A chapter to one of the quirkier tales with its genesis in the 2008 financial crisis came to an end on June 16, when an Icelandic comedian and artist named Jón Gnarr left Reykjavik’s city hall for the last time as mayor.
Gnarr took office amid pervasive post-financial collapse disquiet in 2010, after the nationally well-known funny man and his comrades ascended on the wings of an absurdist platform carried under the banner of the Best Party (“Why vote for second-best when you can have the best?” its slogan demanded to know of voters). The party’s platform promised, among other things: to bring a Disneyland to the far-flung city (population: about 120,000; roughly one-third of all of Iceland), to get drugs out of Iceland’s parliament by the end of the decade, to combat corruption by “indulging in it publicly,” and to break all of its promises. The philosophy was peppered with an air of gravity, to be sure. “Neoliberalism,” Gnarr wrote on the party’s website in January 2010, “in all its pomp and splendor will make its triumphant entry, and sooner or later everything will be up for sale . . . Eventually, people will even sell off their own organs just to afford a bit of luxury. What can you really call your own when you have to sell a kidney in order to celebrate your birthday? Nothing,” he protested. “And everyone’s wearing the same clothes.”
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The message and its delivery resonated in a city that had, before Iceland’s economic crisis in 2008, been unaccustomed to widespread penetrating dissatisfaction. With little financial backing, with voters unclear if the whole thing was an elaborate joke, Jón Gnarr and his merry band quickly accumulated significant support. A campaign music video parody of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” showcased both the party’s own humor and, somewhat subtly, its focus on ignored segments of Reykjavik – it’s lyrics expressed a desire to clean house, and a clip featured Gnarr chatting to immigrants, often overlooked in a country routinely portrayed as lily white. It went viral. But perhaps the most pivotal moment in the campaign occurred during a televised interview when Gnarr admitted that he didn’t know what to say in response to one of the host’s questions. He was hailed as refreshingly honest. Unlike his opponents, Gnarr’s antics had been intentional and witty, and effused a healthy distaste for hierarchy and self-importance. He was rewarded handsomely on Election Day. Voters handed the Best Party a mandate to form a government, and with a plurality of the vote (34.7 percent) Gnarr headed up a coalition. The center-left Social Democrats joined as the junior partner.
His rule was not always without controversy, in part because Gnarr’s government was unable to shake off the long arm of neoliberalism. Reykjavik might have been a city in dire financial straits, but critics still grumbled that Gnarr was happy to allow technocracats to make the toughest decisions. Under the Best Party, Reykjavik saw taxes and energy rates raised, public employees laid off and services consolidated. Gnarr himself wasn’t exactly delighted with this turn of events – he publicly wept after believing his budget cut a program that had helped him as a troubled youth. It didn’t, but he said he still would have made that decision, if he had been required to – or felt he had been required to, anyway.
Gnarr was, nevertheless, extremely popular, and only one of three Reykjavik mayors in the last 32 years to serve a full term. Some public employees reported being happier. Gnarr used his bully pulpit for the bullied – to speak out against human rights abuses around the world. The Best Party also sought to include the public in decision-making. Using an online platform called Better Reykjavik, the coalition carried out 16 policy initiatives from below, and, since 2012, allocated about $2.6 million annually for participatory budgeting. While Gnarr labored to eschew ideological orthodoxy, the man oft-described as an anarchist did seek to erode the pedestal upon which his authority rested. And voters were appreciative, apparently. Toward the end of his term, his approval rating, at 37 percent, was higher than the Best Party’s share of the popular vote in 2010.
But other pastures awaited Jon Gnarr. In his life, he has worn many different hats – punk rock frontman, actor, comedian, he once wrote a column for an Icelandic daily in which he proclaimed to be a newfound Catholic extolling the virtues. An explanation for this, perhaps, can be found in the fact that he has ADHD, and routinely said that he would walk away if the boredom of politics became too oppressive. Whatever his reasons, Gnarr decided against seeking a second term.
The Best Party has gone on without him, as a party called Bright Future. It has made inroads on the national level, having last year won six seats in Iceland’s Parliament. In the election to decide Gnarr’s successor at City Hall, Bright Future became part of a Social Democrat-led four party coalition government. Gnarr, however, is plotting his next steps – a series that starts with the publication of a book about his experience called Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World.
Amid a US East Coast promotional tour, Jón Gnarr sat down with Truthout on June 26 at a chain restaurant inside Union Station in Washington, DC – just before he caught a train to New York. What follows is a record of our conversation that has been slightly edited for clarity. We were warned that not all of his answers should always be taken at face value.
Truthout: What are you hoping to get out of writing this book and what do you hope Americans will take from it?
Jón Gnarr: In terms of what I’m hoping to get, I want to try and be a writer. It’s a way of making a living by putting down ideas and stories and words in a book. But the idea came about at the book fair in Frankfurt in 2012, when I was approached by a publisher who wanted to check if I would be willing to write on my experience. It was very valuable, especially in light of what was going on in Europe with the rise of right-wing extreme parties and fascism. It was very important to offer people some different alternative – alternative politics that were not based on negativity. I felt a kind of obligation, or a duty to do so – to try and explain what the whole idea was about.
There have been different ideas. You will see, in Iceland, political scientists being asked by the foreign media about the Best Party; they will give them an explanation that I consider to be total nonsense. There’s very little truth to what they’re saying. They tend to generalize “The Best Party is a typical protest party, blah blah blah.” But it’s not. It’s something different. And I wanted to emphasize that. That it is something new, something different. It works, and I know it can be inspiring in many different ways for politicians here.
How do you think the Best Party is different from the typical protest party?
I’ve watched and followed different protest parties for a long, long time. I’ve studied their nature and what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses. I have discovered that the weakness, in most cases, is communication between the people within the group. Usually that’s the weak link. They can have a brilliant ideology, a brilliant strategy plan and all, and then it all breaks down because of the communication. People tend to get isolated or alienated from the group, and suddenly they come up with a new group.
They have also not always been clear about the methods they were going to use, and it’s usually basically about whether you can use violence or not – I mean physical and verbal violence; abusive language, for instance, or sympathizing directly or indirectly with violence. So that’s one thing that has often, very often, been the cause of a split, or break up, in different parties. Some will agree to violence, and others will not. Suddenly it’s not one group, it becomes two groups, and then it splits into four groups and so on. I made it very clear in the beginning that we were non-violent. There was never to be any violence whatsoever and we tried to adapt and exercise non-violent communication and non-violent techniques. That was never a problem. There was nobody who was opposed to that.
The second thing also had a lot to do with the silliness, and this simpleton character that I made – that I became, the happy-go-lucky simpleton. Because that works as a repellant on people that you don’t want to be involved – intellectual weirdos who are always on the lookout to be a part of something that is protesting something just to be against something. Maybe self-described anarchists, they just mean trouble. They’re only in it for themselves. They have very little empathy or communication skills, but a lot of attitude and ideas. And I didn’t want them to be involved because I find them mostly negative and boring characters. By keeping it silly they were automatically not interested in it. It was not serious enough for them.
That, I think, is also a big problem with the so-called protest parties. They don’t background check their members, and get all sorts of weirdos and anti-social people. I call them berets. They have college degrees and a beret. They rarely smile. They never make jokes because everything is so serious. And we were not an anti-social group, and it was never our intention. When we came into city council, it was our intention and our goal to try and unite people, and not divide. Many people assumed that we wanted to divide and we were looking down at this group and favored that group. That was not the case.
Americans tend to take their politics really rather seriously. The best way I can describe it – and maybe I’m overthinking this because I want to impress a comedian – is that our leaders could bottle their own farts as perfume and their supporters would wear it proudly. How could a Best Party mentality affect change with seriousness like that?
Well, I think that the same mentality is already at work, and I can see it with Obama, for instance, in terms of playfulness. Like the “Between Two Ferns” interview. That was something that surprised me. He seems to have the image that he does not take himself too seriously. But I don’t know if you agree with it.
I think that when you reach a certain level of power in this country, people tend to take themselves really rather seriously. The “Between Two Ferns” thing was more of a public relations type of thing.
I also thought about it. But it also made me wonder. It’s a bit too risky for that. Power is dangerous. All research and studies point to that. Power can affect us in ways we don’t expect. In many ways it can be addictive. It’s a bit like a drug, and being president of the United States means a lot of power. It’s very difficult to handle.
I don’t know, maybe there is an antidote to power. What I tried to do with the power that I had or in my attitude toward the power that was handed to me was to tackle it with the 12-step method.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous.
To admit my powerlessness toward power. There’s nothing you can do about. You can’t change it. It’s just there, floating around.
Did you ever feel a rush to your head because of your power?
Many times. You could sense it.
Can you recall one of the times specifically?
[Laughs] I once saw a survey that Gallup did on the most powerful people in Iceland and I was third behind the Minister of Finance, Bjarni Benediktsson, and [Prime Minister] Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. And it was like, yeah. Wow. It gives you kind of a rush. It’s also, in a way, tempting to exercise this power because it’s invisible. It only manifests in action, when you exercise it somehow. It does have a physical effect in chemical synapses in your head.
But I have never been interested in power. I do not want to be powerful.
Do you wish, then, that you took a project like Better Reykjavik even further so that residents would have had more power?
Well, the vote in Better Reykjavik was never more than 8 percent [of the electorate]. I had hoped for 20 percent. What disappointed me about it, also, was that the vote was much lower in the age groups under 25. That was the group we were marketing for, but most of the people who were active on Better Reykjavik were people who are active in voting and concerned about democracy, anyway.
I wish that I’d had more ways of getting people more involved in Better Reykjavik. But it also depended on the budget, and it was an experiment, in the beginning, so many were skeptical about it. I had the idea of, you know, if you would vote, you would have a chance of winning an iPhone. [Laughs] I wanted to try it. Let’s see if that gets people to vote. Who doesn’t want to win an iPhone? I have filled out questionnaires on airplanes in the hope of winning something. Why not?
Before you launched the Best Party, you were already fairly well known in Iceland. Do you think, in the US, it would take a celebrity to replicate what you’ve done? Who would you most like to see do that, of all your favorite American actors, comedians or singers?
Well, a celebrity doesn’t necessarily have to be an artist. So I would probably say Oprah Winfrey.
Why is that?
I am an admirer of her. She got ahead in a world where she was both in the wrong body and with the wrong body color, and I think that shows great character. I have followed Oprah Winfrey for a very long, long time, and have followed her shows. I have always admired Oprah Winfrey. And, of course, her acting in “The Color Purple.” I’m a fan of Oprah Winfrey. We really need people like Oprah Winfrey in politics, and I would love to work with her because she is somebody who would understand me [laughs].
You seem to revel in the anarchist identity, but at the same time, by leafing through your book, you say you don’t want to emphasize ideology much.
But isn’t this lack of emphasis on ideology part of what led to the rise of neoliberalism in the first place, with people talking about how technocratic capitalism is the only way – that it’s the end of history? Do you think there’s a danger of slipping into a neoliberal paradigm by not taking on an ideology?
This is something that has troubled me, and I’ve thought a lot about. I know that ideas, even brilliant and good ideas, can be dangerous, and, therefore, I am very careful in subscribing to any ideology other than pacifism and non-violent communication.
But I was reading an article in The Guardian about Nipsters. Nazi Hipsters. It’s something they just invented in Germany. They have launched Gangnam Style videos, where they’re cool, hip Nazis, and they have started using comedy in their propaganda. That’s like the alternative [style of messaging] I had been supporting, you know. But it’s comedy without empathy.
This is probably my next project. To answer this question. I think I’m going to have to write a book about this. It’s something that really, really troubles me. It’s like the same argument between religions and atheists. So what if we abolish all religion? What’s going to be the consequence? I think it’s a valid argument – maybe not to me or you, it wouldn’t change anything, but maybe to somebody else. Realizing “if I do something bad, I’m not going to hell because there is no hell? Okay! Then I will do bad things.”
So it becomes about trying to foster an ideology around empathy, which, I think, is in line with anarchist ideas.
But when you combine all these ideas together, it becomes something that people so easily consider to be naive. It’s hard. It’s been a full-time job for me to play on the line – to not be defined as something.
When you say “naive,” in what way?
In terms of pacifism, kindness, empathy and nature preservation, this, of course, is what the Best Party was – humanistic, empathetic and non-violent, with a great emphasis on human rights and human dignity. But when you start defining it more – “So it’s humanism?” – it becomes something . . .
Yes. You can agree to some of it, but not all. And if people don’t accept all of it, if they cannot identify with it, they will say, “It’s gullible, it’s cute, but it will never work.” Just by staying in the city for a whole term, we showed that it works.
But I am very aware of this risk. On the other hand, comedy has always proved to be the most effective weapon against fascism, because, until now, that’s something that fascists haven’t really been very good at. They don’t know how to be funny. But I hope that the Best Party will not turn out to be an inspiration to fascists . . . to be more gullible and more funny. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
How do you make sense of the past six years? Since the crisis, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party – those mostly responsible for the crash – are back in power. Where did the dissenting voices go wrong?
I don’t understand it. I don’t understand people. I don’t understand myself. I don’t understand democracy. I don’t understand the economy. [Laughs] It has puzzled me my whole life, people. Why do people do this? And why do they do that? And why did I react in this way? Why didn’t I react in a different way? Why did I do what I did and all that? I don’t understand it. I think, you know, people are very easily misled, and democracy is in a degenerate state right now where it can be easily manipulated by big business and money. You, of course, are familiar with that here in the States.
One last question: any thought of running for president in 2016?
I am open to the idea. It’s something that I haven’t really had the time to think about. I would say that I’m open to the idea.