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The Insolents Abroad
In recent months, Iceland has grabbed more news headlines than perhaps ever before in living memory: the colossal economic meltdown and rapid devaluation of the Icelandic króna; the increasingly intense political protests in Reykjavík demanding the resignation of the government; and the coming to power of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to become the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister. Things have calmed down considerably since January, but with the economy still in shambles and new elections scheduled for May, Iceland’s current period of economic and political turbulence is far from over.
In an apparent attempt to get a quick scoop, an assorted “hack pack” (to use Thomas Goltz’s term) of reporters and journalists with little to no knowledge of Iceland were hurriedly dispatched to the scene, the quality of their commentary often saying more about the sad state of the US news media than about what is actually happening in Iceland. Chief among these distributors of misinformation is Michael Lewis, a writer on finance and sports-related topics whose lengthy article on Iceland’s economic meltdown entitled “Wall Street on the Tundra” appeared in the April 2009 issue of Vanity Fair.
Lewis’ article is chockfull of cringe-inducing generalizations and racist anecdotes. He likens Icelandic men to “moose, rams, and other horned mammals” and calls one particular Icelander he sees at a bar “a bearded troll.” Lewis offensively (not to mention erroneously) claims that the Icelandic people are “the most inbred humans on earth” and characterizes their general physical appearance as being “mousy-haired and lumpy.” Indeed, so barbaric does Lewis find the people of Iceland that he even goes so far as to describe overheard throes of passion coming from his Icelandic neighbors at a Reykjavík hotel as “Orc shrieks.” As I masochistically forced myself to continue reading Lewis’ article, I could not help but wonder: how did such a dimwitted diatribe ever make it through Vanity Fair’s editorial process? Did the editors really find it fit to print? Yes, unfortunately for us, they really did.
What is most disturbing about Lewis’ asinine piece is not any one particular bigoted remark as much as it is the overall adversarial tone taken against the entirety of the Icelandic nation (or rather, in Lewis’ words, the Icelandic “extended family” since he considers it too small and inbred a country to merit recognition as a legitimate nation-state). Lewis blames all of Iceland—each and every citizen—for the economic collapse. He does not distinguish between the haves and have-nots of Icelandic society but instead lumps them all together as one enormously ignorant composite. Lewis thus treats all Icelanders as cognizant perpetrators of the financial crisis rather than its unfortunate victims, and he does so with a cruel venomousness he seems to relish. In this respect, Lewis may be tapping into the same brand of white-collar populism that was recently channeled by CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli when, in the middle of a highly-charged rant on live television, he animatedly belittled America’s financially downtrodden as “losers” whose “bad behavior” should not be subsidized.
Even more importantly, Lewis blames the Icelandic economic collapse on the buffoonery of fishermen-turned-financiers and thereby manages to bypass pertinent questions about the nature of capitalism itself. While the financial collapse of Iceland may indeed represent a particularly disastrous example of the consequences of what perennial truth-teller Ralph Nader calls “casino capitalism,” Lewis conveniently ignores the fact that many other countries seem to be hopelessly headed in Iceland’s footsteps—places like Hungary, Ireland, and Latvia, not to mention the United States. But perhaps that is the real point of Lewis’ article—to turn Iceland into a scapegoat, thereby distracting our attention from problems closer to home. Indeed, he practically proclaims such a reactionary intention early on, saying, “Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, ‘Well, at least we didn’t do that.’”
We would all do well to leave Lewis’ laughably amiss attempt at edgy journalism aside and instead ponder Iceland’s economic meltdown through a very different lens—that of Iceland itself. What do native Icelanders have to say about the crisis? Admittedly, Iceland is not my area of expertise. My knowledge of the country began during my freshman year at the University of Texas when I enrolled in a course on Icelandic literature, and in the subsequent decade, I have kept an occasional eye on Iceland by viewing its films, reading its literature, listening to its music, and—more recently—taking a trip there to explore the beautiful Icelandic countryside.
Unfortunately, the Icelandic language remains beyond my comprehension; as Icelandic historian Gunnar Karlsson once put it, “[T]he history of Iceland is for the most part a secret kept for those who can read the language,” and indeed, the same can be said about its politics. In-depth opinion and analysis of the current crisis by native Icelanders is, unfortunately, rather hard to come by in the English language, and during the last few months, I have become a frequenter of such websites as The Iceland Weather Report (http://icelandweatherreport.com), The Iceland Review (http://www.icelandreview.com), and The Reykjavík Grapevine (http://www.grapevine.is) as well as Iris Elingsdóttir’s blog entries on The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/iris-lee). The picture of the Icelandic populace that emerges from such sources is far more dynamic and three-dimensional than the veritable litany of racist mistruths and petty exaggerations offered by Michael Lewis. Indeed, by simply taking into account the grassroots nature of the January anti-government demonstrations which drew to the streets of Reykjavík upwards of 7,000 citizens from all strata of Icelandic society (a vast number for a city with only 120,000 people) in order to protest the cronyism and foolish economic mismanagement that led to the financial collapse, Lewis’ portrayal of the Icelandic people as a ragtag motley crew of unlearned Nordic peasants who only understand fish is immediately shattered. Could this be the reason why these protests are, with the exception of a single photo caption, conspicuously absent from Lewis’ narrative? One cannot help but wonder.
The point being made here is not to white-wash Iceland’s failed financial policies. All societies have their crimes and their criminals, Iceland included, and it is an unfortunate reality that those irresponsible powerholders and self-serving financial managers who, for want of personal profit, convinced the Icelandic nation to follow them on a path of economic destruction will, for the most part, escape unharmed, not unlike similar figures on this side of the Atlantic who are now reveling in exorbitant bonuses and retirement packages paid for by the rapidly depleting American taxpayer. However, the road to justice begins by honestly assessing today’s various problems and global crises, not by giving in to knee-jerk racism and bigotry. Unfortunately, this simple truth is apparently above the heads of Michael Lewis and the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.
GREGORY A. BURRIS is a writer, teacher, and traveler currently based in Istanbul. He would like to thank his former professor Dr. John Weinstock for first introducing him to the fascinating world of the Icelandic sagas. Gregory’s other articles have appeared in Dissident Voice, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, and Middle Eastern Studies.
 Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.5.