THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: REYKJAVIK AND THE PERILS OF MONOCULTURE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed towards the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way…)

You notice it as soon as you get off the plane at Keflavik Airport, about 50 kilometers from Reykjavík. It’d be hard to miss, actually.

Practically all the signage – welcoming you to Iceland, directing you to baggage claim, encouraging you to purchase some luxury item or other from the duty-free shop – is in English.

It’s quite a nice gesture, really, designed quite purposefully to make Anglophones not just from the US and British Isles but from all over the world feel welcomed, and allow folks to avoid having to wrestle with the bearishly difficult Icelandic language.

And it’s been a very successful choice. Even in the dead of winter, tourism has become a huge part of Iceland’s economy.

But there’s a price to pay, and a careful balance to maintain.

The Roadhouse is an American-themed restaurant, located across a street with the wonderful name of Snorrabraut from one of the hostels where I stayed. The featured burgers are a bit over-the-top even by American standards – one is served on a doughnut, and another comes graced with a couple of dollops of mac’n’cheese – but the people were friendly and the fries really were excellent. I had some great conversations with the personnel, including a couple of native Icelandic waitstaff and their Japanese-Indonesian-Hispanic (!) manager. They agreed that making aspects of Iceland seem more familiar and accessible to tourists, while certainly good for business, also threatened to override some of the characteristics of Icelandic culture that make it such an interesting destination in the first place, as well as a tightly-knit society.

The notion of “globalization” implies different things to different people, and they respond to it (or rebel against it) in different ways. The “alt-right” neo-nationalists, like Trump chief of staff Steve Bannon, see it as a threat not just to national sovereignty but also ethnic and racial identity. They would rather see everyone pull back into tightly controlled and insular “ethno-states,” with minimal interaction and even less blending. They present their vision as the only alternative to sacrificing one’s uniqueness on the altar of commerce, and then use that false dichotomy as a cover for promoting their racist and supremacist ideology.

But that is far from the only alternative. If there is to be a global “monoculture,” it must be one that serves as background, not bulldozer – one that allows local cultures to stand out, flourish, and survive. There should be no conflict between the preservation of one’s own traditional heritage and participation in global exchanges.

A friend I met invited me to see her neighborhood in the southeastern suburbs of Reykjavik. We walked along snowy sidewalks to the local branch library, which was hosting a traveling exhibition of Japanese dolls, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Some of the more formal dolls were exquisite studies in porcelain and cloth, remarkably detailed. I marveled, not just at the artistry, but at all that had brought me and this exhibit together, in a small-town library at the top of our confused but deeply interconnected world.

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