By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson
A popular 19th century murder-ballad entitled “Banks Of The Ohio” relays a story of the enamored Willy, who takes his love for a walk “down besides where the water floats.” Lyrical details vary between performers, but most concur that when the hopeful Willy brought up a marriage proposal, the unnamed woman “only turned her head away / and had no other words to say” (as Johnny Cash puts it). Offended by the blatant rejection, Willy plunges a knife into her breast and drags the corpse down to the Ohio riverbank. “There I threw her in to drown,” he proclaims, “and I watched her as she floated down.”
The word “bank” can apply to various phenomena. Two of those can be particularly precarious: the abovementioned riverbank, and the financial institution. In an alliterate fashion, let’s call it a closeness to calamity. Although it’s tempting to view the riverside, as Robert Louis Stevenson did, as a scene for the idler to “smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones,” the smallest misstep—not to mention a jostle—can easily set in motion tragic events reminiscent of Willy’s doomed love story. Similarly, one’s comfortable dealings with a seemingly stable financial institution can suddenly transform into an abyss of absolute loss and all-but eternal debt, as was experienced by many an Icelander back in 2008,.
You say jump! They ask how high?
While those flung into the deep river of bank-related atrocities are usually members of the public, the tables turned—symbolically, at least—on February 12, when Iceland’s Supreme Court sentenced four key players of the Iceland’s so-called economic miracle to prison. Adding a smidgeon of truth to the international myth about the island’s post-collapse glory, those executives and majority owners of the former Kaupthing bank—an institution (in)famous for the online accounts it promoted throughout Europe, the appropriately titled Kaupthing Edge—now face between four and five-and-a-half years in prison for committing a gross act of market manipulation in the fall of 2008, just prior to the economic collapse.
In a 2007 advertisement for Kaupthing, celebrated comedian John Cleese described the bank’s staff as such: “You say jump! They ask how high?” Now, however, it’s time for the bosses to do the gymnastics. Ordered to move by a higher authority, the Kaupthing four find themselves in a hitherto unimaginable situation, accurately described by former queen of Iran Farah Pahlavi, whose husband Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime was toppled by the 1979 revolution: “At one point they roll out the red carpet for you—the next day you have to wait in line to be fingerprinted at the airport.”
The convicts still maintain their innocence, and one of them, Ólafur Ólafsson, has already announced his plans to remit the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Although such an act doesn’t alter the verdict’s enforcement, the bankers’ message is clear: innocent people are being jailed. Seeking a way out of a seemingly dead-end scenario, they can now dig into the mine of their own imagination, namely the very philosophy that allegedly made their business ventures so successful.
An in-house Kaupthing pep video made its way online shortly after the collapse. It is a bombastic video, featuring a thick soup of images depicting major historical events, interspersed with clips from Hollywood blockbusters, accompanied by U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” The clip introduces the concept of “Kaupthinking,” a peculiar way of thinking that’s somehow “beyond normal thinking.” Reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s conviction that peace can be realized by imagining it, Kaupthinking is based on the idea that in order to achieve something “we just have to think we can.” Another in-house video teaches us that “we can choose to see the difficulty in every opportunity, or the opportunity in every difficulty.”
It seems obvious which of the two perspectives suits the bankers now doomed to spend the days in quarters far below their usual standards. Stuck in tiny prison cells, isolated from the outside world by a quadrangle of concrete, one can expect their heads to be haunted by a tireless loop of Bono’s anguished voice repeating the opening lines U2’s hit: “I want to run / I want to hide / I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”
Using “three of the most powerful investment tools ever invented” (according to Kaupthinking), the convicts should ask themselves three simple questions. Firstly, why should they escape prison? Well, they are innocent, they say. One of them, Sigurður Einarsson, blames the ruling on Iceland’s post-collapse atmosphere, where bankers have become pariahs. Secondly then, what if they try to actualize an escape? While such an attempt might possibly fail, Kaupthinking reminds us that “if you don’t have vision, nothing happens.” Stories of successful prison escapes are not uncommon, and even if the odds are against them, “unconventional profits come from unconventional ideas.”
Which leads to the third and most important question: how can we get out? Yet another in-house video provides the ultimate answer: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” Now, with a door of their very own, the convicts will once again hold history in their hands. Adding value to wonders, a successful implementation of this quasi-Buddhist method wouldn’t just enable the disgraced bankers’ escape, but also validate the legitimacy of the Kaupthinking school of philosophy once and for all. A sharp word of Kaupwisdom for the remaining agnostics: “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.”
From Sodom to serfdom
Turning back to the second question, however, the door-building could certainly backfire, bringing the bankers-slash-philosophers to the devastating world thus portrayed by Bono: “The cities a flood / and our love turns to rust / we’re beaten and blown by the wind / trampled into dust.” In such a scenario—where the impossible has been proven inoperable—a pinch of Kaupthinking might nevertheless help: “Pause. Take a minute. Think about another way. Think about a better way.”
One such way leads to “The Banks Of The Ohio,” though neither their actual geographical location nor the sad fate of Willy’s reluctant lover, but rather their page in the National Church of Iceland’s hymnal. Therein the melody is accompanied with lyrics by Rev. Pétur Þórarinsson—a psalm called “Í bljúgri bæn” (“In Humble Prayer”), wherein a repentant servant addresses his master. Admitting that he often chooses wrong ways, commits regrettable acts, and rarely remembers the almighty master, he asks the latter for guidance through life, in which serving is the sole mission.
As suggested by the Reverend’s lyrics as well as Willy’s repentance on his way home (“Oh Lord, what have I’ve done?”), the first step towards amnesty lies in recognizing one’s own wrongdoings. If they pick the path of redemption, finding salvation in self-sacrifice and serfdom, the only challenge awaiting the bankers regards how high they can jump.
Using the innovative techniques implied in thinking “beyond normal thinking,” they might even stumble upon a way to jump out of jail.