Published August 19, 2005
In one of my early articles about Icelandic politics for another magazine, I profiled former Prime Minister and the man who is still considered the head of Icelandic politics, Davíð Oddsson. During my research, I interviewed a friend and advisor of Oddsson, who claimed two things quite openly: 1) Oddsson was “Machiavellian”, an adjective we in America only apply to gangsters and rap moguls, not democratically-elected heads of state, and 2) that certain “millionaires” involved in attacking the Prime Minister’s 2004 Media Bill would “go down.” In an email five months later, this Oddsson advisor pointed out explicitly that he had not been talking about Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, the millionaire who challenged Davíð Oddsson’s Media Bill—a bill written solely to break up Jóhannesson’s media empire. A few weeks after that email, the charges against Jóhannesson were announced, and now the millionaire who dared to challenge Davíð Oddsson faces trial for 40 counts of various business misdeeds.
Yes, Iceland is like a hip-hop video in that Mr. Oddsson and his posse can point and say “You’re going down” and it will in fact happen. And somebody would probably come to Jóhannesson’s aid if it weren’t for the fact that nobody has got a big enough posse, and nobody has got the ’tude to stand up to the big chief.
The comparisons between Iceland’s political and business communities and the gang life reputed in hip-hop lyrics are many, but the key parallel is the idea that the players, (or playas, if you will), live in a land without regulation. In fact, a member of the Supreme Court of Iceland openly admitted that this is the case in Iceland just this week. “I believe that all managers and business owners in Iceland could be made criminals if they were examined closely enough,” Mr. Sigurður G. Guðjónsson told the Vísir media service. Few in Iceland felt this was hyperbole.
There are laws on the books in this country, many of them quite well written, but they are often abused. In a country where social services demand significant tax revenue, most service workers will admit, off the record, that they work at least half of their hours “in the black”—or under the table. In a country that set a new precedent in promoting women’s rights by demanding paternal leave for both parents, you will be hard-pressed to find a young parent whose employer actually allowed them to take the leave. The media play along: both major business magazines in the country sell their editorial space to companies without properly disclosing this to the readers. More preposterous, one business magazine regularly features the Top Businesswomen of Iceland, claiming the country is setting a trend in promoting equity in the business community, while data in the same magazine examined by another news source revealed that of the 100 top earners in Iceland, only two were women.
This is the country of the wink, the smile and the A-type personality. And you end up being a little careful of which A-type you mess with. The law is openly flouted by most locals, which can often make for a good night out, but which does have some repercussions. In any case, now we have our showdown. Now everybody gets to see Mr. Oddsson and Mr. Jóhannesson pull a Game and 50 Cent.