A Politics of No Politics

Transcribed from This is Hell! Radio‘s 12 July 2014 Episode and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the full interview:

“I don’t think I need to get out of the kitchen. I think we need to turn down the heat in the kitchen so more people can come into the kitchen. Because the kitchen is supposed to be the place where we make nice nutritious meals.”

Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is Jón Gnarr. He is the author of Gnarr: How I Became Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. Good morning, Jón.

Jón Gnarr: Good morning!

CM: Jón campaigned on the promise to get the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park into downtown parks, free towels at public swimming pools, a drug-free parliament by 2020—and he swore he’d break all his campaign promises upon winning the election. Jon promptly proposed a coalition government, although he ruled out partners who had not seen all five seasons of The Wire.

Jón, how is it that a comedian, running a campaign that’s simply a satire, was suddenly taken seriously?

JG: Well, it’s a combination of luck and good planning—and a miracle. The most amazing thing about the Best Party now, when you look back at it, is that it worked out. We did a good job and we all stayed friends. That’s probably the most amazing thing.

CM: When you took office as the mayor of Reykjavik, were you overwhelmed in any way? Did it seem like it was an impossible task to take on?

JG: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into.

It was all quite spontaneous. Because after the financial crisis, which hit Iceland quite hard, the situation in Iceland was quite chaotic. There was a lot of fear and confusion and anger in the air, and my initial thought was, “Maybe somebody like me can step into this and make a difference, just help people to get through this phase.”

And so I started the Best Party, and I contacted people mostly through Facebook; I sent private messages to people and I said, “Hey, I came up with this idea for a political party and I need people on the ballot, and are you in?” And people would say, “Yeah, sure! Is it hard work?”

“No, no, it’s not going to be any work. I just need your name and photo.” And suddenly it was like a snowball; it just became bigger and bigger and bigger.

There was some magic in it, and people sensed the magic somehow. We couldn’t really explain it. I mean, it’s like a joke. It’s funny, but as soon as you start to explain the joke it’s not funny anymore. But everybody realized the joke, and the magic of it.

But when it was drawing close to the elections, like two or three weeks before the elections, and the polls were showing this growing support for the Best Party and the fact that the majority of the people were going to vote for the Best Party, I got a bit overwhelmed. I actually started thinking about options of how I could get out of it.

But then I decided no, this is bigger than me, and this is unique, it’s magical, and it’s not up to me to ruin it. I cannot do it.

We were six people who got voted into the city council, six out of fifteen members. We had never been involved with politics before, and we sat down and we decided we’re going to do our best. We’re going to finish this term and try to do a good job and do it our way, and not lose our integrity or try to be something that we’re not. And just show that it’s possible, show that fairy tales can happen.

It was very, very hard at the very beginning. The first two years were quite hard.

CM: One of the things that I kept thinking about in this book is how during this very serious time—you’re only a year and a half out from the financial collapse of 2008, and Iceland—and a lot of progressives here in the United States cheered on Iceland as Iceland (as they always put it) stood up to the banks and refused to go the same route as the United States by bailing them out. And then, shortly after, here you are as the mayor of Reykjavik, now the most powerful person within Iceland.

What does that say to you about Icelanders, when in this very serious time—after having this serious confrontation that nobody else in the world seems to want to have with the banking sector—they were able to elect you?

JG: That’s a very good question, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. It’s very complicated. There’s no one single explanation. But it shows a lot of courage. Also Icelanders are generally quite spontaneous people—and that may be due to the climate. You have to be both optimistic and quick to adapt.

In international happiness surveys we are usually at the top of the list, and many people wonder what we are so happy about. What is it? We have crap weather, and we have volcanoes—but optimism has always been a big part of the nationality. When you have really crap weather, and you stand with some people and somebody points out the weather, then somebody else will say, “Well, it could be worse.” That’s a big part of the Icelandic mentality.

Optimism is also somehow related to creativity, so it was in harmony with the Icelandic mentality, I would say, to do something spontaneous and positive. I think people just felt good about it.

CM: You write, “Theories are clever things. In politics there are a lot of theories that make perfect sense. Socialism, with its classless society, equality and fraternity. Or liberalism, which wants to give everyone enough leeway to work freely. Even in education and culture, there are smart ideas. And in the different religions. But unfortunately there is something to which none of these fantastic theories is immune: human weakness.

“Immaturity is one weakness. Selfishness, another. Greed: no matter what ideology you hold to, sooner or later greed and selfishness get in the way. Especially when it comes to human encounters and partnerships and families, at school or at work. Wherever people are trying to build something up, a single individual can bring everything crashing down. We know this from apartment buildings: you only need one person to step out of line and things get out of hand.”

If humans are the problem with all these ideologies, Jón, are all ideologies therefore failures? Is the goal to come up with an ideology that is immune to our petty influences?

“I like to think of the Best Party as the first little mammal in the world of the dinosaurs. It may be little and insignificant and the dinosaurs may look down on it and say, ‘This is never going to be anything. It’s little, furry, it’s cute. It’s not big and strong like us…’”

JG: There is no perfect ideology. Ideas are dangerous. If you come up with a good idea, often bad people will take your good idea and use it for their bad purposes, and that was maybe not your intention when you came up with the idea.

There are so many problems with humans, and I don’t really know how to solve these problems. I don’t always understand people; I don’t even always understand myself.

Another crucial element in politics is alcoholism, which plays a big part. It does a lot of damage. I would even say it’s the single biggest problem in politics. It’s everywhere. The people who are in charge are actually sick. It’s not that they’re selfish or stupid—they’re just alcoholics. Sometimes when they make decisions they’re intoxicated. They need to go to rehab and try to get sober.

But ideas are so dangerous. The idea with the Best Party was, in a way, an idea of no idea. The Best Party had the politics of no politics. I’ve been hesitant to identify with any isms. When I’m asked about anarchism, for instance, I like to say that I can agree on that; I am an anarchist in a way. But I’m not an anarchist because I believe Anarchism is the perfect ideology that will make us all happy—but rather because there is no such ideology.

I think we could start looking at things like politics and democracy from a different standpoint, from a different perspective. With more emphasis on different things. There’s a big emphasis on leadership, what makes good leadership—but we should start focusing more on things like communication and humility—and even, yeah, alcoholism.

CM: Jón, you write that “when I entered politics I freely called myself an anarchist, but does that mean I seriously think that the dream of an ideal society in which everyone takes care of everyone else and everyone respects the rights of others can actually come true? A society in which you don’t need any rules because everyone is so kind and mature and intelligent? No, I don’t think so.”

Last week we were speaking with an author by the name of Justin McGuirk, and he was talking about how architects lost this vision that they had had in the past; in the past the vision was to try to make architecture that will take us into some sort of utopian age.

Do you think that, just like architecture has lost its focus on trying to get closer to a utopian idea, that leadership, that politics, that governance has also lost that focus? And in particular, in the way that you approach it, has it also lost the focus on being happy?

JG: Yeah, I definitely think so. In most democratic countries, we have been in a vicious circle; and many people who go into politics find themselves incapable of fulfilling what their original intentions were. Mostly because of fear, and also because of the media.

Politics and the political culture has become a hostile environment. You’re supposed to be this specific type of person to be involved in politics. You have to be a quick thinker and good with words, and fearless. Politics is no place for insecurity. You have to be confident, and we have made up this false image of the so-called ‘professional politician.’ There is no such thing. You cannot go to a university anywhere in the world and learn to be a politician. It’s not a profession. It’s an illusion. It’s a characteristic.

“Maybe I changed the mold by becoming a ‘leader’ and being me. I put on lipstick and I dressed up in drag. I think I did a lot of damage to the leader image.”

When I started in politics and I started experiencing this aggression, and I complained about it, the other politicians would say things to me like, “If it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen.” And I just don’t agree to that. I don’t think that I need to get out of the kitchen. I think we need to turn down the heat in the kitchen so more people can come into the kitchen. Because the kitchen is supposed to be the place where you make nice nutritious meals for people.

I was surprised, also, with my ideas about politicians in general. When I started working side by side with other politicians, I had prejudices against politicians. I thought they were mostly selfish or even not that clever people. I would make cruel jokes about politicians. But then I got to know them, and I realized they’re just people. Most politicians are not evil people. They are just stuck in the vicious cycle of this political culture.

I remember especially one incident after the election, when I had been in office for a hundred days. The media leaves you alone for a hundred days, but after a hundred days it’s hunting season. And they would come after me and they would ambush me, and ask me these trick questions. I was kind of in the spotlight, and it felt like somebody was out there trying to get me. It was confrontational. There were a lot of confrontations; I was being asked very direct questions about complicated things.

And one time I was on television and I was asked very direct questions that I had no answer to. And I admitted it. I said, “Well, I don’t know.”

The person had never had this experience before. She said, “How can you say you don’t know? You are the mayor of Reykjavik! How can you say that you don’t know?”

“Well, just because I don’t know. That just how it is. But I can find out and we can have this interview again in a week or so, and then I will know. But I just don’t know.”

And the interview just ended, and afterwards I felt so bad. I was so ashamed, and I felt I had failed. I was thinking, “What are you thinking? You don’t know anything about anything,” and “who do you think you are?” and so on. I was quite low. I had failed.

But then people started coming up to me in the street and thanking me. Like, “I saw you on the news last night, wow, that was amazing! Congratulations! I want to thank you, because this was the first time I have ever seen a politician on TV admit that he doesn’t know.” And people appreciated it. That was something that I had not anticipated.

So it’s the power of humility and the power of honesty. When people sense your honesty and humility, in my experience they tend to appreciate that. Moreso than cleverness or a witty answer.

CM: One of the things that you write in here is that “to understand Iceland you have to go to the pool. It’s the swimming pools that forge us into a nation more than anything else, I think.” When you told this story in the book, I did have a much better understanding of Iceland. So please, tell our audience why it’s so important to understand the Icelandic swimming pool in order to understand the people of Iceland.

JG: The public swimming pools in Iceland are the meeting place of the public. It’s the place you go after work, to relax and have a conversation with other people. And because of all the geothermal water flowing all over the place, we can make hot pots. We may not be able to stand on some corner because of the weather, but we can go into a hot pot. So the public swimming pools have become the public meeting place of the people.

And when you sit in the hot pot, it’s harder judge the people who are sitting there with you because they don’t have any clothes on. That makes it quite hard to categorize them into class, education, background, and so on. You can only judge them from what they say, what they have to contribute to the conversation.

“I’m not an anarchist because I believe Anarchism is the perfect ideology that will make us all happy—but rather because there is no such ideology.”

It’s something that is quite important in the culture in Iceland, to go to the swimming pools. In every public swimming pool, there will be three to six hot pots with different temperatures, and there will be people and they will talk to you. They will ask you questions. And sometimes you will have very serious talks.

Maybe there will be some old woman there, and she will start talking about Israel-Palestine or something. And more people will come into the conversation, and you have no idea who these people are. It’s an old woman; she could be a housewife or she could be a professor; you don’t know. It’s something very unique to Iceland.

CM: What do you think is the biggest change that you brought in your time as mayor of Reykjavik? What’s one thing that you can point to that is very different that you did compared to the person who preceded you?

JG: Well, maybe the biggest fundamental difference is that I am not a politician, and I am not political. I tried to approach this task as work. And the Best Party is not a political party. It is more of a democratic self-help group. We created a democratic alternative. I think that ‘Politics’ are losing their significance in cities and municipalities, and it will be more about common sense and cooperation instead of political ideologies.

But I think it’s still a bit too soon for me to say. Only time will tell what was the greatest difference. It depends a lot on what is going to happen next.

I like to think of the Best Party as the first little mammal in the world of the dinosaurs. It may be little and insignificant and the dinosaurs may look down on it and say, “This is never going to be anything. It’s little, furry, it’s cute. It’s not big and strong like us. It doesn’t have big teeth like us.” That’s what I hope for.

But maybe by introducing more humility, because a big problem is the leaders. Sometimes they become the problem because they have too much testosterone in their body and sometimes they are alcoholics, and sometimes the two combine and suddenly we have a leader out of control.

Maybe I changed the mold by becoming a ‘leader’ and being me. I put on lipstick and I dressed up in drag. I think just by that I did a lot of damage to the leader image. And maybe that will contribute to some bigger change. I really hope we could have more humility, more empathy, more humor and a more feminine touch on everything. It’s too much testosterone. We need to cut down the testosterone of it all, and introduce different alternatives of cooperation.

CM: Jón, it’s been a pleasure having you the show, and it’s great to hear such a wonderful laugh this early on a Saturday morning. Thanks so much.

JG: Thank you! Bye, bye!

Image Source: Occupy Melbourne (uncredited)

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