Twin Dawns Over Europe
Several weeks ago, the UK Guardian released a 12 minute video documentary. It was chilling in its narrative about Chrysi Avgi, the Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn is an openly racist, homophobic, hyper-nationalist group which uses Nazi-like symbols, salutes, and rhetoric, and is rising in popularity in an unraveling Greece. It was founded by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a former military man with ties to the Greek military junta (1967-1974), with assistance from ultra-right street gang leader, Giannis Giannopoulos who was once associated with the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi organization.
In this video, we see Golden Dawn’s open infiltration of the police forces and their regular use of threats, intimidation and violence against immigrants and others, providing queasy recognition to any student of modern German history and the Nazi party’s rise. Michaloliakos, in fact, has openly praised Hitler (calling him “our great leader”) and made his admiration for Nazi philosophy clear (“We are the faithful soldiers of the National Socialist [Nazi] idea and nothing else”). Immigrants are nearly beaten to death, opposition political figures are openly speculating about a fascist takeover, and there is a palpable edginess to the entire subject with fear being the dominant backdrop to conversations about Golden Dawn’s increasing influence. For a country which suffered tremendously in the recent past over militaristic dictatorship and further back, Nazi occupation, this is a deeply disturbing trend.
Meanwhile on YouTube, images of another political dawn is shown on a set of nine short videos, shot in Iceland, and albeit far more tongue-in-cheekily. Traveling the sparsely populated and often stark interiors of the country, we see long stretches of rugged, beautiful landscapes interspersed with various personal shots and town meetings. Joggers running alongside the bus, piano-playing sing-alongs, and talks given in coffee shops and meeting rooms. The mood is generally subdued (as are most Icelanders) and yet playful, belying the fact that serious attempts are being made here to connect with and inspire people to vote in the upcoming constitutional election. By extension, they are also informally introducing themselves to the country as a new political force, and trying to recruit others for a run in next springs Parliamentary elections.
These are not “political” videos as such, they’re almost a running mockumentary in the self-effacing way they treat this small movement’s dedicated members as they travel together, road trip style from place to place. But in Iceland, small is not the same as insignificant and, as people are valued as individuals (and in a country where the degrees of separation are narrow and frequently familial) such earthy portrayals are just as likely to be taken seriously as any informative political ad. Possibly more so. So, yet another dawn may be breaking in Iceland.
Readers of CounterPunch may recall I used this image once before  in describing the effects of the “Pots and Pans Revolution” and the results of the 2009 election. Now, after 3 years of a rough stabilization of the economy that remains highly problematic, with most Icelanders no better off and even more disgusted with politics-as-usual, a new political party is rising.
Dögun, Icelandic for “dawn,” is the latest populist movement to attempt to challenge the political status quo and revitalize a deeply disgruntled public. Its full name is “Dawn – The organization of justice, fairness and democracy”. It is made up of former members of several other recent political factions; among them, The Citizen’s Movement, the Liberal Party, and The Movement, along with 2 members of the Constitutional Council which was established to draft a new constitution.
In the weeks leading up to the constitutional vote, Dögun members took the streets in a 40 year old revamped and repainted bus whose logo is an arctic tern flying across a purple sky with a bright dawn rising from below. (The tern’s incredible determination makes it the most traveled animal on earth, journeying tens of thousands of miles every year, from the Arctic to Antarctica and back.) They used bullhorns and impromptu gatherings in public spaces to hopefully jolt an electorate tired of the glacial pace of their so-called economic “stability.” The results of that election may have been affected by the extra efforts put out by Dögun’s challenge to citizens, written along the side of the bus, “Do you want a new Constitution or do you want a café latté?” Now, as a political slogan, it may not rival, “Fired up, ready to go!,” but it just may have convinced enough Icelanders that, if they want real change, then they were going to have to get up and actually do something (in this case, vote for the Constitutional Council’s recommendations) rather than just talk about what needs to be done. And so they did.
Levity aside, the differences between these two dawns are not only in style; on issues of importance, Greece’s´ Golden Dawn and Iceland’s Dögun couldn’t be farther apart. For example, both Dögun and Golden Dawn tackle a sensitive issue throughout Europe, immigration, but the similarities end there. [Disclosure: I have helped translate some of their materials into English.]
Dögun’s policy toward immigrants and refugees is remarkably tolerant. Describing themselves as “a multiculturally-inclined political party”, they confidently assert that, “people with foreign roots contribute to broadmindedness among Icelanders… that the education and work experience of immigrants is currently underutilized … [and] the legal status of immigrants must be equal to that of Icelanders.” Refugees are to be treated according the UN Refugee Convention, and should be able to live and work where they please while their paperwork is processed in a fair and timely fashion.
Such openness is very different from Golden Dawn’s attitudes. As the Guardian video shows, they regard the influx of immigrants as “garbage.” One immigrant was brutally beaten, requiring metal plates in his face after he was attacked in his sleep, his face a barely recognizable mess. An immigrant rights activist speaks about the threats and blackmail Golden Dawn uses against immigrant workers on the docks, and we hear a Golden Dawn parliament member threaten to throw immigrants out of the hospitals. Later, we see another Golden Dawn Parliamentarian throwing a drink at one woman MP and publicly slapping another, Liana Kanelli, all on live TV, (Kanelli later quotes the Golden Dawn as promising to “make soap” of communists too, who are treated as a “separate race”). Scenes of intimidating, black T-shirted, muscled men are shown at Golden Dawn rallies, with fists aloft, ominously watching the crowds and attacking makeshift stalls and what appears to be people in a stadium. According to one policeman (whose identity is masked) “they display their virility on the back of the hopeless.” All of this echoes Nazi-era brownshirts who used similar techniques of demonizing Jews as responsible for all the ills their society faced while denouncing communists and liberals who objected to their platform as unpatriotic. We are seeing similar trends in the United States as well.
Few probably believe Iceland can be an inspiration for huge, multi-cultural and multi-racial nations around the world. Iceland’s immigrant population is about 7%, mainly Poles. So I’m not suggesting we take the Icelandic example as totally representative of the kinds of activism currently rocking many European nations. In Madrid, Athens, and other cities, hundreds of thousands of marchers have called for an end to austerity and for radical changes to their own political systems of governance and economics, and many are tackling issues of immigration with courage. And I’m not suggesting that Icelandhas all the right ideas necessary for a radical transformation of the world’s democracies. Iceland is pretty small, relatively homogenous culturally and the numbers of people hitting the streets at any given time is small. Nevertheless, the sheer doggedness of the activists of Dögun, much like the arctic tern, should provide some measure of inspiration in this world so often bereft of hope. Because, when all is said and done, either we persistently try to defend democracy, inspiring a widening redefining of its scope, or we will face a different kind of organizing. One that is vigorous and demagogic, which demonizes the Other, uses resentment to stir up hatred, attacks people physically, and calls for a militant ultra-nationalism, becoming a revived fascism whose end will be the same as the last one, ovens.
Dögun may not look sexy or revolutionary or powerful; it may look both small and insignificant, in fact. But if we are to have any future which does not end in more barbarity – or worse – then the slow-moving brightly colored Dögun bus, persistently trudging along the sleepy towns of Iceland, may be a hopeful signal of what our side needs to be doing, every single day, if we are to avoid catastrophe. Reaching out to each other, one person, and one stop at a time.
Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland.