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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[Continued from Ungoo: Part VII] Which brings us back to Facebook. You may or may not know that a government agency called Promote Iceland has based whole marketing campaigns on encouraging the country’s inhabitants to employ social media to lure visitors. If those plans received any criticism at all, most of that probably appeared as Facebook posts, which were then drowned in more life-affirming messages. Nonetheless, debates take place on Facebook. If an interesting article appears elsewhere, whether on Starafugl or in Fréttablaðið, Facebook is still where most of the following debate will take place. Facebook is a radically new

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[Continued from Ungoo: Part VI] The most recent attempt to create a common venue for cultural commentary and debate is Starafugl, a website started and edited by author Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl. It’s been around since last winter. As I have been involved in various ways, I am liable to be considered biased when I claim that Starafugl has had a convincing first few months. I claim it, all the same. Starafugl ran into trouble a few weeks back, when it received its first ever invoice. The invoice charged Starafugl for a photograph, that had been used to illustrate an article

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[Continued from Ungoo: Part V] Radio program Víðsjá, run by state broadcaster RÚV, is in fact a tower within Iceland’s cultural panopticon. Which might serve as a translation for the program’s name. It reports on events and publications, and leaves space for commentary, which at times has been among the best you’ll find: inspired and grounded, informed and enlightening, at times romantic, courageous when needed. Incidentally, if I’m not mistaken, radio host Eiríkur Guðmundsson, often credited for having made the program what it is, was also a student of the aforementioned Matthías Viðar. Notwithstanding repeated downsizing of RÚV programming, the

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Make Yourself at Home

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Air-bnb has announced its future vision —and a new logo. Supposedly composed from a heart, a location marker and the letter A, the logo has already been the target of much ridicule, needless to repeat here. The logo is not the point. One of the its main virtues, according to the company’s announcement, is that it is easy to draw. This serves a function: people all over the world are offered to draw the logo on just about anything they are willing to share for a fee. As the company’s statement says, Air-bnb is not just about sharing spaces, but

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Democratic Principles —the Machiavellian B-sides

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“The president will not discuss statements made in an election campaign, during his term in office.” So said the President’s spokesman in response to RÚV’s attempt to ask President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson about his statements in 2012, that, if elected, he might seek to leave office before the end of his term. His fifth term, to be exact. The spokesman’s response has the structure of a reasonable, if not self-evident, principle, something any member of a functioning democracy would surely understand. Meanwhile, the content of the sentence may be considered somewhat less than democratic. In other times, the same content,

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[Continued from Ungoo IV] Granted, much of traditional paper-based publication is currently in crisis. Yet, most of Morgunblaðið, heavily decorated by ads from companies on friendly terms with the Independence Party, keeps going. (Buying ad-space in Morgunblaðið is not just a political act, but comes close to signing a manifesto.) Its sports pages persist. Without any empirical evidence, my hypothesis as to why they cancelled Lesbók, is that it was open to texts that Morgunblaðið‘s new masters simply would not understand. And what you don’t understand might be communism. Perhaps the old masters didn’t understand it all either, but that

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