Is It ‘A Nation Of Book-Lovers’? Is It ‘The Future Of Music’? No, It's A Proto-Fascist Tanning Salon

21.6.2011
Words by Haukur Már Helgason
The University of Reykjavík (not to be confused with the University of Iceland, located in Reykjavík) recently published the results of a 2010 poll about the lifestyle and habits of 16–18 year olds in Iceland. Similar polls were conducted in 2004 and 2007. In all cases some 11 thousand students answered the questionnaire—the seemingly reliable continuum of the investigation makes for an interesting comparison, which has already hit the headlines. On June 14, Vísir.is declared: "High school students happier and healthier", quoting Jón Sigfússon, manager of UR's research division, Research and Analysis: "The results are all in all positive. The teenagers spend more quality time with their parents, participate more in sports and so on”.

This certainly seems to be the case. Not only do students in the age group exercise more than before, eat less white sugar, spend more time outdoors with their parents and take part in the boy and girl scouts movement in growing numbers: the findings report their growing trust in the police, the courts and the church—steadily and significantly growing. Yes, the church. Yes, the police. Yes, the courts.

Excess ham

At the same time, the figures reveal that the youngsters read significantly less: 40% of those asked did not read a single extracurricular book in 2010, as compared to 30% in 2007. They attend the cinema far less than before (while downloading a bit less too, it seems), spend less time in cafés, are less involved in their schools' social life and fewer form bands and play in them than before. They attend more parties though. All in all the shift seems significant, clear and rapid: less liberal arts, more exercise and hierarchy. What is the precise term for such a shift? Let us start politely and use writer Andri Snær Magnason's phrase: at the very least our youth is being 'ham-ified'.

Now, in the same week as these findings are revealed, the media tell us about young Icelandic males joining the Norwegian army. Those already serving their… uncle-land get a free trip back home if they spend some time recruiting, and thus a young man who already served in Afghanistan has been travelling through Icelandic high schools 'informing' students about this career option. So far, three schools have opened their doors to the young man and his mission. This went mainly unnoticed until the Norwegian public broadcast company NRK published a report on the Icelanders in the army. NRK spoke with soldier Hilmar Haraldsson, 29, who cites his thirst for adventure as his main reason for joining, the desire to experience things Icelanders normally don't. “Are you willing to die for Norway?”, the reporter asks. “Yes”, says Hilmar, plain and simple. That he is willing to kill—'for Norway'— goes without saying. Another soldier, Bjarki Kristinsson, 21, says he would not mind going to war for Norway, explaining: "Icelanders and Norwegians are not that different. We have a lot of history in common, for example the saga literature". But he is not serving just for the sake of the sagas and medieval kinship: while mentioning his desire for adventure, as Hilmar before him, Bjarki also notes the financial crisis as playing its part in the decision to enlist. When asked how his family felt about his decision he replies: "I have always been interested in sports and spent a lot of time in the wild, so they knew that this would suit me".

Along with the Icelandic soldiers themselves, NRK speaks with veteran Stein Ørnhøj who argues that the issue should have been controversial in Iceland: "If Norwegian citizens went to war for other countries, that would make me really uneasy", he explains.

Excess subservience

A positive spin was given to the decline of reading and cultural activities among our youth, extolling the development as a supposedly 'healthier lifestyle'. By a parallel lack of intellectual friction the story of young men joining a foreign army seemed unproblematic when reported by the Icelandic media, which at first made no mention of death or politics, but merely quoted the part of NRK’s interview about the young men's thirst for adventure. A few Arabian nights, boys will be boys, etc.

How do we interpret this? What is this? Perhaps you already noticed this country's 2011 phonebook. Perhaps you didn't. On its cover a half-naked male bodybuilder stands erect in the foreground, decoratively surrounded by younger female gymnasts posing in the background. The man involved, who goes by many names, has made a profession out of being, not merely a celebrity, but the symbol of a particular attitude, expressed by his physique, his writings and TV-appearances. The attitude is a familiar mix of misogyny, anti-intellectualism, classicist veneration of the male physique, cleanliness and an arbitrary exercise of power, under the currently obligatory thin veil of humour and mandatory liberal views. There is nothing liberal about the imagery involved, though, no more than about his TV sketches on 'how to behave around a Negro' or his blog posts about feminists, most of whom are reportedly “disgusting as well as being psychopaths". It’s only a joke, he will dismissively explain when criticised. Literary technique. It’s not real. Just role-play. Don’t be sour. I’ll have my friends rape you. Just kiddin’. Ah, what a laugh. While most writers of my generation have seen little reason to join the Icelandic writers' guild, once an important venue for discussion and critique but in recent years mainly an agency for summer houses and residencies, the proto-fascist cover model of the 2011 phonebook is 'proud to be a member' since 2010. And yes, he is eloquent and has among other things established a rich vocabulary denoting the subtle variations of tan.

Proto-fascist is the precise term for the imagery epitomised on the cover of the phonebook. It is also the correct term for a value-system extolling physical exercise to the point of exterminating book reading and cultural activities, a value-system wherein an interest in sports and love for the wilderness seems a valid premise to join an army—cultivating desire for subservience and authority in such abundance that young men travel abroad to enlist, to murder at command. It is a situation in which schools see no reason, no valid argument, to keep recruiting officers off their premises. This value-system, still more loudly and clearly expressed through imagery than words, is a direct result of the ongoing right-wing hold on media, on cultural institutions and the education system from where representatives of the barbaric tradition continue keep distributing a scorn for critical thought. They may or may not know what they are doing. Regardless, the resulting inanity is not merely irritating; it is dangerous and should be taken seriously.

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