Piety describes the troubles she saw with Brooke Harrington’s NYT piece “I Almost Lost My Career Because I Had the Wrong Passport” (NYT, December 3, 2019). Harrington recounts her legal problems in Denmark after delivering lectures, as an immigrant from a non-European Union country, to the Danish Parliament and government agencies. Harrington, a researcher in tax heavens, unwillingly became the target of Danish prosecutors; constant changes in Danish migratory law (stricter every time) meant that not even Danish universities knew about newly enacted regulations forbidding professors from outside the European Union from giving guest lectures. As a result, she was facing deportation.
Harrington herself admits that she was privileged enough to have the charges against her dropped as a result of media pressure. And although there might have been some grounds for criticism on what is omitted in her article (especially the plight of the less privileged, who cannot count on media exposure to advance their cause), M.G. Piety offered her critique from the perspective of cultural purity.
I will not hone in on the economic reasons behind Denmark’s migratory policies that Piety correctly points out in her piece. My focus here is on the political use of culture as an excuse for concrete policies.
This recourse to cultural purity is problematic for many reasons. First, societies and cultures change over time. Although some cultural traits may and do prevail, there is no culture that has not undergone changes throughout the ages. All cultures and societies change, for better or worse. If we focus on the most evident and immediate cultural traits at a given time, what we have is not necessarily the essential manifestation of a culture, but merely a snapshot of it.
Secondly, thinking of cultural purity as something to strive for can also be problematic on two accounts. First, it would imply that certain cultures a) are (arbitrarily) assumed to be more advanced, preferred, or relevant, and b) the “less developed” cultures do not have anything positive to offer.
Even the most “advanced cultures” in Western nations can have something problematic in them, ranging from a die-hard blackface festival in the Netherlands to the ardent zeal with which the French establishment has defended anti-Muslim bigotry in the name of secularism. For all that Danish culture is intrinsically valuable, we must remember that the Danish record is not unblemished; Denmark, like France more recently, had its own anti-Muslim scandal some years ago. The fact that we now find those things problematic stems from the transformations that our societies have experienced over time.
As for the “less developed cultures” argument, history has demonstrated how migration and the influx of foreigners have enriched the societies that have opened their doors. France is a case in point, with foreigners not only nourishing the French intellectual milieu but also helping France win two football world cup championships, among other contributions. Priyamvada Gopal’s newly published work Insurgent Empire reminds us that the colonial subjects of the United Kingdom were not only active agents in their own liberation, but also a powerful force that influenced ideas of freedom in Britain.
As Marxist scholar Kenan Malik once pointed out, “all cultures are not equal”; his appeal was not only to denounce the excesses of disenchantment against all things considered “Western”, but rather to remind us that “‘permanently different’ is exactly how we tend to see different groups, societies and cultures today […] because contemporary society has lost faith in social transformation”. As noted above, societies and cultures will continue to change for a variety of reasons. And migrants and refugees do not always represent a negative input in that process.
In any case, the problem lies not necessarily in specific cultures and traditions, but in the political use thereof. Harrington correctly underpins this recourse to Danish cultural purity to a precise political event: the ascent of the Danish People’s Party in the early 2000s. As Harrington points out, the Danish People’s Party “didn’t want to just eliminate immigration; it sought to return Denmark to an imaginary past of racial and ethnic ‘purity’” [emphasis is mine].
With this in mind, we can see that the choice of who is welcome and who is not becomes simply a matter of power. M.G. Piety reminds us that “Copenhagen used to be so peaceful and quiet on the weekends”, but that things began to change when 7-Eleven first appeared in Denmark in the 1990s. Following Piety’s account, one could feel sympathy for an idyllic Danish culture that had to cope with one of neoliberalism’s most tangible expressions. What then makes the arrival of 7-Eleven and other foreign influences much less problematic than the influx of migrants or refugees? To the risk of oversimplification, it would appear that it is way easier to pound on refugees and migrants, from the Global South or elsewhere, than to challenge the economic powers that be.
Piety does admit that “Denmark is afraid of becoming a multiethnic society.” Keeping this admission in mind, the perceived danger to Danish traditions would stem not necessarily from multiculturalism, but from ethnicity. In short, the problem would be rather racial.
As in many examples that abound today, the appeal to social, cultural, or racial purity has concrete consequences. If we look at the United States today, for instance, we will find both trivial expressions, like the movement to limit Spanish speaking in the United States, and also awful outcomes, such as the death of a sick teenager under detention by the U.S. Border Patrol.
For people living in South Africa (my current place of residence), this story is all too familiar. A sense of ethnic purity and superiority became the basis for the segregation policies that left an indelible mark on this country. It will take several generations to overcome the dark legacy of apartheid on this land. Some of the concessions that the ANC had to make with the powerful Afrikaner minority in South Africa included the granting of cultural self-determination rights to that community. Soon after the first democratic elections in the country, with the alleged purpose of keeping their language and culture alive, a group of Afrikaners flocked to Orania, forming an enclave in which only White Afrikaner people are allowed to reside. Rather than a harmless stronghold of Afrikaner identity, the town is known as an island of white supremacy, intolerance, and racism. What makes Orania different from other cultural communities elsewhere is that, given the historical role of Afrikaner nationalism in promoting segregation, oppression, and violence, the existence of such a stronghold in present-day South Africa becomes an insult to South African aspirations to have a multicultural nation.
Looking at the policies that the Danish establishment is advancing, one could ask whether the intended purpose is to make Denmark another Orania. Again, this is not to say that Danish culture and traditions are not inherently valuable or positive at all. But we should be wary of any appeal to cultural or ethnic purity that becomes a motivation for intolerance and racism. In this case, we should look closely at the way the Danish establishment is using cultural and ethnic essentialism to advance questionable policies against those coming from overseas.
If Denmark’s establishment really wants to decrease the number of immigrants and refugees coming from non-European nations, lest Danish traditions are affected, there are more effective ways than placing anti-migrant adverts in the Middle East. For example, we could look at what causes migration in the first place. Here are two suggestions: pulling out from NATO, whose intervention in Libya (in which Denmark was involved) led to the current humanitarian crisis affecting Northern Africa; and contributing more effectively to the fight against climate change, an area in which Nordic countries could perform better.
There are valuable lessons that we can learn from the Danish ruling classes’ current stance on migration – although not necessarily for the reasons imagined by M.G. Piety.
Andres D. Medellin is a Mexican sociologist, currently living in South Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.