From Iceland — At Least We’re Happy

At Least We’re Happy

Published July 28, 2006

At Least We’re Happy

If bad things happened to you while you were visiting, you might have a hard time explaining how you weren’t prepared. This isn’t Happyland, or Safeland, or even Moderatetemperatureland. No, you have chosen to visit, or live, or be born, in Iceland, a country whose very name suggests problems.
Ah, but maybe the standard reader doesn’t remember a time when ice was a little more common, when Europe wasn’t melting and hurricanes weren’t quite as frequent. But now, in the days of global warming, you have to remind people that Iceland was once an ominous name. We also have to remind people, occasionally, that Iceland itself wasn’t always a destination for the moderately hip – come on, be serious, if you were really hip, you’d be in Dubai shopping for lingerie with Michael Jackson.
Well, fear not. Bad things are less likely to happen to you now that you’re reading our paper. You see, the Reykjavík Grapevine can help you navigate this city, this country, this life. For example, want to go hiking? We sent our Italian journalist out hiking, alone, with a fever. And he survived. He’ll tell you what to do, and what not to do.
We’ve covered restaurants, we’ve gone to concerts, we’ve talked to organizers, we’ve done it all. Which should make us a good tourist magazine. Assuming you get us.
Let’s be honest. Am I even writing to tourists anymore? How many times have we gone to our tourist drop offs and seen Icelanders reading our paper? For a little while, last winter, we actually got in trouble with advertisers when they thought we intentionally changed audiences.
We never tried to become Icelandic. We were just trying to keep people a little informed. It’s Iceland. We wanted to be a resource.
Then we get to an issue like this one, in which we come to the greatest of all tourist taglines: the happiest place on Earth. If you were here this June and July, and you could read Icelandic, you would have seen it regularly. It was every bit as nauseating here as it would be in Disney World. But what you may be surprised to hear is that this was written in Icelandic, in the local media, to Icelanders. And much of Iceland was stuck wondering what they did to be so much less happy than the rest of the nation. In one of the greatest quotes I’ve seen since the advent of blogs, imagine the moment when our journalist, Steinunn Jakobsdóttir, came across this on, on a day when headlines told the country it was so happy: “Is everyone except me on Prozac?”
The bizarre stories claiming Iceland was the happiest place on Earth, covered in the feature for this issue, had a backlash on the web, but in print, where one expects to see some reflection of the nation’s values, we saw very little sensible coverage.
As a result, we get to mock it first. In fact, we also got to call Hugleikur, the popular Icelandic cartoonist, and get a two-page contribution on the issue. (By the way, if you have an aversion to faecal matter, vomit, bestiality, or rhinos, you may want to skip page 38 and 39.)
All well and good. We get a free joke. We get free jokes all the time just by reading the local papers. But the more you consider the happiness surveys, or the many other fantastically bogus surveys based on Iceland –not bogus by methodology, per se, but bogus due to a brutal cultural conflict with the notion of answering questions for foreigners – the less funny it actually gets.
Consider a quick assertion by a political science professor associated with the government here in Iceland that a survey on Iceland happiness hints at the power of a liberalized economy. (Nevermind that the very same professor, speaking to a local paper, acknowledged that the survey was likely shaped by a refusal by Icelanders to lose face in answering questions.) As you’re smiling through our discovery that the survey of happiness seems to have Icelanders confused about what country they’re really living in, realize that a number of statistics that locals find inaccurate aren’t applied to locals. They are inaccurately compiled here, and then applied elsewhere.
The news that we’ve covered in the last few years has included a Prime Minister who somewhat openly sold an extremely profitable state bank to himself, only after first establishing a quota system on fishing which would allow his family to expand their fishing profits. We have witnessed an oil scandal during which it came out that the country was swindled of billions due to price collusion. We have watched a country that had never been involved in war commit itself to the Coalition of the Willing despite 85% of the country being apposed to such action. And we have watched as a slim majority of the country has decided to industrialise Iceland at the expense of Europe’s largest wilderness area, despite the strongest protests possible by the minority.
All this time, this has been the happiest nation on Earth. Believe it or not, there are lessons here, and they are being taught. Governments around the world would like to know how to stay in power while working against public opinion, or how to keep the masses happy when they shouldn’t be. Members of the Icelandic government have lectured on the success of Iceland, citing the attitudes of the public in general, to places as unpopular as the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank in Washington that helped shape the Bush Doctrine and believes we are currently in World War IV.
If you read this during Gay Pride, you were probably happily thinking, at least before you got to the paragraph above, that Iceland makes the perfect role model for the world. To see 50,000 people, about 20% of the population, meeting in the capital to celebrate the rights of minorities is a marvel. Nobody can deny that, on Gay Pride Day, Iceland shows the world how to be civilised.
The problem is that on the other 363 days a year Iceland is still playing role model, and on those occasions, misinformation sometimes leads to some nasty policies.
Davíð Oddsson has gone to England and mocked the government for keeping a minimum wage. Milton Friedman has visited and incorporated Iceland in his libertarian discussion. On the other end, in arguing for responsible government, Jared Diamond has, from what I’ve seen, intentionally misinformed about Iceland’s past.
My point is, in a globalised economy when world leaders cite the actions of countries they know little about, what the world needs, it seems to me, is a few more tourist magazines that ask them what the hell they’re talking about and point out when fanciful assumptions may actually do harm. Right now, we’re happy to get the opportunity, if for no other reason than the aforementioned Hugleikur protest comic.

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