In 1966, one of Sweden's most popular children's writers, Jan Lööf, published Grandpa is a Pirate, an illustrated children's book, which featured, among other characters, the wicked pirate Omar and the street peddler, Abdullah. The book has been a bestseller ever since, and has been translated into English (as My Grandpa is a Pirate), Spanish, French and other languages. Ten years ago, 100,000 copies of it were even distributed to the Swedish public with McDonald's Happy Meals, as part of an initiative to support reading among children.
Ah, but those were the days of yesteryear! Now, fifty years later, the book is no longer tolerable. The now 76-year-old author told Swedish news outlets that his publisher recently said that unless he rewrites the book and changes the illustrations, it will be taken off the market. The publisher also threatened to withdraw another of his books unless it is redone: it features an illustration of a black jazz musician who sleeps with his sunglasses on.
Lööf's publisher, the Swedish publishing giant Bonnier Carlsen, says that it has not yet made a final decision and that it only views the rewriting and re-illustrating of the books as "an option." There is no doubt, however, that they consider the books in question extremely problematic.
"The books stereotype other cultures, something which is not strange, since all illustrations are created in a context, in their own time, and times change," said Eva Dahlin, who heads Bonnier Carlsen's literary department.
"But if you come from the Middle East, for instance, you can get tired from rarely being featured on the good side in literary depictions. Children's books are special because they are read over a longer period of time and the norms of the past live on in them, unedited. As an adult, one may be wearing one's nostalgic glasses and miss things that could be seen as problematic by others."
Dahlin further explained that the publishing house spends a lot of time reviewing older publications, to check if such "problematic" passages occur. She added that the publishing house does not check for only culturally sensitive passages:
"There are many female editors, and therefore we have probably been more naturally aware of gender-biased depictions than these type of questions. But now we have better insights and a greater awareness of these issues."
One of Sweden's most popular children's writers, Jan Lööf, was recently told by his publisher that unless he makes his bestselling 1966 book, Grandpa is a Pirate, more politically correct by rewriting it and changing the illustrations, it will be taken off the market.
Sweden is no stranger to "literary revisions" of this kind, or other cultural revisions in the name of political correctness. Both Pippi Longstocking and other children's books have gone through assorted revisions or have even been taken off the market. In the Pippi Longstocking television series, a scene in which Pippi squints her eyes to look Chinese has been edited out altogether, so as not to offend anyone. In 2013, a popular, award-winning Danish children's book, Mustafa's Kiosk, by Jakob Martin Strid, was taken off the market in Sweden after complaints on Swedish social media that it was racist and "Islamophobic." Ironically, the author wrote it in 1998, when he was staying in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, as "an anti-racist statement." Tellingly, the book had been on the Swedish market since 2002 with no complaints. In his response to the criticism, the Danish writer noted that an equal and non-racist society only comes about "when you are allowed to make (loving) fun of everyone." "I also make fun of Norwegians," he added.
In 2014, after complaints on Swedish social media that some of its candy was "racist," the Haribo company decided to change one of its products, "Skipper Mix," which consisted of candies shaped in the form of a sailor's souvenirs, including African masks.
The question arises: How much purging and expiation will be needed to render a country's culture politically correct?
That question raises an even bigger one: How high is the price of political correctness in terms of "cleansing" the past and present of perceived slights, anywhere, to just about anyone?
Taken to its extremes, the urge to cleanse a culture of elements that do not live up to the politically correct orthodoxy currently in political vogue unsettlingly echoes the Taliban and ISIS credos of destroying everything that does not accord with their Quranic views. The desire "not to offend," taken to its logical conclusion, is a totalitarian impulse, which threatens to destroy everything that disagrees with its doctrines. Crucially, who gets to decide what is offensive?
What begins innocently enough, by taking out passages from books that may hurt someone's feelings, can end up turning into something far more sinister, as it indeed has in Sweden. Former Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt famously stated in 2014 that Sweden belongs to immigrants, not to the Swedes who have lived there for generations. He thereby communicated that he believes the future of Sweden will be shaped by non-Swedes, showing a curious contempt for his own culture.
This contempt has spread fast throughout official Sweden. In 2014, a Swedish school in Halmstad forbade displaying the Swedish flag, after a student painted his face in the Swedish colors for a carnival. In its new rules, the school specified why:
"Most students look forward to school traditions. When we have days of carnivals and music the goal is that these days should be experienced as positive by everyone. The Swedish flag is not allowed as part of carnival dress. ... Positive and bright feelings must be in focus. ... School photos must obviously be free of national symbols."
However, the "precedent" for such rules had already been set ten years prior, in 2004, at a school in Vaargaarda, when two girls had worn printed sweatshirts which happened to display the Swedish flag and the word "Sweden." They were told that this kind of clothing was not allowed at school. One of the girls told reporters that singing the national anthem had also been forbidden at the school.
In 2012, two members of Sweden's parliament suggested that statues of the Swedish Kings Carl XII and Gustav II Adolf should be removed, because they represent a time when Sweden was a great military power, "a dark time in our country as well as in other countries, which were affected by Swedish aggression," as the MPs wrote in the motion. Instead, the MPs suggested, the squares of central Stockholm should be adorned in a way such that they "signal peace, tolerance, diversity, freedom and solidarity."
In 2013, a Baroque painting of the nude goddess Juno was removed from the restaurant of the Swedish parliament, ostensibly to avoid offense to feminist and Muslim sensibilities.
The above should not be discarded as crazy practices peculiar to Sweden. On the contrary, they present a perfect case-study of the consequences of politically correct culture driven to the extreme.
Indeed, these consequences are already proliferating across the Western world. One particularly noteworthy instance took place when Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited Rome in January 2016. To prevent Rouhani having "a hormonal shock and ripp[ing] up the freshly signed contracts with our Italian industries," as one Italian columnist, Massimo Gramellini, wrote, Rome covered up its classical nude statues. Who would have even imagined such sycophancy a decade ago?
In Britain, students have recently campaigned for the removal of symbols of British imperialism, such as a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. These students claim the campaign is not only about the statue itself, but that it is "...a campaign against racism at Oxford, of which the Rhodes statue is a small but symbolic part." Already in 2000, the London Mayor Ken Livingstone suggested that statues of two 19th-century British generals should be removed from Trafalgar Square in London, based on his own ignorance:
"The people on the plinths in the main square of our capital city should be identifiable to the generality of the population. I haven't a clue who two of the generals there are or what they did. I imagine that not one person in 10,000 going through Trafalgar Square knows any details about the lives of those two generals. It might be time to look at moving them and having figures ordinary Londoners and other people from around the world would know."
The problem with all this, of course, is that most of London's wealth and greatness in terms of art and architecture is due largely to British colonialism, so the question is just how many buildings would be left standing in the British capital, if one were to take this issue and bring it to its logical conclusion.
The trouble with wanting to scrub the cultural and historical slate clean, as it were, is, of course, that countries cannot just press "delete" on their culture and history. Such a move would entail not just the removal of books, paintings and statues, but a complete purge. Those who truly care for history will know that this experiment has already been attempted, not once but several times over, by the various communist and Nazi movements of the twentieth century. While there is little comparison between those movements and the culture of political correctness, the impulse governing them all nevertheless remains the same: To forge and impose one singular "truth" on everyone, rooting out everything that does not fit the utopian mold. That is neither "diverse" nor "tolerant."
Judith Bergman is a writer, columnist, lawyer and political analyst.