Thursday, September 16, 2010

But I'm Just Being Edgy!

I think the time has come to make a distinction between using "dark humor" and just being a dick. You see, one of the top news stories today is that lawyer Bragi Björnsson, addressing law students at the University of Iceland during a discussion on human trafficking, made a joke of sorts. When the discussion turned to the case of a Lithuanian woman who had been tricked into a life of prostitution in Iceland but managed to escape to the police, he quipped, "If I may use some dark humor, it's probably the dream of all women to get a free haircut, make-over, and be sent on a surprise vacation."

It's a pretty bad joke, and not just because it manages to belittle women and victims of human trafficking, but also because Bragi's excuse for making the joke is a really tired one that needs to be addressed: "We Icelanders often use irony and humor to deal with less than fun situations."

OK, well, first of all, this isn't his situation. It's hers. If she wants to make light of it and make fun of it, she's welcome to. Although she'd probably run the risk of offending others who are or have been slaves, she's at least a bit more entitled to laugh it off than a lawyer in a first-world country.

Second, he explained that it's hard for us, as Icelanders, to accept that these terrible things happen here. That's why he made the joke. Wait what? Then why did he make light of her situation; not Iceland's?

This is what's called "humor of privilege" - laughing down at people in worse situations than you are or ever will be. It's arrogant, cruel and snide. And when people who use humor of privilege are called out on it, the response is usually something like "I'm politically incorrect" or "I'm a dark and edgy person" or, my personal favorite, "You need a sense of humor."

This isn't humor, though. It's just mocking people who are worse off than you are. And if Bragi had any sense of integrity - especially as a lawyer who's defended human traffickers - he'd admit he misspoke and apologize accordingly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Church and State Need to Separate in Iceland

For a long time, I've avoided this topic. Partly out of the fact that I grew up in a country with an official separation of church and state, but a great many churches actively involved in politics. One of the supposed upshots of a national church is that it sates the clergy with a sense of power, so they don't try to become activists. However, I think the national church of Iceland resides in a power limbo, exerting political influence and held together by a contradiction and a falsehood - that Icelanders want their taxes to pay for the church, but that they couldn't survive on donations alone.

About 65% of Icelanders are in favor of separation of church and state, according to a poll conducted by the Humanist Society in 2006. 43% said they never go to church. The next highest percentage - 17.4% - go two to three times a year. 15.9%, once a year [PowerPoint report]. The church would drastically shrink if it had to exist on donations alone. And when the bishop of Iceland alone makes nearly a million kronur per month, that's just not going to happen, even if registration has been steadily dropping.

And so the church fights to maintain the lifestyle that it's accustomed to. When the government says it intends to reduce their state revenues by 9%, the church makes a conditional counter-proposal of 5%. This is at a time when social programs across the board have had to take serious hits in the budget, so naturally, this makes people upset. For the church, which is given close to 5 billion ISK a year from the government, to say that they cannot handle a 9% decrease is ridiculous.

But the church contends that it is an independent body in a legal contract with the Icelandic government, and therefore has the right to negotiate terms. They also point out the charity work that's done under the church as another reason why taking a cut would be out of the question. And there's no question that the church does provide charity work.

But the state also provides the same social services the church does, so there's no reason why the funding of the church couldn't just be kept within government social services, which would in turn go directly towards the people who need them without an additional set of salaries subtracting funding from them. There'd still be nothing stopping the church from continuing to provide charities, as well as spiritual guidance (arguably the sole function of a church in a social democratic society).

And then there've been a few recent matters that've come up.

While the issue of gay marriage actually saw some clergy in full favor of the measure, it shouldn't be forgotten that the church still fought the passage of this law. Sure, that's fine. Not every Icelander has to fall in line and obey the word of the parliamentary majority. But it is odd for an organization, while living on tax money and declaring themselves to be a non-political body, to get politically involved in resisting the shaping of legislation. If it weren't for the billions the church gets from the state - if they were supported solely by their congregation - it's doubtful their opinion of gay marriage would carry as much weight.

Still, not a terribly extreme example. What is, however, disturbing is the church position when it comes to sexual assault within its walls. When a former bishop's daughter - with the support of the Feminist Society of Iceland - encouraged the church to come clean about cases of sexual assault involving clergy, church officials became very tight-lipped. Gunnar Rúnar Matthíasson, head of a special committee within the church that oversees incidences of sexual abuse within the congregation, would not disclose just how many instances of sexual abuse between clergy and members of the congregation have been reported, saying only that there has been more than one. Furthermore, the church's own self-made rule that it would keep such matters to itself is in direct violation of Icelandic law.

So basically, this is what we have:

An institution with little relevance to most Icelanders, whose second-greatest claim of importance (social assistance) is already covered by existing government offices, and costs us billions in precious revenue per year, has not only refused to agree to an exceedingly reasonable budget cut, but also flouts the law itself, despite the fact that most Icelanders no longer want this institution to be a part of their government.

Do understand that I am not anti-Christian. I'm not even anti-Lutheran. I understand that to many Icelanders, the church serves an important purpose in their spiritual lives. There's no reason why it couldn't continue to do that if it were cut free from the state. It is, in any event, what most Icelanders appear to want. The matter should be put to public referendum, and then parliamentary vote.

It's not just about the money. It's about the role of both the government and the church. The national church is an obsolete concept. It's time for the nation to decide where we go from here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Spin Spin Sugar

You may have noticed that there's been a bit of an e-mail malfunction in the Icelandic government. As the Grapevine reported, Political Adviser to the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs Elías Jón Guðjónsson accidentally sent an e-mail to an American journalist instead of to its intended recipient, which is speculated to be Minister of Finance and Leftist-Green chairman Steingrímur J. Sigfússon. This e-mail, in turn, was forwarded to Haukur, our editor.

Now, this has been one of the top stories of Vísir all day. The e-mail itself isn't particularly shocking, as Haukur points out. It's a political operative telling his bosses that he intends to hand a scoop to a journalist they know, in the hopes that the government can guide the discussion about the Magma Energy matter. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this, and you'd have to be pretty naive to think politicians don't plan on how to guide public discussion over an issue.

This leak isn't an indictment on the government, in other words. It's a little behind-the-scenes look at how politicians try to take part in public discourse. It is, however, an indictment on the media in this country.

Notice in the e-mail that Elías refers to a certain "Doddi", a journalist who's looking for a scoop. The fact is, every single political party in Iceland has contacts in every media outlet who are journalists sympathetic to their platform. Each party has "their guy" at Fréttablaðið, Rás 1, RÚV and so forth. They conveniently drop scoops in their laps in order to get the jump on other parties, or to get an advantageous position over an issue, sending press releases that their contacts happily copy/paste without the slightest examination of the facts in these communiques.

I should tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that I know Elías. I like the guy. If he's guilty of anything in this, it's being not good with computers.

The e-mail is a blessing, in a way, as now you - if you didn't already know - can see how politicians have a very close relationship with journalists. I don't know who Doddi is or if he's in the Leftist-Greens, but journalists on a nickname-basis with politicians are often sympathetic to their platform. What's wrong with this is it invites the blatant and unexamined conveyance of party spin under cover of news. Politicians telling their side to journalists - fine. Journalists repeating what they were told, word for word, without digging a little deeper - not so fine.

The Magma Energy issue is one the Grapevine has been diligently reporting on. I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that we're rooting for the ruling coalition here, in the sense that they want to stop the deal, and we want it stopped. If you take anything away from this e-mail, let it be that whenever you see, hear or read a great scoop from a journalist concerning what this or that party says or plans to do, take it with a grain of salt. And read other sources.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Alltaf Fer Ég Suður

Welp, this is going to be the last post until 20 July, as I'm going on vacation. There's a chance I might post in the interim, but don't count on it. I tend to forget about Icelandic news when I'm laying on a beach at the Black Sea.

Anyways, see you all in July. Have a fun summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Top Packs the Tents

So today was parliament's last day. As to be expected on the last day of work before vacation begins, people were antsy. Plus the last few days of parliament always sees a flood of activity - for example, they were in the building until about six o' clock this morning, and reconvened at eleven the same morning. I'm guessing they napped in their chairs or something.

Anyway, what did they vote on?

Well, one good thing was a resolution calling for greater freedom of expression, and greater protection for so-called whistleblowers who do investigative journalist articles on the rich and powerful. It's a great idea, and one that will hopefully lay the foundation for media and print laws to come.

Also, they voted to create a constitutional committee. This is a Very Big Deal, because this fall, there's going to be a "citizen's parliament" voted in whose job it will be to write a new constitution. Current MPs, alternate MPs, ministers, and the president are all banned from running for a spot in this. The citizen's parliament will go over the constitution, debate, propose changes and such, and then the constitutional committee will draft a new constitution for the country, which could be ready as soon as 2013.

Seeing your country write up a new constitution is pretty huge. But it's also badly needed in Iceland - we can talk about change for the better until we're blue in the face, but if the basic structure of the political system stays the same, so will virtually everything else.

Not that it was all sunshine and roses today in parliament, oh no. It seems a bill to combine several ministries together in order to save money could be in trouble. Many conservatives and Progressives were against it, yes, but so were also three members of the Leftist-Green Party: Jón Bjarnason, Atli Gíslason and Ásmundur Einar Daðason. As the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Leftist-Greens has 34 of parliament's 63 seats, this bill - despite the fact that it was a part of the government's agreement for working together - is not as solid as it first seemed.

Also, a number of MPs from the Independence Party, the Progressives, and again, Leftist-Green Ásmundur Einar Daðason called for Iceland's application into the European Union to be withdrawn. In fairness to Ásmundur, the original platform of the Leftist-Green Party includes strong opposition to joining the EU, but that changed when they teamed up with the Social Dems. Ásmundur is just old school like that.

Anyway, that's just a bit of what these ladies and gentlemen are up to today. As you can see, it's not an easy job, so if you see one of them outside tomorrow enjoying Independence Day celebrations, offer to buy them a beer or something. They could probably use it.