Dag Blanck: “Important to promote academic knowledge about the United States”
Dag Blanck has been interviewed by journalists thousands of times to comment on what is happening in the United States. As an historian, he began studying the migration from Sweden to America. He is now Director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies (SINAS) at Uppsala University.
When journalists interviewed Dag Blanck, Professor of North American Studies, most intensively during the recent U.S. presidential election, an average of six articles or media reports were published a day, seven days a week, for a year and a half. There were over four thousand publications in total, although some of these were based on the same interview.
“So many? It is of course very rewarding when your subject of study is discussed,” says Dag Blanck. “Many people do have opinions on the U.S. and it is thus important that we can promote the academic study and knowledge of the country.”
Blanck has developed an approach in his many contacts with journalists.
“I’m an historian and almost always refrain from making predications,” he says, “but it’s difficult because journalists often want direct analyses. I’ve also learned to not talk too much – to say a couple of sentences instead and wait for follow-up questions. This creates a type of dynamic that journalists think makes good TV and radio.”
But why is it so difficult for us to understand the U.S.?
“Our relationship with the U.S. is paradoxical in that we are very oriented toward the U.S. but at the same time our understanding is selective” says Blanck. “We know a lot about what we are familiar with, what we recognize. But a deeper understanding of the United States requires us to take in other and often unfamiliar aspects of the country, such as gun laws or the death penalty. To most Swedes, they seem very foreign.”
One key factor in understanding how the U.S. differs from Sweden is the view of the government.
“In the U.S., people have a very sceptical view of the government and the state, and have had so from the beginning,” says Blanck. “Sweden, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of the United States. We place a lot more trust in the state.”
It is also interesting to see how the image of America in Sweden and Europe has shifted.
“At the turn of the last century,” says Blanck, “it was the left that was positive towards the U.S. Many in the labor movement had been affected by the mass emigration and America stood out in a positive light. Among conservatives, on the other hand, there was criticism and the U,S. was viewed as crass, uncivilised and imperialistic. During the 20th century, the left and right slowly switched places, while the arguments themselves remained surprisingly largely unchanged. It turned the picture around, but the arguments about America are still similar.”
Blanck took an early interest in the United States, but it was not until he attended college in the U.S. that he became interested in the migration.
“I was always very interested in the U.S. and my mother asked me, ‘why don’t you apply for a scholarship to America?’ I was a little hesitant because I had marched in demonstrations against American foreign policy. But I was obedient and did as my mother said.”
Blanck received a scholarship through the Sweden-America Foundation and came to the Swedish-founded Augustana College in Illinois. Once there, he discovered that the college had extensive material on the Swedish-American community that emerged in the U.S. around 1900, which became the starting point not only for his interest in Swedish-American history, but also in Swedish-American relationships in a broader sense. Since 1985, he has been affiliated with the college and spends time there every year.
“I became fascinated by the Swedishness that emerged in the U.S. and which could still be traced to the college,” he says. “But I quickly learned that the Swedishness that I encountered and that which existed at the turn of the century were very different. Something had happened with Swedishness when it came to America.”
As an example, Blanck describes a Christmas lunch with a Swedish-American club.
“They served meatballs and herring, but everyone was really waiting for the potatiskorv, a Swedish dish that was completely unknown to me. I grew up in Sollentuna outside Stockholm and had never heard of potatiskorv, but to them it was one of the most Swedish things there was. It turned out to be a regional dish from Värmland, which in the U.S. had become symbolically Swedish. Swedishness thus differed on either side of the Atlantic. It is changeable and contextually dependent. In the U.S., what must be called a ‘Swedish-Americanism’ emerged.”
The question engages Blanck and he continues to talk about it.
“There is misunderstanding on both sides,” he says. “Swedish Americans who go to Sweden cannot find the Sweden that they have grown up hearing about. Similarly, Swedish nationals do not recognise themselves in the American Swedishness, and sometimes laugh at it, finding it sentimental. But it is important to understand that the American Swedishness is not “inferior”, just different. It has evolved according to its own logic and should be understood in that light. It is like a dialect.”
This reasoning leads to a deeper understanding of the U.S., which is sometimes referred to as a melting pot for different cultures.
“In the U.S., ethnic identity is used as a sort of integration process,” says Blanck. “By becoming Swedish-American, you also become American. There is no contradiction here, and in the U.S., you are almost expected to have an ethnic identity. The American identity is political-ideological and not cultural. The cultural aspects can then be taken from an ethnic origin in Sweden, Germany, Mexico or another place. This particular national duality is not something we have in Sweden – yet.
13 December 2017
Title: Professor of North American Studies, Director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies and Director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
What makes me creative: Interacting with other people.
Where I can concentrate: Trains, cafés, flights. Environments where there are people and movement around me.
Makes me angry: When people are not treated equally.
Recently read books: Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Current research: Swedish-American relations, particularly academic migration. “Academia is a very important interface between Sweden and the U.S. and the flow back and forth of researchers and students provides a number of answers regarding how the countries have related to one another.”