During a flight to Iceland this spring, I read an article in Icelandair's inflight magazine about the mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr, entitled "All Kinds of Everything for Losers."
Eighteen months after the country's economic collapse, Mr. Gnarr, an actor, writer and comedian, was elected as the candidate of The Best Party, Besti Flokkurinn. The rallying theme of the new party was Tina Turner's "Simply the Best," in Icelandic of course, and its motto was, like the magazine story title, All Kinds of Everything for Losers. The party's campaign platform included ending corruption, improving transparency, increasing democratic participation, providing free towels at the swimming pools and getting a polar bear for the Reykjavik zoo. The final paragraph of the story said the election, viewed as a farce, should be taken as a lesson: "This was what could happen if you get too comfortable."
The story gave me pause. I knew Icelandic people had been far from comfortable and were not fools. There had to be another side to this. Living in Pittsburgh, I am familiar with discourse about young elected officials in the media, so when I got settled into Reykjavik, I sent an email to The Grapevine, an English-language newspaper read by tourists, expatriates and Icelanders, asking if we might have a conversation about the mayor.
Because Iceland is so wonderfully accessible -- its population is a little smaller than Pittsburgh's -- I got an immediate response from the editor in chief, Haukur Magnusson. "I would love to talk to you, but I am in Philadelphia," he wrote. "Please contact me when you get home."
I did just that, and got the full story on Jon Gnarr, as well as the backstory about The Grapevine and Haukur Magnusson, who came from the northwest of Iceland, where he worked as a fish gutter, to Reykjavik, to help found The Grapevine 10 years ago. It was modeled after the Prague Pill, an alternative newspaper in the Czech Republic.
Haukur -- everyone goes by their first name in Iceland -- had published two long interviews with the mayor, one before he was elected and one a year into his term.
"It seemed to be a joke at first," Haukur said. But Jon was serious. He felt that he had to do something when the economy collapsed and there was a great lack of trust. Jon has been very popular with the people, instituted lots of change and has remained humble and approachable. He said he would only run for one term, but he might change his mind.
"He was not afraid to say he didn't know everything. People would say, 'what are you going to do about, for example, one economic problem or the other?' and he would say 'I don't know. I have to investigate and think about it.' I do know that he rendered many people powerless who had been in power for generations. He is more popular than any mayor we have had for years."
Haukur shared the interviews, and here are a few quotes: "I guess I think of myself as a sort of think tank. I think a lot. My head is like an airport, like Heathrow. It's never off; there's always someone coming or going, but no one stays, because I am very forgetful. I am a self-made man, and I have never ever taken the conventional path to anything. I have no formal education."
When Haukur asked about his entry into politics, Jon responded, "Well, I've listened to all the empty political discourse, but it's never touched me at all or moved me, until the economic collapse. Then I just felt I'd had enough of those people. After the collapse and its aftermath, I started reading the local news websites and watching the news and political talk shows -- and it filled me with so much frustration. Eww! So I wanted to do something, to change it around and impact it in some way. I went to Austurvollur and protested during the pots-and-pans revolution, but it felt pointless to me. This political world of ours is formed by some sort of co-dependency that's ingrained in our society because there are so few of us."
When the collapse occurred, Icelanders had responded with a "kitchenware revolution," banging kitchen utensils and even throwing a little food outside Parliament. "It was a great moment, and I was very proud to be an Icelander at that time," said Haukur. But as time went on, he said, there was a lot of finger pointing, and the conversation grew unpleasant in the small community of Reykjavik, population 110,000.
Success was temporary, according to Haukur. "The whole thing about not bailing out the bankers was not exactly what happened. The rich continue to have the money and the middle class pays the bills. It was a fairy tale. But at The Grapevine, we found that Iceland's story was inspiring people all over the world, even though it was an exaggeration."
Haukur is equally pessimistic about Iceland's newly written constitution, compiled by elected citizens and giving citizens ownership and control over the country's rich natural resources. It has yet to be put up for a referendum. "I believe it is dead in the water," he said. "We just had a parliamentary election and have recently switched governments from the one that was voted in directly after the protests."
For the moment, Haukur is living in Philadelphia, having trailed his wife there after she got an arts scholarship, and he's working part-time for The Grapevine. "I am still young (in his 30s) and we say in Iceland that no man should be confined to the same place for all his life. I do think it would be easier to raise a family in Iceland, with the close-knit community and good health care and child care. If I stay here, I would like to enter the conversation a little more, but in this big city, I don't know the backstory, so I hesitate to comment on the situation."
That wisdom, coming from being part of a small community where everyone is accountable, could be defined as the foundation of civil discourse -- the gold standard on which democracy thrives.
Bette McDevitt is a writer who lives on the North Side and has visited Iceland several times (firstname.lastname@example.org).