And other civics lessons from Reykjavík's unconventional former mayor.
As of June 16, 2014, Jón Gnarr is no longer the mayor of Reykjavík, Iceland. That is not the real news, though. The news is that Jón Gnarr ever became the mayor of Reykjavík at all.
Gnarr, who has spent much of his life working as an actor and comedian, got into politics in a most unusual way. After the global financial meltdown of 2008, in which Icelandic banks were disastrously involved, the small island nation was roiled by unprecedented protests. People took to the streets, banging on pots and pans to express their anger at the way the financiers had gambled with the nation's economic destiny.
It was in this atmosphere of discontent that Gnarr and several of his friends came up with the absurdist idea of the Best Party. He created a character for a sketch comedy show, a "simple-minded local politician with an autocratic demeanor and the most absurd campaign promises," as he writes in his new book, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World.
This fellow’s party? Well, it was the "Best Party," of course.
In the heightened post-crash atmosphere, however, Gnarr and his friends soon realized that they might have a chance to do more than get a few laughs. (Although Gnarr would be the first to say how important a few laughs can be, and his statements are regularly punctuated by his own goofy guffaw.) There was a real public appetite for a political movement that would do things differently than they had been done before, with more transparency and honesty and less corruption and nepotism.
In April 2010, the Best Party released a platform, affirming its support of the following principals, among others: protection and support for Icelandic households; benefits for vulnerable members of society; an end to corruption; debt relief; and gender equality. Also (and this was a big point), free entrance to the city’s famous and vital public swimming pools.
When election time came, the party won a plurality of the vote, 34.7 percent. The establishment right-wing party came in second, with 33.6 percent.
In the days following, the Best Party formed a coalition with the left-leaning Social Democrats, and Gnarr became mayor of Reykjavík, a position he held until stepping down this month rather than running for re-election. Gnarr is now looking forward to finishing up one in a series of memoirs set for publication in the U.S. This one deals in part with his difficult childhood: He was written off as mentally defective and relegated to a harsh boarding school for troubled kids. "That almost finished me off, that experience," he says.
He recently made a trip to the United States to promote Gnarr!, which outlines his unlikely rise into the political sphere, and I met with him in a Brooklyn café to talk about the character of Reykjavík, the similarities between the Best Party and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and the Icelandic tradition of getting naked in front of strangers. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Do you feel like your time as mayor allowed you to achieve some of the idealistic things that you hoped to do?
I wanted to improve the livelihood of Reykjavík. It had a lot to do with transportation within the city. And so we implemented a lot of changes in transportation, especially with bicycle lanes. We put down hundreds of kilometers of bicycle lanes, and it's completely changed the city. It has to do with changing infrastructure, but also changing the energy of the city. And that is one thing I have dreamt about for a long time.
The biggest single task that I managed to finish was the master plan from 2015 to 2030. It's a brilliant master plan, a very professional and good master plan. And it will deliver us a much better, more efficient city. It's focused on energy use, recycling, transportation, and how we structure the growth of the city. Instead of growing outwards, we want to condense the city and have it grow inwards. That's the most radical change.
How would you describe the personality of Reykjavík to someone who has never been there?
The main characteristic of Reykjavík is friendliness, friendliness and innocence. You can experience in Reykjavík an innocence that in most places has been long lost. It has to do with the smallness, but also something to do with the culture and the mentality.
For instance, some friends from Paris came for a visit two years ago, and they went to the main shopping street. They were just amazed. They had seen two women with baby carriages in the street. And the women had parked the baby carriages in the street and left them outside. And my friends were like, "You would never, ever, do this anywhere in France! If you would do this anywhere in France you would get arrested!"
But in your book you talk about corruption in Iceland, and also about the loss of innocence that came with the financial crisis.
Yes. And as a matter of fact, I don't know how this innocence is going to evolve, if it's going to be lost. Reykjavík is changing very, very rapidly. For instance, our [regular] police are unarmed, they just have a stick. But we have a special armed police. And just six months ago, for the first time, the police shot and killed a person. That was a big thing, because it's always been the Icelandic way to talk your way through without violence.
What I have always found fascinating about Reykjavík is the importance of the public swimming pool. It acts sort of as the public corner or the pub does for other countries. It's where all sorts of people come together for conversation and mutual enjoyment. But the big difference with Iceland and the swimming pools and the pubs is that people are sober, they are not intoxicated. They are having sober conversations.
And also, people are not dressed in a certain way.
Right, and you have limited ways of judging [a person's] education, income, and so on. And I have so often had this amazing experience when I am having a lively, insightful talk with somebody, and I just assume it must be a professor or something, and then you find out that it's a shoemaker.
In the book, I also mention this thing about the baths and the showers and the nakedness. From an early age you're accustomed to getting naked in front of other people. It does something to you somehow. It makes you more relaxed.
And that contributes to the nation's character?
There is one thing I have always been very proud of with Iceland. Icelanders are not racist, in my experience. Of course, you can have instances of racism. But they are generally not racists, and not bigots—in terms of LGBT people, for instance. Iceland is very open to them.
I remember when my nephew said he was gay, my mother, she was born in 1922, she was impressed. She was like, "We have a gay in the family!" It was something unique, something exciting, an unpredictable something.
Iceland is not part of Scandinavia but it is Scandinavian. It's a bit like the way a tomato is biologically a fruit but it's considered a vegetable because we eat it in a salad. Iceland is a bit the tomato in the salad.
I think when Americans look at Scandinavia, they think everything is easier there because it's so homogenous. Do you think that other countries that are bigger and more complicated can learn from your experiences in Iceland?
Yes, and I think they are studying this experience. Something I have found out during my time as mayor is that city authorities usually follow very closely what happens in other cities. I think that the next political revolution will be on the municipality level in countries. It seems to me that everything that is happening of any value, in terms of renewable energy, global warming, community awareness—it is all happening on the municipality level.
Are you relieved to no longer be mayor? I understand it's a very stressful job.
Yeah, it's the most difficult job I have ever done in my life. So I am relieved, but it doesn't mean that I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the job. I'm excited about other ideas that I have and other projects that I want to start.
I decided to do this and finish a whole term to prove a point. And I'm just so happy, because I think I did a really good job. And people are generally happy with me as mayor and they would have wanted to re-elect me.
I feel I've been learning something at some university, but I'm not sure what I've been learning! I've graduated from something, but I don't know what it is.
In your book, you say that you think that Iceland can play a role globally in human rights and peace issues. Are you going to continue that work personally?
I'm willing to, if there's any platform for me to do it. It was my idea to see if it was possible to declare Reykjavík a military-free zone. It's a very naïve, childish idea, and I fully admit that. But we have loads and loads of naïve, childish ideas. I mean, democracy is a very naïve, childish idea.
I would like to see Reykjavík take further steps in that direction. I'm not going to drag the wagon, so to speak. But if there is a wagon, I'm willing to be one of the people sitting on it.
We have in Reykjavík Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower. I think peace has every possibility of becoming something very huge. It has to do with the message of [the Imagine Peace Tower]. Imagine is very naïve, but it's serious.
Naïve and serious are not contradictory.
No, they are not, but many people see them as a contradiction. Like with humor and seriousness. I get this question, "How can you be mayor and be funny at the same time?" Why not? Just because I'm funny doesn’t mean that I'm not serious. Like raising children, you don't have to be strict all the time. You can be funny but still raise your children to be nice people.
Your Best Party has been affiliated more with the left in Iceland. It seems that here in the United States, the right-wing grassroots are more organized and influential than the grassroots left.
That's something I have thought a lot about. It seems to me that the bullies or the bad guys, they have a tendency to stick together. Bullies stick together, but the good people don't. They don't always agree. But bullies always agree. They are just happy being bullies.
That's what's so lovely about what you did with the Best Party. When I was reading about it, I thought, "How can it be that thoughtful, right-minded people who are not conventional could somehow stay together long enough to get into a position where they could do something?"
There is one mystical connection with the Best Party, or the people in the Best Party: Most of us have a prior experience with the 12 steps of AA, and that has affected our work a lot. For many of us, it's like the democratic version of the 12 steps.
It has to do a lot with this first step of admitting that you're powerless. That's been the case with the Best Party, that we have openly admitted that we are powerless. And we are going to work from that: Start by admitting we are powerless, but what can we do?
That's fascinating, the 12-step connection.
As an anarchist—or as someone who is sympathetic to anarchist theories—I see it's very anarchistic, the 12 steps. There's no one that's the leader, there's no one in charge. It's communal, we do it together. Something seems to be working. And I have always been fascinated by things that are working. How can we take things like AA and implement them into democracy?
There are many similarities with the 12-step philosophy and the Best Party. Because there is no membership, you can come and go as you please. If you don't want to be in the Best Party, it's OK. You can just leave. And you can join the Best Party, but you don't do it by signing your name.
We get loads and loads of emails from people, "How do I join the Best Party?" And it's like, you are in the Best Party. Just by wanting to be in the Best Party you have become a member of the Best Party. "How can I support the Best Party?" Well, you can help some poor person. And by that, you are a member. You are working for the Best Party.