This Great Society - Arts



Illustration: Joel Bentley


Thomas Cairns: Simply the Besti
Illustration: Joel Bentley



A promise: “Free bus rides for students and cripples.”1

          I could get behind a political pledge like this: the image of a clubfooted 19th century street urchin wearing a stolen top hat and waving his crutches out the window of a city bus has a certain whimsical appeal.

Another promise: an ironclad shield wall for my house.

          Once again, I’m not opposed. In the case of errant high-velocity hockey pucks, volcanic eruptions, menacing hobos or alien attacks, an ironclad shield wall could prove useful.

          If free bus rides for crutch-wielding Dickens characters and high density metal shielding do not spark your political imagination, what about free towels at public swimming pools? A polar bear for the city zoo? A political party that listens more to women and old people? One that stops corruption by participating in it openly?

          These and other promises formed the platform for the Besti Flokkurinn (Best Party) in Reykjavik, Iceland: a group composed of entertainers and musicians led by Icelandic celebrity comedian (and high school dropout) Jon Gnarr. A political party whose theme song was “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner, and who, after running a satirical campaign that was quite literally a joke, somewhat shockingly won the mayoral elections this past year in the capital city of Reykjavik (where almost two-thirds of the population of Iceland resides). Though maybe it shouldn’t be too shocking: Iceland was one of the European countries hardest hit by the global financial system collapse. Perhaps the fine people of Reykjavik recognized that a “good” party was simply not good enough – that only the Best would do.

          Of course, while the promises offered by the Best Party are preposterous, they do qualify them with the additional guarantee that “we can offer more free things than any other party because we aren’t going to follow through with it” — an irreverent promise that Icelanders (and likely anyone else) could believe in after seeing the rapid collapse of their economy under the steady hand of well-mannered bankers and politicians.

          There is something tremendously appealing about the comic insincerity and self-deprecating celebration of the absurd that define the Best Party’s pledges to a city. Perhaps the allure of politics as comedy originates in the fact that all political campaigns are at their core ridiculous, outlandish affairs: clever advertising that never delivers the promised results. We are promised a push through to utopian transformation or a return to fundamental values (depending on your side of the political aisle), while well-dressed men and women bombard us with slogans and carefully cultivate an impression of pleasant, sensible gravitas. It is democracy as marketing, and just as new fabric softener fails to provide the peace of mind and harmony with nature promised in its television commercials, so self-serious politicians tend to be exposed as ineffectual bureaucrats or power-hungry divas once actually called to action.

          There is a failure to allow for human frailty in political campaigns — for the reality that more likely than not, what is promised will not be realized. The satirizing humour of the Best Party provides a certain appeal on one level in that it deflates the bombastic rhetoric of the political sphere. People who can laugh at the thinly-veiled deceptions that pass as promises on the campaign trail are those who recognize that at some fundamental level our relations with one another in community are distorted and twisted out of shape. But the comedians recognize that this deformity can be comic as well as tragic. The blunt, comic slogans of the Best Party embrace the reality that most kings are ultimately proven to be jesters, and the best jesters are those who inhabit and expose the reality of their absurd situation to the fullest.

          However, the success and appeal of a campaign with a Tina Turner soundtrack turns on more than a lighthearted fatalist-Stoic acceptance of “the way things are.” If politics were truly irrelevant, they would only ever be boring. Humour, especially a satire that grows out of a bedrock of deep-rooted anger, admits an engagement with a meaningful reality, no matter how farcical that reality may be. We recognize that the promises crafted by power brokers and their brand consultants are manipulations of real desires for a world where things are set right; the failure to deliver even partially on promises of justice is what infuriates us.

          Some additional promises of Besti Flokkurinn: “Establish equality,” “Improve the lot of those less able to help themselves,” and “Cancel all debts.” Ridiculous, absurd, and comic claims for sure, but claims that touch some deep core of who we are, perhaps because we fundamentally want to believe that life is a comedy and not a tragedy; we have some hope that the story will end with a wedding feast, not a funeral. While those who celebrate the comic foolishness inherent in all politics recognize the limits of human action, they also express the boundlessness in our human imagination for a world where things can and will be set right.


1Translation from Icelandic for all platform promises paraphrased and quoted from Buchan, Peter John R., translator. "Platform: The Best and Brightest," Harper's Magazine, August 2010.

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