When I get together with my ex pat friends, we often play a game called “you know you have lived in America too long when ….”. The possibilities are endless, from yearning for good telly to dreaming about fish and chips straight from the local chippy. I had one of those moments last October when I went to Iceland to meet with government ministers and their staffs to talk about the harms of pornography. In Iceland the people—and here is the shocker: the government ministers, too—believe that their elected officials should actually serve the people, not capital. Here in the U.S. nobody has any faith in the government to do right by the people, and I don’t blame them.
The right wing, with its neo-liberal “everyone has free choice” mantra, believes that any government assistance to people in need will undermine their work ethic. Such handouts (and not a shrinking economy) will serve to promote laziness and chronic dependence on public generosity. The left, on the other hand, has something of a love-hate relationship with government. It looks to it to regulate business and protect minorities’ rights (or protect people from predatory practices), but at the same time it knows that government is so thoroughly corrupted by corporate donations to politicians, lobbyists, and the revolving door between government and industry, that it can’t be trusted. It is, of course, right.
A joint project of the Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate found that over 50% of members of Congress who left government in the 2010 midterm elections went into the lobbying industry—and why not, given the lucrative nature of this career change? Lee Fang, in an article published on the website Republic Report, found that on average a congressman gets a 1,452% pay raise when he becomes a lobbyist.
Fang points to former congressmen such as Cal Dooley, who made at least $4,719,093 as a lobbyist in four years. This sounds like a lot, but it’s peanuts compared to former congressman Billy Tauzin, who raked in $19,359,927 over the same period. Former Senator Chris Dodd might well be feeling that he got shafted in his new role as chief lobbyist for the movie industry because he makes a paltry $1.5 million a year. Add this to the fact that the 2012 presidential election campaign was the most expensive in history, with a price tag of over $2 billion (and it wasn’t the “shiftless” poor who were using their welfare checks to curry favor with the candidates). It is statistics like these that lead to a complete lack of confidence that the government will ever make changes that benefit the average person who can’t pony up enough money to catch a politician’s eye.
So what a shock it was to be looking into the eyes of so many politicians in Reykjavik. Yes, Iceland is a small country and is way more homogeneous than the U.S., but for all that, I still did not expect to have conversations with ministers who spoke about the harms of unregulated capitalism, the need to protect the civil rights of women and children against a predatory porn industry, and the rights of women and children to live free from fear of sexual violence. On my first night there I had dinner with Ögmundur Jónasson, Iceland’s Minister of the Interior, who also happens to be a leading member of the Left-Green Movement.
The fact that someone from such a party would have any political power was my “too long in America…” moment, but if that weren’t enough, his views on feminism, equality, and gender justice were just too much for my jet-lagged brain. Here was a politician who was unapologetically opposed to porn because it undermines women’s equality, and equally bold in his willingness to create legislation that limits Icelandic men and boy’s access to hard-core, cruel porn. He said this at dinner, repeated it two days later at a public conference on pornography and the law, and is saying it again in his efforts to draft a law that will be the first of its type anywhere in the world. Never before has a country tried to limit porn because it is seen as a violation of women and children’s civil rights. But then, can you expect anything less of a country that was the first to ban stripping on the basis that it promotes gender inequality?
As the news started to leak out here in the U.S., some criticized Iceland for entertaining censorship. But the issue is more complex. In the 2012 election campaign, Mitt Romney famously stated that corporations are people, but corporate “speech” doesn’t deserve the same protections as individual expression. And in Europe there is less tolerance for “hate speech” that impinges on the rights of minorities to live free from fear and violence. In Iceland, people understand that people are not corporations, and that the government serves to protect rights rather than threaten them.
While no socialist utopia, Iceland has a government that has demonstrated a capacity to work for the people rather than just corporate interests, and a government that works for the people has a compelling interest in protecting citizens from harmful corporate practices. Ministers and senior staff I met there understood their role in honoring the integrity of their culture and saw porn as a form of cultural imperialism, since the porn Icelandic men consume is churned out by a small group of producers in Los Angeles. So the question is this: If the government does not protect us from global corporations, then who will, since as individual citizens we are powerless in the face of their enormous economic, cultural, and political power?
I think it is not just the ex pats who should be asking what we miss by living in the U.S. Americans should start asking what they are missing out on by living in a country that is run by corporate-owned politicians. What does it mean that many Americans can’t even imagine the existence of a government anywhere in the world that might try to do the right thing by its people? If Iceland is successful in limiting access to porn, then it will be an example to us all of how a government can stand up to corporate bullies on behalf of its people. How amazing this will be for those of us in the U.S. who are still reeling from the misogynist Republican comments that we had to endure during the past election season—to see a government that works on the principle that women’s lives do indeed matter!
GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).