On just about every front today, Europe offers Americans a peek around the corner at our future. We seem to be taking Greece as our model on government debt, France on entrenched unemployment, and Italy and Spain on the bloated welfare state.
But as we pant eagerly after the holy grail of European social democracy, we'd do well to pay attention to other, less-discussed coming attractions. One of our great national projects is eliminating the vestiges of sex differences in our families, workplaces and elsewhere. There's no better place than Sweden to get a preview of what the brave new world of "gender neutrality" may hold.
Swedish social planners are busy constructing a society "that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels," according to the online journal Slate.
How mundane? Prominent Social Democrat politicians have proposed gender-neutral public restrooms so their fellow citizens won't be forced to label themselves as men or women. One local left-wing party has gone farther, proposing a law requiring men to sit while urinating in office restrooms.
Sweden has added a new pronoun -- "hen" -- to its online National Encyclopedia, defining it as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han] or she [hon]." Recently, the country's first gender-neutral children's book was greeted with fanfare. It replaced "mammor" and "pappor" (moms and dads) with "mappor" and "pammor" -- new words that blend and confuse the traditional terms.
A "core mission" of the national curriculum in Swedish preschools is to eradicate gender roles, according to CBS News. Many preschools have hired "gender pedagogues" to help teachers "identify language and behavior that risk reinforcing" traditional male/female behaviors.
For example, at Egalia -- a government-funded model preschool in Stockholm -- nearly all books deal with homosexual couples, single parents or adopted children. When children are "playing 'house' and the role of the mom already is taken and they start to squabble," the director told CBS News, "we suggest two moms or three moms and so on."
This year, Top-Toy -- one of Europe's largest toy companies --submitted to gender-neutrality training after censure for sexism from Sweden's advertising ombudsman. The result: a Christmas catalog featuring boys blowdrying a girl's hair or playing with a Barbie Dream House, and girls playing with gruesome action figures.
Is Sweden's experiment in erasing sexual distinctions likely to succeed? In the words of American commentator Christina Hoff Sommers, "You can give a boy a doll, but you can't make him play with it." In an Atlantic article by that name, she reports that American toy manufacturer Hasbro once tried to market a unisex playhouse in this country. Girls kissed and dressed the dolls, but boys catapulted the doll buggy from the roof.
"Children's play preferences" are "one of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes," David Geary, a developmental psychologist at University of Missouri, told Sommers. (Boys generally like rough-and-tumble play, while girls tend to prefer nurturing play.) Geary predicted that the Swedish gender-neutral toy catalog "will almost certainly disappear in a few years, once parents who buy from it realize their kids don't want these toys."
We Americans may roll our eyes at Sweden's over-the-top sexual engineering. Yet similar moves are underway here. One is the campaign to convince Americans that parenting is a gender-neutral activity, and that fathers and mothers are entirely interchangeable.
In reality, men and women complement one another physically, socially and emotionally in the bearing and rearing of children. Fathers, for example, tend to encourage risk-taking and independence, while mothers nurture, soothe hurt feelings and often have more trouble "letting go." But reality rarely stops ideologues.
What links Sweden's and America's social planners is a shared premise: That human beings are infinitely malleable, and that -- with enough browbeating -- other folks can be made to conform to their vision of the ideal society.
It's no surprise, then, that Sweden's gender-neutrality crusade -- carried out in the name of liberation -- ends up constricting human freedom. Exhibit A is the Swedish preschool that has ended "free playtime" because, as a staffer explained, when children are allowed to play as they wish, "stereotypical gender patterns are born."
Slate sums it up this way: "Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are ... subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children's interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers."
On the issue of gender neutrality, we can laugh at Sweden's preschool "gender pedagogues" and proposed gender-blind bathrooms. But we'd do well to remember that -- with zealous social planners at the helm -- what's laughable now may well become tomorrow's orthodoxy.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.