From Iceland — Which Is Why We Talk About The Weather

Which Is Why We Talk About The Weather

Published December 1, 2014

Debates on Monday #12

Debates on Monday #12

Yet another Monday. Feel free to read the following at work. That goes for police staff as well. If you are self-employed, unemployed, a student, in hospital, an irregular migrant or currently on strike, I don’t have to tell you. Your teeth already gnash, more or less, to the rhythm of precarity.

The Debates on Monday

The cultures

Last week, a police officer wrote an article, purportedly to enlighten people about immigration. He related how one night, on duty, he arrived at a household, where a man “of foreign origin” kept his “Icelandic” wife from going out to party. Birgir Örn Guðjónsson, the officer, says that he explained to the man that “Icelandic law” does not allow you to hinder other people’s movements, whether the people involved are married to you or not. Something of the sort. The man, Birgir said, was surprised. According to the officer, the anecdote should serve as a fable. The lesson: that “the culture of those who come here” is not simply “their private matter”.

This clearly makes sense, since the local culture neither has nor could breed husbands oppressive to the point of coming between their spouse and Reykjavík’s nightlife. Oppressive households are a foreign invention, inherent to other cultures. If we do not stand our guard against those, Iceland might lose its liberal, egalitarian and tolerant character, so evident in the officer’s writing.

The response

The Grapevine’s coverage of the article produced dozens of comments. TV pundit Egill Helgason responded thoroughly on Perhaps, as he said, there would be little need to if this was any other officer. Birgir Örn, however, better known as “Biggi the cop,” has become a popular representative of the local police force, through his clips on the police’s YouTube account. Some call him “hipster cop.” This paper’s own Paul Fontaine also wrote an excellent article in response, noting, among other things: “If Biggi is implying that foreigners are the problem when it comes to domestic violence, he should maybe be aware of research done in 2010 by the Women’s Shelter, which concludes amongst other things that “the vast majority of perpetrators [of domestic violence] are Icelandic, or 84%, who abuse women both Icelandic and foreign.””

If Biggi had any other intention than to smear a particular group of society’s members, he concealed it well, his Facebook apology for apparently having “hurt people’s feelings” notwithstanding.

Historical interlude: 1940 to 1985

Meanwhile, former secret agent, journalist and editor Styrmir Gunnarsson, reminds us all, in his recently published memoirs from the Cold War, that since the republic’s founding in 1944, until 1985, Iceland’s highest police commissioners were Nazis or Nazi-sympathizers. The republic’s first Police Chief was a man who had been trained by Germany’s SS-squads in 1939, invited by Heinrich Himmler. He was the Head of Police from 1940 to 1945. Incidentally, he also established The Foreigner Surveillance, now known as The Directorate of Immigration.

Next in line was a former member of the Icelandic Nationalist party. Weapons training, violent hatred of communists, written death-threats to socialists, marches, uniform, swastikas, German slang and all, the party was active until WWII, during which the allied forces occupied Iceland. One member, Sigurjón Sigurðsson, became Chief of Police at the end of the war, remaining in his post throughout the next forty years.

None of this has really been debated. Or even, in a way, made public. It remains treated, at best, as some sort of curiosity for historians, rather than a peculiar and perhaps problematic fact about this country. Which again seems both peculiar and, perhaps, problematic.

Back to culture

Let’s make this clear: Yes, the above is written to relate the attitudes expressed in the police officer’s article to a part of Iceland’s recent past, that has never been properly examined or dealt with. No, that is not to say that police officer Birgir Örn Guðjónsson harbours the exact same sentiments as those who came before him. After 1945, most of the Icelandic Nazi party’s former members joined the ranks of the Independence Party. That does not make all Independence Party members into murderous xenophobes. It nonetheless remains a fact. Facts are remarkable things.

To this day, the police certainly come across, to many, as a right-wing hotspot. Former officers who enter politics run, as it seems without exception, for the Independence Party. This context might provide an insight into circumstances that might be less than helpful for Birgir to see any offense in his article. There might not be that many around him to object to those sorts of sentiments.

The second coming

I mentioned weapons training above: If you have been following news from Iceland, you are probably aware that earlier this autumn, the Coast Guard obtained 250 machine guns from Norway, of which the Police was supposed to receive 150. When this was revealed by DV, many protested. Soon, the police announced that they would return the guns, which seemed to good to be true. As it goes with such things, the decision turns out to have little to do with the public’s opposition, and more with the fact that Norway expected Iceland to pay for the cargo, which was evidently not the Coast Guard’s intention. Guns were not on the police’ budget. Now it seems they will be, and Superintendent Jón Bjartmarz claims that the police needs and intends to acquire at least 150 MP5s before long. Which means that the rest of us will have to cancel our celebrations and keep explaining that bullets are hard, guns can be fatal, and that no, the Islamic State is not about to attack.

Logical interlude: butter

Now, then, however and yet. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once explained that posing naked on album covers and such was their way to distract their opponents from the message they were really getting across. In their case, at that time, peace. It is a neat trick. that logic was given a local twist by ex-Prime minister Davíð Oddsson, by way of an anecdote which he related in an interview around a decade ago: his grandmother, he said, had a cat. Whenever the cat became restless and noisy, she would nudge a pinch of butter into its fur. The cat would then be quietly occupied for the next hours, trying to get rid of the butter. The Prime Minister explained that he had used analogous tactics in politics, distracting people from real issues by throwing in highly disputable but less important topics, with great success. This subsequently became known as the butter-pinch method. It probably serves Davíð well in his current role as Morgunblaðið’s Chief Editor.

Now for the mayonnaise

How to tell butter from mayonnaise, then? Apart from police officers speculating on foreign cultures, what’s really happening? While our collective attention has been held by scandalous utterances and guns, not to mention that sweet, sweet Correction, the right wing vanguard seems to be having a correction of its own.

As reported, the State-owned bank Landsbankinn just sold around 30% of the firm Borgun’s shares, without any call for offers. The majority of those, 19.7% percent of the firm’s total shares, were sold to a company owned by Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s uncle and first cousin. As Nanna Árnadóttir wrote: “According to Kjarninn the sale of these shares in electronic payment solution provider Borgun did not follow any formal sales process and went completely unadvertised. Additionally, as Borgun is an asset of Landsbankinn – of which the government is the majority owner – the sale falls under the jurisdiction of the Finance Minister.”

Now, there is a gift that just keeps on giving, if there ever was one. Borgun is one of the three payment intermediation firms in Iceland. They provide bank clients with credit and debit cards, and companies with the infrastructure to accept those. From now on, every second or third time that you swipe your card to pay for your hard-earned daily bread, you also make a small donation to the Finance Minister’s family. They are known as the Engey family. They’ve been at it for a while.

Historical interlude: 2008 AD

Why did that company belong to the State at all? Because of the 2008 bank crash. Which means, because of the mirage-economy constructed up until the bank crash. That winter, one way or another, a great share of businesses in Iceland were taken over by the State, starting with Prime Minister Geir Haarde’s counter-factual declaration: “This is not nationalization”. What he meant was, of course: “I am not a Bolshevik”. In the meantime, some of those firms have been quietly re-privatized. To make up for the lack of clear figures, please bear with me through an anecdote:

The shopping mall Smáralind, or the company behind it, went bankrupt in the crash. This left Landsbankinn, a major creditor, as its owner. Since Landsbankinn had been nationalized in the crash, the shopping mall was thereby State-owned. A public institute, if you will. In 2012 Landsbankinn sold the majority of its shares to pension funds, which are owned by workers’ unions. The Republic’s Center For Consumer Goods thus changed into The Workers’ Center For Goods And Services, although, of course, it could have been called The People’s Shopping Center the whole time, only it wasn’t. Smáralind still does it best to look like a private enterprise and conceal that it is in fact owned by the people collectively, which is not only less glamorous but could mislead those people to make all sorts of demands. Collectively, people might demand higher wages for the mall’s workers and lower prices for themselves. We all know where that would lead us, don’t we?

Stop whining, it will trickle down! – LOL!

Ásta Helgadóttir already pointed out, that while the Police rationalize their need for guns with fantasies about the threat of Islamic State adherents, the Icelandic State’s current Treasury prioritization is a real, current threat, not to mention potentially fatal. Doctors started their strike actions on October 27. The State is their employer. State officials have expressed their sympathy with the doctors’ demands, but claim that meeting those demands might lead to a general “wage drift.” That is, other workers might make demands as well. Which would be bad because … er. Inflation. No one likes inflation, so stay poor, please. Last February, to meet with the Treasury’s ongoing austerity measures, Landspítalinn, the university hospital central to the country’s health services, laid off all its cleaning staff. Twelve workers are now supposed to do the same job, on behalf of a contractor, as 35 hospital employees did before. Each worker receives 214 thousand ISK a month (ca. €1350) before taxes. The job: to keep an area of 26 thousand square metres clean. That’s over 2,000 square metres per person, and hospital-clean at that.

If this sounds unrealistic, that’s probably because it is: Earlier this month, we failed to report that a representative of the union Efling had been denied access to the workers’ meeting with the contractor. The workers said they were tired. They said that the hospital’s hygiene suffered for there being too few of them. Last week, one patient stepped forward and revealed that earlier this autumn, at the hospital for treatment, she found the hygienic conditions unacceptable, and cleaned the room on her own, as well as the adjacent bathroom. The contractor’s twelve workers reportedly come from Poland. As immigrants, they can be presumed to be in a more precarious position than their native counterparts, and less likely to make serious wage demands. Accordingly, they admitted to journalists that they were scared to go to the media, and so did not, until the aforementioned incident, when they were refused the right to their union’s representation.

Robbery? You probably mean property

As capitalism seems incapable of surviving on its own, at least on that barren and windy island, the country’s leaders have turned to more basic forms of robbery. At the same time, they have more or less ceased referring to any of neoliberalism’s ideological tropes: they make no mention of the Gulag nowadays. Or of freedom, for that matter. In fact, leaders haven’t been saying much at all. They’re tough guys. They act. A long-standing conviction has it that the two are opposite: the left wing talks, money walks. The Left doesn’t say much either, though. And the unions are busy running their shopping malls and what have you.

As for the ongoing mega-transaction from the State Treasury to some 60 thousand mortgage accounts, that thing they marketed as The Correction, let’s call a spade a shovel: it’s bribery. You bribe enough voters and they look away while you gather the rest for yourself and your loved ones. As for those unfortunates who never took out a mortgage and thereby had nothing to correct: when they realize what just happened, they would direct their anger at the slightly more fortunate, if only those were not their own friends and relatives, so… all falls silent.

As if to demonstrate that you really don’t hear the bullet that hits you. Now and then, someone backtalks a marginal group. In the distance you think you hear a gunshot. Nah … it was probably just a firecracker. It’s a safe neighbourhood. Having successfully divided and muffled the people, you enjoy another pleasant, not to mention quiet, evening with friends and family. You are the kind of man who loves to share. Why else collect wealth? Why else run a State?

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