Sometimes you wonder, what’s the point of speaking up? When politicians or leaders say deplorable things, the urge is to challenge them head-on and call them out. But often it feels like doing so just gives them the platform they seek.
Take this month’s behaviour by immigration minister Inger Støjberg. First she posted a photo of herself on Facebook holding a cake celebrating the 50th new immigration law that she has passed since her appointment almost two years ago.
On the one hand, she has a mandate to pursue these policies. An argument can absolutely be made that there is an upper limit to the number of refugees Denmark can help effectively, and that the job of helping the refugees is a global one.
And yet, it’s tasteless and undignified to celebrate the restriction of asylum for people in need of help. The UNHCR estimates that almost 5 million Syrians have become refugees, out of a population of 17 million. Nothing about this situation calls for a party.
But when a chorus of voices condemned her, she still seemed to win, since the reach of her message exploded from the 114,000 people who follow her on Facebook to an international audience. “In Denmark, Passage of Rules on Immigration Called for Cake” declared the headline in the New York Times.
Two weeks later, she made headlines again. TV2 News released a documentary on the increasing number of immigrants charged with being in Denmark illegally. Her response:
“I want ordinary Danes to contact the authorities if, for example, they are in a pizzeria and think something strange is happening in the back room because there are too many people walking around and not speaking Danish. It’s utopian to believe that police can visit every back room in Denmark.”
Again, outrage ensued. And with good reason, because what she’s calling for is a society reminiscent of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Getting citizens to report on citizens created the generalised atmosphere of fear and mistrust that helped maintain the DDR’s control over its people.
Taking the two episodes together, she appears to be promoting the message that the ends justify the means. Any tools may be employed to achieve a democratic mandate to restrict immigration, even if it means we regard all low-wage service workers speaking a foreign language as worthy of blanket suspicion.
Members of her party, Venstre, tried to row back her statements. First, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said the offense caused by her cake photo was “unfortunate, because I don’t think it was the intention”. Then immigration spokesperson MP Marcus Knuth said we shouldn’t misinterpret her statements on foreign workers in pizza restaurants.
“If you see someone breaking into a house, you don’t necessarily know if they’ve forgotten a key or if it’s an Eastern European gang,” he told Politiken.
There is an obvious qualitative difference between observing someone try to break into a house and someone hanging out in a pizza restaurant speaking a foreign language. And the suggestion that the latter is a matter for the authorities is frankly disturbing. Støjberg suggests it would be “utopian” if the police could check every pizza restaurant for illegal immigrants – I think it utopian that we don’t live in a police state where they can.
So does the outrage matter, given that Støjberg’s job looks as safe as it ever was? I would argue yes. Because we don’t know how much further the government would go if there weren’t pushback. That Rasmussen and Knuth were dispatched to defend her suggests that the party knows they’re right at the limit of what’s acceptable.
It’s shocking that they don’t seem to realise that these sorts of statements ultimately undermine the society they think they are protecting with immigration limits. They are normalising an uncaring view of people seeking shelter and encouraging a society where someone’s socioeconomic class and language makes them justifiable subjects of suspicion. As Puk Damsgård, veteran Middle East correspondent for DR, wrote on Twitter, “This type of civil informant society, based on feelings rather than facts, reminds me of Arab dictorships”. M