Tag Archives: satire

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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Germans on Twitter say ‘ja!’ to Nein Quarterly

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Here’s a guest post from Frankfurt-based reporter Caitlan Carroll

“Nein Quarterly” has attracted more than 40,000 Twitter followers with its wry observations on everything from US politics to the sexiness of the German umlaut.

Here are a few Nein Quarterly quips: “What’s so awesome about nihilism? Nothing.”

“You call it happiness. I call it Acute Despair Deficit syndrome.”

“My Doppelgänger wants to start resembling other people.”

The man behind the Twitter feed is Eric Jarosinski, a German professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Jarosinski grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. His early experience with German culture came in the form of kitschy folk fests and polka nights, but he got to know the real Germany after spending time in the country and mastering the language.

“German for me was a lot like learning math which I was resistant to,” says Jaronsinski. “But I learned that it became something very different after I could make the language my own in some form and in fact, that’s something I encourage my students to do is to make puns in German.”

Puns and word play are trademarks of Nein Quarterly. His jokes jump from Marxism to pumpkin spice lattes—all told from the perspective of a depressed German philosopher pining for another time and place. It’s a persona Jarosinski loosely models on the real German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who died in 1969.

“More than anything I’ve tried to develop the persona of a loveable misanthrope who comments on most anything he encounters and feels like he has something to say about most everything he encounters.”

Jarosinski says he started Nein Quarterly over a year ago as a way to relax while writing a book about the concept of transparency. “Essentially this gave me a voice at a time when I found there was very little I could put on paper but there was a lot that I could type into my iPhone,” he says.

What started as a lark has turned into something more serious. Jarosinski is in Germany to meet with publishers to talk about future writing projects. Interest in Nein Quarterly is running high in Germany at the moment, especially among intellectuals.

Elka Sloan, a professional translator in Frankfurt, reads the Twitter feed for the word play. “The plays he does with sort of nihilist statements, the way he twists around famous quotes from philosophy and the way he breaks the German intellectual tradition through this satirical lens is, I think, the hilarity of it,” says Sloan.

It got Helmut Wicht laughing too. He teaches anatomy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “I think the first tweet which actually made me follow him immediately was the famous one it must have been like a year ago on philosophy,” he says. “Three lines. First line: ‘Ontology – what the f—? Epistemology – Why the f—? Phenomology – The f—.'” (In the original tweet, Jarosinski spelled out the f— word.)

“And in that very moment,” says Wicht, “I hit the follow button.”

Wicht says Jarosinski has found Germany’s enigmatic funny bone. He jokes like an insider. “He is playing with that. He gives us the feeling that ultimately, finally there is someone out there in the Anglo-Saxon world who loves and understands us.”

That view from the outside is something that Germans crave, and Jarosinski knows it. “I have had people tell me that. That that is something that they have liked,” Jarosinski says. “How does an outsider perceive us? And in particular, an outsider who knows us somewhat—I think that has something to do with it as well.”

Jarosinski is raising money to support a Nein Quarterly blog he plans to launch at the end of this year. He’ll feature writing from many different contributors. He describes the blog this way on his website: “Words. Thought. Art. Umlauts. Despair.”


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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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