Iceland’s most famous comedian and Mayor of Reykjavík, Jon Gnarr, is leaving his seat this year. When asked if he is sure of his retirement, his answer is an absolute yes, “I’ve closed this chapter in my life” he told the Hive Reporters.
The man who entered the political life, or rather “the lion’s den”, apparently on a whim had the initial idea in his early twenties as an experiment, after reading the surrealist manifesto by André Breton. The thought grew until the financial doom that hit Iceland in 2008 made clear just how corrupt the ice cube’s politicians are. It called him to action.
Following Breton’s instructions, he created The Best Party and started his political career “not knowing anything” but his sense of panache, which he seemingly never lost, more than compensated for his lack of knowledge.
When one wins the elections for Mayor of a city composed of a third of the country’s population, followed by 6 seats, that’s a hell of an achievement. Especially when the campaign was based on getting a polar bear at the zoo and “sustainable transparency”, which in layman’s terms, doesn’t mean anything. What the voters responded to, however, was that most parties are secretly corrupt, whereas The Best Party promises to be openly so. Now, he did say they’d keep none of their promises, but here are the much-needed words the people needed to hear : transparency and openly corrupt. Add in the chance of a polar bear in a zoo where the most exotic animals are geese and an arctic fox and sure enough, people voted for the comedian called Jon Gnarr. The man who wears a pink suit, dressed up as a Jedi for The Reykjavik Film Festival and attended gay pride in drag.
Alla Amundadottir, Director of the parliamentary group the Pirate Party in Iceland, explains her vision of the politically incorrect figure : “The whole thing was a show. A four-year show or piece of art he created. The beauty of it is he managed, through it, to prove politicians can be sincere and answer “I don’t know” and be human beings.”
“The art show would’ve been a failure if he wanted to continue” she added, as to whether or not he should leave the seat.
Taking some time off from his busy schedule, the one and only Jon Gnarr agreed to an interview. Since it lasted longer than anticipated, here is the uncut version, containing discussions of politics, economy, the environment and salad ingredients.
So, dressed up as if to meet the Queen of England, I sat down in front of the computer and logged into Skype to call his office on the dot for our 2pm scheduled interview. Questions in hand, pen and paper ready, there is the Mayor of Reykjavík on the other side of the line. I could have worn a potato bag, since this was not a video call, but when discussing with a politician one has to look the part.
Hive Reporters: How much of Jon Gnarr the mayor was the actor and how much was the politician ?
Jon Gnarr: I’m just one, people ask me “do you miss your old life?”, as if it’s a different life, but it’s the same and this is just a detour. I was also very interested in this idea people had in the beginning that now that I was a politician, this had somehow changed my personality and I would slowly lose my sense of humor.
HR: Thankfully that hasn’t happened.
JG: Yes, I never intended for that to happen. I try to do this job with the same attitude I’ve always had towards any other job; be it raising my children, paying my bills or doing my duties, mowing my lawn or whatever. It’s all about communication and comedy, and politics is all about communication.
HR: You stated in your political campaign that ‘The Best Party’ would be openly corrupt, how much of that became true in the following years of your political career ?
JG: In a simple way, you could say we have not at all been corrupt and quite the contrary, we’ve been unusually honest.
HR: On your Facebook page you talked about the bullies (in politics), has it been a challenge since the political life is far from honest ?
JG: It’s been quite difficult at times – and dreary. Also, honesty has a lot to do with human nature and maybe people who try to be honest find themselves becoming dishonest because of something.
HR: Can you give an example ?
JG: No, nothing specific comes to mind right now, but the ideology of The Best Party was that it’s not an idea, the whole concept was there’s no concept.
What goes wrong is usually due to individuals. For instance, to make a mistake is just human and all these political ideologies and all the manifestos are usually quite ambitious, but then they just fail on individuals. Communism would be brilliant if it wasn’t for humans, it would work perfectly if there were no people !
HR: You called Icelanders to react in your campaign, to take action and take matters into their own hands. Even though you did it with humor, you asked them to see through the political lies which they agreed to by voting for you. Did they keep their own promise and duty as citizens ? Do you think they did what they themselves promised ?
JG: I agree, I dreamed of some kind of cultural revolution, but that was quite unrealistic. Although things have changed a lot, people are more conscious and have a deeper understanding of possibilities. Maybe not sure of what possibilities those might be, but at least to give those possibilities a chance. I believe it has made people more open-minded and it’s in the nature of Icelanders as well.
HR: Talking about cultural revolution, do you want that still ?
JG: It’s a gradual change and I’m not sure if people are ready for a revolution. We have started to witness the death of politics and that we will see less and less politics in the future. Also, the political landscape is changing because political leverage is moving towards the cities and the mayors are gaining more political influence than they used to have.
Even the apolitical mayors, ordinary people -I mean, we are all ordinary people-, with no prior experience in politics or no prior career as politicians. We will be witnessing that all over and cooperation between different groups in completely different ways.
HR: What do you mean ?
JG: Like in terms of planet change, human rights, cultural exchange and cities are forming more and more global networks, green or peace cities. Democracy in general is changing, people are realizing this, especially young people.
Eventually countries, a worn out model, are going to disappear.
Countries usually have very difficult relationships and rarely productive ones. For example, Iceland had a debate with the EU. Take mackerel, we have had this ongoing for years and years, delegations going back and forth about mackerel and have had no conclusion yet, whilst Reykjavík is cooperating with cities in a completely different way.
HR: Actually is it important for Iceland to join the EU ?
JG: No, I don’t think it matters at all. The question of Iceland joining the EU or not is overrated. It’s not a make or break for the EU, nor a make or break for us either.
It’s just a new type of cooperation between people of different nationalities. Cooperation is far more productive on a municipal level than between countries.
In regards to climate change, for example, cities have a leading role.
HR: On the subject of the environment, what do you say about the Environmental Minister in Iceland who says he doesn’t know what he’s doing ? As in he doesn’t know what produce means.
JG: I’m not aware, but it does not surprise me at all, since I heard some other things he said.
HR: Isn’t it a little weird for an environmental minister to say that ?
JG: Yes, and that is the core of the problem here in Iceland. It’s too much political interference and lack of professionalism. That’s our main sociological problem. Infrastructural problem.
Same with the media, I don’t need them, I can deliver my message through social media directly.
You can see it now with upcoming elections how political the media is.
An experience I’ve started is manipulating their message the same way they have mine , from what I’ve said on Facebook. And I have started fiddling with taking out of context what they have been saying, just for fun.
HR: Well if you’re fiddling then, and experimenting with that, are you sure of your retirement?
JG: Absolutely. I’ve closed this chapter in my life. It was an experiment I had thought about and the initial idea about the Best Party was when I was in my early 20’s, when I read the surrealist manifesto by André Breton and he introduced the idea of coming up with your party and even gave out instructions on how to make speeches.
I’ve been fascinated with human nature and human behaviour all my life and studied people, why do people behave in this or that way? I’m especially fascinated with violence, why do people turn to it? I’m always dealing in one way or another with violence and oppression in my work as a comedian and writer.
I understood this when driving by myself once. I’m very rarely alone with myself and this “frekki kallin” (bully man) came to mind. I realised I’ve been battling this characteristic within myself all my life. I even battled to face it, but it’s part of human nature and a big part of being a male. I am Ólafur Ragnar (ed: The well-meaning yet gullible character from the tv-show ‘The Night Shift‘) and I’m just trying to come up with ideas to create something entertaining in a terribly boring world.
By entering into politics, I was also kind of entering the lion’s den, where there is most violence, so I was prepared for it, but it’s tiresome. It’s where bullying is accepted in our society and I tried to mention it a few times. We don’t accept it in the school system but in politics, it’s accepted and appreciated. If you’re a politician, you’re supposed to be bullied by everybody and the opposition. There’s no use whining about it if you’re a politician, people say “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Still, it’s my democratic right to participate as a citizen.
It’s like saying to kids in school who come up to you and say they’re bullied “ok, well if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen !”
HR: I have a question about school. Actually first I need to make sure of this information. A few articles mentioned you were misdiagnosed with mental disability as a child, is that true?
JG: I’m not sure if I was misdiagnosed (laughs)
HR: Well, you have proven throughout your life that’s far from the truth.
JG: I have my limitations and I don’t remember what my thing is called in English. It’s a sort of maladaptive personality disorder
HR: Do you mean like ADD or Asperger ?
JG: Yeah a combination of those two and something else.
HR: Isn’t that a good thing then ? Because you have the Asperger side which is highly intelligent people and the ADD side which is like having coffee without needing to drink it ?
JG: Yes, it’s a good thing. In a way I’m a walking contrast, because I have a very vivid imagination, but very limited logical thinking. I’m very handicapped when it comes to organising and planning. That’s usually the type of personality that gets bullied.
HR: I know of other instances of misdiagnosis in Iceland, according to you is there an over abundance of medicated children and a tradition of hasty diagnosis by doctors in Iceland ?
JG: It’s an epidemic. In many cases, it’s still going on, but it has a lot to do with the emphasis on creative thinking and the creative mind. A creative mind is not appreciated as much as a logical mind in society and it can be a problem, because not everybody is a scholar.
I wanted to be an artist and do artistic things. I wanted to be onstage, be in the circus, play in a movie and write a book. I didn’t want to learn the stuff they wanted to teach me, because I knew I wouldn’t have a need for it in the future.
I want to see a school system with more options. A school system like Subway; when you go in, you can choose what type of bread you want and it’s no big deal. If you don’t care for cucumbers, you can say so, “no cucumbers, thank you,” but in the school system, it’s the contrary. You just get the ingredients and you’re supposed to eat it, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want cucumbers then somebody will tell you “it’s good for you”. “Yeah, I just don’t like it.” “It doesn’t matter, it’s good for you, just eat it”. In the meantime everybody is eating cucumbers over here and you say “but it smells funny.” “No, it doesn’t smell at all !”
HR: So basically children should be able to choose if they want tomatoes instead ?
JG: Yeah, absolutely and I believe the 21st century will be the century of creativity. We should be organising how to prepare our children to stand a chance in a creative future. They’re spending a lot of time and money on teaching children how to speak Danish, it’s mandatory, and it’s useless. The emphasis should be put on English and Icelandic and, with more immigrants coming to Iceland, this has become a serious problem for kids who are multilingual. If you have a French mother and a Polish father and you’re living in Iceland, to have to learn Polish and, of course, Icelandic and English – and suddenly, Danish?
When you arrive to high school in Iceland, if you haven’t learned Danish before, it brings your credits down. And it can have an impact for you to move forward in school, which is unfair.
HR: Obviously, some teachings are missing in your opinion. What could help change this ?
JG: The school system is slowly improving and adapting, but in Iceland there should be, overall, more emphasis on science and technology.
HR: People call you very humane, as a comedian is that why people have such a positive and quick reaction for people like you ?
JG: Yes, I think people are very thirsty for it and discrimination towards people based on sexual orientation or gender is stupid. It harms a lot of people and has done horrendous harm all around the world. Young people are not allowed to read and write, because they are female, and two people who fall in love and want to live their life together are not allowed to, because they are same-sex.
What’s the logic behind it? There is none.
The reason is the theory of religion, religious mumble jumble, no common sense. Women are in no way inferior to men, except maybe physically. The male is usually physically stronger, but otherwise, there is no intellectual inferiority. There is no natural law that says that the male should lead and the female should obey. You can see in different species of animals it’s the complete opposite, where the female leads and the male follows.
HR: In the countries where what you mention happens, politics is in the last seat, wouldn’t you say ? As in, after economy and religion.
JG: Yes, the greatest ruler is capitalism and we are, whether we like or not, slaves under capitalism, then religion. Religious beliefs, yes, I would say, is the second most terrifying authority and then there is politics. Often politics have strong ties to religion and are religion based. We see the rise, nationalism for example, is parallel with the rise of religion. We see it happening in Russia and in Uganda. So, I would say we should try to get rid of all religion and all political theories and we would be much better off. Although capitalism is highly efficient, even when it’s degenerating, and I have proposed that we take some elements out of capitalism and use them for democracy. For instance, in getting people to vote, just the simple idea of : if you vote, you could possibly win an iPad.
We have discussed this in terms of “better Reykjavík,” in having better participation. You know, it could be creating prices for people who vote. But in the end it’s my view of the world that it is run and controlled by selfish and very intelligent people who are quite merciless and determined really. So, that’s not going to change overnight, but it has started.
HR: Are people are waking up ? Is that what you mean ?
JG: Well, our brains are evolving and we are becoming less ape and more human in every generation. So, there are fewer and fewer wars and more and more awareness globally towards wars and violence, and it can help change things drastically.
HR: Will you keep working towards Reykjavík for peace after your retirement ?
JG: I’m not sure about it, I’m going to see how it will evolve. If something real is happening, I would love to be a part of it, you know? Also, I want to stay here in this country and try and help out maybe from a different angle.
HR: You explained you don’t want to say career, rather you’re constantly evolving, so which angle will you take in the future?
JG: I honestly don’t know. I want to write some and I hope I get to do some work in television or in the movie industry. Do some acting and writing and probably travel too.
HR: Last question, any chance of ever getting a polar bear at the zoo ?
JG: It was one of the few things I was very serious about. The polar bear is stated a vulnerable species. The law on hunting and such is always getting more and more strict, so one day we will not be allowed to kill polar bears. Then, the conclusion will be to have a zoo, an area that imitates their natural habitat.
Most of the animals that come to Iceland are old males, they have lost their territory to young males, so they drifted off to the sea and there is no use of sending them back, because their teeth are falling out and they’re old and tired. So, why not give them a polar bear retirement home? It could be a beautiful idea. The idea of capturing an animal and then releasing it in nature is sometimes releasing it to certain death and some of those animals are also injured. It’s very plausible that within 10-15 years, we’ll have a polar bear at the zoo.
Iceland is not that far from their natural habitat, so it’s not unrealistic, plus it could make a brilliant PR move for Iceland and Reykjavik. That, and the whale hunting, which will cease one day. I know for sure there is more revenue from whale watching than whale killing… and it’s just stupid, we should leave them alone and watch them instead, because they’re magnificent creatures.
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