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The Country We Could Have Been

Posted: Updated: is an English-language blog by a brilliant young Icelandic social critic, writer, and former Kaupþing bank employee Daði Rafnsson. Unfortunately, Rafnsson is hanging up his hat, at least temporarily because, "as a mortgage holder and a wage-earning member of the public I am now in the position where I have to devote myself to keep my head above water in order not to drown financially or much worse, morally."

In his last two posts, Rafnsson looks back at the words of an Icelandic political legend, Vilmundur Gylfason, "the charismatic young politician who ruffled a thousand feathers... with eloquent criticism of a corrupt elite and a society of codependency and fear. A social democrat who criticized the lack of checks and balances in government, the way the political parties traded tit for tat, and rampant corruption, Gylfason was marginalized in the Social Democratic party and founded his own which scored four MP's in the 1983 election. Shortly thereafter he committed suicide."

What follows is Rafnsson's translation of a 1975 radio broadcast talk by Gylfason:

"On Silence
We have a power-system that has the opportunity to use the conspiracy of silence when it would be better to speak up. That is, if an healthy and honest society is what people want.

On Co-Insurance
This system of co-insurance between the political parties surely exists. And it probably extends deeper into the roots of our nation than people like to believe.

On "Honorary" Agreements
The parties have almost made an honorary agreement about which issues they should leave to debate and some really do matter. They argue about national defence and agriculture. But about many other issues they have chosen to keep silent. For example, on matters concerning the operation of official institutions and the financial system.

On the Media
Don't we have newspapers? Don't we have newsmedia? That is the core of the problem. There we have an obsolete system. A system that is at least thirty years behind the times if we compare ourselves to our neighbouring countries. The state media is of course in a difficult situation. They are ruled by a political council and little by little [they've become] media that only bring us announcements from official institutions. This doesn't have to be unnatural in itself, but what should form a natural balance [are] free newspapers. But those do not exist. All papers are directly or indirectly published by the political parties and behave accordingly. They are published by the same co-insurance system that controls the banks and therefore agree not to criticize the banking system. [Iris' note: Iceland still has not a single independent Icelandic newspaper].

Unchecked Non-Restraint
This arrangement of unchecked non-restraint has bred politicians and public officials who appear to consider it their private matter how they spend -- I would almost say waste the state's money.

On Government Bestowals
Why they have laws about the purchase of cars is beyond my belief. Why should ministers enjoy tariff-perks for a whole year after they leave office? Obviously the opposition must have a hard time criticizing, and actually be unable to provide a healthy check or balance as it exits the government itself when it accepts such bestowals from the tables of the new government. Yet again, this is the co-insurance of politicians at work.

On Debauchery
I am of the opinion that we have a severely corrupt system of government, and that the reason for it is that we lack media that can [function as real government watchdogs], and in the shadows of this system we have debauchery, more debauchery than people realize could exist. And this debauchery massively pulls down the moral strenght of the power system.

On Lack of Enlightenment
The smallness of individuals against an arrogant power-system which keeps growing... this system rules over both the banks and the media, to mention those only. This is dangerous to democracy if it [isn't] fixed. A gap is and has been forming between this system and its nation, even between the parliament and the nation...This frightening development must be stopped before there is no turning back. I don't believe the public wants this to remain the way it is. It has no benefit and what is worse, human dignity is lacking. I will nevertheless allow myself to be of the opinion that first and foremost we suffer from [lack of] enlightenment, and there we have the co-insuring media and the co-insuring power system to blame."

Rafnsson: "Vilmundur was obviously chastised by the co-insured system. He was a demanding figure, the son of a man who was minister of education, business, and industry and the brother of economist Þorvaldur Gylfason (who himself has been chastised by today's co-insuring system). At the time of Vilmundur's ascent, other notable politicians were also making theirs. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, David Oddson, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, and Geir Haarde to name a few. Hannibalsson became an ambassador... Oddsson became Central Bank governor after leaving the prime ministers' office; Gissurarson got a job at the University of Iceland (and kept it even though he was convicted in court of plagarism)... Geir Haarde behaved well enough long enough to succeed Oddsson as prime minister, and then his government appointed the latter's son to the district court against the recommendation of a committee of peers. Grímsson left parliament after briefly becoming minister and then became president of Iceland.

The words Vilmundur spoke 34 years ago were uttered at a time when Iceland was a wholly different, closed society. Yet, they resonate perfectly with today's discourse. The above mentioned politicians shaped what would become Iceland of 2008: A bankrupt country with a destroyed reputation, where the separation of the branches of power long ago ceased to exist, where nepotism is ripe, where the wealth is not shared, where crime goes unpunished, where trust is scarce, transparency is ignored, and enlightenment is hard to come by."

Thanks Daði. Your brave writings and keen insight will be sorely missed.