Article — From the October 2008 issue

News From Nowhere

Iceland???s polite dystopia

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Grímsson himself is an imposing man, exceedingly proper and courteous. He speaks formal English in full paragraphs. When I said to a friend of his that he seemed a bit wooden, she laughed at my caution and said, “He’s wooden all the way through!”

At sixty-five, Grímsson is a year older than his republic (until World War II, Iceland was a possession of Denmark), and his hair is brushed over in an orderly white-blond wave. He grew up in a fishing village on the wild and remote Westfjords peninsula, received a Ph.D. in political science in England, from the University of Manchester, and taught for several years at the University of Iceland before venturing
into politics. When we met, he was wearing huge cuff links and a tie patterned with tiny feathers, and he showed me to a small study. The president sat in a high-backed armchair, upholstered in worn tapestry, I sat in an armless version, and for the next ninety minutes we spoke at cross-purposes.

“I think the twenty-first century will be a fascinating period,” he said, a period in which we will “see the relevance as well as the renaissance of small states.” But the vision he described as we ate our catfish and salmon seemed decidedly mainstream, even American. He celebrates small states mostly for how they function economically and in the international society of states. Small states move in a more flexible way, he said, which makes it easier for them to solve problems. He gave me an example. He had just come from the tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar, whose government had hosted a conference, involving diplomats from such similarly tiny neighbors as the United Arab Emirates, that had put a temporary stop to the escalating violence in Lebanon. “They said to me very openly, ‘The reason why we could do it is that we were small Arab countries, we were friends with everybody—we didn’t have any vested interest, we didn’t have any ulterior motives, we did not have any long-term military strategy—so we could talk to everybody on a faithful basis.’” Of course, Qatar is ruled by a hereditary emir. Small may give leaders the flexibility they need to make deals, but it is not necessarily democratic.

Such contradictions left Grímsson unfazed. He began his first presidential campaign, he said, by traveling to every town and village in Iceland, “except two or three very small and remote ones,” to meet with the electorate, and this journey had more profoundly informed his thinking on participatory democracy than even his years as a professor of political science. “Constitutions and formal democratic rules—of course they are necessary and they are essential,” he continued, “but the great force of democracy, especially in modern times, is what we have called the will of the people.” This will, he said, was not always expressed through such traditional means as voting. “There are strong democratic pressures almost in the air without them necessarily having to be organized in a systematic way.”

Indeed, Grímsson may well be a principal beneficiary of the unsystematic way. He stood unopposed in the upcoming election—Icelanders, as one small-town librarian told me disapprovingly, have come to believe that it is “impolite” to run against a sitting president, and it has become customary to let them stay in office as long as they like. And so while Americans were absorbed in another electoral horse race, Iceland had no race at all.

lives in San Francisco and is the author of several books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost and, most recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Her last article for Harper's Magazine, "Detroit Arcadia," appeared in the July 2007 issue.

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