, going on stage right after the governor (landshövding), the Minister of Social Security and the Director of the Swedish Pensions Agency felt somewhat intimidating. A bit like walking into the lion’s den. In addition, I was addressed as entertainment…

I can assure you, writing that speech I didn’t feel entertaining at all. And I had no intention to be. Engaging though. Passionate and heartfelt. And very clear. But to get people to listen it’s a good idea starting making them safe. Which wasn’t hard at all. And I could still be true to myself.

Americans in general don’t know a lot about Sweden (why should they, what do we know about the different states of the US?), but the Swedish welfare system seems to be as well known as ABBA and the Nobel Price. And back in the nineties it made me very proud to answer all the interested questions and hear the amazed reactions about what our famous taxes provided us. Not so much any more though.

And it’s when the speech turns to my story about cancer and disabling back problems in a country where I feel illness has become a dirty word, working is the only reason for human value and people who are struck by life’s misfortunes such as illness or the loss of job are treated as untouchables. And I am addressing the Minister of Social Insurance Ulf Kristersson himself who is sitting on the front row right beneath me saying:

-   I am sorry Mr. Minister for Social Security, but that’s about the most cynical I have ever heard.

That’s when the room stops breathing for a moment.

Then I am giving them the happy ending that they need. I am telling them the beautiful story about Ida and Peter, the two home care angels who landed at my doorstep taking care of me, making me safe. I am telling them that Sweden works, after all. And I am still true to myself.

Writing that speech I was hoping there would be someone in the auditorium for whom it would fully work. Who would recognize it as true. And it did! I got a big hand from the vice chairman of the Committee for Social Insurance in the Swedish Parliament, Tomas Eneroth (Social Democrat), who told me how he repeatedly was trying to address these matters within the Committee, but didn’t quite get through.

Now, watching the Minister for Social Security, Ulf Kristersson (Moderate), carefully while I was speaking, I can report that he was not looking at me. And his face was expressing slight amusement. I am hoping though, that some little piece from my story found it’s way through his shield. A tiny needle poking in his body. One word sticking uncomfortably to his mind. An annoying splinter glued in his soul. Making a little bit of difference.

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