A Nation of Peers: On Equality and Corruption in the Icelandic House of Cards

Iceland is the home of the largest glacier in Europe, countless elves, and social inequality. Not unlike other parts of the world, a persistent gap exists between the rich and the rest of us, and power and money get concentrated on the hands of those who know how to play – and rig – the game.

In Iceland, like elsewhere, wealthy folks have access to opportunities that others can only dream of. While some kids grow up in financial bliss, other kids can’t participate in sports because fees and the cost of team trips are too heavy for their low-income parents. Inequality takes the form of immigrants with postgraduate degrees working in manual labour because they cannot get access to jobs that match their skills and education and it presents in people with disabilities still having to put up a fight to get essential services properly funded.

And yet, Iceland has a curious characteristic that works in the favour of social equality: Proximity.

Our population is tiny. While Iceland is a decent-sized island (in fact, Iceland is 80% the size of England) the population is minuscule on a global scale (0.6% of the population of England). In addition to that, Iceland’s population is predominantly located in the capital area and in small towns and villages along the coast, while most of the country is taken up by mountainous terrain and fast-melting glaciers. Thus, we literally live right next to each other.

This physical proximity, along with centuries of relative isolation and lack of diversity have created a need for us to look up promising dating prospects in Íslendingabók to check not whether, but how related we are. Not surprisingly, in a society this small, political scandals and financial crises take on a personal tone. We cannot talk about “those people” who engage in corruption without talking about ourselves.

In Iceland, physical proximity translates to social proximity. The son of Jón the factory worker goes to class with the daughter of Jónas the CEO and they just might start dating by the end of 9th grade. On a dark winter morning, the Mayor of Reykjavík (Iceland’s capital) sits shoulder to shoulder with a retired teacher and a construction worker from Lithuania at one of the many outdoor geothermal hot tubs. Everyone must wash thoroughly without swimsuit before entering the pool, regardless of taxable income and offshore assets. And if you keep your eyes open, you just might spot the President on an evening walk on one of the many public trails along the shore. Perhaps you’ll have a casual chat, especially if your aunt was his classmate in college.

Without exception, Icelanders speak to each other on a first name basis. Last names are made up of the first name of one’s parent (typically the father, although some Icelanders have now started challenging that patriarchal tradition) with “-son” (son) or “-dóttir” (daughter) at the end. Although last names help indicate whose kid you are, referring to an Icelander by their last name does not make any sense. Similarly, having a doctorate degree does not mean you will be referred to as Dr. LastName and formal honorifics are simply not used, save for the president, who may get a “Herra” or “Frú” before his or her first name.

Creating and maintaining a rigid class hierarchy should really be difficult in a small and interconnected community like Iceland. Certainly there will be people who gather wealth, but lack of public reverence for the so-called elite and low or nonexistent fear of authority could work beautifully to our advantage.

The Icelandic House of Cards game is rigged. There’s no doubt about that.

Forget about learning to play it right. How about creating a whole new game?

It really is about time.

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Thoughts on a Train

On a packed London train from Kentish Town to Peckham on a nippy Monday evening, I watched two young women take their seats in front of me. They didn’t know each other. One was wearing a Barbour scarf that matched her business casual office outfit and the other wore a t-shirt and jeans and a jacket that seemed a little too big. Serious faces. It must have been a long day.

The train pulled forward as they took out their smart phones. It was one of those train carriers where the seats are facing each other. Makes for a nice chance to mingle, if you’re so inclined. But on Monday evenings in Londontown, most people are not so inclined.

So I kept reading my book with one eye, while observing my two neighbors with the other. I wondered what went through young Barbour lady’s mind as she glanced over her seatmate’s shoulder and read the texting conversation that appeared to be taking place on the phone that wasn’t hers. I also wondered what t-shirt woman was wanting to say with her eyes when she gave a short and silent stare back to Ms. Barbour, as she adjusted herself in her seat a minute later.

And then we sat there for the next half hour, all three of us, in such close proximity. No words. No smiles. Just three strangers sharing a strange space.

We people can be so good at huddling together, while remaining apart.

IMG_1777We stand on a train and look at the floor and pretend we don’t notice our neighbors, when in reality we are all very conscious of each other’s presence. We work hard to keep our so-called cool and make it seem like we have it all figured out. We pass one another on the street as if we couldn’t care less. As if we need nothing and no one and can’t be bothered to acknowledge the people around us.

Honestly though, none of us has it all figured out. You don’t and I sure don’t either. We all have our moments of loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, embarrassment, frustration, and sadness, and we were all born naked. Not one of us wants to be rejected and we all need support and connection to thrive.

In the grand scheme of things, all we have is each other.