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.