From Iceland — Never Underestimate The Obvious

Never Underestimate The Obvious

Published August 24, 2015

Never Underestimate The Obvious
Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
Roger Goodman

To answer a question posed in this column little over a month ago: yes, it seems that we did detain a man for carrying HIV.

Racist histrionics

debates on monday lota 2-01

The man referred to, late July, in headlines such as “Suspected Of Infecting Women With HIV”and “Over A Dozen Women Possibly Infected” was not aware of his infection until he was simultaneously contacted by an Icelandic doctor, arrested by Police and made famous throughout the country. And then some. This is according to his lawyer, Þuríður B. Sigurjónsdóttir, interviewed by Stundin. According to Stundin, the man spent his month of custody in isolation.

As of 2014, around 180 people living Iceland were known to carry the HIV virus. Since the original outbreak of panic in the 1980s, media coverage of such infections has been more or less only on voluntary basis: that is, a few interviews have appeared with people affected by the virus.

That is not what happened this July. The public was made aware of a man’s possible, now verified, infection, without any visible concern for his consent of such publicity. News media gave identifying information, naming the neighbourhood the man lived in, along with photographs of his place of residence. They interviewed neighbours ready to slander the man, for, apparently, frequently receiving noisy visitors. Police first implied, and the media presumed, that the man had known about his condition and intentionally infected others. The neighbours’ slander was taken as character evidence to support that assumption. Subsequently, he was publicly shamed by commentators, professional and amateur alike, as little short of evil incarnate, and accordingly locked up. For a moment, racial slurs covered comment threads like seaweed on a beach.

The man appeared in the third person only: While everyone talked about him, no one talked to him or, it seems, offered him or his representative a platform to express his point of view. Until, that is, now, that we hear from his legal counsel: No, he did not know.

From what is known, so far, what sets the man apart from those 180 others infected by HIV seems to be mainly, perhaps only, his place of origin and his immigrant status: born in Nigeria, he has come a long way and applied for asylum in Iceland. Judging by the careful phrasing of his counsel, that “for a sick man to be kept in isolation for a month” amounts to “rough treatment,” it seems likely that said treatment will be contested in court.

Formal proceedings, however, are only one part of what we must face up to. The rest is a nasty set of shared presumptions that surfaced all over the place faster than you can say “there’s no such thing as xenophobia.”

To Russia, with love

Then to late summer’s hottest topic: Mackerel. Unlike quotidian human rights breaches, there’s money involved in mackerel. This time, some €200 million. Iceland’s unexpected post-2008 aquatic lottery jackpot, still isn’t going to Russia, over which fisheries CEOs and managers remain upset and rowdy. In short, they want Iceland to cease its support of sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. Because of the fish, which they otherwise must now sell to someone else, at a lower price.

As some spokespeople for the fisheries have pointed out, Iceland has a long history of such opportunism. One historical precedent cited is Iceland’s abstinence from the League of Nations, the United Nations’ interwar precursor, to rather export fish to Mussolini’s Italy, which in the late 1930s faced sanctions for invading Ethiopia. Mussolini was so grateful for Iceland’s gesture of solidarity, that he personally signed the trade agreement. Evidently, such examples of historical opportunism now count as arguments for more of the same. It would be funny if it wasn’t this bloody.

Last Friday, Vísir published a noteworthy article penned by Jón Steinsson, Associate Professor of economics at Columbia University: “The Poisonous Wealth Of Fisheries,” might be a rough translation of its title.

Iceland’s fishery elite can interfere in foreign policy, as just about anything else, Jón points out, by strength of their “adventurous” and “poisonous” wealth. Poisonous because the wealth is founded on the exceptional access they are granted to the country’s publicly owned natural resources, in the form of fishing quotas.

Since 1983, the quota system has rested on the principle of habit, so to speak: at any given time, those who lawfully caught enough fish in preceding years thereby gained the right to catch roughly the same proportion of the country’s total catch in the years that follow. Whereas law defines the country’s fishing grounds as public property, the quota system goes as far as that framework allows to turn the resources into de facto private property. Not surprisingly, the system has arguably become Iceland’s most reliable preserver of status quo in terms of social structure, as well as the most persistently disputed component of the country’s economic makeup.

Jón Steinsson is among those who advocate auctions as a fairer and more economically viable alternative for the distribution of quotas. Compared with the current hand-outs, based only on tradition, annual auctions, he contends, would establish a more competitive industry, while providing the State Treasury with significant rents for the public property.

In his Friday article, Jón summarises these arguments, while adding a new one. Jón writes: “Propaganda which suits the owners of fisheries reverberates around the country’s inhabitants day in and day out. Half truths and besides-the-points are repeated time and again until they sift into the nation’s consciousness, obfuscating public debates in the interest of the fisheries’ owners. Those who try and speak on behalf of public interests must relentlessly fight a gigantic propaganda machine serving other interests.”

The daily Morgunblaðið, traditionally pro-Western to a fault, is now directly owned and controlled by fishing industry leaders, and turns out to be more than willing to change teams, as soon as fish exports are at stake. So do key members of the fisheries’ political arm, the Independence Party. Full throttle anti-sanctions, pro-Russia.

“Does this chain of events not reveal that the influence of the fisheries on Icelandic politics have become much more than immodest? Does it not reveal that not only do they significantly, negatively affect the population’s quality of life, but are now literally threatening the country’s security in the long run?” asks Jón.

Rather than distribute public wealth to the same few families year after year, if the quotas were auctioned annually, Jón maintains that society would severe the undemocratic authority of this handful of businessmen, who currently seem to unduly influence this supposedly sovereign state’s foreign policies: “Is it not about time to terminate the quota-donations (the root of the problem) once and for all, before the owners of fisheries, through their short-sighted defence of private interests, cause their nation permanent damage?”

It might be noted, that as of last Sunday, such auctions are a cornerstone of the Pirate Party’s fisheries policy.

Fish vs. foreigners?

The xenophobic attitudes revealed in the case of the HIV-infected Nigerian, and the attempts of Morgunblaðið &co. to shape public policy, come together in another noteworthy article, penned by development studies researcher Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir and published on her website, last Friday.

Helga Katrín wrote the piece, titled “Nation Of Cowards And Yellow-Bellies,” in response to an editorial in Morgunblaðið the day before, where the paper’s chief editor, Davíð Oddsson, urges authorities to restrain the “flow” of people seeking asylum in Iceland. Helga points out that this year, so far, a mere 94 people have applied for asylum in Iceland. For the “flow” of refugees to Iceland to compare with Germany, per capita, Iceland would have to receive 3,300 applications this year. To compare with Malta, another small state, applications in Iceland would have to exceed 6,000.

What if, however, thousands did seek shelter in Iceland each year, asks Helga Katrín. Speaking truth to power, she points out that in his former role as Prime Minister, Morgunblaðið’s editor all but single-handedly decided for Iceland to participate in the “coalition of the willing,” composed to invade Iraq in 2003. By far, Helga notes, the largest group of people currently seeking asylum in Europe come from Syria, displaced as a direct consequence of the hideously mistaken 2003 invasion and subsequent war-effort. The second-largest group of displaced people comes from Afghanistan, a country which for fifteen years has suffered a war in which Iceland also participates. Helga Katrín concludes on a less than joyous note:

“As member of the military coalition NATO, by its silence, Iceland currently condones Turkey’s bombing against Kurds, who so far have managed to hold back the ISIL’s death squads. If Turkey manages to break their resistance, who is going to receive Kurdish refugees? Once more, we will probably hide behind the pathetic excuse that we are a small nation. It is OK for small nations to condone wars and air raids, but when it comes to facing the consequences we run and hide. Can I resign from this nation-state or am I forced to belong to a country of cowards and weaklings?”

As Antonio Gramsci wrote, while imprisoned by Icelandophile Benito Mussolini: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.”

— Debates on Monday #27. Photograph: US Military personnel at Keflavík airbase, early 1980s. Photographer: Roger Goodman.

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