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The Sicilian Connection

Published August 21, 2009

“What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland?”
“One letter and about six months.”
So ran the joke at the beginning of the year. It’s been over seven months now and Ireland, though stricken, is nowhere near a disaster of Icelandic proportions.
Upon closer examination, several differences between Ireland and Iceland come to light. They were colonised by wankers, we by Danes. They were conservative farmers who opened up their economy in the 1990s and became the Celtic Tiger; we were conservative fishermen who opened up ours and became the canary in the coalmine. Having thus established the vital differences between Iceland and Ireland, we move on to the question of what the differences are between Iceland and that other “I” country in Europe, Italy.
The “I” Countries
On the face of it, there aren’t many. Both countries are world leaders in public debt. People in both countries have a habit of speaking at great length about subjects of which they know very little. And in both countries, connections are the only way to get anything done, from getting opera tickets (well, in Iceland the opera house is a work in progress) to building permits to elected office.
The Icelanders’ love of corruption is what sets them apart from other Nordic Countries. In Sweden and Norway, corruption is illegal or at the very least frowned upon, while in Iceland it is generally seen as a virtue. A person who is elected into office and does not use his or her powers to help their friends and family is no friend to anyone. Conversely, a man who helps his friends is someone you can trust. What happens to those not counted as friends is less important.
The Icelandic Godfathers
How come Icelandic political culture so much resembles a rather bland episode of the Sorpanos? Why is it that our leaders tend to resemble the Berlusconis rather than the Stoltenbergs? As with everything else, we have to go back to the Vikings to find the answer.
In the centuries surrounding the year 1000, the Vikings were everywhere. From Manhattan (perhaps) to what was later to become Moscow, Vikings ruled the world. For some reason, Vikings and later their Norman descendants preferred to settle on rather small islands such as Iceland, The Faeroes, the Orkneys and, yes, Sicily. The Vikings formed clan based societies where you helped your friends and killed the relatives of your enemies. One tends to think of Viking raids as somewhat in-your-face, but the Vikings were actually quite Machiavellian in their politics. Hávamál is full of advice on how to screw your opponents by outwitting rather than attacking them. When Iceland became Christian, it was actually still okay to worship the old gods as long as no one found out about it, another example of a distinction made between what you said and what you did.  
Sound familiar? In the 19th and 20th Centuries, the Nordic core countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway embraced enlightenment ideals of fairness, openness and a just society. Icelanders decided to stick with the older system of the elite screwing the general public with shady backroom deals. Perhaps the old clan system still survives on the periphery, in Iceland and in Sicily. If the Italian mafia is descendent from the Normans, then Iceland’s elite are their northern cousins. They liked to call themselves Vikings, but mobsters seem to be just as apt.



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Audiomilk And Book Mafias

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In short: Only the privileged few A large number of Icelandic books are available as audio books at the audio books library. Available, in this case, however, means available to those who need them rather than those who would merely enjoy them. The audio book library is publicly funded and to some extent exempt from copyright restrictions, to serve blind and dyslexic audiences. Last week saw a mild debate involving non-blind and non-dyslexic readers who would nonetheless like to be able to buy these audio editions; the manager of the library who explained how absolutely nonsensical and futile not to

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Accidental Iceland

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I don’t have the sharpest social skills but I know when someone is making a joke at my expense. My travel agent was clearly making a joke at my expense: “I know you won’t fly through Heathrow or JFK and I know you will ‘never get on another Delta plane as long as you live,’ but of course you want the cheapest fare possible. The cheapest roundtrip ticket from New York to London is Icelandair with a slight layover in Reykjavík.” I had several pertinent questions for my travel agent and she answered with an exaggerated patience that made me

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You’re Wet, And You’re Cold, And You’re Miserable

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You’ve just come in for the day. Your clothes are strewn across the radiator. Your anorak is hanging in the bathroom. It’s creating a giant puddle on the floor. Oh, and you’ve just stepped in it with your last pair of dry socks. It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s gray. It’s late October in Reykjavík. You’re kicking yourself for not choosing to visit during the summer, but as some Pollyanna told you, at least this way you’re getting the authentic Icelandic experience. Well, you should know that it wouldn’t have made much difference if you had come during the summer. It

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So What’s This Men’s Only UN Gender Conference I Keep Hearing About?

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On Monday, September 29, the Icelandic Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. In between talking about things that few present cared what Iceland thinks about, he mentioned that the governments of Iceland and Suriname had decided to plan a conference on gender equality only open to male political leaders. Because what is needed to achieve gender equality is men with political power telling others what to do? It is hard to do justice to what he said without quoting his speech in full: “Iceland and Suriname will convene a ‘Barbershop’ conference in

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Undisputedevil.is Removal Disputable

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It’s another Monday and time to review last week’s debates. Briefly. In short, people kept debating that milk-thing. The dairy mafia. Some like it, while, as tends to be the case with protected businesses, others don’t. Let’s move on. Let us move on to an upcoming debate, because … there’s ISIS. Or ISIL or IS. On the contrary to MS, no inhabitant of Iceland has been heard voicing any sort of support for the ruthless wannabe state. The militant group was not known to have any connection to Iceland until last Friday, when Pirate MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir pointed out that

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Poltergeists Claim State Radio

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My field of vision must be limited and my perspective biased because it seems that the most prevalent topic of debate last week was religion. Christianity, that is. Iceland is one of the few remaining countries in Europe with a State religion. The Lutheran-Evangelical National Church of Iceland has traditionally been granted some access to State-run media as well as the compulsary school system. The State-owned and publicly funded radio RÚV has broadcast mass every Sunday, as well as a few minutes of Christian prayer twice a day. As more and more people resign their State Church membership, such privileges

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