Freedom of Speech (unless we don’t want to hear it)

Tendai Tagarira, a poet who was granted political asylum in Denmark after criticising Robert Mugabe, settled in Aarhus. Before leaving Zimbabwe, he had a bad collision on his motorcycle, after the brakes were tampered with. He was made a sort of poet in residence as part of being a refugee and then the money ran out and then he became a refugee under the usual rules. His case has been mishandled a lot, mistakes have been made A LOT. He has suffered because of these mistakes, like the month where he had no money at all because his caseworker made a mistake.

He writes bits for the Copenhagen Post, gives talks and so on. This is, in the Danish system, a “B income”. He also runs an excellent website called “Aarhus Culture“, which he started as a reaction to being refused entry to a bar because he is black.

This website has all sorts of different articles about Aarhus and has a wide readership. It is growing but it is in a very early stage of development. The Integration Department for Aarhus said that he could run this website as part of his integration contract, after support from the mayor.

He writes one article critical of the Integration Department and THE NEXT DAY, they contact him to say that he can no longer run the website while he is on kontanthjælp. They say it is because kontanthjælp is for getting people to be self sufficient as soon as possible and that he cannot support himself with the income from the website right now.

He had an hour long meeting with Lene Brink of the Integration Department. She interrupts him a lot, she repeats herself and never lets him finish his points. She takes advantage of technical difficulties at the start to push the agenda from a presentation about his project to an attack. She responds to him before the interpreter is finished, almost as if she does not need an interpreter. She speaks in English at some points before she remembers herself, she works through an interpreter the rest of the time. She speaks in long paragraphs, so the interpreter must simultaneously translate, the effect is very confusing. It is supposed to be. She uses the Danish language as a weapon, in this way. She can interrupt in stereo. She often says “You should be listening to what I say,” and “Can I finish,” and “If I can just say,” as if he is interrupting her. She talks to him like a child about “respect” when he interrupts her towards the end.

She feels superior to him. You simply do not interrupt people you feel equal (or inferior), to. Why on earth does she feel superior to a famous poet, published author with a background in law and finance who is running a much more successful website about integration than her department is able to make?

She accuses him of making threats when he makes the reasonable point that the way Denmark treats African refugees will come back to haunt them, when they want to do trade with African countries. Denmark needs people like Tendai, not just because he contributes to Denmark’s culture but because Denmark will need help understanding how to do business in African nations. Interpreting “if you treat me with disrespect, I will not stay in your country and you need people like me,” as a threat, is indicative of her attitude towards Tendai in particular (and African men in general, probably, since she cannot know Tendai individually all that well).

His choice, as she tells it, is that he can either run the website without kontanthjælp (which will make him homeless) or he can stop running the website and receive kontanthjælp. He makes it clear that her threats to cut him off do not scare him. She tries to make out that it is “his” decision not to receive kontanthjælp by continuing to work on the the website.

His reading of the law is that as part of his integration contract, Aarhus should be helping him run this website.

Her reading of the law is that he should not be running websites for integration into Danish society when he could be applying for jobs in supermarkets.

He would do manual labour if he could. He can’t. He was badly injured when his brakes were cut in Zimbabwe. He is trying to create a business that will support him financially, using the skill set he has developed over many years. He is close to being self-sustaining, working on this projects. The Integration Department of Aarhus would prefer he be close to being self-sustaining, by doing nothing but apply for jobs.

This is the reality of “integration” of refugees in Denmark. You can come for political asylum for criticising your own country, as long as you don’t get uppity and use free speech to criticise Denmark. You can live here, as long as you work stacking shelves and not as a professional or equal. You must exist as supplicant. Grateful. Humble. But above all. Silent.

There is a petition you can sign, if you feel the same as I do.

28 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech (unless we don’t want to hear it)

  1. Listening to that interview sickens me, not only are the laws unjust, but the people administering them are mostly so self-righteous and feeling superior to those, they are supposed to be helping. It used to be bad – now it’s grown worse!


  2. “Go on then, what do you think?”
    I agree with him on several points, namely, that the laws relating to immigration are written in far more generous terms than the way they are applied. EVEN after the niceties have been pared down after clear reference to case law decisions relating to human rights so that they reach as close to the margin as possible without going over the line. The behavior of those applying the laws reflect not the laws so much as the attitudes you wrote about. This happened also with me when, as someone in DK under family reunification laws, I was laughed at by my caseworker when, after at some earlier point I mentioned that the language program I had been put in, which required me to spend 4 hours a day, three days a week, commuting and waiting aroud for class to start (40 minutes of the 4 hours), was a problem for my family. Not only that, but, though the laws (lovbekedtgoerelse) required the kommune to assist me in finding a job, the same caseworker responded to a request for assistance with a simple “no”. The point being that the Danes think they are entitled to treat foreigners as they wish regardless of what is written in the law – because there is no negative consequence for simply ordering the rest of us to jump when they say “jump” even if the law prohibits that.

    I also agree that it will come back to Denmark at some point and his example of trading in Africa is a great example. The word about Denmark is already out. And the ignorance displayed by the Danes in power, and I include those in Danish industry, an only reflect that oft-cited problem of empathy-ignorance. If empathy were possible, or the norm, they would realize that other cultures learn from their own constituents . . . trust their own . . . just as the Danes (over)do. It follows that when people share with their people “back home” unequal, unreasonable, racist or, to be kind simply ignorant treatment of foreigners makes the Danes bad bedfellows.

    I’m afraid I had this conversation with an investor just the other day. I had to explain that his plan to expand to Germany was a good idea and that, at the moment, most Danish businesses could be expected to pay for services rendered but that he should be aware – the legal system in Denmark will not deliver justice to foreigners. Urging him that if he, with my assistance, reaches out to that market – he should require payment up front.

    What has gone around, is indeed going around. And yep, Africa is a big, and growing market. Too bad Danes in power have such small minds.


  3. I don’t know, it is weird, but it doesn’t bother me. If he doesn’t like things about Denmark, he can feel free to go. I know we are leaving. I think it is quite rude to bite the hand that feeds, to be honest. Denmark has a right to preserve its culture and do that however it deems necessary. I respect them for this immensely, especially when so many other European countries allow themselves to get overrun and controlled by immigrants.


    1. Biting? Come again?

      He’s adding to the culture of Denmark. He’s running an enviable integration project. They were fine with it until he was slightly critical of them.

      He set this website up after being treated badly for being black. He made a choice: I can try to make this country better so I don’t feel bad or I can sit at home hating on dk.

      He was invited here. He came because they asked him to come and write.
      He’s doing that. They’re punishing him.

      Would you prefer he do as they demand? Sit at home, no writing projects, applying for jobs he can never get?

      It’s easy for family reunification foreigners with amenable Danes to just leave if they don’t like it. Not so simple for refugees who will be made destitute if the state withdraws the lowest amount of financial support.

      I expect he will leave. I expect he’ll get himself invited to another country to do his thing. And Denmark will be poorer for it.

      Immigrants do take over countries. It’s natural and fitting. No USA without pilgrim fathers. No UK without Saxons.

      At least he’s trying to make a positive difference.


      1. So you are suggesting that the new wave of immigrants take over Denmark because it is “fitting”? I, for one, find the destruction of Danish culture not fitting and not ok. Perhaps you are ok with it because you don’t particularly like it in the first place? What was socially acceptable for “settlers” and “invaders” to do 300 or 1500 years ago is no longer appropriate in a civilized world. If an immigrant becomes destitute then that is their own problem. I did not come here under family reunification and all the money I’ve spent here has come from my own savings, not from someone else’s pocket. Let’s be honest, a website like that is never going to provide enough income to survive in Denmark. Why are we faulting the Danes for being their normal brutally honest selves? They have rules for the free hand out they are giving him, he can comply or choose not to take it.


      2. He’s not trying to destroy Denmark, come on.

        Would you prefer he sit at home and do nothing but apply for jobs he can’t have than start an integration project? Why?


      3. No one said that he was trying to destroy Denmark, but rather that you suggested is was fitting for immigration to take over a culture, in particular Danish culture. When people apply and receive cash help in Denmark there are conditions whether they are Danish or foreign. You only know what he has told you on his blog and if he has made himself unavailable for the normal types of work, then he is in violation of the terms.


      4. So you brought up other immigrants while we were talking about one particular one why?

        I know what he has written and also what the head of immigration has actually said. I listened to the hour long interview with her.


      5. To Nerissa,
        You wrote “They have rules for the free hand out they are giving him, he can comply or choose not to take it.”

        He has paid taxes when working. I have paid taxes when working and my family still does. Lots and lots of kroner. And we say – treat immigrants logically. In fact, the Danish society needs immigrants to carry the weight of an aging population that will soak up benefits when otherwise there will not be enough people working to contribute to the base that feeds them! The Danes. And we need them to buy our houses that still sit unpurchased because there is not one to buy them, the old folks having passed their houses down to their children – while they die and/or go in to public housing/nursing situations.

        There are human rights reasons and economic reasons, not to mention ethical reasons for Denmark abiding by the laws it writes and encouraging, rather than punishing foreigners who find themselves in the country and who want to be part of the culture. Criticism is not biting the had that feeds one, when the assistance is part of a legal promise to the world – on the contrary when a country fills itself with people like you – who will withhold comment for fear it will cause others to ‘not like’ you – it is asking for its own demise.

        Put another way – the people I choose for friends will tell me privately, and perhaps even with humor, that I have spinach stuck to my front tooth. Thank goodness for them because they save me from embarrassment. To take offense and retaliate the way the Danish government does displays not only a weak sense of national self-esteem but an uncanny willingness to shoot themselves in the foot. As seen by many.


    2. Wow. Shocking. If we don’t like it here, we can just leave.

      I guess you’ve just described in your blog how arduous it is the process of “leaving” and honestly, like what AJ said, it isn’t easy for refugee just to leave like that, and yes, he was invited here by the government of DK, and I could say the same: If DK doesn’t like him, why did they invite them in the first place, but oops – that doesn’t work because DK like many other countries in the UNHCR convention has the responsibility to take refugees.

      This is what most Danes don’t get (I am perfectly aware that you’re American, but we’ll take that later), that they think DK can just shut down its border and not let one soul in. Even DK is already receiving far less refugees than their neighbouring countries as Sweden and Norway and although many right-wing Danes would love to point out how much problem it is in Sweden or Norway, they couldn’t argue with the fact that Norwegian and Swedish economy progress is far beyond Denmark.

      But let’s go back to “if I don’t like it here…” right?
      Why is it that every time someone criticizing Denmark that person is labelled a DK hater? Have you ever criticized your husband on the way he does thing? His clothing? His way of speaking, perhaps? Would you be shocked if your husband tell you after you criticizing him that you should just divorce him if you don’t like the way he dresses?

      Pretty far stretch for an example but I hope you get the essence.
      I’m married to a Dane, I CHOSE to live here (and I am aware that I can always leave if I don’t like it), I CHOSE to call this place home. I have a work here, I pay tax, I speak the language and I could exercise my “freedom of speech” like I want to, like the way other Danes criticizing their country. Should I just shut up because my skin is yellow instead of pink? Well duh, I thought we’re past that era (obviously not here in DK)

      Would you be defensive too if someone living in the US criticizing US? I don’t know your answer but I wouldn’t be, because I know that criticism is important in order to improve something and if someone came to me and pointed out what’s wrong with the system of my country, I’d probably say “Hell yes, you’re right, what can we do about that?”

      If being defensive and retaliating like the way the Aarhus Kommune did to Tendai IS a Danish culture that these people are trying to preserve, then I rest my case. I’d go bang my head in the wall now.


  4. Nerissa:
    Officially, the “Danish culture” that should be protected includes respect for human rights. Denmark made a point of placing freedom of speech higher than political correctness in its value system, and becoming known all over the world for this stand. The arguments being used in this case are the exact opposite of Denmark’s usual rethoric on its own value system. It’s not okay, and Aarhus is therefore doing more to destroy Danish culture than Tendai is.


    1. No country really has freedom of speech, not even America. Let’s be pretty clear on that. Also freedom of speech comes with consequences, hate speech might result in losing a job, etc. Common sense dictates that if you want to continue to receive good and nice help from a government agency that you don’t criticize publicly mid-process. You find another way to a solution to your problem. Part of stepping into adulthood and out of the impetuousness of youth is realizing that people don’t like to be publicly shamed and that lashing our publicly is likely to result in negative consequences. We recently had a great deal of trouble with a local immigration office in America, but because we will have to deal with them again in 2 years, we know it is not a good idea to belittle them or overtly name in public. We’ve gone through channels and found help that would both get us what we want and change their behavior, but while allowing them to save face. That was the proper way to handle his situation and perhaps next time he will be wiser.


      1. I sort of could tell you were an American from your first post, because there is a whole mentality surrounding the arguments you are bringing forward. There is of course a valid argument to be made for “not making any waves.” However, America is also very welcoming of immigrants, which Denmark is not. And Aarhus is proving it in this case. The U.S. and Canada are both immigrant countries, and there is mutual respect that comes with immigration control (at least officially). Transparency is also important there, and shit like that does make the news, as it should.

        Countries should be consistent in how they administrate the rules, and respecting their international obligations should be more than lip service. Human rights are extremely important, and giving human rights only to the locals is hypocritical.

        Whether Tendai was wise or not is beside the point.


      2. Except the limit on freedom of speech that you can actually name (hate speech) does not exist in Denmark. Hate speech is protected.

        Mildly critical speech, however, which is protected in all but the most tyrannical regimes, that is not allowed here.

        He’s being shut down because you have freedom of speech unless they don’t want to hear it.

        Hardly anyone that has talked to me about this case is surprised. Angry or upset, sure. Indifferent in your case.

        But no one is surprised.

        “Of course you can’t make criticisms of integration while on kontanthjælp! There’s no freedom of speech in Denmark!”


  5. Denmark needs foreign workers to pay into the system. In the past 3 years, I’ve given the Danish government approx. $150,000 in income tax revenue, on top of that, they’ve collected 25% VAT on everything I’ve purchased, plus a hefty registration tax on my new car.

    As a customer to the Danish government, I can and will speak up when I’m not being treated fairly. If Denmark wants to invite foreigners here to work, seek, asylum, etc. then it needs to follow through from a policy standpoint. Currently, it falls far short. This is not the 1950’s, times change, economies change, and a successful society needs to change with it, or suffer the consequences. Denmark views itself in one way and acts in another way, but it can’t see the hypocracy.

    Nerissa, you have a very simplistic view of the world, which given the quality of your blog isn’t shocking, but how do you think social change happens? Should people not have marched for civil rights? Were those damn Africans destroying colonial American values by demanding equality? Should gay people hide in their closets? Should feminists not have lobbied for the ERA, demonstrated for reproductive rights, and equal pay?

    Someone needs to be the voice of change, it’s not always the safe or comfortable choice, but it’s an important choice and I’m grateful for the people who are brave enough to make it.


    1. I am grateful. :-) And Denmark should also be grateful for the contributions of other ethnicities to their economy. I can’t find the source right now, but I read somewhere that there are really about 8 million people in Denmark (the de facto population) instead of 5,6 million (the de jure population), because tourists/business travellers/non-residents aren’t counted in the census. That’s a significant addition to the consumer base, if nothing else.


  6. I’d probably be more sympathetic if the first thing I ever read by him wasn’t dismissing the very idea of integration as “social, cultural and moral imperialism”

    I absolutely agree that his case has been handled in an appalling manner (and the city authorities should be ashamed for dropping him as soon as he became inconvenient) but his whole enthusiasm for integration seems to be a little late and a little thin…


    1. Until you have to integrate in DK, you have no idea how imperialistic something can be…
      It’s assimilation here, not integration. They use the wrong word.


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