Backdraft

Thoughts on the Current Political Landscape

I heard once a story about a firefighter – a firefighter who hurtled himself headlong into a burning building, accompanied by a band of intrepid associates. Onwards he went, past the smoke and the fumes and the occasional bolting resident, without so much as a vain hesitation. Seconds before the building exploded into a veritable and ungovernable conflagration, the firefighter turned his associates ‘round and exhorted them to flee. He did so, not because his courage had been routed by a reasonable feeling of panic, but because he had suspected that he and his troop would soon become the impotent casualties of some unforeseen disaster. Afterwards, when he had recovered from the shock that usually accompanies such an uncomfortable proximity to death, the firefighter was interrogated by a crowd of inquisitive reporters.

“Why did you urge your men to leave?” they inquired.

The firefighter could make no clear account of his actions, but stated, simply, that he had had a hunch:

“There was something about the billowing of the smoke; the taste of the air; the silent severity of the heat.”

The firefighter recalled that he had encountered this phenomenon before – known among professionals as a “backdraft” – but at the time his conscious mind had been unable to translate the feeling into language.

In Iceland, we are experiencing this same state of inarticulateness. We seem, in our protests, to be spurred onwards by an elusive, all-consuming hunch – but our conscious minds (or our journalists) are unable to translate this hunch into coherent language.

We have been here before, but we cannot find our words.

Yesterday, as I strolled down Austurstræti towards work, I was buttonholed by a member of the foreign media, who had caught me, like so many other pedestrians, off guard; I was groggy, aloof and predictably preoccupied with a podcast (concerning the life of George Orwell). As I stared indecisively into the dark lens of his camera, I tried my best to answer his questions – but I could no more communicate my feeling than the firefighter could, moments before the backdraft.

I realize now what I would have liked to have said:

“What the government fails to comprehend, blinded as all governments are by their desire to remain in power, is that the nature of this present crisis has less to do with the legality of the Prime Minister’s actions (and that of his fellow cabinet members) – and more to do with an elusive and ineffable hunch, inspired by a vague constellation of signs.

“You see,”

“It’s like we are rushing through the narrow hallway of a burning building (which is what this current media debacle is) – and a disagreeable tingling has begun to inch its way up our spine. And as we race onwards our subconscious minds are registering, one by one, the hazy signs of an impending explosion.”

“Here are some of these signs, as I intuit them.”

“The government has dragged the ghost of Tortola from its grave (and all that Tortola implies) and set it wandering about our streets, stirring, once again, the specter of distrust in the hearts of our countrymen – a specter which seems to whisper opacity and deception.”

“The government (the Prime Minister, primarily) has roused the attention of the foreign media, suggesting that our island may, once again, be permeated with the stench of a pungent irony. It smells of international discredit.[1]

“The government has directed our attention to that damning, dilating gulf that stretches between the working classes and the wealthy, and, when we begin to consider it – we find that the government has made little effort in redressing this burgeoning inequality.[2]

“The government has, unwittingly, got us thinking about the fragments of patriarchy; once again, two of the highest offices in our country are occupied by middle-aged, upper-class, wealthy, white men.[3]

“The government has sought to justify its blunders with reference to economic prosperity, deaf to the current connotations of the term – to the irony that reverberates when we speak the word ‘2007’.”

“The government has, at least as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, behaved with a shameful arrogance and condescension towards the ‘meddlesome’ media (of course, the media is not wholly free of blame).”

I would have liked to have paused here, for rhetorical effect, before summing up my ideas with the following and dramatically underscored words:

“These signs, considered together, among others, seem to inspire an ineffable feeling of suspicion and dread – as if we were all rushing headlong into a burning building, soon to become the impotent casualties of some unforeseen disaster.”

“And can you blame us? We have been burned before – and we have come to loathe the peeling of dead skin.”

“Furthermore, we observe not only some of the same red lights that flickered ominously before the infamous financial crisis, but also those other flickering lights, more distant and more vague – but no less ominous – that portend of a much more permanent crisis:”

“The world grows increasingly hotter; the temperature rises; bombs explode; inequality grows; and we the people abandon ourselves, thoughtlessly, to technology, while continuing to burn fossil fuels.”

“Once again, we await the fateful backdraft of history ....”

(I would also like to stress, that in the midst of our demonstrations, we, the protestors, have behaved ourselves shamefully: We have stooped to personal attacks and threats; have succeeded in making a mob of stupid bullies of ourselves; and have sought to exclude some of our compatriots, and fellow human beings, by employing that most ugly of dichotomies: US and THEM.)



Ragnar Tómas is a writer and journalist
ragnartomas@ske.is


[1] Following the conspicuous wreckage of our national economy in 2008, it seemed as if our reputation had been permanently painted with a thick coat of black tar. What made things worse, was the prideful prelude to our crash. We had fashioned an account of ourselves as a nation of Nietzschean supermen, who rose beyond themselves to the improbable masters of global finance. Today there is a whiff of that same, pungent irony; our judicial efforts have been trumpeted abroad as proof that we are a reforming nation systematically uprooting corruption and jailing bankers. But once again, we find holes in our narrative

[2] A recent report by Oxfam, published earlier this year, showed that 62 of the world’s richest billionaires owned as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population. This is the unnerving truth that serves as the backdrop to the 1,2 billion ISK possessed by the Prime Minister and his wife. Is it far-fetched to assume that if you were to lump the Prime Minister and his wife’s 1.2 billion ISK in with the fortunes of Iceland’s 62 wealthiest people that the aggregate would far exceed the collective savings of the bottom half of Iceland’s population?

[3] Two days ago, Gunnlaugur Sigmundsson (the PM's father), referred to the leader of the Left-Green party, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, as “cute and polite.”