So even generosity has its limits.

James Traub, born in 1954, is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, where he has worked since 1998. From 1994 to 1997, he was a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has also written for The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, National Review and Foreign Affairs. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Wikipedia)


I hadn’t heard much from or about Jim Traub, for at least a year or more. I’ve known him mostly through his extensive writings on education, including his 1994 book City On A Hill, a profile of City College of New York, written after he spent 18 months on campus, his study of school reform called Better By Design for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation that profiled ten approaches to school reform, as well as a  number of articles on the No Child Left Behind Act and school choice.

In this month’s Foreign Policy Magazine he has written a piece about what he describes as, The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth. At first glance I thought he was speaking of us, the USA, but no, not possible that, given our own past history and even letting alone our behavior before and during the present Middle East refugee crisis. No, here he is speaking of Sweden. A much smaller country of some 10 million, just about half the population of metropolitan New York.

During the present crisis how many refugees have we accepted? Of the 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled attacks by their government and ISIS, the United States has taken in just 0.03%, or 1200 of them.

Excerpts from James Traub’s Death of the Most Generous Nation:

…. When the refugee crisis began last summer, about 1,500 people were coming to Sweden every week seeking asylum. By August, the number had doubled. In September, it doubled again. In October, it hit 10,000 a week, and stayed there even as the weather grew colder. A nation of 9.5 million, Sweden expected to take as many as 190,000 refugees, or 2 percent of the population — double the per capita figure projected by Germany, which has taken the lead in absorbing the vast tide of people fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere….

As Sweden began to build its social democratic state after the war, the ready acceptance of refugees became a symbol of the national commitment to moral principle. Sweden built a system designed to deliver to refugees the same extensive social benefits that Swedes gave themselves — housing, health care, high-quality education, maternal leave, and unemployment insurance. In the 1980s, Sweden accepted not just Iranians and Eritreans, but Somalis and Kurds. More than 100,000 former Yugoslavs, mainly Bosnians, came in the 1990s. By that time, Sweden was taking about 40,000 refugees a year. In recent years, the figure has been closer to 80,000 — slightly greater than the inflow to the United States, which of course also sees itself as the world’s shelter from tyranny, but has a population almost 35 times greater….


The Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Malmo, Sweden, at sunset on Jan. 3, 2016. (Johan Nlsson/TT/AFP/Getty Images)


Yet the past may be a poor guide to the present. The 160,000 asylum-seekers who came to Sweden last year is double the number it has ever accepted before. I met many critics who were prepared to raise impolite questions about whether Sweden could afford to lavish generous benefits on so large a population, whether it could integrate so many new arrivals with low levels of skills, whether a progressive and extremely secular country could socialize a generation of conservative Muslim newcomers….After taking 160,000 refugees — 30,000 less than the maximum it had projected — Sweden had finally run out of room, money, and patience. Even that wasn’t the final sign of Sweden’s reluctant regression to the European mean, for in January came the announcement that 80,000 refuges would face deportation….At this moment, it is literally impossible to imagine a solution to the crisis. And the refugee tide may not even have crested. Despite freezing weather and high seas, 67,193 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe in January — 13 times as many as the year before. Deaths at sea around Greece and Italy totaled 368. In all likelihood, more people will cross into Europe, and more will die trying, than was the case in 2015. The International Monetary Fund now estimates that an average of 1.3 million migrants will arrive in Europe in both 2016 and 2017….


Hungarian police guard a border fence against refugees trying to pass through from the Serbian town of Horgos on Sept. 16, 2015. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet it need not have ended this way. If their neighbors had pitched in, Sweden could have afforded the price of its remarkable generosity. At the Davos forum in January, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven,said bluntly, “We are a continent of 500 million people; we could easily handle this task if we cooperated, if we met this as a union and not as individual member states.” But Europe did not cooperate. Already the Schengen rules lie in tatters. The refugee crisis threatens European foundations as even the recent euro crisis did not. “If we cannot handle this as a European union,” Lofven went on to predict, “the European Union in itself is at risk.”Something even greater is at risk. The Europe that rose from the cataclysm of World War II understood itself not simply as a collection of peoples, white and Christian, but as a community of shared values. The refugee crisis has forced Europeans to choose between the moral universalism they profess and the ancient identities they have inherited. Eastern Europe has already reasserted its status as a white, Christian homeland — just as many people in the Middle East have reclaimed the sectarian identities they had seemed prepared to discard.Now the Europe where the Enlightenment was born may well be making the same choice. The Muslim influx threatens Europe’s liberal, secular consensus; but rejecting the refugees also shakes one of the great pillars of that consensus. Europe may fail on both counts, driving the refugees from its doorstep while succumbing to right-wing nationalism. Americans have no reason to be complacent….

It is all too possible that we too will have to choose between a moral universalism we still profess and the racial, ethnic, class, tribal and other identities that we have inherited and that now threaten to overwhelm and overrun us.


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