From Iceland — Are We a Nation of Inactivists?

Are We a Nation of Inactivists?

Published October 7, 2005

Are We a Nation of Inactivists?

In late March 2005, Minister of Health Jón Kristjánsson appeared on the front page of the newspaper announcing that a new clinic for eating disorder patients had been opened. People who had been fighting for the cause celebrated. People with severely ill children, or other loved ones suffering from eating disorders, were filled with hope. As it turned out, no such clinic had opened. To this day, there’s still no such clinic in Iceland. If it was all a misunderstanding, why on earth has the minister never corrected it, or withdrawn his statement? Because he gets away with it, I’m tempted to say.

In Iceland, corporations and officials have in recent years gotten away with going blatantly against the will of the nation and, in some cases, breaking the law, seemingly without any public resistance. On a consumer level, executives of movie theatres in Iceland announced a few years ago a rise in the ticket prices due to the strength of the dollar, which was over 100 ISK at the time (and went up to 112 ISK). The deal was that the price would be lowered again if the dollar dropped, which it’s been doing pretty consistently since 9/11, 2001 (and is currently hovering around 62 ISK, which is a 45% drop). Still, movie theaters have not kept their promise, and nobody seems to care. Sure, a few emails circulated the net urging people to boycott movie theatres, but the price is still 800 ISK to see a foreign film and 1000 to see an Icelandic flick, (the equivalent of 16 USD) so the boycott was apparently ineffective.

When it became clear that three of the biggest gas companies in Iceland had been conspiring, cheating billions out of the nation, what did we do as consumers? Not a thing, really. We bitched about it, but did we boycott them? No. Not even when we got other gas stations to choose from, which could have had a tremendous impact on the guilty threesome.
Essó, Olís and Skeljungur are still flourishing in business, thanks to us. In politics, things are arguably worse. In 2002, the government, under the lead of Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson, committed outrageous human rights violations on suspected Falun Gong members. During the official visit of the Chinese Prime Minister Jiang Zemin, people who were suspected to be members of the Falun Gong movement were locked up for days in an empty elementary school in Grindavík, 40 minutes outside of Reykjavík. Meanwhile, Zemin, who has blood on his hands from the student massacre on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and ordered the persecution of Falun Gong members in China, had a luxurious reception in his honour in the elaborate Perlan meeting hall.

The absurdity reached a level where people with Chinese names were not allowed to board an Icelandair plane in Denmark. Not only were people discriminated against due to their beliefs (something that is allegedly illegal in democracies), but also based on their names. In March 2003, the government, still led by Davíð Oddsson, placed Iceland in the Coalition of the Willing, supporting the invasion of Iraq despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the nation was staunchly opposed to it (84% in a national poll). The decision was made unilaterally by Davíð Oddson and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Halldór Ásgrímsson, without prior discussion in Iceland’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, thereby violating Icelandic laws. Combine that with the Falun Gong fiasco where human rights were grossly violated, causing a national outcry, and the result is a government that breaks the law repeatedly. Still, Icelanders continued to vote for Davíð Oddsson and his government in the next elections. Nobody was punished for the mess that had taken place. No votes were lost.

I remember hearing about the price of carrots going up in Norway last year. Outraged Norwegian consumers stopped buying carrots until the price went down again. When the parking tickets in Iceland went up 300% overnight, from 500 ISK to 1500 ISK, there were no prominent protests. If we had a Norwegian mindset, we would’ve left our cars in the garage and rode buses until the Reykjavík Parking Service was forced to lower the tickets again. But we didn’t. The way I see it, the average Icelander doesn’t protest when trampled on. Having lived all my life in this apathetic society, I have little understanding of my mother’s vivid memories of mass protests in Iceland a few decades ago.

My mother recalls with enthusiasm how demonstrators led by crusader Birna Þórðardóttir would stage massive protests against the US army base in Iceland, and Iceland joining NATO. People fought for their beliefs back in the day, she claims. Faith in united action doesn’t seem to exist in today’s Iceland. Maybe that’s why the Minister of Health doesn’t see a reason to correct his false statements regarding the eating disorder clinic. In a nation where people don’t believe their voices will be heard, who is going to reprimand Jón Kristjánsson for his mistakes? This loss of hope is very valuable to the authorities. After all, it’s much easier to manipulate a nation whose people don’t realize their own power.

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