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Iceland’s discontent featured in The Guardian

So I got an email from the Grauniad yesterday asking if I could write something about the “web event” and what it revealed about the Icelanders’ vision for getting out of the mess we’re in.


Much as I would have loved to portray this as some kind of sign that we have it all together here and are uniting in some kind of future vision for this country … I didn’t, because, well, it wouldn’t have been true. The fact is that everyone talks about our LACK of future vision and leadership, and how the victory of the Best Party in Reykjavík reflects this.

These are strange times for the Icelandic nation. Indeed, foreign revenues are not the only thing we need – Iceland is seriously lacking a vision for the future and a strong leader to follow it through. We are in the midst of massive change, there is widespread discontent among the public, but no one quite knows where to go from here. Accession to the European Union is on the agenda, but the nation is deeply divided on the issue, and fear-mongering and misinformation abounds. Even the two political parties that make up the ruling coalition cannot agree on whether or not accession is the right thing for Iceland.

Clearly the good people at The Guardian didn’t mind, because they stuck the post up as one of their Editors’ Picks on the CiF front page.

You can read the rest of the post here.

[As ever, the headline and sub-head are theirs and for once I don’t mind. I think they’re better than mine.]

[NB – a reader remarked on what he viewed as my negative comments about the Inspired by Iceland effort. To which I replied that I’ve made no secret of my antipathy towards the Iceland Tourist Board. However, I have been in dialogue with the UK-based PR company behind the Inspired by Iceland project — dialogue, incidentally, that was initiated by them. I must say that they have been AWESOME in all interactions, which makes SUCH a refreshing change to my dealings with the Icelandic stakeholders in the tourism industry.]



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gunnar Þór Magnússon June 5, 2010, 10:58 pm

    Hello Alda,

    First off, congratulations on having the opportunity to express your views in as an eminent foreign newspaper as the Guardian. The time, effort, and frustration required to keep any regular publication going before and if it receives attention from the outside take its toll, and I’m very glad you’ve stuck it through. Your blog is as of yet the best way I’ve found to keep semi-up to date on issues in Iceland, it effortlessy beating out the cacophony of the websites of the daylies.

    I’m an expatriate Icelander living in France. I’m 25 years old and I am just finishing my first year of PhD degree in mathematics. I have no intention of returning to Iceland permanently at any point in the future, because of the situation of the admirably performing but financially starved University of Iceland, and because of my immense disillusion with politics in Iceland before and in the wake of the crash.

    My point with this comment is an extremely minor one, but one I think deserves making. Please don’t refer to Jón Gnarr as the Icelandic Howard Stern.

    My official home is in Hafnarfjörður, so I couldn’t vote for the ‘Best Party’ in Reykjavík, and I didn’t vote at all in the recent elections. I have no interest in seeing the Best Party succeed or fail in its government of Reykjavík. My objection is not a political one.

    As a fan of comedy I simply don’t think the comparison is accurate, even to the first degree. As a fan of journalism, I think the comparison brings negative connotations to hr. Jón’s person and party.

    Let’s start with the second part of my objection: Howard Stern is a shock jockey, whose method is very much laughter by the breaking of social norms. It is true that Jón Gnarr started out in a similar way with “Tvíhöfði”, but over the years his act has reveiled a level of self-reflection and empathy missing from the work of Mr. Stern — see for example his one-man show “Ég var einu sinni nörd” and his more recent “*vaktin” series.

    I feel there is a difference between the two men. Both because Howard Stern has too contreversial views to be elected to an official position anywhere in the United States, and that the United States are not going through the same colossal political crisis as Iceland is. (The wording is strong, but justified by the results of the Reykjavik municipal elections.) I feel the simple comparison of hr. Jón to mr. Stern leaves out a big side of this issue.

    I perfectly understand the interest of comparing Jón Gnarr’s work to that of comedians in other contries, especially when you’re writing opinion pieces to be published in those countries. The interest is about establishing context, about describing very complex and foreign issues in familiar terms, to try to involve people who already have enough on their hands. This is not what I object to. I object to Jón Gnarr, the future mayor of Reykjavík, being described as the equivalent of Howard Stern running New York, which I feel is very much the impression you’re giving.

    For the first part of my objection, I’m not sure I have a more accurate comparison ready, at least one for British readers. Your choice of an American comic was sound, as British comics tend to express their political opinions and comparison to them would therefore distort the issue considerably. All the same, comparisons with British comics are more appropriate, as their careers tend to follow a similar trajectory as hr. Jón’s; from radio, to tv, to movies, and beyond. I feel a comparison with Chris Morris would be flat out, but perhaps Armando Iannucci would do better? At least he and Jón share an absurdist angle, and mr. Iannucci doesn’t carry a mostly negative political connotation.

    This is a desceptively complex minor issue. I look forward to your thoughts, if any, on the matter, and further installements on your blog.

    Bestu kveðjur,

  • Tom Harper June 6, 2010, 11:29 am

    I think that it would be really hard for Iceland to have a single voice right now when you guys don’t even know what you want. I also don’t fault you for not knowing what you want just yet. Icelandic society had such a wakeup call during the crisis, going from the top of everything in terms of progressiveness, transparency, quality, etc, to shooting to the bottom in many of these things. Many of the problems of Icelandic society, maybe known to people but generally glossed over, suddenly came to the forefront.

    Even after this, having a “vision” was pretty low on the list of priorities next to “don’t go bankrupt as a nation”, “don’t starve” (in many figurative and literal senses), “don’t descend into anarchy”, etc. What now, though? Iceland managed to wield incredible influence on the world stage through the manipulation of the financial markets. I don’t think you guys are going to give up participating in the global community, but how? Your society, small though it is, has an immense amount to offer the world, in my opinion. Although your position is far from enviable, I think you guys are suffering from a lack of direction combined with an abundance of options. What do you pick, what is best for Iceland, what do people THINK is best for Iceland, and what do WANT for Iceland?

    I have no answers to these rhetorical questions (maybe I will after a month of well spent time there this summer). I am confident that you guys will get out of your societal funk, though. Modern Icelanders are the descendants of some pretty badass folk, who survived volcanic eruption, catastrophic climate events, rather regular famine, and generally making a life in a place where the next largest mammal to able to get comfortable was a fox =p A little thing like global depression will not get you down for long.

  • Joerg June 6, 2010, 12:46 pm

    I don’t know, if it is giving any comfort to see, that other countries are also lacking visions. That doesn’t come as a surprise as most people still have to realize that there is no way back to the times before the crisis. It’s a path into the unknown and it will need much time and many small steps.

    But what I am actually fearing most here in German and in other countries is “the” strong leader stepping forward and presenting “the” vision for the future collecting followers by whatever kind of populism. We have had enough of this in the last century and, actually, I don’t trust in this kind of superior wisdom.

    Apart from this, the Inspired by Iceland campaign has provided us with some really inspiring high quality webcams of Reykjavik and other places – like this one of Austurvöllur:


    It’s like watching out of a window into the streets of Reykjavik. I’m just missing all the inspired people jumping around as shown on the recent promotional video.

  • tom joseph aka tj3 June 6, 2010, 4:37 pm

    I think Joerg made a very good point, other nations lack a vision for the future also.

    I have a very silly project about Florida in 500 years. I am asking people what they think it will be like that far off. No one knows and predictions and forecasts for that far off are not for accuracy. It is just what anyone thinks. It could be funny (wet) or serious (toxic) or whatever (more corruption). The thing is that there is no vision openly discussed of what we want or fear or expect.

    We are mired in the present and the immediate, as is Iceland. But it would not hurt anything to jabber on about it, if just for entertainment.

    Not having a vision for the future or several visions for the future, shows a lack of confidence. All round the world there is a mixture of disaster and success that needs some direction coming from the people directly, out of themselves not just from controlling interests.

    One thing is sure in 500 years today’s special interests will be gone.

  • Kris June 6, 2010, 6:28 pm

    I don’t see lack of vision as a problem. Visionless leadership means that people will have to sort things out themselves and probably with better results. Maybe now people will pay more attention to political life and not take it for granted.
    As far as joining Europe, if you give away the country it might be another 800 years before you get it back! Don’t do it!!!!
    Here is what I want for Iceland: to remain self-governed. How to do this? First, declare national bankruptcy and wipe out all debit obligations of private individuals. Everyone starts from scratch. Property laws to exclude foreign control of resources and production. Expel the people who created this mess, e.g. Oddson goes into exile along with his band of marry bankers. I think that would be a good start.
    Then treat the transition as if Iceland was a communist country going capitalist. How do you divide the property, etc. (Vote for Kris!)
    Joining the EU means becoming a part of the Globalization project and with it the diminishing power of individuals to determine their futures. If you think your vote means little now, it will mean nothing in the EU.

  • Paul H June 7, 2010, 2:31 pm

    Gunnar – Thanks for stepping in and making note of the Howard Stern comparison. I didn’t have Jón Gnarr ‘pegged’ as being a Howard Stern type individual, from what little I *have* seen of him. I’ve seen a lot more of HS, being where I am currently, and I just would not have thought JG was anything like him from my perspective. I have some measure of respect for JG.

    Alda – Do you have any additional clarification as to why that comparison might be made? I am just curious in passing, not a big deal either way. Like Gunnar said, it’s an extremely minor point really.

  • alda June 7, 2010, 3:17 pm

    It was just a flippant comparison made by me, because they both push the boundaries of decency. Believe me, there is no deep, intricate meaning behind it.