Tag Archives: Government

No longer mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr can restart his career as a comedian, not that ever stopped.

Jón Gnarr (Photo courtesy Melville House)

Jón Gnarr (Photo courtesy Melville House)

On the night he was elected mayor of Reykjavik in June 2010, Jón Gnarr gave his supporters a taste of what might be to come.

“Welcome to the revolution!” he declared. Like much of what he says, it was tongue-in-cheek. Maybe.

Four years later, Gnarr has retired, having served a single term. He’s written a book and is trying to figure out what to do next.

Gnarr used to be a punk rocker — an anarchist too, and one of Iceland’s best-known comedians. His campaign for mayor was an extended piece of performance art that morphed into a real-life show, “right after I got elected,” he says.

He became mayor at a time of desperation for many of Reykjavik’s residents. The 2008 global meltdown had hit Iceland harder than just about anywhere else. Three major banks had collapsed, the government was bankrupt and overnight, people found themselves knee-deep in debt, their savings wiped out.

So they voted for a man who made ridiculous campaign promises that no-one expected him to keep: promises about additions to the city’s zoo and swimming pools, and most poignantly, a pledge to eliminate all debt.

Gnarr’s political party — a new one — was made up mainly of artists and musicians: Besti flokkurinn means “Best Party.” Part of the name’s appeal was the pun in English (“I was at the best party last night”). The wordplay doesn’t work in Icelandic, but Gnarr says most people got the joke anyway.

Once elected, Gnarr immediately ran into problems. There were insults from real politicians, who told him he was “incapable of doing my job, I’m not qualified, and I’m a clown.”

They tried to show him up, Gnarr says, by using the densest possible bureaucratese.

“I mastered the Icelandic language very well; I’m very good at Icelandic,” he says. “But in Iceland, like in many other countries, the political culture has evolved into some sort of subculture with a different language. They have terms and words that ordinary people just don’t understand.”

Gnarr and his Best Party colleagues countered this way of talking by satirizing it — to the point of absurdity.

They came up with fake initiatives — outrageously condescending ones that were supposed to show how much they cared about certain groups, like the disabled and women.

“I openly said that we were willing to listen to women, and that we would even have meetings with women,” says Gnarr, fighting laughter. “We would record everything that they would have to say, so that future generations could listen to it.”

Gnarr knew he was treading a fine line, but most people seemed to get what he was up to.

“Sometimes I would sound ridiculous, but I’m harmless,” he says.

There are some of Reykjavik’s residents who wanted him to be a little less harmless, a little more Rage Against the Machine.

Jón Gnarr, then-mayor of Reykjavik, dressed in drag at the head of the Gay Pride 2010 march through Reykjavik (Photo: Matt Riggott via Flickr)

Jón Gnarr, then-mayor of Reykjavik, dressed in drag at the head of the Gay Pride 2010 march through Reykjavik (Photo: Matt Riggott via Flickr)

But that was never Gnarr’s revolution. Yes, he was tapping into the outrage at the political and business cabal that had ruled Iceland. His response was to poke fun at it — to show it up as irresponsible — and leave Icelandic voters in a better position to make more informed choices next time.

And, funnily enough, this anarchist high-school dropout is now regarded as having brought much-needed stability to the mayor’s office.

He generally didn’t interfere with the day-to-day running of Reykjavik — he left that to city managers. Instead, he pushed hard on issues like gay rights and improving public spaces, while also overseeing painful budget cuts.

Most refreshing for many was his refusal to run for a second term.

Leaving politics has allowed Gnarr to write a book and visit the United States. His first time in the US was in 1989. People would ask where he was from. His reply didn’t help. “They didn’t have a clue — they didn’t know what Iceland was,” he says. “But nowadays when I’m somewhere and being asked where I’m from and I say Iceland, and people say ‘Ah! Björk.’”

Björk, perhaps inevitably, is a close friend of Gnarr’s. And as well-known as she is around the world, Gnarr is also also becoming a sort of global cultural ambassador for Iceland.

He jokes that the country should rename itself Björkland, in recognition of its artistic riches.

“Once I was in a radio debate with the former mayor, and she said that we were just a bunch of artists,” he says. “She spoke of artists like some sub-humans, like people who can’t pay their bills or organize their daily life or something. That made me very angry. And I said what is this country of ours famous for if not for art and artists? From the very beginnings with the Sagas, and now especially with music, Iceland is world-known for its music and its musicians.”

It’s not clear even to Gnarr what’s next for him. He says he’s still trying to make sense of his four years in power.

He’s none too happy with the results of Reykjavik’s recent elections. Young voters stayed away from the polls, his political allies didn’t do well, while a party that opposes the construction of what would be Reykjavik’s first mosque did do well.

Gnarr’s only plans for now are, as you might expect, out of left field.

“I will definitely go to Texas,” he says. “But I’m not sure what I’m going to do there. I have noticed that many of my followers on Facebook are from Texas. So I’ll definitely have to go there and talk to the Texans.”

Sitting mayors in the Lone Star State facing re-election: you have been warned.

Listen to the audio at the top of this post to hear a great conversation with Jón Gnarr, including the story of his name: he was born Jón Gunnar Kristinsson — and that’s still the name on his passport. The Icelandic government refuses to recognize Gnarr, which it says is not a traditional Icelandic surname.


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During the Olympics, Canadians are willing to drop their language arguments

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Canada’s Sun News Network has been described as “Fox News North.”

Like Fox, it has its targets. It doesn’t like big government. It doesn’t like Canada’s promotion of the French language. And it really doesn’t like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Almost every Canadian is watching the CBC right now because it has the broadcast rights to the Sochi Olympics. So the people at Sun News decided they would make some news.

Host Brian Lilley brought “linguistics expert” Harley Sims onto his show to talk about how the CBC was pronouncing names — the names of Canadian medal winners: Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, Charles Hamelin and others.

Lilley and Sims didn’t like the French-sounding way that some CBC announcers were pronouncing these names. They had no objections to French-language TV using native French pronunciation. But on English-language TV, they said, the names should be anglicized. “Clo-AY” should become “CLO-ee,” and “Sharl” should become “Charls.”

“I’ll stick with the way we pronounce names in English,” said Lilley. “I will still say congratulations to Justine [pronounced the English way].”

The CBC’s overly-French pronunciations are “so selective and arbitrary of what’s politically correct and what isn’t,” said Sims.

It was classic Canadian button-pushing, like playing the race card in the US or playing the class card in the UK. In Canada, if you want to start a political fight — or if you just want attention — you play the language card.

Even though very few Canadians were watching, with the Olympics over on the CBC, word got out. By the next day, it was the talk of the talk shows.

The outrage quickly grew. People called Lilley a “redneck,” “mind-bogglingly stupid,” and worse. Much of the anger came from Quebec.

It proved too much for Lilley. He apologized.

This is the stage in the story when Canada’s Sun News stops behaving like America’s Fox News.

In his broadcast apology, Lilley said he worked in a bilingual newsroom, and his wife is from Quebec. He said some of his relatives are native French speakers.

“The focus should be on the [Olympic] athletes,” said Lilley. “It shouldn’t be on dividing Canadians, language by language, and trying to set French against English. It’s not what I intended. It is what happened, and therefore I apologize.”

Moral of the story: don’t play the language card during the Winter Olympics. It’s a time when Canadians of all stripes seem pretty happy about being Canadian.

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    Nasty speech in the Netherlands, bitter truths in South Africa, and goofy government speech in Denmark

    After Joe Wilson’s “you lie!”, after Kanye West at the MTV awards, after Serena Williams’ outburst at the US Open, you may think:  enough already with nasty speech! Well, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. This week, a report on a series of Dutch cartoon that are offensive – really offensive. Deliberately so, according to the Dutch-based Arab group behind them. The group claims that Dutch law exercises a double standard when it comes to speech and religion: while it often censors anti-semitic speech – like the cartoons in question – it tolerates anti-Muslim speech.

    Then, gadfly-journalist Max du Preez.

    vrye weekblad

    Du Preez has been upsetting his fellow South Africans for decades – first, he upset his father by becoming a communist, then he upset the apartheid regime with his muckracking journalism. He edited Vrye Weekblad the only Afrikaans-language paper that exposed the murders, beatings and corruption of the racist government.  That upset almost an entire people: du Preez’s people,  South Africa’s Afrikaners. Only after the end of apartheid, when morality ceased to be a moveable feast, did du Preez’s father speak to him again.

    These days, du Preez has new enemies: the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which fired him; former president Thabo Mbeki who du Preez called a womanizer; and agricultural giant Monsanto, which du Preez says is ruining rural  South Africa by spreading genetically modified crops.

    Finally, government free speech. This doesn’t come up much. Governments oversee free speech laws; they rarely get caught up in their own free speech shenanigans. Not the Danish government. Not Denmark’s  tourist bureau. For its latest edgy advertizing campaign the bureau staged a faux one night stand between a young blonde Danish woman and a foreign man with apparently no name, and no nationality. Johnny Foreigner, as it were.  Here’s the ad:

    This was supposed to be a come-on to foreign visitors; instead it had Danish politicians trying to curb the speech of their own government.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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    Trying to teach English in France, Sri Lanka’s language gap and potato-ness

    Here’s what’s in the latest podcast:

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    When Laurel Zuckerman tried to become an English teacher in France, she assumed that being a native English speaker would be an advantage. The book she wrote about her experience caused a sensation in France. Also, the linguistic underpinnings of Sri Lanka’s just-concluded civil war. Plus, a Sinhala word that succinctly describes how many teeth you still have, and the tax implications of “potato-ness.”

    Listen in iTunes or here.


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    podcast #3: a linguist’s fantasy island and Seinfeldian diplomacy

    In this edition of The World in Words, the stories of a couple of people who aimed just a little too high. Linguist Derek Bickerton talks about his lifelong love of creoles and his attempt to create a new language by importing a half-dozen families onto an uninhabited  desert island.  Bickerton’s memoir, Bastard Tongues, is a page-turner, and not just for story of the island experiment he conjured up.  Also in this cast former speechwriter Gregory Levey on how he almost got an Israeli prime minister to quote from a  Seinfeld episode. Listen in iTunes or here.

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