Dreamland – A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation (Andri Snær Magnason) [2006]

IMG_8969 This is a book of mundane irrationality, magical thinking, semi-religious nature-mysticism – and last, but not least – a good portion of self-complacency. It is presented and framed as the words of a savior, the light in the tunnel – a third way, outside and above political squabble. And yet, the thinking is so fragmented, so vignetted and adapted to the 8-second soundbytes of today, that there can be no consistency. There can be no coherent strain of thought, no attempt at understanding. The author slips and slides, jumps back and forth between theories and philosophies without ever putting his foot on familiar ground. He is an eclectic, a man with no history or ideology, grabbing at a scientific report here, a statement by a politician there – desperately trying to make something out of a confusing reality, that has proven to be a lot less idyllic and far more cynical than his upbringing ever suggested to him.

Everything we think is a product of the world we live in. A product of western [?!] culture, education, upbringing… People who get ideas first often have a lower threshold than others; their brains take in the stimulus and reach a conclusion before others are even aware of its existence.

At best, Andri Snaer Magnason gets close to describing the receiving end of today’s ‘bad policies’. The following quote illustrates the strength of the book, his sporadic confrontations with the hypocrisy of politicians:

At the signing of the contract with Alcoa in 2002, one of our ministers waxed lyrical: ‘Finally the dreams of Einar Benediktsson are becoming a reality.’ He recited one of Einar’s poems that begins ‘Oh nation of poverty and despair …’, which perhaps sounded a little strange in a land that at the time, according to the United Nations, ranked second in the world for standard of living. After the Alcoa smelter in the east, the next Alcoa smelter is scheduled for the north, close to Husavík. It has been proposed that it should bear the name the Einar Benediktsson Aluminium Plant. When it is built it will destroy the farm where Einar grew up. 

Rivers dry out, trout go extinct, small farmers are ruined, the economy is stranded – sometimes he even gets close to working class issues, in his naïve approach, reminding of the utopian socialists. But his Achilles heel is his complete and utter lack of understanding of the giving end: the multi-national companies and the political class that is closely intertwined with them. ASM’s stunning ignorance is a testimony of the latter’s immense success in the propaganda field. I hope that by delving into his confusion, we shall make our own minds clearer.

A man without history

The coherent working class ideologies (ie socialism/anarchism) have for centuries observed the ever growing chasm between the worker and his product (including the production, storage, ownership, distribution and profits from it) – in short: alienation. ASM attempts to re-invent this term – without paying attention to its origins – to fit his narrow, countryside concerns:

[Provinsial eco-alienation: we don’t even know which farm the lamb we eat comes from!] So is the lamb a mark of our alienation, or have we finally brought ourselves into contact with reality? […] Tens of thousands of us drive the ring road – past rivers teeming with trout, farms producing succulent lamb and creamy milk, ports where they land some of the freshest fish in the world – and all you can get the whole way is hamburgers.

Incredibly, he just sinks deeper:

It is often said that alienation is predominantly a phenomenon of the city. But the definition of alienation is something along the lines that people have no overview over the context in which they live their lives, no perspective on the threads that hold their lives together.

If only the workers could have some perspective! Of course – that’s what 200 years of organized struggle should have been aiming for! His grasp of his own country’s history, unfortunately, isn’t better. Here he comments on the fact that a majority of Icelanders (thanks to organized labor, socialists and anarchists) after witnessing a bloody second world war resisted being incorporated into an American defense machinery:

It seems amazing that anyone should reject these glittering temptations dangled before their eyes when the alternative [?] was little more than a hazy and uncertain future and pie-eyed idealism. 

His contempt for ideology (even for vision itself) leads us to the next chapter.

A man without ideology / A post-modern man

Like a true man of his time, ASM has no ideology. He sees himself as an open-minded, rational man, unbound by the fetters to the right or left. Unfortunately for him, this leaves him blowing in the winds of history like a kite. Since he is opposed to ‘conspiracy theories’, he can not see any pattern of powerful people and institutions governing the lives of the rest of us. And since we all are living in the ‘best of worlds’, any ‘bad policies’ must be due to well-meaning, yet misinformed politicians. See no evil, Andri. Class issues are completely off the table. Those with ‘know-how’ and intelligence are rewarded, those that lack these resources are stuck at the bottom. For instance, when the Soviet Union collapsed:

The few who mastered the language [!!!] of the new age were able to get in and scoop up state companies, banks, factories and natural resources at knockdown prices while everyone else lacked the words to make sense of what was happening.

This division of people into smart and not-so-smart people leads him to pretty cynical conclusions:

The world is full of working people, good people, industrious people, fine and honest people, people with industrial skills, highly educated people and people with no education at all and everything in between, most of them united by a desire not to stop doing what they are doing at present. And for this reason it is impossible to turn our resources to something more intelligent, like healthcare and education.

First of all, it’s not obvious what reason he is talking about, but clearly it’s aimed against equal education and health. Another obstacle to a better world is his inner semi-religious irrationality, which he mistakenly projects onto the whole world:

The future cannot be planned and organized, but it is possible to weigh things up and try to predict what we will be living on.

A man above politics

Since we can’t have an equal society – or even attempt to organize it – politics become meaningless. Here, Magnason has been influenced by the current – often correct – disillusionment of people with their politicians. He, like many others, feel betrayed and voiceless.

…if a leftist politician proposes putting up road signs saying WAIT, you can bet a rightist politician will want them to say STOP, and vice versa.

It becomes crucial for his case, to distance himself from petty politics. After all, this is about nature. Everybody loves nature. We don’t need to get into a political dispute, right?

Björnsson’s ideas are arguably some of the most profound and radical to have been put forward at any time in Iceland by a single individual, involving as they do not only politics and ideology but permanent changes to the appearance and ecology of the land. The intention here is not to get drawn into some kind of political slanging match but to look at the overall picture and the ideology behind it.

And yet, what else is politics but the mechanism to decide the impact of society on nature? Andri is biting his own tail. But for all his impartiality, his true values can be sensed beneath all the eco-nonsense:

In the long run, sudden wealth and rapid growth can undermine the foundations of a society and lock people into a system where some have it so easy that they no longer dare take risks. [This is the liberal two-way maxim of hunger being the best motivation for people to work, and vice versa; that social justice and equality inevitably make people lazy. By risk-taking, it’s unclear if ASM is referring to the financial system (where most of the risk-taking has been attributable to the people having it ‘the easiest’), or the work market (taking a risk by accepting jobs with low wages, no security, health insurance or pension), but one can safely assume he wouldn’t be able to recognize the class dividend between the two in either case.]

And for all his green ambitions, his ambivalence towards the military (showing Thatcherian determinism when he calls military spending ”the one sure method open to politicians” to create jobs, ”to get the wheels of the economy going”), as well as his fascination with a life of leisure, distinguish him from the true hippies he tries to represent:

What happens if the army goes? It will leave behind in total rather over four million square feet of living space. The equivalent of seven decent-sized shopping malls. Enough for a cocktail party to which the entire Icelandic nation could be invited.

Leader, leader – where art thou?

Another persevering feature of Magnason’s twisted thinking is his infantile trust for leaders. Political leaders – despite his contempt for politics – are portrayed as at worst benevolent and at best heroic; men of extraordinary ability and intelligence. Any privileges we might enjoy in society today, are thanks to our fore-seeing leaders. Unfortunately, they have been so misinformed as to lead us down a path of destruction. That is why Magnason waves so desperately with his eco-flag; ”if only they would realize they are hurting nature!” This is perhaps the most dangerous tendency in the book: reliance on leaders who time after time sell their peoples out.

We look over the city, all the houses, the cars and the shops, and we don’t believe it can last, as if whoever it was gave it to us might come along at any moment and snatch it away from us again. In the aftermath of the obscenity of the First World War, it was the verdict of our best men that this country should affirm permanent neutrality and have no flag of war, no symbol of militarism.

A man who doesn’t understand power

And finally, the main reason why his way of thinking can not lead to any kind of progressive change: his total disorientation when it comes to understanding power structures in society. This review is getting too long already, so let me just illustrate by quoting:

There is no way of knowing if the army would have been the equivalent of some kind of military rule. It could have turned out to be very popular and taken a responsible role in society. [The army already has a role in society – idiot!]

Despite the massive military presence, Okinawa is the poorest part of Japan and the part with the highest unemployment. It is a beautiful place, with its own language, writing system and culture [like Iceland?] … For many people, Okinawa is nothing more than military facilities, a perception reinforced by the international coverage given to a number of serious crimes committed by US servicemen – crimes so brutal that describing them might sound like cheap propaganda intended to put the army in a bad light. [So the occupying military forces commit crimes against the civilian, indigenous population – and yet, it’s the international coverage, not the crimes, that give the army a bad reputation. Oh, those bad apples that throughout history have given the US military such a bad name! If only the media could be a little more objective in depicting ‘our boys’!]

According to the webpage http://www.globalsecurity.org [an ‘objective’ site, just gathering up the facts, with a dedicated subsection named ‘Target Iran’, depicted by an Iranian flag with Khomeini’s portrait alongside a yellow nuclear warning sign], ‘There is no consensus among Okinawans on the bases. Since the employment of Okinawans on US bases is not inconsequential, there is even a sizeable though silent constituency in favor of the status quo.’ [‘silent’, meaning ‘we don’t have a source’? But that’s off the point. Magnason is just sinking lower and lower into quicksand by grabbing at these examples from reality (his argumentation makes a lot more sense in a dream-world). The Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had to resign on June 2, 2010, stating as the main reason, his failure to fulfill his campaign promise of ridding Okinawa of the American military base there! And here we have Magnason, struggling with himself to justify the very same base, quoting ‘silent constituencies’. This is truly disgraceful.]

As his book moves on, it becomes sadly evident that Magnason’s concept of democracy is taken from a children’s book:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties our democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods [?] and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. [This is NOT ironic!]

Of course we ought to be in NATO, taking an active part and having our voice heard. Doing something useful. Membership of NATO puts us in an unrivalled position to put forward points of view that other countries have filtered out on their way up the military hierarchy. [And then Iceland could enter the ‘axis of evil’, perhaps with Andri at the fore, and show those poor mislead countries the way to salvation.]

Magnason at times flirts even more openly with the nationalist tendencies of his readers:

Iceland is destined for something greater and deeper than being merely a link in a chain of squander and waste on the international markets.

But let me finish with his own, optimistic words:

I believe the future will be amazing, and after that the whole world will become a better place. If we cannot make that happen, then no one can. [Andri, 4 years old?]

Conclusion

Andri Snær Magnason is an ignorant self-proclaimed eclectic, as I mentioned, almost completely without political roots. His hippie-yuppie ideology – even though he himself believes he has none – stems from the post-modern era, and is sponsored and loved by the ruling class, because it will never threaten any of the power structures in society. If Magnason keeps thinking the way he does in this book, he will waste his life with single-project activism, to save this-or-that waterfall or this-or-that-bird-species, without ever recognizing the huge politico-economic interests that threaten the nature he holds so dear. He is so disoriented (in time, space and to his situation), that he doesn’t even realize that the military – anathema to the traditional leftist green – is an enemy to people and nature alike, but keeps babbling about the potential of the military to play ‘a responsible role’ in society. He needs an intensive course in politics and history, before he spreads more of his garble.

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