Why Iceland Doesn't Deserve Its Liberal Reputation

I love my country, but I don't understand why the world sees it as an "ultra-liberal" paradise.

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Sep 24 2015, 12:00pm

A glacier in Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland (Photo by Andreas Tille via)

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott got the boot. His ousting reminded me of all the bullshit the Australian government has pulled with him in power, and how, on balance, they've got their just desserts, both in terms of Abbott's fate and Australia's image abroad. It seems most people in the Northern Hemisphere are fairly aware of the Australian government's prejudices towards Aborigines and asylum seekers alike; some have even heard of Abbott's dismissal of climate change.

All this made me wonder why the Icelandic government hasn't suffered the same fate, because they've been getting away with some pretty rancid stuff.

Since reelection in the spring of 2013, the ruling conservative coalition has allowed Iceland's already-beleaguered healthcare system to crumble into dust, and is now preparing to privatise our healthcare – something that's always worked really well for other countries. They've also overseen a spectacularly clumsy attempt by Icelandic police to procure and import Norwegian submachine guns – to a country with practically zero gun crime – citing, of course, "national security" as just cause.

They have actively sought to industrialise Iceland's highlands, selling or overseeing the sale of huge tracts of land to foreign entities, which plan to build power plants and silica refineries. This is consistent with the Icelandic right's view that our economy should be buoyed by industry, an especially infuriating stance in light of the fact that heavy industry constitutes maybe 5 percent of our GDP in a bad year, while tourism – the overwhelming majority of which is nature tourism – rakes in millions and millions of dollars every year. Yet, tourism is dismissed as an irrelevant fad to them, resulting in the deterioration of national landmarks, a massive rent spike in Reykjavik due to the unregulated establishment of hotels and Airbnbs, and general overcrowding of the capital, to the point where tourists have been forced to pitch tents and literally take shits on public and private property.

But their dislike of tourism hasn't stopped the Finance Minister's father from monopolising transport between Reykjavik and Iceland's only international airport. Chances are that if you've been here, you've helped line their coffers, as no public transportation of any kind connects the airport to Reykjavik.

And then there's the racism. Last year, a Nigerian asylum seeker was deported and separated from his family after an assistant of the then-interior minister leaked a memo containing false and misleading information about the man to the media, while a woman running for city council won racist votes by promising to halt the construction of Reykjavik's only mosque.

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I understand that all this seems provincial – even cute – compared to the Australian government's offences, but I'm mystified by how oblivious the world seems to our government's crimes in light of the amount of hype Iceland's been getting, especially for our supposedly "ultra-liberal" politics, which in reality have been limited to ideological gestures by the occasional powerless but outspoken pundit or politician.

Reykjavik's former mayor wore drag once and everyone assumed everything was just fine and dandy up here in Iceland, like we're some kind of liberal paradise. Or there was the time five corrupt bankers were jailed after being caught doing what our whole financial sector was doing before our economy collapsed, and a load of clickbait sites published articles about how we "let the banks fail" (this never happened) and "jailed all our bankers".

The truth is that the banks are soaring, having made massive profits since the collapse, while the rest of Iceland is still stumbling out of it. All the mistakes that led to our meltdown seven years ago are being repeated by the same political parties who presided over it, whom, bizarrely, the Icelandic electorate chose to reelect; meanwhile, the average Icelander sinks deeper into debt as the cost of living rises with inflation while salaries stay the same.

But no one really cares. It seems people here want to believe the "liberal paradise" myth so badly that there isn't any interest in learning the truth. The average Icelandophile visiting here has been so thoroughly inundated by quirky music videos and cute news stories about how everyone here "believes in elves" (another total fabrication) or how we shun religion and "believe only in ourselves" (our constitution actually guarantees special rights to the Church) that it's very difficult for him or her to see that this is actually a real place with real problems.

I'm not saying you can't visit here and enjoy it – on the contrary; perhaps the only way to truly enjoy life here is to come as a tourist, a non-participant in our farcically corrupt society. So by all means, come and inject your delicious foreign money into our economy and help prove our government wrong about tourism. Come see the nature before it's destroyed. Come have a drink while you still can before our state-owned liquor store workers go on strike. Come see a show before all the musicians move abroad, like I'm doing. So come, but come quick, before the people running this country choke it to death.

@sindrieldon

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