Friday, November 26, 2010

Democracy vs the banksters in Iceland

One of the rarer birds in creation is the progressive Lutheran clergyman.  Obviously there have been some over the years--most recently during the efforts to unseat communism during the days of DDR.  One of the most interesting was this 19th century Danish bishop by the name of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig.  According to Wikipedia, "Grundtvig and his followers are credited with being very influential in the formulation of modern Danish national consciousness. It was steeped in the national literature and supported by deep spirituality."

Grundtvig was a teacher who became a passionate reformer.

The two pillars of his school program, the School for Life (folk high school) and the School for Passion (university) were aimed at quite different horizons of life. The popular education should mainly be taught within a national and patriotic horizon of understanding, yet always keeping an open mind towards a broader cultural and intercultural outlook, while the university should work from a strictly universal, i.e. humane and scientific, outlook.
The common denominator of all Grundtvig's paedagogical efforts was to promote a spirit of freedom, poetry and disciplined creativity, within all branches of educational life. He promoted values such as wisdom, compassion, identification and equality. He opposed all compulsion, including exams, as deadening to the human soul. Instead Grundtvig advocated unleashing human creativity according to the universally creative order of life. Only willing hands make light work. Therefore a spirit of freedom, cooperation and discovery was to be kindled in individuals, in science, and in the civil society as a whole.
Apparently, Grundtvig had a stump speech on education reform that went something like this: Through great effort, the people of the North freed themselves from the tyranny of the Mediterranean powers.  The Germanic tribes were influential in destroying the Roman Empire.  The Saxon Luther defeated the evil that was the Roman Church.  But though the power of Mediterranean religious and military tyranny has been broken, we are still trapped by the tyranny of the schoolmaster who teaches that all wisdom and learning came from the south.

Like a lot of claims made by 19th century nationalists, Grundtvig claims for the accomplishments of the people of the North could lead to some very un-Nordic chest thumping.  But it was Grundtvig's claim that the Viking societies had developed sophisticated democratic traditions without the models of the Greeks and Romans that may be his most interesting.  He argued that the Vikings developed their democracy probably without knowing any of the details of the examples that predated them.  This is because Viking democracy did not arise out of abstract theory but as a practical response to a situation where there are many powerful figures within a group.  Once it was understood why Viking societies had to become democratic out of practical necessity, the idea that the Greeks had something called democracy earlier in history becomes almost irrelevant.

Keep this in mind when you read the following tale of how Iceland, faced with the disaster of the global economic meltdown of 2008, has sought wisdom from those old Vikings who formed their first parliament in 930 a.d.  Democracy as the logical outgrowth of pragmatism.
Power to the People
Iris Erlingsdottir
Icelandic journalist and writer
Posted: November 21, 2010 04:15 PM
The financial crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 revealed many weaknesses inherent in Iceland's system of governance. The professional political class that had arisen since Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944 had become intolerably entwined with its dominant business class, and had acquiesced to (and sometimes actively participated in) the massive fraud that nearly bankrupted the nation.
One fortunate consequence of this most unfortunate revelation has been a movement to draft a new Constitution. National elections to select the twenty-five members of a Constitutional committee will take place later this month, and the committee will commence its work early next year.
Iceland's current Constitution is essentially a word-for-word translation of the pre-WWII Danish Constitution. It reflects the concerns faced by a 19th century nation making the transition from an absolute monarchy to a liberal democracy. Although it may have sufficed at that time for that nation, it has failed to address the disastrous problems of 21st century Iceland.
The new Constitution must reflect Iceland's unique history, as well as its democratic values. One way to accomplish these goals is to reinstitute Iceland's greatest political achievement--the Alþingi.
Today, Iceland's legislature is referred to as the Alþingi, but in reality the Alþingi--as it was originally conceived in 930 AD--was a much different institution, in which the legislature (or Lögrétta) was only one part. Until Iceland submitted to the authority of the Norwegian king by the terms of the "Old Covenant" (Gamli sáttmáli) in 1262, Alþingi was a general assembly at which the country's chieftains (goðar) met to decide on legislation and dispense justice. Alþingi also performed a judicial function and heard legal disputes, and assumed the function of hearing cases left unsettled by the other courts.
All of these functions have now been delegated to separate institutions. In Iceland's parliamentary system, few of the members of any of these institutions are directly elected by the people. Each is staffed by career professionals primarily interested in retaining their jobs. Each is concerned with only a portion of the nation's affairs.
In each of the past two years, Iceland has convoked a national assembly of 1,000 randomly selected Icelandic citizens -- in 2009 via grassroots efforts of private citizens -- to discuss the nation's values and future following the bank collapse of 2008. This year's national assembly, held on November 6, was called for in legislation passed by Parliament about a Constitutional Convention. The purpose of that meeting, attended by 950 people, aged 18-91 from all over the country, was to call for ideas that would reflect the emphasis and the will of the general public when it came to the nation's Constitution. more

Iceland elects ordinary folk to draft constitution
REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Iceland's getting a new constitution — and it's really going to be the voice of the people.
The sparsely-populated volcanic island is holding an unusual election Saturday to select ordinary citizens to cobble together a new charter, an exercise in direct democracy born out of the outrage and soul-searching that followed the nation's economic meltdown.
Hundreds of people are vying for the chance to be among up to 31 people who will form the Constitutional Assembly slated to convene early next year — a source of huge pride for Icelanders who have seen their egos take a beating in recent years.
"This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation's constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process," says Berghildur Erla Bergthorsdottir, spokeswoman for the committee entrusted with organizing the Constitutional Assembly.
Iceland has never written its own constitution. After gaining independence from Denmark in 1944, it took the Danish constitution, amended a few clauses to state that it was now an independent republic, and substituted the word 'president' for 'king.' A comprehensive review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since.
Pressure mounted for action after the nation's economic collapse in 2008, an event punctuated by ordinary citizens gathering outside the Althingi, the parliament, banging pots, pans and barrels — a loud, clanging expression of fury. The meltdown was seen not only as a failure of the economy but of the system of government and regulatory agencies. Many came to believe a tighter constitutional framework — including a clearer division of powers — might have been able to minimize that damage, or even prevent it.
"It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review," said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. "We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved." more

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