We Have A Choice

Address upon announcing the proposed Reykjavík City Budget for 2011
10.12.2010
Words by Jón Gnarr
One year ago I was sitting on the island of Puerto Rico. I had then just finished acting in a motion picture that I wrote and produced in conjunction with a few of my friends. I was unemployed and wondering what my next venture should be.

I had previously been employed at an ad agency, but was laid off in the aftermath of kreppa and recession. I followed the situation in Iceland through [news websites] mbl.is and visir.is. It became a habit after the collapse. Before the collapse, I had little interest in politics, and I even went to some lengths to avoid following the goings-on in that corner of society.

I did that until everything came down with a crash and our Prime Minister appeared on television, asking God to bless us. I felt like I had been slapped in the face with a wet rag. What had happened? I started following the news closely. The discourse revolved around it everywhere I went; parties, at businesses and when meeting friends on the street.

In an instant, I became a news addict. And he more I followed the news, the angrier I was. I was angry with the capitalist banksters. I was angry at the system that failed. But I reserved my fiercest anger for the politicians. Every last one of them an incompetent, self-serving idiot, I thought.

I was angry with myself, and angry with people for having voted for these politicians. I wanted to do something. A few times, I went down to Austurvöllur to participate in the protests. I couldn’t bring myself to fully participate. I didn’t want to throw crap at Alþingi or wrestle the police. I did not want to vent my rage by opening a blog.

I became scared of all this anger, the anger inside of me and the anger that surrounded me. I was worried that it would amplify and grow, and in the end something awful would happen. I felt the pain of everyone. I felt for the people that were swinging their protest signs and beating on pots. But I also felt for the terrified politicians that made hasty escapes to their cars or faced the cameras with fear in their eyes. I felt for the police officers that had to face the angry masses. My father was then on his deathbed at Landspítalinn. He was a Reykjavík police officer for over forty years. He was not promoted to a higher rank in all those years, because he was a communist. I felt it was sad that he died and missed seeing the Left-Greens take over Alþingi. That would have made him very happy. 

I love this city and I love this country. I love the people that inhabit it. This is why I founded the Best Party. For them. I wanted to offer my people something new, something that was fun and beautiful and free of rage and bitterness. I found an outlet for my rage by making light-hearted fun at politics and politicians. I contacted a few of my friends and got them to join me. Little by little, the Best Party started taking form. Everyone knows how that story went. People took us with open arms. We won a great victory, even though we promised to betray everything we promised.

And now we sit here, many months later, because of an idea that was sparked in Puerto Rico. The old punker and comedian has become a mayor. This amply reaffirms one of Moominpapa’s axioms: You don’t need to be big to be brave. 

But what kind of party is The Best Party? I don’t really know. We are not a proper political party. We are maybe more of a self-help organisation, like AA. We try to take one day at a time, to not overreach our boundaries and to maintain joy, humility and positive thinking. We are grateful for the chance we have been given, and we want our stay here to benefit the city and the people in it. 

Our motto is: humanity, culture and peace. We do not foster any other ideals or political visions. We do not share a predetermined, mutual ideology. We are neither left nor right. We are both. We don’t even think it matters. Our wish is to be of use to our community, and to enrich it with joy. We wish to make Reykjavík a more beautiful, human and family-friendly city. We wish to help as we can. We wish to protect the interests of those that need protecting. Isn’t that something everybody wants?

We often say that we aren’t doing what we want to do, but what needs to be done. We have the opportunity to do several things that the conventional political parties hesitate to do. We do not have to answer for an ideology or wrestle a “party base”.

We simply try to work as well as our conscience permits. And it is work, often very hard work. These are troubled times. Our society collapsed, and we are still dealing with the consequences. We need to make cutbacks for the third consequent year. Over the last weeks and months we have sat in meetings and tried to find solutions. Where can we find necessary funds? We are being trusted with dividing a cake between our citizens. We have to try to divide it as evenly as possible, and according to the people’s needs. How many times can that cake be sliced? Who gets a small slice? And who needs a really large slice? What is a luxury, and what is essential?  

“The burden of choice” is an oft-spoken phrase. It is fitting. We cannot do as well by everyone as we would like. That’s just how it is. We have built up a system that we cannot afford running and maintaining. We are forced to reduce services, and increase the burdens of some. This is not a fun position to be in. Sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils. Is it better to deprive children than the elderly? 

The budget we are now presenting was moulded out of suggestions from specialist councils and city employees. We accept advice from people we trust, people that have experience and knowledge in their field. When formulating this budget, we have tried to collaborate with city employees as closely as possible. But in the end, the responsibility is ours. We made the decisions, based on information that was available to us according to our understanding of it. But we also like to emphasise trust. Trust isn’t a given, especially now during times of suspicion and insecurity.

I want to share a story with you. A few years ago my son—then two years of age— fell terribly ill from a rare and difficult disease. There is nothing worse in the world than helplessly watching your child suffer, unable to do anything about it. We spent untold hours at the hospital. I had no greater wish than being able to fix my boy. I tried to read everything I could about the disease on the internet. But it did not grant me healing powers. I was powerless and I had to depend completely on those that had knowledge and experience of such matters.

Soon, a team of specialist had formed around us; surgeons, experts and paediatricians. I trusted the hospital staff. I trusted them to the point of leaving the boy completely in their care, for instance when he had to undergo operations. I did not do that because I was careless. Parents cannot accompany their children into surgery. They need to part with them in the lobby. Trust. I had no other choice than to trust that these people were using their education and experience to do good.

Still, there were instances where I had to choose. Sometimes the specialists didn’t agree. Then I had to choose. The surgeon wanted to operate immediately, but the specialist wanted to wait and see. The paediatrician was unsure, swinging both ways.

My wife and I decided to follow the surgeon’s advice. We chose the operation and everything that came with it over waiting uncertainty. We made that decision based on our own assessment, and by instinct.

I am sharing this story today because I feel that there are many similarities between the process I just described and my duties here. I don not pretend to know things that I am not knowledgeable about. I accept advice from those that possess this knowledge. And then I use my judgement. That’s where responsibility comes in.

I should add that my boy is healthy today. Our trust paid off. 

This budget contains many propositions that I would be happy to be rid of. But this is our situation.  My hope is that we can achieve solidarity about these propositions, not just us elected officials but also all of us that inhabit this city—its employees and inhabitants. We can do this if we do this together. United we stand, divided we can only fight the same battle, eternally.

We have a choice. Do we want to stand around looking suspiciously at one another or are we ready to raise our heads and look to the future, together?

We have so much. We have this wonderful country and all the opportunity it offers. And we have one another, to rejoice with and to comfort. We need not be sad. We can laugh, have fun and tell jokes. We can dress up and stage events to pass the time. Smiling is free. We are still OK. Christmas is on the horizon, and then the sun will return. The future is bright and filled with possibility. The world is watching. CNN recently picked Reykjavík as “the world’s most interesting city to spend Christmas.”

I think the key to our future lies in our culture, our community and our nature. Reykjavík is a growing cultural city. Iceland is known for its art the world over. We live on the ‘Saga Island’, as Iceland is often referred to abroad. If, while travelling, we are asked where we come from and we reply that we are from Iceland, people will often respond with: “Ahhh, Bjork!” This is what we need to build on. We need to make more musicians, writers and all kinds of artists. The creative sector is one of the largest aspects of our economy. 

Finally, I want to talk about forgiveness. It is an essential part of our recovery. I have forgiven the capitalists and banksters that went too far. Hopefully they have learned their lesson. I have forgiven the politicians. I have also found out that they are not selfish and stupid jackasses, like I had thought. They are merely people like everyone else. A lot of them are even good, smart people.

Mistakes were made. A lot of them. But to err is human. Most people are just trying to do their best. An overwhelming majority of humans wishes to examine their lives and look back on their actions with pride. Nobody likes failing. Everybody wants to do their best, but they don’t always know how.

This is where acceptance and acknowledgement come in. If we do not acknowledge and accept our mistakes because we are embarrassed or ashamed or whatever, we are doomed to repeat them, over and over. Hopefully, we won’t need to. This is where The Best Party and I can help. Looking silly is alright every once in a while, it doesn’t mean that one is stupid or a failure. Learning to accept and laugh at ones mistakes is very important.

I can for instance mention that while preparing this budget, I on one occasion thought we were discussing the City Hall lavatories when we were in fact talking about waste management. Fortunately, this oversight was corrected and no harm was done.

Dear officials, city employees and citizens. Together, we can make Reykjavík into the cleanest, most beautiful and fun city in the world. All we need is a positive attitude. It was the Icelandic optimism that got us through the Móðuharðindi, tyrants, famine and plague. And it will get us through this mess too.

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The above is a translation of an address that Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr gave when announcing The Best Party and the Social Democratic Alliance’s proposed City Budget for 2011—which is currently pending approval. The budget itself involves a slew of cutbacks and raised fees and taxes, due to the city’s weak financial standing, and the making of it was, according to Jón, “ one of the hardest [he’s] had to do.”

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Read our interview with Jón Gnarr from this spring.

Read our interview with Jón after he won the election.

Read Jón's "Mayor's Address" which we printed in a bunch of issues this year.

And since you're at it, follow his "Diary of a Mayor" on Facebook.


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