—And if it did, I wouldn't understand it, so why bother explain?—Weird Debates on Monday #17
This Sunday, DV.is published an article by journalists Atli Þór Fanndal and Jón Bjarki Magnússon, wherein they review the meaning and connotations of the word fascism. The article was occasioned by the standpoint which one of the Prime Minister’s assistants, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, expressed on Facebook, that fascism is unthinkable in the context of Iceland. The assistant’s words also figure as the article’s headline: “Those who think that anything in Icelandic society or politics is fascist don’t know what the word means.” Incidentally, the thread in which the assistant commented focused mainly on the relation between authorities and the media.
Within hours after first appearing, the thoroughly researched article was removed from DV’s “news” category and re-categorised among curiosity items under the less serious label “skrítið” or “weird”. Other items in the category include dogs painted as pandas, and sensational items about foreign criminal cases. Thereby, the article, which had started circulating fast, disappeared from the medium’s front page. Aggregated comments and share counts also vanished on the item’s new URL.
Who re-categorised the article and why? This here is a thriller, a veritable page-turner, and you will be kept in suspense to the very end.
Media cleansing? What media cleansing?
Backstory: On the night before New Years Eve, one Viktor Orri Valgarðsson posted a Facebook status that read: “Sorry, but I am just literally sick over these disgusting, depressing media cleanses of the government parties against their critics. What sort of farce have we got ourselves into?”
Enter the vigilant Jóhannes Þór, the Prime Minister’s assistant and, coherently, the first one to comment. He says: “Eer … media cleansing of the government parties. Are you ok?”.* After a few more comments, he then expressed his conviction of the categorical absence of fascist tendencies in Iceland, as quoted above.
The “media cleansing” refers, among other events, to the recent takeover of DV by the millionaire media-mogul and former Progressive Party’s Reykjavík city council member, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson. This December he discharged DV’s chief editor and hired new ones, generally perceived as making a more malleable team.
In the words of the PM’s assistant: “The fact that Björn Ingi once participated in politics within the Progressive Party does not make his media the official mouthpiece of that party.” No doubt, DV will not be the party’s official mouthpiece.
Before the takeover, the association Reporters Without Borders already saw reason, earlier this winter, to release a statement expressing their concerns about the state of media freedom in Iceland.
The statement cited the former Interior Minister’s assistant who at the time sought a prison sentence over two journalists, for mistaking her for the Minister’s other assistant, in a single news item. It also cites “major budget cuts for public TV and radio stations that the ruling coalition has accused of bias”. The statement quoted Vigdís Hauksdóttir, a Progressive Party MP and chair of the treasury budget committee, when she said: “I think an unnatural amount of money goes to RÚV, especially when they don’t do a better job at reporting the news,” which was followed by a 20 percent cut in RÚV’s budget.
The statement also mentions that the only media editor who did not leave his post in 2014, was Davíð Oddsson. The the former Mayor, Prime Minister and Central Bank manager remains editor-in-chief of Morgunblaðið, a post which was secured for him following the 2008 bank crash.
And so on and so on. It is weird.
This media cleansing
Viktor Orri, the author of the status update by which the PM’s assistant left his comment, entered the subsequent debate, cited some of the incidents listed above, and commented, addressing the assistant: “It is actually astonishing that a historian, with as solid knowledge as you have of the rise of fascist movements in the 20th century, does not feel ill at ease confronted with the ongoing developments all around you …”.
To this the assistant replied: “As soon as you start speaking of fascism in relation to Icelandic reality, I immediately let myself vanish from the conversation. I am not used to this sort of buffoonery from you. Those who think that anything in Icelandic society or politics is fascist do not know what the word means.”
In any case, once again, DV’s journalists did their job, rose to the occasion, and wrote an article to explain some of the facets of the term fascism. The article cites various sources to elucidate the relation between fascism and its milder-mannered relative, authoritarianism. Works cited in the article include the influential “The Authoritarian Personality,” published five years after the end of World War II, to investigate which characteristics and personality traits facilitate fascism.
The journalists then summarised various comments made in recent years, in which Icelandic authors, scholars and journalists refer to fascist movements to express their concerns over developments in Icelandic politics, not least within the Progressive Party. Perhaps the most serious of those concerns is the fact that no remaining prominent party member has publicly distanced him- or herself, let alone criticised, the strong anti-muslim sentiment invoked by the party’s candidates during the 2014 Reykjavík city council election campaign.
Among other recent occurrences cited in the article, is the incident when Vigdís Hauksdóttir, member of Alþingi on behalf of the Progressive Party and chair of Alþingi’s Treasury Budget Committee, publicly urged leaders of the University at Bifröst to reprimand or discharge Professor Eiríkur Bergmann Einarsson for writings about nationalist and fascist motives within the Progressive Party. Yes, this happened.
And yes, it is weird.
Church and State
Viktor Orri’s Facebok status, which occasioned the PM’s assistant’s comment, which in turn occasioned DV’s article, appeared the night before New Years Eve, that is the night before the State’s main authority figures address the nation: the Prime Minister, the President and the Bishop of the State Church.
The Prime Minister said, in short, that the country is good, that it is doing well, and will do even better. The other two, each in their own way, added words of advice, warning the public against excessive criticism.
After quoting the 20th century conservative politician and professor of theology, Þórir Kr. Þórðarson’s laments about European nations having lost their common Christian values, the Bishop bemoaned: “No matter what is said or done, everything is questioned, and thoughts about ulterior motives or hidden interests surface fast.” She then pointed to Jesus Christ as leader and saviour.
Meanwhile, the President complained that it had for a while “not been in vogue to give due credit to our national achievements. Some people are even upset when those are held up for admiration. They decry this as boasting or as out of place.” Now, this … this requires a sidenote. Cause it is a bit weird.
Poets of enterprise and so on
After the 2008 collapse of Iceland’s financial infrastructure, the President has been criticised, even mocked, by multiple commentators, for his vainglorious nationalist optimism, during the boom years. He was rather fond of the banking boys. An undisputed epitome of the era is a speech which the President gave in the Walbrook Club in London in 2005, titled “How To Succeed In Modern Business: Lessons From The Icelandic Voyage.”
It is hard to choose quotes from this gem. Ólafur said that people had repeatedly asked him “how and why daring Icelandic entrepreneurs are succeeding where others hesitate or fail”. In an attempt to “reveal the secret behind the success,” he then offered a list of “a dozen or so elements which I believe have been crucial to Iceland’s success story” —not in any particular order, “but taken together, I am convinced that they amount to a significant framework of business success —a guide to the ground in which achievements are rooted.”
The national characteristics enumerated by the President ranged from “a strong work ethic,” through the “formation of small groups of operators” to “the importance of personal reputation … partly rooted in the medieval Edda poems”. The list concludes on “creativity, rooted in the old Icelandic culture which respected the talents of individuals who could compose poetry or tell stories … These attitudes have been passed onto the business community, as is demonstrated by the Icelandic term used to describe a pioneer or an entrepreneur, —“athafnaskáld,” which means literally “a poet of enterprise”. Admiration for creative people has been transplanted from ancient times into the new global age, and originality has turned out to be a decisive resource in the global market.”
These elements “enable us to win,” the President explained “where others either failed or did not dare enter.” Unforgettably, he concluded his speech on these words: “Let me leave you with a promise that I gave at the recent opening of the Avion Group headquarters in Crawley. I formulated it with a little help from Hollywood movies: You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
It was very weird.
Our common enemy: Critical irony
Some, of course, were thoroughly opposed to such nationalist myth-making at the time, and even said so out loud. Historian Guðmundur Hálfdánarson, literary scholar Viðar Hreinsson and anthropologist Hallfríður Þórarinsdóttir come to mind. Such voices were, however, not given much attention until after the sharp U-turn known as 2008. The President, already re-elected twice since then, has nonetheless suffered much more visible scrutiny of his utterances —from scholars, artists, political commentators, the public at large even.
The good news is that the President’s New Years speech, quoted above, may be the closest that he has come to respond to any criticism at all, ever. “The cutting ironies of the critics,” he went on “meet with greater approval than praises voiced by those who draw attention to things that have been done well.” It may have taken a while, but the President has at last acknowledged the existence of criticism. Obviously, he does not approve of such activities, but he acknowledges that they do take place.
“The cutting ironies of the critics” pose, according to the President, a problem. For although “critical discussion is admittedly a prerequisite for democracy… an awareness of our collective achievements is also necessary as a ballast to enable the nation to win victories, maintain its position in the whirling currents of change and advance towards better standards of living.”
These contemplations build up to the President’s warning: “Though we must learn from mistakes, a nation cannot live on criticism alone.”
The mouth of the Lord
The President’s words, of course, paraphrase Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” To fill in the gaps left by the President’s speech then, no nation lives on criticism alone, events such as the 2008 economic crash are meant to teach us that, and to remind us that we are only truly nourished by words from the mouth of our superiors.
It seems safe to say that Iceland is not, traditionally, a highly religious society. The Lutheran-Evangelical State Church has certainly been there, in close communion with the State, but as a silent backdrop rather than a cornerstone of the bourgeoisie as has seemed to rather be the case in Catholic countries. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Church perhaps came across mainly as a habit—and as a service institute, handling those intimate ceremonies which might feel awkward in the hands of State officials.
That all seems to be shifting somewhat. While fields such as health services, education and social security suffer ongoing austerity measures—medical doctors and State have, for example, not reached an agreement, and doctors have announced hardened strike action throughout this year’s first quarter— last Saturday RÚV reported that Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson recently asked Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir to ask the State Treasury for more money for the Church. Say what? What, indeed.
On Christmas day, the Bishop announced that the Church wanted the State to “abide the law” and forward all of the congregational fees, which are collected by the State, to the Church. Apparently, the State Treasury has retained some of that amount in recent years. On Saturday, Sigmundur Davíð revealed that he had asked the Bishop to make that request: “The letter was written on my request, since I had the sentiment that the Church felt that their budget was somewhat tight.” He added that “the Church has shown great tolerance and self-sacrifice in recent years,” while “contributing to economic construction,” the fruits of which the Church should “of course” enjoy.
“I didn’t understand it”
DV’s article on the hermeneutics of fascism proved highly popular, even after its re-categorisation. Early Monday afternoon, it reached no. 1 on the list of the website’s most read items.
Jón Bjarki Magnússon, one of the article’s two authors, was also one of the two journalists who investigated and reported on the case of the memo leaked by the now former Interior Minister’s staff late 2013, to slander asylum seeker Tony Omos. No other major media would touch it for months, as they ran story after story, revealing layer after layer of abuse of office, which eventually led to the Minister’s resignation. The two been awarded for their ground-breaking work, which came to define the medium in the minds of its readers.
Around noon, this Monday, the other journalist who covered the case for DV, Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson, resigned from the paper in response to the changes in editorial staff, and the new editors’ policies. He issued a declaration explaining that Eggert Skúlason, one of the paper’s two new editors-in-chief, had stated that he would not allow such journalism. In the early afternoon, Eggert responded by confirming Jóhann Páll’s declaration, that he does not, and would not, find it proper to run three or four stories on the same case in a day, no matter what its content.
A little later this afternoon, Eggert then revealed to Vísir why he had re-categorised Atli Þór Fanndal and Jón Bjarki’s article on fascism: “It is four thousand words and I didn’t understand it. This is a weird analysis and I think it fits well over there. It is up there and people can read it. It’s not as if it vanished.”
Let me leave you with a note that I formulated with a little help from President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson: Something is happening and you don’t know what it is … feels weird, doesn’t it?
*After the publication of this article, the Prime Minister’s assistant, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, wrote to make two objections. The first regarded the imagery accompanying the piece, which remains unchanged. The second regarded the translation of the colloquial expression “Er ekki í lagi með þig?”. In this article, it was translated as “Are you sane?”, which makes explicit the implicit connotation arguably understood by most speakers. The assistant finds the less ambiguous translation “Are you ok?” to be a more suitable translation of his words, which he notes were made in jest. The text has been changed accordingly. — HMH.