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Swedish Teleban

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Her youthful, misinformed, arrogant tone set me off, sending me into a ragaholic fit and diatribe in crazy immigrant Swedish ending with “Ring the police! Send them over to my house!” But before we get to 
that . . . 
When I moved to Sweden in 2008 it shocked me to discover the government requires all citizens’ with a television to pay a Radio and TV Tax. The government agency, Radiotjänst, collects 2076 kronor ($320 USD) a year per TV owning household. Payment can be made in four installments or one lump sum.

In 2010, they widened their net to include computers, ipads and basically any device capable of receiving the Swedish television broadcast. You may opt out of payment or deregister your household, but only if you die . . . or no longer own a TV, whichever comes first.

This act is not unlike the bureaucracy in Vilhelm Moberg’s historical novel The Emigrants in which Karl Oskar is required to sign out of the Swedish Church in order to emigrate to America.

I discovered the existence of the TV and Radio Tax when Radiotjänst phoned my home wondering why we had not paid our $320 USD. My wife, Kajsa, explained simply, firmly and in Swedish that we did not have a TV.  I admit, this presents a rare, yet nonetheless, true scenario. An almost unimaginable circumstance to Radiotjänst, yet eventually they grasped the concept of a TV-free household and moved on.

When Kajsa revealed this to her family and other Swedes, they choked on their meatballs.
She triggered long interrogations, the questioning of her national loyalty and the implication we were robbing ourselves – and more importantly our daughter -of great cultural oasis that is Swedish TV programming.
The zenith of Swedish programming, and by far the most popular, is The Melody Festival or Melodifestivalen, as it’s called in Swedish. It is a six Saturday national contest to democratically select Sweden’s entry into the Eurovision Song contest.  It’s like American Idol, however, this is forced onto citizens by the government funding.  
Army of Lovers, Melodifestivalen 2013

Army of Lovers, Melodifestivalen 2013

To its credit, in 1974 ABBA won the Melodifestivalen then Eurovision Song Contest emerging as a world-class super group.

And every year since 1974, like the Chicago Cub’s trying to break the curse of the goat, Sweden hopes their entry will produce another international phenomenon. Hope sings eternal.

Our TV-free lifestyle choice created enough tension that I worried I might return home to find my wife’s family seated in a semicircle around a TV, and an intervention banner hanging on the wall.

Living in San Francisco we met our share of hyper crunchy granola, judgmental, self-righteous, organic-only-please, wood-toys-only-please, pseudo-hippie parents. In comparison, my views are in the conservative spectrum in SF. 

Yet in Sweden, I’m an off the grid, non-conformist, free radical.

It got to the point where they referred to me as the Teleban. At first I assumed this commented on my conservative approach to TV, but they soon clarified that it was short for Television Banner, or one who bans television.

I became concerned I may end up in a Swedish reeducation camp, or even worse some kind of Scandinavian Guantanamo Bay being force fed Swedish TV programs like the torture scene in 
A Clockwork Orange.

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While this never did manifest, her family loaned (or forced upon us) a used TV set that they kindly delivered directly into our living room. As they left our house I thought I heard a chant in murmured unison, 

“One of us, one of us . . . ”

We begrudgingly accepted the TV into our home.  Still, we choose to limit our daughter’s screen time to DVDs and internet videos, knowing once she stepped through portal into TV land there was no turning back. By banning TV we excluded one more option on her daily screen watching to do list.

Eventually, our loaner TV crapped out on us, and we bought a new one. Within days we received a bill from Radiotjänst  I ignored it. 

As I peered around the room and through the window blinds, I was tempted to pull up the floorboards to search for microphones and cameras like Gene Hackman in the Conversation.

“How do they know we have a TV? Did you tell them, Kajsa?” I accused.

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“Steven, you filled out the paper work when you bought the TV,” she explained.

“But how did they find out? You mean the store collected my information and handed it over to the government and they used it to track me down and harass me?”

It felt very soviet era.

“That doesn’t seem ethical.” I protested.

Yet coming from a country that claims neutrality while the top export is military grade weapons, this sort of thing doesn’t seem to have stopped them before.

I still ignored the bill, and eventually Radiotjänst called our home.  The female voice on the other end of the phone revealed an age of 22 if a day.

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Allow me to back track to inform this phone call, I graduated in the late 1980’s with Bachelor of Arts in Communications.  

Admittedly, this is the same degree that half term Alaskan Governor Sara Palin achieved, but of course she’s used it to do much better for herself. 

During the 1980’s a communication degree was a pathetic, default, catch-all degree for the undecided, the confused, and a few highly motivated. For me, it exposed my lack of courage to pursue acting in New York. Instead, I stayed in Philadelphia and went to university.

Graduating with a communications degree emboldened me with little and prepared me for even less. It did, however, give me a working understanding of the basic principals of analogue TV.

Like a blacksmith before industrialization, I owned skills useful in a very small, quickly closing window. At its base my knowledge enabled me to stop a VCR clock from blinking 12:00. A
 task that seems novel now, but it was huge in the 80’s.

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If nothing else, a communication degree allowed me to boast the understanding of the difference between a television receiver and a monitor:

* Television Receiver: receives the basic TV broadcast signal, hence the clever name.
* Monitor: needs a signal feed via a cable from the cable line or VCR. It lacks a receiver.

So over the phone I ask this young government agent,  “Can you speak English?”

“Of course. I’m calling from the Radio and TV Tax board and we understand you have a TV.”

“Well, we don’t have a TV, we have a monitor,” I said.

“No, you have a TV.”

“ . . . “

“Do you watch TV?” she accuses.

I counter, “Have you watched Swedish TV? Of course we don’t.”

She laughs. I then state simply and firmly, “ I’m not going to pay this fee as we do not watch TV.”

“Well that does not matter. If you have a TV you must pay.”

“But we don’t have a TV, we have a monitor and we don’t watch TV. We only watch DVDs.”

“If you have a TV then it’s a TV.”

“No it’s a monitor.”

“No, a monitor is a TV, a screen is a screen. If you have a screen you must pay.”

The 22-year-old drops back and uses the ‘you silly immigrant I will learn you’ approach; “In the 1980’s we democratically decided that everyone with a TV in Sweden pays this tax in order to keep the channels commercial free.”

Feeling insult to both mine and Governor Palin’s collegiate qualifications, my fuse is lit.

“Well you should have democratically decided to have some quality programs.” I offer.

At the same time, I cannot reveal the full weight of my argument – my B.A. provided understanding of the difference between a TV and a monitor – because that would reveal the embarrassing reality that I studied communications and possibly give her the upper hand.

Like the O. Henry’s story A Retrieved Reformation where a child locked in a bank safe forces a reformed safecracker to either reveal his criminal background and risk imprisonment or protect himself, 
I feel my sin of omission can only save my dignity.

Added to my brewing caldron of anger is the injustice for paying for something I do not use, the distain for the ridiculous and senseless conformity, and the shock at her denial of basic technical principals of TV vs. monitor.

Her youthful, misinformed, arrogant tone set me off, sending me into a ragaholic fit and diatribe in crazy immigrant Swedish ending with “Ring the police! Send them over to my house!”

I turn to see my daughter staring wide-eyed, and I realize that I am fighting with a 20-year-old in some little town with her little government job over some ridiculous governmental regulations. I’m fighting over the democratic decision made before she was born to not have commercials to fund shitty programs. I’m fighting over the fact that my crappy undergraduate degree only gave me basic information, which my pathetic ego will not allow me to divulge.

In the 1980’s Swedes chose to impose a tax on TV.  In the 1980’s I chose to not go to New York to pursue acting. On the day of this call both of these choices collided, and my rage sprung from the shame of the cumulative sum of a lifetime of poor choices.

My chickens came home to roost resulting in my daughter thinking the police are coming for her dad any minute.

The sins of the father…..unlike the O. Henry story, I chose to save myself.

My wife returns from the cellar and just looks at me and says “What?”

I mutter, “ Oh nothing….just a sales call. By the way, have you paid the TV tax?”

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