Looking back on 2008 # 1: The Icelandic culture war begins

Iceland is a young country. Our institutions and culture are relatively new and in almost all cases borrowed from other cultures. We have never had to figure out for ourselves why we want a particular judicial system or political system. It has just been copied from abroad. Our political parties copy their ideology from parties in USA, Britain and Scandinavia. We haven’t experienced class-division on the scale other nations have until recently and haven’t asked ourselves how to deal with it. We don’t know our place in the world, whether we should make friends or what kind of friends. In 2008 there were even some who thought it would be a viable option to isolate ourselves.

Christmas time in Iceland means a lot of Christmas parties, where you get to meet everyone from your extended family to friends. Conversation invariably turns to politics but this year seemed different. People seemed reluctant to discuess the main issues of our times, at the end of what has been the most extraordinary year in Iceland’s political and economic history.

The reason seems straightforward. Many are still in shock. There are so many that have lost their jobs and are confused about the future. So many others are afraid of losing theirs in 2009 and everyone is facing financial uncertainty. People have lost their savings, their loans have skyrocketed and purchasing power is down.

Dig deeper and you will find a bitterly diveded country. Those who did browse on the subjects at the Christmas parties would find gaps that seem today to be unbridgeable. The gaps are generational and ideological.

The younger generations, under the age of 40 are as a whole facing the worst crisis. They have been on the property ladder for a short time in which inflation has chewed up the equity on their homes. They have been losing their jobs in the largest number and are having a hard time finding new ones, in many cases while raising young children. These generations are not so forgiving of the politicians or businessmen who have run the country for the last twenty years.

There is a profound danger that if there will be no reconciliation of the economic crash, that if no politicians take responsibility and no businessmen are accused in court then these generations will lose their faith in the system and in the idea of Iceland as a just and fair country. Where they see Sweden’s ministers resign for using the government’s credit-card to buy diapers for her child and Bernard Madoff being hauled off to jail with his assets being frozen, they see Iceland’s ministers sitting steadfastly after the collapse of the banking system and the businessmen who created the mess being allowed to purchase their companies back leaving the debts in nationalized banks. This generation is angry and waiting for answers.

The generations between the ages of 40 and 60 are as a whole in a different situation. They purchased their homes for a fraction of what they are worth, even after the crash. They have been able to invest a bit, sell their businesses if the owned any and are not facing liquidity problems on the scale of younger families. They might have lost savings and in some cases their companies but seeing the younger generation talking to these genarations about the situation is like watching two different sets of alien civilizations try to communicate. They do not seem to understand where the other is coming from.

The ideological gap is even more delicate and proves that good arguments can be destroyed with total nonsense. When people say they think the government should resign because they were at the steering wheel of an economic car crash they are accused of being communist. Just because on the other end of the scale from the Independent Party you will find the Left/Greens and people cannot seem to think outside of those two boxes.

When people say they think that the government opposition should also retire because they have been in parliament for decades without shaking the boat then they are accused of being capitalistic pigs. So therefore people seem to have stayed away from debating the issues at their Christmas parties because they know that nonsense is currently the winner in the important arguments of our lives. Debates are stuck in the cold war between the ideas of communism and capitalism.

Destroying your family gatherings is probably not what we need at this point in time. But we have to face the music sooner than later and start facing our problems. Because as a nation we are the drunk uncle who has passed out in his Armani suit, bought on credit, who is not taking any steps towards recovery. We need to think long-term instead of short-term and we need to listen to ideas instead of only dispensing spin.

It has long been a popular past-time in Iceland to ridicule the politics of the USA, where partizan and ideological wars have raged for the past decades, the so-called “culture wars”. Eventually, even Americans got a bit tired and elected a new kind of politician who ran on promise of change and inclusiveness.

But in Iceland, the culture wars are only beginning.


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