Dear Mr. E (Mr. E and Mr. F: so the Grapevine’s Editor and I use to call ourselves within professional contexts, in an unlikely crossover that echoes both American indie rock and espionage B-movies),
As a long-time and devoted contributor, I feel the urge to spend a few words on the debate that recently sparked on the pages of this paper around opinion pieces and those who write them.
A lapidary “the opinions of the columnists don’t reflect the opinions of The Reykjavík Grapevine” has been the getaway answer to the numerous criticisms targeting our summer columns. Yes, it may be a bit boring as an answer, but it is a classic too, and as such respectable and effective. At least, it works for me. “Who picked the columnists, then?” was bitterly asked by someone in reply. “Isn’t that you?” Sure it is. Because, I believe, The Grapevine does actually take pride – and with some rights – for giving space also to controversial voices and views. They might be questionable, sometimes raw, occasionally even poorly argued. Yet they have often succeeded in stirring waters and rousing interest and responses. A little credit is due in the context of a public arena that is all too often stale and prone to compromises such as the Icelandic one. And I can agree that the deliberate search for outrage is quite a coarse means to that end. One way or another, however, the job is to be done. The Grapevine’s journalists have succeeded in doing it over the years – and quite efficiently. After all, we are here still discussing pieces published months earlier.
Is it all good, then? Well, not entirely. Apparently not the only one, I have happened to take myself some offence at Mr. Magnús Ólafsson’s intervention On Advertisement. I can say straightaway that I have no intention to act as a steward of the ad-industry and, as far as I am concerned, I gladly leave Mr. Ólafsson with his own views on the matter, and willing others with the effort of debating whether the author is to be considered superficially juvenile or bravely rebellious. What I personally felt as disturbing, and soliciting larger questions around editorial policies, is the expression “Jewish race” appearing among the article’s lines.
I won’t dwell long on considerations of rhetoric persuasiveness. Certainly, I found quite grotesque an argument where contemporary advertisement is stigmatised as a derivative of Gobbles’ propaganda methods, and simultaneously the author refers to Jews in the same terms as Nazis did (and do). Perhaps there was an ironic nuance behind the choice of that phrase? It’d be a reasonable explanation. If that is the case, then, I may politely suggest that the use of quotation marks would have been more than appropriate. The fact remains, that in other European Countries such as France and Italy (that we know to be inhabited by the non-Aryan Franconian and Italic “races”) a similar linguistic lapsus might have proven sufficient for a minor diplomatic case to explode. And, believe me, not because some occult and almighty Jewish Lobby holds by the balls the political discourse down there, dictating what can and cannot be said. More plainly – and unanimously – because the horrors of the 20th Century were a first-hand experience and a genuine abjection for that part of the past is (fortunately) still well-rooted in a majority of the population.
By now, I have learned the lesson by heart: “Opinion pieces only reflect the views of those who write them. We do not meddle with them: such they are published as they were written. Freedom of expression and stuff”. I commend the policy. Nonetheless, I am left with the licit doubt whether, in the absence of any argument backing them, gratuitous insults or tragic racial misconceptions do actually add anything valuable to the broad and general “freedom of expression” concept. I am not sure they make for an effective contribution to the journalist’s reputation or the paper’s credibility. Not more than a plethora of misspellings and grammatical errors, at least. And in fact, doesn’t our good Jim Rice proofread all our texts to avoid such slips? Or are opinion pieces exempted also from this sort of monitoring?
I must confess to feeling a sense of extreme uneasiness and near shame while writing these lines. I still find the watchdog of “proper speech” quite a hideous role to play. Indeed, as an excuse I can remind myself that it is not love for some form of conventional righteousness that primarily motivates my stance, nor the desire to establish and uphold sacred cows. Rather, an idea of fairness and intellectual honesty. If instead of “Jewish race,” if it had been written of Afro-Americans as “niggers” or homosexuality as a “disease”, would the “freedom of expression” policy have worked as smoothly? Can’t I legitimately assume that, had that been the case, the general principles of political correctness and perhaps some pre-emptive censorship would have been wielded as a shield against the waves of public indignation?
Dear Mr. F,
Thank you for your letter. The merits of Magnús Björn Ólafsson’s column, opinions, and arguments could be debated, and coincidently, this is a fine place for such a debate. So, this is how it goes. It’s my policy not to meddle with the writings of opinion writers in the Grapevine. Their opinions are their own, not mine or the Grapevine’s, and presented as such. If you want to enter the public forum as an opinion writer, you best make sure that you are ready to stand by what ever you say. Live by the gun, die by the gun as they say. Obviously, I choose the columnist, Magnús Björn included. He was given this venue to exercise his freedom of expression and his columns have created public discussion, which is all I hoped to achieve.
That being said, the pages of the Grapevine are not intended to be a voicepipe for hatespeech or demeaning remarks. I believe that if I felt a columnist stepped out of bounds, using derogatory remarks and slanderous generalisations, I would rather not run the piece then meddle with the writing. I did not regard this particular column to be anti-Semitic, but rather anti-capitalistic. It was critical of advertising, not the Jewish religion, or its practitioners. Perhaps that was a misreading on my behalf. If you were offended by Ólafsson’s remarks, I am sorry on a personal level, but I will not apologise for my editorial policies and I cannot apologise on behalf of Magnús Björn Ólafsson. If he feels the need to apologise or retract his words, he will certainly be given every opportunity to do so on the pages of the
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