Sweden, the story goes, used to be very peaceful, very safe, very blond. Then it started letting in darker-skinned people. Soon there were news reports of attacks on Swedes. Now, Sweden records the highest incidence of rape in the world.
The Sweden story has become absolutely viral. You've probably read a version in a Facebook post, or heard it in a speech or debate. It is the argument-ender of the intolerant: To make the case against refugees, or immigration, or "Islam," you recount a couple of stories about refugee-camp horrors, some random anecdotes of sex crimes involving brown people in various countries, and then drop the Sweden story.
Behind it you'll find the resurrection of an old, deadly appeal to fear – that people of certain skin colours are natural-born predators who threaten white women. It's a version of lynch-mob logic that happens to appeal to the liberal and tolerant as much as the hateful and intolerant.
And it falls apart as soon as you speak to anyone knowledgeable in Sweden.
"What we're hearing is a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events, and the claim that it's related to immigration is more or less not true at all," says Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminologist at Stockholm University who has devoted his career to the study of criminality, ethnicity and age.
Sweden does indeed have far more reported cases of sexual assault than any other country. But it's not because Swedes – of any colour – are very criminal. It's because they're very feminist. In 2005, Sweden's Social Democratic government introduced a new sex-crime law with the world's most expansive definition of rape.
Imagine, for example, if your boss rubbed against you in an unwanted way at work once a week for a year. In Canada, this would potentially be a case of sexual assault. Under Germany's more limited laws, it would be zero cases. In Sweden, it would be tallied as 52 separate cases of rape. If you engaged in a half-dozen sex acts with your spouse, then later you felt you had not given consent, in Sweden that would be classified as six cases of rape.
The marked increase in rape cases during the 2000s is almost entirely a reflection of Sweden's deep public interest in sexual equality and the rights of women, not of attacks by newcomers.
But aren't refugees and immigrants responsible for a greater share of Sweden's sexual assaults?
In a sense. Statistics show that the foreign-born in Sweden, as in most European countries, do have a higher rate of criminal charges than the native-born, in everything from shoplifting to murder (though not enough to affect the crime rate by more than a tiny margin). The opposite is true in North America, where immigrants have lower-than-average crime rates.
Why the difference? Because people who go to Sweden are poorer, and crime rates are mostly a product not of ethnicity but of class. In a 2013 analysis of 63,000 Swedish residents, Prof. Sarnecki and his colleagues found that 75 per cent of the difference in foreign-born crime is accounted for by income and neighbourhood, both indicators of poverty. Among the Swedish-born children of immigrants, the crime rate falls in half (and is almost entirely concentrated in lesser property crimes) and is 100-per-cent attributable to class – they are no more likely to commit crimes, including rape, than ethnic Swedes of the same family income.
What also stands out is that almost all the victims of these crimes – especially sex crimes – are also foreign-born. But for a handful of headline-grabbing atrocities, it isn't a case of swarthy men preying on white women, but of Sweden's system turning refugees into victims of crime.
That is the real Swedish crisis. Refugee shelters are terrible, dangerous places, whoever is in them. When such shelters, then known as displaced persons camps, held millions of Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s, histories show they were at risk of sexual predation and organized attacks against Jewish refugees.
Because otherwise generous Sweden doesn't allow refugees to seek work until they know the language, tens of thousands of people are stuck in these awful places, in similar conditions, or in welfare-dependent netherworlds.
There they become victims of violent crime, victims of economic exclusion and victims of a grotesque, viral story that portrays them as predators, entirely because of their skin colour.