Article — From the October 2008 issue

News From Nowhere

Iceland???s polite dystopia

In late 2007, an Icelandic teenager named Vífill Atlason created a minor international incident when he phoned the White House, told the operator he was the president of Iceland, and managed to set up an appointment to speak with George W. Bush. When the White House figured out what was going on, Atlason was taken away by Icelandic police and questioned for several hours, then told that he would be placed on an American no-fly list. No conversation took place. I, on the other hand, managed to make a lunch date with President Olafur Ragnar Grímsson not long after I arrived in Iceland, simply by bumping into him at an art exhibit and asking. Iceland is a nation of just over 300,000 citizens, a scale at which everything should be and can be accessible to the ordinary citizen as well as the crashing writer. In fact, I was picked up for my date by Dorrit Moussaieff, the president’s Israeli-born second wife, who happened to be heading off with another American to another lunch. This other American, an extremely wealthy New Yorker in well-ironed jeans, liked Iceland so much that he was thinking about settling here, and as we crossed downtown Reykjavík in the chauffeured presidential Land Cruiser, he listed his reasons: clean air, clean water, no crime, and no immigrants. He liked Iceland, apparently, for being a gated community with the whole North Atlantic as its gates, but he still had his concerns. The graffiti lightly spattered over the city bothered him enough to mention it twice.

And then they went to their lunch, and the chauffeur and I rolled onward to Bessastadir, the suburban presidential residence. Built as a school in the eighteenth century, Bessastadir is one of the few old buildings left on this long-deforested island, where for a millennium most structures were made from driftwood and sod. Bessastadir’s cluster of immaculate red-roofed white buildings looks like a small country estate and, though it is set apart from the other houses in the neighborhood by a wide grassy lawn, it has no apparent defense against interlopers, not even a serious fence. The president travels without visible security everywhere in Iceland, showing up at art openings and ribbon-cuttings to mingle and shake hands when he’s not overseas—as he often is—pitching Iceland to investors, talking up the democratic virtues of small states, and organizing climate-change initiatives. Grímsson had lived at Bessastadir for three four-year terms, and the question of his fourth was up in the air when I arrived. The president is by no means as powerful as Iceland’s parliament or its prime minister, Geir Haarde. But he does have real authority in some areas, notably the ability to veto legislation, and—more to the point—he is recognized by most as the nation’s symbolic leader, which is why I wanted to talk to him.

Iceland’s population is one thousandth that of the United States, and I wanted to know if the problems we faced at home were a function of size. An encouraging domestic development during the long years of the Bush Administration had been the tendency of U.S. cities and states to set their own policies, particularly on the environment and climate change—to withdraw from the unaccountable federation to a more responsive, more localized scale. And so I looked toward Iceland with optimism. I was in a country with no army and little crime, where children are free to run outdoors un supervised. Most of the people in Iceland are related to one another, and few of them seem to feel that American anxiety of being adrift without an anchor of stable identity or community. Iceland is one of the most literate countries on earth, with the world’s highest per-capita book sales. Not only does it have a long tradition of writer- politicians but, as a returning émigrée explained it to me (though her sense of things might have been a little out of date), “here the garbageman has read Cicero.” Certain democratic measures are built into the culture: for instance, the way everyone’s surname is just his or her father’s first name with the suffix -son or -dóttir appended; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s name, and even the most distinguished names are rarely passed from one generation to the next. Iceland is the only part of Europe that never begat monarchs or a hereditary aristocracy, and I hoped to find here a kind of perfection of the democratic ideal, or at least a hopeful indication of what could be.

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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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