In a recent issue of Time Magazine, columnist Joel Stein talks about how he helped Iceland rewrite its constitution by logging on to the Constitutional Committee’s webpage and offering a suggestion. He freely admits to knowing little about the country, which is just as well, as he spends half the article talking about elves. He says that his only connection with Iceland is to have gotten drunk there and interviewing Björk. During one of my sober spells, I managed to interview Björk too (see Grapevine 2004, issue 7). She told me how tired she was of being thought of as an elf, although, admittedly, she has been known to play that up to the foreign media.
Still, it is interesting that almost three years after the economic collapse, Iceland is again thought of as a land of elves and hidden folk, rather than as a country of irrespon-sible bankers. After all, irresponsible bankers are everywhere, whereas elves are harder to find. The volcanic eruptions have probably played their part in this repositioning back to the traditional “land of fire and ice.” Stein even calls his article “Joel vs. the Volcano” without otherwise mentioning volcanoes.
The Constitutional Crisis
In itself, it’s not such a bad thing if people like to think of Iceland as something terribly exotic. Anyplace far away from home would seem to be. What’s annoying is Stein’s statement that “Icelanders seem to agree on everything.” No country exists, however exotic, where everyone agrees on everything. The very decision to rewrite the constitu-tion arose out of conflict: economic meltdown, mass protests and something that could be called a revolution. And even if the authors may eventually agree on wording, the whole process itself has been marred by conflict of another kind.
One of the major debates raging over the new constitution has to do with the right of ownership over natural resources. In 1994, use of the country’s foremost resource, the fish in the surrounding seas, was handed over to a few families which created a new class of super rich Icelanders and started the country on the road to economic ruin. The country’s other major resource, renewable energy, is now up for grabs and who gets to control it will to a large extent determine Icelanders’ living standards in the future. Will that too go to a select few, or will it be owned by and used to benefit the general population?
Hug thy neighbour
These are serious questions, and great interests are at stake. This may have led to the Icelandic Supreme Court’s decision to declare the elections to the Constitution Parlia-ment (now known as a committee instead) illegal, a move very much reminiscent of the US Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 to stop the recounting of votes in Florida. The new constitution will be written anyway, but its legitimacy, vital to such an august document, is nevertheless impaired.
Stein states that “the document strongly implies the right to unlimited hugs.” This in itself implies a country with few divisions and no real problems. If only it were so.
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