Minister, are We For or Against Oil Today?

Denmark’s smart young acting Arctic ambassador, recognizing the conflicting pressures on Foreign Affairs Minister Birgitte Nyborg – her party and family on one side and Greenlandic independentists and the finance ministry on the other – begins every conversation with her with this question. In season four of Borgen Birgitte Nyborg is a savvy and experienced politician attempting to reconcile, or ultimately choose between, these conflicting pressures.

The Minister Decides

Early in the season, Birgitte Nyborg makes a choice. She supports the development of oil in Greenland to gain the support of Greenlanders who see it as the route to independence and the Finance Minister (and Ministry) who see it as a thirty-year bounty of billions of kroner. But in the final episode she changes her mind for several reasons: the strong commitment to environmentalism in the party she founded; her son’s high-profile climate change activism (which she attempts to dispute in a televised dialogue by making ad hominem arguments that prove self-defeating); her exposure to one Greenlander’s desire to continue whaling; and ultimately American opposition to oil development if China will be a major beneficiary. Unlike The New Yorker’s Kylie Warner, I don’t find Nyborg’s second U-turn absurd or inexplicable, but rather the response of a political pro who carefully weighs all the vectors and forces. Moreover, she is nimble and avoids the common political nemesis of escalating commitment to a losing cause.

Nyborg’s second major decision is to move on from her long-time roles as founding leader of the centrist New Democratic Party and Foreign Minister. Dissatisfaction within the party and a prickly relationship with a new Prime Minister push her from power. Nyborg asks the PM to nominate her to a commissioner post at the European Union, and the PM readily agrees. The season ends with exactly the same image as the third, Nyborg sitting in the back seat of the big black government Benz, looking forward to new opportunities and challenges. Politicians’ careers often end badly by trying to hold onto power too long; Nyborg has also avoided this nemesis.

Two Female Caricatures

It is unfortunate that the new PM, Signe Kragh, remains as underdeveloped a character in the last four episodes as in the first four. We find out little about her other than that she is adept with social media – in particular presenting snippets of her life, or what a journalist disparages as “ministerial trivia” – and that she has a conflicted relationship with Nyborg. A more developed character would have given more depth to their frenemy relationship.

Season 4, like the previous three, balanced the focus on politics with attention to the media, especially the public television network DR1. The focalizer of the subplot is Katrine Fonsmark, a superb television journalist who is appointed director of news at DR1. Fonsmark fails miserably in her first managerial position, ultimately suffering a nervous breakdown. I’m reminded of the British company VideoArts, founded by the authors of Yes Minister, who created films teaching management principles by watching managers, often portrayed by John Cleese, invariably violate those principles. Watching someone consistently fail is intended to trigger the audience’s enjoyment, if presented as comedy, or sympathy, if like Katrine presented as tragedy.

Perhaps showrunner Adam Price, who has been generously supported by DR, is nonetheless presenting a critique of DR’s news function, arguing that it is failing because of political meddling from above and political correctness from within – the two forces that Fonsmark could not cope with.

Danish Enlightenment

To what extent has Borgen’s fourth season fulfilled DR’s mandate of enlightening Danes about major social issues? I think it provides some enlightenment about the tradeoff between climate change and fossil fuel exploitation, in particular by outlining the “ethical oil” argument, often made in a Canadian context by the Government of Alberta, and, on the other hand, by critiquing the handful of scientists who have thrown in their lot with the climate change deniers.

I was more interested in the discussion of Greenland’s role within Denmark. I’m not familiar with Danish politics and have no idea if Danes think very much about Greenland. But the issues of its indigenous society, economic development, and strategic significance are all worth contemplating. In recent years, Canadians have given increasing attention to the role of indigenous people, and I wonder whether something similar is happening in Denmark vis-à-vis Greenland and its people.

Birgitte raises the point, which had not occurred to me, that Denmark’s importance as an American ally is primarily a result of its control of Greenland. Without it, its importance would shrink to that of its neighbours Belgium and the Netherlands.

A Special Place in Hell

One of the aphorisms of Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State, quoted in season 4 of Borgen,is that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That was the view of a trailblazer. Borgen presents a post-trailblazer and post-feminist world, in which women are as well-represented in the bureaucracy and politics as men and in that world, there are many instances of women not helping, and indeed hindering other women.

In the years between seasons 3 and 4 of Borgen, North American politics has caught up with Danish politics in terms of the representation of women. We now have numerous female politicians who are zealots (Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Danielle Smith), incompetents (Theresa May, far surpassed by Liz Truss), flakes (Kyrsten Sinema), and effective leaders (Jacinda Ardern, Gretchen Witmer, Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand). While trolling, harassment, and threats of violence against politicians have become commonplace in this dark time, female politicians of the left have been plagued by them.

Certainly a Thumbs Up

After having watched all eight episodes of season four, I conclude that I was entertained and provoked, and would readily recommend it to people with any interest in politics or the media. What’s more, I would bring it into the classroom. I’m not exactly sure what I would have the students watch and the questions we would discuss. But I would likely begin asking how a minister manages a situation in which a smart public servant sees him or her on a different side of an issue on any given day.

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