An analogous reactionary wind is blowing over Denmark. A few days ago (June 6, 2021) the Danish broadsheet Politiken published an open letter to the Social Democratic Minister of Research and Higher Education, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen. The letter was signed by 282 academics and researchers from several Danish Universities specialized in the areas of gender and critical migration studies. Only two days later, another letter with very similar content was published, gathering more than 3000 signatures of Danish and international academics. The signatories complain over the attacks and the atmosphere of political suspicion and intimidation that has been spread by populist right-wing politician and commentators, whose aim is to sow doubt about the scientific quality and value of their research.
The academic freedom debate had an interesting start in Denmark, since it was sparked by a series of newspaper articles printed in early Spring 2021. Weekendavisen released a piece cunningly titled Hvidensproduktion, which provocatively and purposely plays with the two words for “White-ness” (Hviden-hed) and “Knowledge” (Viden). The piece helped unleash the Danish variant of the French debate; notably only a few days after Vidal’s reference to “Islamo-leftism” in academia. Framed as a journalistic reportage, the article redundantly asks: “Who politicizes the research on integration and immigration?” (The answer is readily available to the reader in the rest of the text.) The purpose of the article is in fact to attack specific research fields and academics within social and human sciences (gender, critical race and postcolonial studies) and to instill the reader with the opinion that these fields lack objectivity, are politically and ideologically motivated, rather than to engage into a serious discussion with the research driven by these fields.
Similarly, in France it was the “Observatory of Colonialism and of the Identitary Ideologies” created in 2020 by a group of academics (amongst them also Pierre-André Taguieff and Xavier-Laurent Salvador) “concerned about the identitary drift within the academic world” to raise the question of militant activism in academia. The Danish article spurred a new wave of right-wing populist attacks against the academic elites. Radical-right bloggers and pundits stirred the issue further from their blogs and columns, asking to: “Close down the university madhouses”, wherefrom: “studies of race, gender, whiteness, and postcolonialism are not research, but attitudes that create hatred”, suggesting that: “of course feminist activism is not a research field … and [feminists] want to unleash the revolution, fight against the white man and do away with objective research”. The debate was then raised politically by Danish People’s Party MP Morten Messerschmidt and Liberal Alliance MP Henrik Dahl, whose positions against gender and migration are well-known, and who took the chance to send an interpellation of the debate to the Danish Minister of Higher Education and Research. The interpellation asked, among other things, whether the Minister meant race, gender and migration studies are really worth the use of the Danish taxpayers’ money.
During a debate in Parliament discussing “the overdriven activism in certain research milieus”, right-wing populist politicians Morten Messerschmidt (DF) and Henrik Dahl (LA) named and shamed individual academics and entire research groups, calling them “pseudoscientists”, “untrustworthy”, “left-wing leaning” and “militant activists”. MP Henrik Dahl made a direct reference to the French case, spurred by Frédérique Vidal, claiming it is in fact an example that can spur a similar and indispensable debate in Denmark, that should aim at draw “boundaries” to academic ‘activism’ in gender and migration studies.
Yet what fostered the climate of intimidation, and insecurity was rather the Minister’s somehow ambiguous reaction and the vote for the resolution supported by the Social Democrats. Quite unexpectedly, the Minister did not reply in adamant defence of academic and research freedom; she left some room to doubt that there are in fact problems within specific research milieus promoting activism and ideologically biased research. She had earlier uttered some concern for “whole research fields being theoretically one-dimensional and militant in their research approach”, reiterating this position on several occasions. The parliamentary resolution voted by the Social Democrats in government with the parties in the Opposition avows the role played by University leadership to guarantee research scientific quality and prevent that “politics comes disguised as science” within certain milieus. (This notwithstanding that research is already subject to peer-review processes, ethic and methodological standards and evaluation.)
What happened in France and Denmark in relation to the debate on academic freedom is interesting since it shows how anti-intellectualism and anti-gender positions have made their way into mainstream politics. The origins of anti-intellectualism are not new to French and Danish politics and conservative and neoliberal parties have already in the past warned against “the experts and the ‘arbiters of taste’ [that] decide on our behalf”. Yet the accommodation of anti-gender and anti-migration positions and the sacrifice of freedom of research on the altar of electoral support shows how far mainstream politics is willing to go to appease with quick-fix solutions a politically disaffected electorate.