“I had to learn about stuff I didn’t care about, stuff I haven’t cared that much about in my life. Like boring things. I’m more into fun things.” ~ Jon Gnarr, on what was the hardest adjustment he had to make in learning to be the mayor of Reykjavík.
Jon Gnarr is a joker. There’s not very much he appears to take seriously in life. As a teenager he was a punk. And an anarchist. He played in a band called Runny Nose and idolized the U.K. outfit Crass. Later on he became a comedian and a writer, got married and had 5 kids. Along the way, he did a brief stint as the Mayor of the capital city of his home country, Iceland, saving it from bankruptcy and instituting a number of new policies.
How did a 44 year old high school dropout with a severe learning difficulty — a poet, punk, cross-dresser and numerous other-thingser — end up as the Mayor of a major city? Well, it all started as a joke, of course. After the financial crisis of 2008, the city in question, Reykjavik, bit the dust hard. As Gnarr himself has mentioned, it was set to become the next Detroit. Prior to the fall, the city had gotten so rich it was producing 9 times its economic outputs in profit, but when the crash hit, the extent of the corruption in the banking sector became horrifyingly apparent by the shells of the institutions it left behind.
Cue: “The Best Party”.
Formed by Gnarr for his TV show at the time, The Best Party was a ‘populist protest political party’ that nobody was really expected to take seriously — the party themselves didn’t take it seriously. Indeed, their ideas were something utterly alien to the world of politics, standing on a platform of, according to Gnarr, “honesty and integrity, empathy, non-violent communication and …fun.”
What nobody could see was just how tired the general public had gotten of all the corruption. The joke-party got voted in, and a comedian whose political knowledge was so little that he didn’t recognize the mayor who preceded him when shaking hands with her was suddenly at the helm. In fact, no one on the The Best Party had any background in politics.
Yet this seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.
“I ascribe to Mark Twain’s theory that the last person who should be President is the one who wants it the most. The one who should be picked is the one who should be dragged kicking and screaming into the White House.” ~ Bill Hicks
The group knuckled down and learned a lot about ‘boring’ subjects, such as city finances. 4 years later they had completely reversed the city’s money woes– a move financial experts all agreed to “as a miracle”. Along the way Gnarr dressed in drag at the Gay Pride Parade, got shout-outs from Noam Chomsky and Lady Gaga and broke a lot of the promises the party had made in the beginning– just as they had promised.
Though his popularity ratings remained high enough to grant him a good possibility of re-election, Gnarr finished his term in 2014 and stepped down. Here are 16 hilarious and insightful quotes from the “clown mayor” who saved Iceland.
This campaign was started solely so that I can get a good salary and use the city’s summerhouse by the water.
Just like the Terminator, Jesus promised, in the end, that he would be back. But unlike the Terminator, he hasn’t made good on his word. Not yet. Or has he? Maybe he’s back. Maybe he’s in isolation in a US prison, a repressed woman in Saudi Arabia or under house arrest in China. Or maybe he’s a persecuted homosexual in Russia.
Just the idea of empathy, morality, and fun playing an essential role in politics just as notions alone seem to me to be satirical when bringing them into politics. Just the idea of being earnestly and candidly empathetic, moral, and fun is enough.
I like to say that I’m an anarchist. Not because I believe that anarchism is the perfect political ideology, but more because there is no such thing as a perfect ideology. It’s all about democracy. And there is a place for anarchism in democracy…
We can’t leave democracy to politicians. People are more and more losing interest in politics. Especially young people. And now there is the so-called professional politician… [which] does not exist. It’s not a real profession. You cannot go to any university to be become a politician. You can learn political science or whatever but it doesn’t make you a politician. It’s more of a personality trait. It’s like an alpha-type of person and we’re not ‘alpha people’, we’re all sorts, and therefore I think all sorts of people should be able and welcomed to participate and be active in politics… We desperately need more women in politics… and we need more philosophers and more scientists, also…
I have no enemies, but I have many people who see me as an enemy, or a threat. It was kind of like in the scene [in The Matrix] with Neo and Morpheus with the pills. Its was kind of like I took the red pill, and I have sometimes thought I should have taken the blue pill. Because I had to get out of my comfort zone. I like to think of myself as this wanderer and a hobo, kind of. I just wander. When I get tired or bored, I just leave. But here I was kind of stuck. It came with all this responsibility, and the financial situation of the city was so serious. We said in the beginning before the elections that if it sucks, [the Best Party] will just leave. But then we realized, we can’t leave…
I had self-doubt all the time. It serves a purpose, the doubt. It’s a vital part of any creative process.
I was born in Iceland, and I speak the language. I know my way around the city, and by definition I’m Icelandic. In my opinion this country—for most of my life—has rejected me as a person with any value. But still I felt an obligation and a responsibility towards the city.
I’m really inspired by Bruce Lee. I love the man, his story, and how he became. He stepped into a very hostile environment as an Asian in America at the time—not just [with white people] but also in the Chinese community. They accused him of teaching kung fu to the non-Chinese, and he was looked down on in many ways. But he managed to prove himself, and he became a superstar.
We’re so focused exclusively on success that we’ve forgotten how to enjoy things. And that’s understandable. …but success has its price. That price, in part, is joy in life. Because ultimate success does not exist. There’s always a bit more to do.
We promise to stop corruption. We’ll accomplish this by participating in it openly… [We will also provide] free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo, all kinds of things for weaklings, Disneyland in the Vatnsmýri area…
I wouldn’t have a care in the world if I didn’t have children. Children bring responsibility, and they fuck everything up. You’re a dedicated anarchist, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist Noam Chomsky type, and now you’re in Toys ‘R’ Us all the time. You know, “Can we go to McDonald’s? Can we please go to McDonald’s?” So you go there.
Responsibility is a peculiar thing… It’s so easy to have an opinion when you don’t have to take any responsibility. But responsibility changes everything. The thing with it is that it’s not popular. Nobody wants it. Nobody likes it. ‘We have enough of it, we don’t need more, and we would like to get rid of some! But we want all the other stuff…’
I believe in non-violent communication. When I was young I trained in judo, and judo is all about using your opponent’s energy against himself, so I applied that to the violent communication that was pointed towards me, and it worked. Basically it’s about not retaliating against people even when they are aggressive or rude, and being polite with people when they are not polite, and I found that it works. It’s hard to be rude and aggressive towards somebody who’s always polite towards you. So it’s kind of like a professional person would treat an alcoholic. ‘I like you as a person but you’re drunk, so I will treat you accordingly to that.’
I wish you could simply extirpate violence and war from the world, abolish all the armed forces, and destroy all the bombs. But this is probably not very realistic. Ultimately, everyone has to start with themselves. Many want to be active somewhere else, at best in a country where they don’t currently live. But what’s the point, if there’s no peace in your own life? So be at peace with yourself. And how? Through peaceful dealings with others. Start by ensuring peace at home before you go out into the world. Or work for peace in both spheres. You can’t be working for a peace camp in the Middle East during the day and then in the evening have a quarrel with your family over the phone.
Power is overestimated, and I don’t miss it at all.
~ If you enjoyed this post, you can check out the documentary Gnarr which takes an in-depth — and yes, often hilarious — look at The Best Party’s time in office, as well as his autobiographies The Indian and Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. You can also follow the column he writes for Iceland Magazine here.