Much has been said about the, shall we say, creative style of politics as pioneered by Iceland’s mayor Jón Gnarr – a reputation that goes far and wide beyond the borders of Iceland. Having read articles about him in the (non-icelandic) press, I have to admit that I expected him to be a free-wheeling reel of one-liners and gags. When the SF Embassy was invited to come meet him, I have to be honest: I was counting on being the punchline to a long-running joke, and I was braced for needing to have the joke explained to me.
Without a doubt, it takes a certain type of politician to open a conversation with a room of strangers by opening with an interviewer’s gold-laced quote nugget “I’m an anarchist. A very dedicated anarchist”. Which, as it turned out, set the tone nicely for the rest of our audience of the standup comedian turned Mayor of the world’s northernmost capital city.
It was only fitting that Gnarr spoke on the topic of prejudice. As SF Ambassador Oliver Luckett introduced Gnarr, he made a comment about being from Los Angeles, and that he hoped he would be able to change the SF-ians minds on the LA-ians in the room. Segueing nicely, Gnarr shares a story from the late 1980s, when he went to New York, only to discover that nobody knew where Iceland was. That changed a few years later, when “Iceland? Oh! Björk!” became the standard response. After the economic meltdown Iceland experienced a while back, “Iceland? Oh, Björk!” had morphed – especially when traveling to the Netherlands or to the UK – to “Iceland? Oh, the people who lost us all the money”. As a result, Gnarr explains with a sad and ever-so-slightly baffled expression, that a fair few Icelandic travelers felt like they had to lie about where they were from.
I mention prejudices in the context of my passport. “Dutch? Ah! Clogs, windmills, and marijuana!” is a pretty common response. With that in mind, it is doubly illuminating that it turns out that my preconceptions of Gnarr were, of course, about as far off the mark as they could have been.
Instead of a loosely strung together series of jokes, Gnarr turned out to be one of the finest, most human, and most down-to-earth politicians I have met. “I believe in human qualities,” Gnarr explained, “Not in politics. We don’t run a political party; It is not a democratic party. It has no manifesto. Its principles are nonsense. The Best Party is the people inside it.”
And with that, the epiphany of the afternoon manifested itself, as Gnarr explained that the point of governing is to solve large problems, and that he expects that city mayors will be playing a much larger role in shaping our world in the future. “Cities rarely go to war with each other,” he quips, and points out that cities have different priorities than larger governments. “We are here to solve large problems, and to apply common sense, not to argue about small, unimportant stuff.”
Perhaps he is right: It is entirely possible that solving the world’s problems are best done by people who focus on taking care of each others and the world around them, rather than by politicians who are busy clawing themselves to the top of the greasy pole of power and ambition.
Gnarr makes the point that it’s only fitting that Björk is the first thing that springs to mind with a lot of foreigners: Iceland is known far and wide for its arts, and that’s probably both a better and more fair thing to be known for. “After all,” he comments dryly, pointing around the room at the 70-odd Ambassadors facing him, “You are here for Airwaves, right?”
My take-away from our chat with the mayor echoes what, in my mind, the SF Embassy is all about: Spreading ideas, helping each other, and amplifying each others’ strengths. A healthy place to start is to strip away some of the prejudices we carry around with us; After all, not everyone from San Francisco is a free-love startup-hippie, not everyone from Los Angeles is a self-centered Hollywoodista, and not all Dutchmen smoke weed…
… a comedian does, in fact, make a rather phenomenal mayor …
… and whilst Iceland does serve up one of the best music festivals in the world, it’s also a lot, lot more.