Published September 23, 2011
Here is the introduction to our last feature interview with Jón Gnarr, which ran in May of 2010:
“Here at the Grapevine, we are all big fans of Jón Gnarr and his comedic stylings. We were amused when we learned he was putting together a ‘parody party’ for the upcoming municipal elections, and we enjoyed a lot of his initial media appearances in promotion of it. We were furthermore delighted to learn that some of the people running with him are artists that we know and like, and who’s work we’ve appreciated throughout the years. It’s called Besti flokkurinn (“The Best Party”). It was all in good fun.
Then the polls started coming in, and we learned that it was even conceivable that a joke party would win the elections, taking in as many as six city council chairs out of fifteen. A party without platform or policy; a celebrity-lead, vague minded collection of folks whose intentions were totally unclear was going to win Reykjavík’s majority vote. All of the sudden it seemed kind of scary. “What if they win?” we asked ourselves. Will they privatise the city’s welfare system and sell our power plants to Monty Burns? Will they reinstate the draft? How are we supposed to know?”
Yep, that’s what we wrote. And then they did win, mostly. And Jón Gnarr became Mayor of Reykjavík. And as we wrote: no one knew what to expect. As of yet, the city’s welfare system hasn’t been privatised, and Reykjavík Energy has not been sold to Monty Burns. But lots of other things have happened. And we are still sort of unsure what to make of it all. So we called him up, again, and arranged for another interview with the aim of figuring out what he and his party have been doing, and why. Read on for a transcript of two conversations that took place in early August and early September.
We first meet two weeks before his summer vacation ends. Jón seems relaxed and at ease after a good leave. We talk a little about the upcoming winter, how he has been adapting to the role of mayor and any troubles he and the rest of The Best Party might have had adjusting to their new posts.
…getting used to this [being Mayor] was kind of hard to begin with, but I doubt it’ll get worse from here on. I think we’re through acquainting ourselves with most of the mess that comes with the territory. People are of course a little nervous to return to work, or at least I am, but I’ll get over it.
The whole crew has had to adjust, huh?
Well, yeah, it’s really weird. Just look at Elsa Yeoman. She used to be a chef, now she’s president of the Reykjavík City Council. This wasn’t planned. Like Kalli [Karl Sigurðsson] from Baggalútur—now he has to make policy on waste management. It’s a different life for everyone, and it has taken some getting used to. But I think we’re finally done with it.
MR. GARBAGE GUY
Speaking of waste management, you had some controversy surrounding the topic last year, when the city instated a new trash removal plan.
Yes, there was some disapproval. I was reminded of this a while ago while I was visiting some friends in The Netherlands. I was telling what an issue our changes with garbage pickup had been, how angry people had been that they would possibly have to bring their trash to the curb—and they just started laughing. “How is it in Reykjavík? How has it been until now?” they asked. And I told them of our current arrangement, and they just laughed harder. “What, Mr. Garbage Guy comes into your front yard to get your garbage, like a reverse Santa Claus? Or a Postman Pat?”
They thought it was surreal. And it sort of is. And the thing is, waste management is really, really expensive. We could save a whole lot of money if we got everyone to curb their trashcans, and if everyone started sorting and recycling. I feel it’s important that we take a closer look at how we are going about our daily business, in terms of the environment, and start to take a greater responsibility for ourselves. For example, the way some people behave when they are downtown drinking, breaking their beer glasses or just breaking random stuff for no reason. That sort of behaviour is so useless and expensive; why people insist on behaving like that to the detriment of their community is beyond me.
Does this mean you’ll go further with altering Reykjavík’s waste management system?
Yes. I would like to install containers in every neighbourhood, units for plastics and glass and maybe plastics, as in every civilised country. Ideally, everyone should be able to take their nondegradables out to a neighbourhood corner for recycling, and then we should have a two or three bin system and so on and so forth. Eventually we would like to have all organic waste collected and turned into biofuel and soil. All of these are ideas that we like and are interested in implementing. However, any change in Reykjavík’s current waste management system is easier said than done, partly because ownership of Sorpa [the local waste management] is shared by our neighbouring towns. It’s enough for one person on the board to oppose such changes, that would halt them. Just the same as with the bus system. This is a lesson I keep learning: just because you want to change something within this system doesn’t mean you can. There are a lot of barriers to cross.
Did you feel people were generally against the changes you made with the trash pickup?
No. Well yeah. Well, it’s fabricated. Fabricated hysteria. Like a lot of last year’s outcries and scandals have been. But there is a lot to it. Like when we were combining elementary level schools last year. There was so much anger, and there were certain powers that propagated that anger and distrust, and actively fanned its flames. I went to meetings with people that were screaming and shouting, people were… seriously upset and disturbed for often very unclear reasons.
BEING MAYOR IS LIKE BEING SANTA CLAUS
You’ve now been Mayor of Reykjavík for over a year. The last time we spoke you were trying to settle in and figure out what it was you were supposed to be doing. Can you now tell us what it is your job involves? What does being Mayor of Reykjavík entail and what does it mean?
Looking to the mayor for answers is a little bit like believing in Santa Claus. As Santa Claus you can exert some good influence and try to steer things in the right direction, encouraging people, spreading joy and making something magical… but how you perform as Santa Claus depends a lot on how people see you and whether they have faith in you.
Being Santa Claus does not grant you the power to do all of the good things you would like. It’s far easier to use your Santa Claus powers for evil [laughs].
Municipal government is very different from governing on the national scale. It is a polycratic authority; the real leader of Reykjavík is the City Council, which consists of many people. The Mayor is more of a personification of the City Council, he or she explains and espouses its views and decisions, and tries to influence it in a positive way.
So you can encourage City Council to go certain ways, but you cannot randomly decide to, say, close Laugavegur for traffic this coming Monday?
No, I don’t really have that kind of power. Unless I were interested in doing bad things. A mayor that is maybe mentally ill or an alcoholic, he can make lots of bad decisions on behalf of the city. He could sign all sorts of legally binding contracts that wind up costing the people of Reykjavík a lot of money, for instance, without even consulting City Council. This has certainly happened in the past.
As I said, Reykjavík’s Municipal Government is a polycratic authority. My powers or ‘power’ are greatly overestimated. And there is another factor; it doesn’t really fit in with my conviction, this idea of a singular, powerful ruler. That any one person can make serious decisions about issues that affect a lot of people. There are of course a lot of changes I have wished for in my new position, changes that I know would greatly benefit society if they were implemented. But it’s not so simple that me wanting something would be enough to make it happen.
To name a concrete, if minor, example: The poplar trees in downtown Reykjavík. I am a gardening enthusiast, and I know for a fact that aspen are not very suitable for vastly populated downtown areas, and they are banned in many places. Those trees are very fast-growing, and they have a very vast and extensive system of roots that reach wherever they can for nourishment and water and other stuff that trees need to live. And there are a lot of them planted 101 Reykjavík, and they are ruining our sidewalks and our plumbing and infrastructure. And they breed like crazy. Growing these kinds of trees in downtown Reykjavík is a great mistake that we need to reverse as soon as possible. I have been trying to make that happen ever since I took my post working within the system, and very little has happened. In the end I took it up with City Council, which discussed the issue in a meeting before proposing a resolution.
I am happy to say that the poplar will be replaced in downtown Reykjavík, and the trouble I had to go through to exert my influence in this way is a fine example of what my ‘powers’ really entail.
“IF I COULD RULE REYKJAVÍK FOR A DAY…”
If you did have absolute power for a day, and if using those powers conformed to your convictions, what would you do?
If I could rule Reykjavík for a day [laughs], I would move the District Court from Lækjartorg and replace it with a nice store or something. I would close the jail on Skólavörðustígur and turn it into a cosy restaurant—imagine, one of our oldest and most historic houses is being used as a jail in the centre of our capital!
I have actually tried to bring this up with every minister that I have met with; moving the jail and the courthouse, as this is not decided on the municipal level. They don’t seem interested. Maybe I could promise them to quit politics and return to comedy? That might work…
THE GUY MENTALITY
A common theme through this conversation has been that your role as mayor is a symbolic one… is that correct?
It depends a little on what you mean. No I am not necessarily saying that I or we as a party cannot do anything that matters. We have been able to bring about some very positive change. We have taken steps to ensure that Reykjavík will finally have a city centre, a real city centre. I believe that is important, and I believe most people would agree with me. So we can nudge things in the right direction in various ways, but we cannot achieve any grandiose and revolutionary change like some people seem to be expecting.
Another thing I am actively trying to do, which I believe is very positive and which I am proud of, is placing a conscious emphasis on hiring women for management and upper level positions within the city. When we are appointing people to boards and committees for instance.
This is very important to me, because I believe that a large reason for a lot of today’s problems is men. This guy mentality, important guys with their bow ties and cellphones and pickup trucks and whatnot.
I believe a healthy society must build equally on the forces of men and women; it must be based equally on masculine and feminine values. When I look at the world today and observe how male oriented it is, all the world’s problems… It’s sad. Our culture is just insanely male dominated and oriented, and we as a party wish to confront and change that.
And this is something we are trying to alter slowly, by taking the abovementioned steps, and also by making the demand that those organisations that accept financial support from The City of Reykjavík follow the city’s human rights charter, which among other things states that you need to have gender balanced councils and committees. We are not comfortable with providing grants to associations and clubs unless they have an even gender balance in their boards. And when we started looking into it, I was surprised. It’s usually something like one woman for every twelve men on board. That’s just not good enough.
I think a lot of the world’s problems would automatically fix themselves if we built a society where women ruled everything. It might not work out for the long run, I think in the end we’ll always need to strive for balance, but it could prove an important lesson.
We meet again a few weeks later. Jón has been back in charge for a while now, and seems unfazed by it all. He starts off by discussing his party’s rumoured running in the 2013 parliamentary elections…
…it does look like a new political entity is being created, a liberal centrist party—we’re teaming up with Guðmundur Steingrímsson [formerly of The Progressive Party and The Social Democratic Coalition]—it hasn’t become public yet, but it’ll be public today or tomorrow. I could not have foreseen that. It’s mostly Heiða’s doing [Heiða Helgadóttir is The Best Party’s manager]. She’s the main plotter. She is The Young People, they are the future. I am the past, so I won’t interfere.
Another fun thing that happened is that I had a very interesting meeting with Noam Chomsky. He came by for breakfast and stopped for an hour and a half—way longer than we had planned for. It was great, meeting someone inspiring like that. I would like to have another meeting with him where we could discuss how to organise anarchism for the public good. We did discuss anarchism a bit, and the messed up state of politics. He left me with some important thoughts.
I think there’s something in there… there’s something about the alienating nature of politics. This system, it’s become so… so false. We vote for representatives that then go and represent us in some sort of higher plane, and as soon as they do that, we lose all connection with them, it becomes impossible for them to have a personal relationship with us all. I attempted to change that by becoming active on Facebook, with ‘Diary of a Mayor’ and all that. But it just didn’t work. For several reasons I don’t really want to go into…
In any case, we are voting for representatives that we then have no access to. I would like to see some sort of system, at least at the municipal level, where politics vanishes from the equation. Abandoning the political system would be a great relief for municipal governance. It would be a great relief if we could settle on a system that involved voting for individual candidates that aren’t members of organised clubs running as a whole. The system would be structured so that only individuals could run for office, and everyone had an equal chance.
POLITICS = DAMAGE
What would be gained by such a system?
The elimination of political cliques from municipal governance would immediately be a great relief and a great blessing for all people, because running a municipality has very little to do with politics. Very little. Politics are important on the nationwide scale, and on an international scale, but in terms of running a city they are extremely insignificant. Maybe not entirely insignificant, but very insignificant nonetheless.
When I observe communication within the city structure and between municipalities and such, I feel very strongly that politics are doing a lot of damage. I think for instance that if there were no politics involved, we would have long since combined the Reykjavík area municipalities, with great benefits for the inhabitants. It would reduce costs and overhead structures. But doing that is a politically sensitive thing, and the only real reason we haven’t done it that I can imagine is because political entities—who want to hold on to their powers and are dependent on the whole party structure and apparatus—oppose it.
There is a certain feudal system in operation in Iceland; there are so many chieftains around. And by sweeping all these local chieftains aside—we wouldn’t even need to sweep them aside, we could just sort of ask them to leave—we could make everything so much easier.
I think our form of government in the future will involve more direct democracy as a result of more local governance, in the form of neighbourhood councils and such, and then direct democracy through the internet, where we could vote and make decisions online. Without the interference of political parties, with a strict focus on doing ‘what makes sense.’
Does it make sense to unite Reykjavík and Kópavogur into one municipality? Of course! It would save hundreds of millions of krónur. I think everyone agrees that it would make sense, aside from maybe politicians—and possibly officials—that are afraid of losing their jobs or powers. And by not involving political parties or politicians in the process, we would be rid of all the political jargon.
I think this is really, really important.
MACHIAVELLIANISM AND BULLYING
This opinion, you talked a lot about it before you were voted, you spoke a lot about problems with the system, the ‘rotten system that needed shaking’ and especially language and jargon that needed cleansing—has this view been strengthened by your year as mayor, and lead you further towards these conclusions?
Yes, it has strengthened my belief that this is something that needs to be done and is a big problem. Right now, we are taking political culture in the wrong direction and emphasising the wrong things, things that simply do not apply any more. This Machiavellian mode of thinking; it doesn’t work anymore. It’s not called for, and I think people do not like it. That’s the whole thing. Right now, we have a consensus to oppose school bullying. We want programmes that counter bullying and that kids be left alone in their schools. And in that same spirit, Machiavellianism is done for, but politics haven’t figured that out; people engaging in politics haven’t reached that conclusion. They are still trying to grasp a new era with their old methods. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad and damaging.
And this has nothing to do with political parties. As I’ve said, I am not for or against any political party or the other. I honestly am not. I have nothing against the Independence Party; they have a lot of good people within their ranks, as well as some crackpots. It’s like that everywhere people convene; the more people there are, the more crackpots, but also more good people.
The problem is this methodology that prevails. I am entirely certain that it is obsolete. I know it is! But I cannot tell you specifically what will replace it. Nobody wants the change. It’s like what whoever made the first automobile said; “Had I asked people what they wanted, no one would have said they wanted a car. They would have asked for a speedier horse carriage.” And so it goes.
“IT’S ALL IN THE GAME, YO”
So in essence, you’re saying that too much time is being spent on politics, and not enough time on confronting real issues?
Yes. I think this is the saddest thing of all. The ratio between energy and time we spend on political carping and trivialities versus actual practical issues is sinfully great. The ratio should be twenty percent politics, but is actually eighty percent. And I think that is the biggest waste.
Could you name any examples?
It’s hard to put a finger on it or name specific examples because they can always be contested and argued about. And by doing that you have begun participating in the game that they try to drag you into as soon as you enter the realm of governance. If you participate in that political game, you have become part of it and then you cannot cast judgement because you are participating, you are making allegations.
It is therefore very important for me to keep clear of any allegations or mudslinging. To not honour it with my attention if I can help it, and certainly to not engage in it myself. But to say this and then let people judge for themselves how politics are being engaged in.
As for concrete examples, I would name Reykjavík Energy. I think political interests and the preservation of those made it so that everyone involved was afraid to do something about Reykjavík Energy, and to address the increasingly concerning situation that was building up there for a long, long time. And these are people from every party I am talking about; every political party was involved in what happened to Reykjavík Energy and how its present situation came to be. A certain irresponsibility is created, an irresponsibility that involves always blaming someone else. That involves repeating at all times some version of: “This isn’t the fault of us Independents, we were in charge from Smarch seventh, two thousand and ass to August fiftieth 1984, and that decision was made a month before we had anything to do with anything.”
And the other side will counterclaim: “It’s all the Independence Party’s fault! This is a sign of the neoliberal policies of the bla bla bla bla bla bla bla…” And what’s worst about it is that everyone involved in politics carries around some baggage that doesn’t always have anything to do with them personally, but is part of some party they belong to.
I think that when we [The Best Party] entered the stage as a political power, an opportunity was created that wasn’t there before; dealing with problems without taking in consideration all these political complexes.
What we try and do at all times is not to engage in a blame game. This is why we usually do not respond to allegations or rudeness. We try and use brotherly love; we always turn the other cheek when we are attacked, and a lot of people have criticised us for that, for not responding in kind, saying that we allow everyone to walk all over us. But we want to change this system and change how people communicate and talk to one another within it. What kind of interaction they have. And not grow accustomed to it or adopt it, which is what the system would really prefer. Joschka Fischer, the German green party man… he turned into a system enforcer in no time. He turned from hippie to bank manager.
It’s interesting to note that yesterday saw the publication of what might be construed as your first political ‘attack letter’; in any case the open letter where you wrote and addressed [Independence Party municipal head] Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir was a direct and somewhat angry response to public comments she had made. This might be construed by some as ‘participating in the game’…
I tried to be civil in that letter, but I had to respond because… this is an important matter. We are hiring a City Secretary, which is not unusual and which in fact Hanna’s own party proposed back in 2007. It frustrates me to see something so casual and simple being used to claim that I am a lunatic and a clown and that anarchism is crazy and I have no idea what I am doing and that everyone will have to pay a lot of money because of my lunacy and incompetence in this regard, which simply isn’t right. Because it’s not true. And they are implying that our officials are at all times acting as my replacements, and that I don’t do anything because I have an army of bureaucrats that do everything for me. “The mayor’s replacements are growing in number!” they’ll claim. And it’s simply not true, and they know this! This annoys me, this wilful misrepresentation of facts and truths that they are all too familiar with.
Are you saying that they are lying?
Yes. These are untruths.
This is serious. Are you saying that people, politicians, are speaking against their better knowledge?
Yes, they know this isn’t the case. I guarantee that. And then, this is a very important job we are advertising, the one of City Secretary, and I thought it was important that Hanna Birna’s statements not scare people away from applying. I felt it was unfair, I wanted to say something; that this wasn’t true, that the system wasn’t expanding. One person is quitting and we are hiring another in its stead.
So yeah. I felt there was a large difference between what I wrote yesterday and ‘the game.’ I tried to not to be rude in my letter…
So do you believe your hesitancy in responding to political attacks—and there have been a bunch of them—has damaged you or your reputation? If you always responded like, say, Davíð Oddsson, would you be doing better in the polls?
I think people maybe have the idea that we are uncomfortable, and that we should be doing something else.
Certainly this would alter people’s perception of us. I am a great fan of ‘The Paradoxical Commandments,’ which were made by an American psychiatrist in 1968. One of them goes: “People favour underdogs, but only follow top dogs.”
Our current system is a bit like that. It is a part of the political setup. If you have a political representative, you want him to be rude and demanding and fighting your cause, elbowing forward and… and this is why I envision the democracy of the future working more like an AA meeting or a 12-step programme.
Say you’re rooting for your favourite football team… who’s your favourite player? It’s the smartest, most agile one; the one that’s fearless and a little brutal, the one who doesn’t hesitate to get rough with his opponents. A football player that empathised with his opponent and felt for him, a polite one that would maybe pass the ball to the opponent if he wasn’t doing well enough… such a player wouldn’t be popular. But I don’t see why we would want our political system to reflect this. We need to change politics from being like football into being more like… golf maybe?
Whatever the sport, our current system and way of doing things is rotten, and it needs to change. I am uncertain how this change can be accomplished, for now I am simply trying to be the change that I want to see.
Do you have a specific view of the latest polls, which see your approval ratings dropping severely? Do you feel you should be reacting to these numbers?
I do believe people will eventually recognise what we are trying to do, and I believe that a lot of people recognise it already, even. But these polls are of course part of this game, and they are made with a specific purpose in mind. They are conducted on the behalf of people that have a specific point to make, towards a specific goal of theirs. Their idea is never to learn ‘the opinions of the masses’—they simply need political ammunition for a particular campaign. It’s interesting to me that no one ever asks who has these polls done. Who pays for them.
And I think this is interesting and maybe important; I feel people should keep a close eye on these developments and courses of events and draw their own conclusions.
That said, these polls don’t bother me the slightest. By entering this realm, I realised I was not enlisting in a popularity contest. That is something we in The Best Party fully realise; we are confronting issues that everyone knows will affect our popularity, and this is why no one has dared to confront them before. But we don’t mind. I am not seeking re-election. People are coming to me and saying, “If you do this, that or the other, or if you don’t do this that or the other, I am not voting for you again, Jón!” I usually reply with: “well, how do you know I am even running again?”
And I think these popularity polls and numbers are ultimately unimportant. People will remember you for the things you do, less so for the things you say. Even though the song says “You will be remembered by the things you say and do, la la la la la la la…”
This is a principle of The Best Party. From the beginning, we have had our convictions as guiding light, and try to follow them as best we can. I confront every task with them in mind. The Golden Rule of the Best Party is: “Confront any issue and resolve it in accordance to your conscience and what it commands.”
This has been our motto, and we regularly meet to remind ourselves of the fact that we need to work in a manner that our conscience commands. Nothing changes the fact that I have my conscience as yardstick, and while I am faithful to my conscience and convictions, and don’t act against them just because someone wants me to, then I can sleep soundly.
I believe that if you work according to your conscience and try and resolve things as well as you possibly can; if you are honest and simple and follow the main principles of Jesus Christ—if that doesn’t work and you don’t succeed, then that’s that. If abiding by those rules and acting in a meek and considerate manner does not work, then that is surely some sort of message for us as a society and community. To love your neighbour, to avoid anger and the use of violence against other people, instead turning the cheek; if that doesn’t work, then maybe all the faith, hope and love are for naught. That would mean that they don’t work in the society we have created; that it doesn’t foster or encourage such behaviour. And then that’ll be that. We’ll know. It will be sad and awful, but we’ll know.
Earlier, you spoke of more direct democracy through the web. What happened to the ‘Better Reykjavík’ web that you set up and started last year, which was meant to encourage direct democracy and decision making. It has been awfully quiet lately…
That has been one of my main interests; getting ‘Better Reykjavík’ up and running. This has been a really hard and technically complicated process; and later an administratively complicated one—getting it in sync with the city administration and its procedures. However, I understand that this week saw the finalisation of the website, and we are aiming to re-launch and start using it for real by the end of this month.
I am really looking forward to that, this is where we start doing something tangible, a real direct democracy. We can start seeking people’s viewpoints and opinions. And not in the sense of Gallup polls and whatnot. There is a big difference between pity and love. There is a difference between feeling sorry for someone and caring about them. And there is an equally big difference between seeking someone’s viewpoint and thoughts, and populism.
Jón’s personal assistant, S. Björn Blöndal, enters the room and ushers him out: “We need to go. You are already late for that opening speech!” The Mayor reluctantly stands up, but continues speaking…
Wait… I also have a great idea! I want to build a tattoo museum in Reykjavík. I want to talk to the tattoo guys over here and get their help in setting it up. It will be a real museum, where you can donate your tattoo and it will be dried and tanned and then placed in a box alongside a picture of you with the tattoo. It’ll be dried morbid stuff in glass boxes next to photographs. We could get all of Slash’s tattoos. He would donate them, when he’s dead they’d be cut off. You come to Reykjavík and go into a dank basement and looked at dried and tanned pieces of Slash! This would bring in some tourist dollars, for sure!