‘Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund.’
—Man from the IMF supposedly speaking to Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, March 2009.
During this past year it seemed every international journalist in the world had a gripe with Iceland. Many, such as Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis or the New Yorker’s Ian Parker, claimed insider knowledge; others relied on hearsay of an even more dubious nature; but then, the possible demise of a first-world nation (No. 1 on the UN Development Index just a year earlier) was certainly worthy of international headlines. In 2009, elves and huldufólk were not getting much attention.
Virtually all the major media had a stab: The Times, The New York Times, The Financial Times, BBC, CNN. Every week something new unfolded: the first openly gay Prime Minister, the departure of McDonalds, open season for whales, WikiLeaks’ secret banking documents, Davíð Oddsson as editor of Morgunblaðið; the list goes on. For many of us 2009 has been like knowing you have terminal cancer and every doctor you consult has an alternative theory: IMF or no IMF? Icesave or Iceslave? EU or no EU? Euro, Dollar or Krona? There are enough theories, counter-theories, conspiracy theories to fill the entire university library, and there’s not a single expert who hasn’t had a twirl.
And the numbers the international media has bandied around like boomerangs: a popular one is 504% debt over GDP—although Michael Lewis maintained that ‘Iceland’s ‘debt is 850 percent of G.D.P.,’ and that ‘its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up Range Rovers for the insurance.’ Which is it? 504 or 850? As recently as December 26, the Daily Mail stated, ‘Glitnir owes Royal Bank of Scotland £ 500 million,’ and that Glitnir’s creditors are claiming in excess of £ 20 billion—bear in mind folks, she’s only one of the three lumbering reptiles—3.8 billion Euros for Icesave seems a pittance in comparison. So how much—in total, does Iceland really owe?—and to whom?—and why? When some of us are scratching together ISK 1000 to buy the special at Hamborgarabúllan, it truly makes your head spin. Give a journalist a number and they’ll turn it into a golden cow.
In an article from December 3, also in the Daily Mail, Mary Ellen Synon writes: ‘The Icelanders may have been scared out of their wits last year, but they…have decided that the most valuable thing they have left is their independence. They are not willing to trade it, not even for the possibility of a bail-out by the European Central Bank.’
In a podcast for the BBC World Service, Sigrún Davíðsdóttir, a London-Icelander, maintained that: ‘Icelanders are knitting their way out of the downturn.’ Around Christmas 2006, she overheard men in black discussing taking over an airline, but two years later, she was drinking tea made from wild berries while admiring her friend’s recycled-curtain handbags. She quotes an old Icelandic proverb: ‘Necessity teaches a naked woman to spin,’ and suggests that the kreppa has become a ‘timely reminder of thrift’ and good old fashioned values. It has been said before, but perhaps if the Alþingi learned how to knit, they might approach their decisions with a little more…thrift?
Roger Boyes’ ‘Meltdown Iceland’ is one of numerous ‘Iceland in Kreppa’ books that came out in 2009. In contrast to Michael Lewis’ hypothesis that Iceland fell due to arrogance, Boyes, a correspondent for The Times, concludes that Iceland jumped head-first into a global economic culture which it had no way of comprehending. He maintains that the Icelandic business community is somewhat akin to a society run on African tribal lines: ‘There is a feeling that there are more chiefs than Indians …the will of the state can easily be replaced by the will of the political clan.’ He proposes, in fact, that Davíð Oddsson did not understand that you need to modernise the political system before you modernise the economy.
For months after Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s PM appointment, media all over the world were extolling her as an icon in world politics; not only that she is a woman, but particularly in the fact that she is non-hetero. Iceland Review’s own Jonas Moody wrote a piece in Time Magazine: ‘Iceland Picks the World’s First Openly Gay PM’. It was suddenly as if the Age of Obama was synonymous with the Age of Aquarius, and the corrupt, ego-centric white-male-Milton-Freidman-world was coming to an end. As if that weren’t enough, the World Economic Forum hailed Iceland as the most gender-egalitarian society in the world—it had much the same pungent whiff as President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
And how does the international media feel about Iceland now? Well, they know about its potential as a green, geothermal, non-carbon emitting once-upon-a-time first-world country. Generally I would say, they’re baffled—stupefied, and, just like the rest of us, rolling into the dawning of the Age of Aquarius with their pants down and nowhere to pee. In the legendary words of Frank Zappa:
‘Don’t be a naughty Eskimo / Save your money, don’t go to the show / Well I turned around and I said oh, oh oh / And the northern lights commenced to glow / And she said, with a tear in her eye / Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.’
As my grandmother often said, ‘For heaven’s sake don’t believe everything you read,’ and, bless her, she used to read the Daily Mail.