Jon Gnarr Is Changing the World One Laugh at a Time

[21 August 2014]

By Hans Rollman

Contributing Editor

What do you do when you’re an out-of-work actor and your country’s economy goes bust, the political system is in shambles, and riots grip the streets?

Why, you take over and sort things out, of course.

In the case of Jon Gnarr – former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city - that’s exactly what he did. His new book, which is part memoir, part political manifesto,  chronicles his experience growing up in Iceland and the events and ideas that eventually spurred him into politics, a field which he openly admits to detesting when he was growing up.

A self-professed anarchist who bears a large tattoo of punk band Crass’ logo on one arm, Gnarr has written a book which is also a call to action: for more people from all different backgrounds to get politically involved. Gnarr is determined to break politics wide open, which is really just another way of saying that he wants to expand and enrich democracy. “To save democracy, politics must attract a wider range of people,” he writes. “We need quite ordinary people who think slowly instead of quickly. People who admit it when they don’t know something, instead of pretending they know everything so they won’t be ousted from their jobs.”

People who pretend they know what they do when they don’t are a particularly sensitive topic in Iceland. The country’s economic and political system nearly collapsed in 2008 as irresponsible financial and political decisions bankrupted the nation’s major banks, leading to a lengthy financial crisis.

Who brought this state of affairs about? Gnarr is blunt and to-the-point. “We did. All of us. We have neglected democracy, we haven’t been paying attention and in some ways we’ve let ourselves get taken for a ride.”

Gnarr is also highly critical of the education system. He notes that the mistakes which led to the financial crisis can’t be pinned on any specific ideological program – they were the result of something much deeper and more systemic. They were made by both right-wing and left-wing politicians. The one common pattern underlying all the actors, he notes, is their educational background.

The education system, from primary school up to and including universities, he says, discourages creative and critical thinking. This contributed to a self-assured faith in ‘experts’ who turned out to be nothing of the sort. The world of politics needs less ‘experts’, he argues, and more people who are willing to think critically and creatively. People who are willing and able to think for themselves, and also to work collectively as a team. Icelandic politics – and one can easily make the argument for democratic society more globally – is lacking in these vital character traits, which is what he believes schools should concentrate on instilling in students.

Gnarr would know. His own background is an indictment of that system. His book describes a childhood as the son of a Communist father and a mother who voted for the right (and who consigned his father’s portraits of Soviet leaders to the pantry). Challenged by the conformity of school, Crass and Nina Hagen helped him through: he discovered anarchism and punk rock as a youth and it contributed to shaping his own critical and non-conformist attitude. He even played in a punk band, whose named translated as ‘Runny Noses’.

After high school he found himself driving cabs in the streets of Reykjavik; and yet he also found he had a sharp knack for humour. He began building a career for himself in the arts, doing comedy, writing and starring in television and film. He also came into work in advertising. He recalls at one point sitting across from John Cleese, who was slated to play a role in an ad his company was producing.

“John Cleese was my childhood hero, but sitting opposite him, I realized that I too was basically nothing more than a cog in this giant machine,” he writes. He realized that the single commercial they were producing “…was more expensive than a complete comedy series that I was filming. What the hell was actually going on in this country?”

When the crisis broke and unemployment skyrocketed, he voluntarily left his job with an ad agency and decided, at that point, enough was enough and it was time for him to do something. He’d been to anti-government protests, but never as an active participant; more because, he recalls, it was simply the place to be at the time. And much as he shared his countrymen’s scathing disgust toward the politicians and bankers who had put the country in crisis, he didn’t care for the militant and populist anger he often witnessed at protests either. His ardent individualism convinced him that there must be a better way.

Or even, perhaps, a best way.

The Best Party, which he formed to compete in the 2010 municipal election, was initially planned as a parody party. With a campaign video that has received more YouTube hits than there are people in the country, and commitments such as free towels in swimming pools, a drug-free Parliament by 2020, and a commitment to eradicate hidden corruption by doing it more openly, the party elicited laughs across the nation (and globe). But it also fired the public imagination in a way nobody anticipated.

Amidst the humour, several key themes emerge in Gnarr’s political activism, and these are outlined in his book, which chronicles the rollicking election campaign. One is the need for people to get involved in politics and reinvigorate democracy. The western world has become dominated by “political inbreeding”, he says, and that’s not what democracy is meant to be. In a democracy, people who don’t like what’s happening around them should be fully empowered to either get involved in an existing party (and contribute to changing it if they feel it has serious problems) or start their own. Like he did.

His manifesto is also a demand for politicians and public alike to recognize their responsibilities in a democratic society. “Without responsibility, freedom turns into chaos and power to dictatorship,” he writes. Everybody bears some of the blame: media make too big a deal when politicians make simple mistakes or run into problems, thereby creating the damaging impression that politicians should be infallible superheroes. Politicians in turn refuse to accept responsibility for their mistakes, or admit their uncertainty. Angry activists don’t help things by battling police in the streets instead of developing constructive alternatives, he says. “The only realistic way to change things is direct participation in democracy.”

Gnarr’s account is deeply honest and personal at points. He admits to the grave uncertainty and fear he had when he realized his party actually had a shot at winning. Losing confidence, and under more aggressive scrutiny from media and rival parties now that everyone realized his party was a real contender, he almost pulled the plug. But it was his own sense of responsibility – to all those who had committed time and energy to the campaign, and all the members of the public he had met who earnestly wanted the chance to vote for them – that he decided to stick it out (he did announce the party’s dissolution shortly before the election, but followed it up quickly with: “JOKE!”).

And then the unthinkable actually happened: the Best Party received the best percentage of votes of any party. It wasn’t enough to win outright, but Gnarr negotiated a coalition with a social democratic party (on condition of their leaders catching up on all episodes of The Wire). The result: he became mayor.

For Gnarr, fun and humour has always been more than just a job (or a way to get elected mayor). It’s a character trait he deeply and firmly advocates.

“Only when humor has been universally recognized as a crucial character trait will the inhabitants of this world get along. They will realize that life is too short to get mad and fight among themselves,” he says.

“I am convinced that humor will soon be recognized as a key skill for all areas of life,” he writes, making a case for the importance of humor not just on the stage and the screen, but in workplaces, in art, in finance and in government. “I simply see it as the logical development of human thought. In other words, if you want to be one step ahead in the future, you’re going to need humor.”

Humor may be Gnarr’s forte, but his book is also thoughtful and even touching at times. He talks extensively about the need for tolerance and equality, particularly around gay, lesbian and trans rights; a cause for which he has been a passionate advocate. And he writes with a poignant honesty about the stress of being mayor, the pressures of making decisions that actually affect people’s lives and jobs and, in a deeply emotional section, the death of his mother while he was in office.

But inevitably, he returns to politics, and shares the experience he’s gained from being in office. It’s filled him with ideas for improving democratic politics.

“The biggest snag with democracy is that stupid people have as much right as intelligent people to express an opinion and that, of course, you have to treat the yokels respectfully… Is it any wonder that the younger generation is usually conspicuous in its absence from such meetings? Why would you discuss something that you think is relevant in a closed group of fifty to one hundred people when you could spread the exact same thing on Facebook or Twitter and thus reach thousands? Plus block undesirable blabbermouths with one click.”

Gnarr is an advocate for participatory, 21st-century digital democracy, and his message is delivered in characteristically honest, straight-forward and down-to-earth style. Most of us would rather sit around in our underwear and watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead than go to a political meeting “in some stuffy office down in the city, drinking vending machine coffee and listening to vacuous anecdotes about some employee’s private life” he says. People today won’t take the time to vote in elections, yet they regularly spend half an hour filling out online surveys in the hope of winning the latest iPad.

He argues we need to adapt democracy to our society. Creating online forums where users can discuss and even vote on local issues and spending in their electoral district, and with incentives for participation (free random iPad giveaways, for instance) means that citizens would become more actively involved in their community, and without having to miss the latest Walking Dead episode.

And they could even do it in their underwear.

Some might brush this off as just words, but Gnarr’s Best Party has in fact begun putting these ideas into practice. In 2011 the city adopted an e-democracy platform called Betri (Better) Reykjavik. Anyone can join, and propose ideas, which other users can endorse or oppose. Ideas receiving sufficient endorsements would be brought to council meetings, and a portion of budgetary spending allocated to them. It allows municipal legislators to hold referenda on spending priorities in different parts of the city, or on items like making downtown streets pedestrian-only (the software, developed by Icelandic computer programmers, says it is available for other governments around the world who wish to adopt it too). This, writes Gnarr, has had the effect of introducing a rudimentary form of participatory budgeting to governance.

If Gnarr’s commitment to the internet is serious, it’s also fun: he unabashedly discusses his various Facebook accounts, each with different personalities, that he would secretly use to engage with the public while mayor.

Opinions vary, sometimes strongly, about the success and achievements of Gnarr and the Best Party since their 2010 election victory. Nevertheless, they brought stability to a municipal scene which had been through a turbulent decade (with several of his predecessors barely lasting a year in office). Polls suggested Gnarr, who finished his term in June of this year, could have easily won re-election if he had decided to try. He did not. He says that the Best Party was designed as a ‘surprise’, and surprises can’t be repeated.

But what began as a ‘surprise’ may have a much longer-lasting legacy. One of the accomplishments for which Gnarr sounds proudest is that many able and competent people were drawn into the active political sphere as a result of the Best Party’s unorthodox and surprise tactics. Many of these people, who might otherwise never have gotten involved in politics, are now active and committed to the growth of progressive, participatory democracy. Several Best Party members and organizers have formed a new party to compete at the national level – Bright Future. It elected several seats in the last election, and current polls show it in second place nationally. Gnarr gives them a proud thumbs-up.

Gnarr! is an entertaining reflection on life, politics, and human nature by an original and creative individual (who defies easy description). It’s a quick read, and includes a brief interview with his wife as well as short excerpts from website postings. It’s a tribute to, and manifesto for, participatory democracy in the 21st century. And above all, it’s a call for us all to be nicer to each other.

If Gnarr has a political philosophy, that seems to be it: be nicer to each other, and have more fun. One of his own strengths, says Gnarr, is the fact he never felt the need to be best at anything. “The true winner of the game for me is the one who has the most fun,” he writes, “and this is true not only in sport, but also in life.”

“Life is mainly there for us to enjoy it and have as much fun as possible, but we have to become active ourselves and come up with a few ideas,” he says.

Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World is full of good ideas to get you started.

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