To most Americans, Iceland is a weirdo fishing country with a misleading name that’s home to Bjork and unpronounceable volcanos. Our ethnocentrism and inability to see beyond our provincial outlook (like what B-star is dancing on teevee) is so pervasive that we probably couldn’t even locate Canada on a map. And what a pity, especially when you consider how much Americans can learn from the way Iceland’s citizens handled the financial crisis of 2008. Yes, learning for the sake of learning and learning about another culture that doesn’t worship wannabe celebrities and politicians caught with their pants down is good for you.
As one European country after another is either failing or about to fail in the face of the financial crisis of 2008, Iceland is improving rapidly. I know–what could we possibly learn from a country that spends its days chasing after Luck fish. Iceland joined a whole host of previously unsophisticated economies that espoused America’s “wild, wild west” form of casino capitalism. It was like the country went from worshiping fishing poles to worshiping dangerously convoluted and avaricious financial wizardry in a matter of hours.
Five years of an unwavering neo-liberal regime had made Iceland, (population 320 thousand, no army), one of the richest and most prosperous countries in the world. In 2003 all the country’s banks were privatized, and in an effort to attract foreign investors, they offered on-line banking whose minimal costs allowed them to offer relatively high rates of return. But as investments grew, so did the banks’ foreign debt. In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in 2007, it was 900 percent. The 2008 world financial crisis made Iceland look like Greenland. The three main Icelandic banks– Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir–folded and were nationalized, while the Kroner lost 85% of its value with respect to the Euro. Iceland was pretty much knee-deep in a warm geyser of American-inspired dung and it wasn’t looking very bright. Yet, something truly amazing happened that can only exist on paper or in an episode of the West Wing: its people reclaimed their sovereign rights and engaged in a process of direct participatory democracy that culminated in the creation of a new constitution.
Instead of dressing up like morbidly obese founding fathers and screaming about their leader being born in Kenya and some covert Muslim Socialist, the people of Iceland actually rose up against the overwhelming tide of corporate greed and deception and reclaimed their country. The citizens of Iceland rightfully felt that they shouldn’t be punished for the greed of unscrupulous bankers in the form of taxpayer-funded bailouts. Maybe it’s because they haven’t gotten our vacuous, stupid reality shows yet.
The sudden and amazing surge of democratic pluralism that led to Iceland changing its uber-corporate polices appears to be eerily similar to the aims of the protestors (not the ones banging drums and eating free falafel) who have been occupying Wall Street for a couple of weeks. But since the corporate-owned mainstream media would rather delegitimize the movement by turning it into a Rage Against the Machine concert gone awry due to a lack of toilet paper in the porta potties, the brilliant and truly fascinating populist (and REAL populist) inspired movement in Iceland isn’t being discussed by our media outlets. It’s a real shame, too. After all, Americans would be more inclined to get behind the OWS protests if they had actual results from a country that overcame the same financial difficulties we appear to be perennially mired in. Maybe Bjork can make a funky song and video about it.
Michael is a comedian/VO artist/Columnist extraordinaire, who co-wrote an award-nominated comedy, wrote for NY Times Laugh Lines, guest-blogged for Joe Biden, and writes a column for MSNBC.com affiliated Cagle. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Seriously, follow him or he’ll send you photos of Rush Limbaugh bending over in a thong.