Monday, January 28, 2019

Rebelling against crap

"In the EU and at least 18 U.S. states, regulators are starting to listen and considering proposals that address the impact of planned obsolescence by making household goods sturdier and easier to mend, reports the BBC," according to Fortune magazine. 

Our economic system rewards manufacturers for making crap, protects their unfair proprietary "rights" through regulation, and then allows them to abdicate responsibility for the costs to both the environment and the economy when built-in obsolescence takes over and their spent products end up in landfalls. And while both present-day consumers and future generations pay the price for this, giant corporations take their profits to the bank.

My grandmother had a lightbulb in her front hallway that was there when she and my grandfather moved into their house in 1940; it was still there when my mother sold her house in 1970. That may have been unusual longevity, but when I compare it to the squirrelly bulbs I now have to buy which are supposed to last for 18 years but rarely last for 18 months, it speaks to the quality of manufacture. Another illustration is the basement fridge that my mother bought used or reconditioned in 1967 that was still keeping the beer cold in 2012 when we sold her house. Manitoba Hydro would have paid her $50 to carry it away and get a more energy efficient model, but how much energy is wasted by sending processed metal and plastics to the landfill?

Major appliances, computers, televisions, automobiles, furnaces, furniture, clothing – everywhere we turn, we've happily substituted quality for crap. And the planet in increasingly buried in our waste.

The 'Right to Repair' Movement Is Gaining Ground and Could Hit Manufacturers Hard

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The ongoing struggle for independence

Iceland wasn’t the only country to achieve its independence in 1918, but it is the only country to win its national sovereignty that year and succeed in maintaining both its independence and territorial integrity to the present day. Other countries that reckon milestones of independence in 1918 include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Yemen. Yet none of these other countries has been continuously self-governing over the century that followed. Although Iceland was occupied by Britain and then the United States during World War II, it remained sovereign and self- governing during those years and actually took the final step of independence by declaring the republic in 1944. 

Fullvedishátið 2018 (Marino Thorlacius / Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Noting that both Canada and Iceland achieved their independence “without revolutions of bloodshed in either country,” former President of Iceland Ásgeir Ásgeirsson said, “we may rejoice wholeheartedly in this good fortune. In Iceland the restoration of independence was made possible by the unbroken continuity of our history.” The peaceful birth of both countries, through evolution and negotiation, appealing to persuasive arguments rather than force of arms, were noteworthy achievements in the annals of human history. Northrop Frye referred to Canada as a “peaceable kingdom,” drawing upon an idea that had been popularized among theologians in the 19th century, and the same might be said about Iceland from the time of its independence in 1918 until it became a republic. 

In 1974, Haraldur Kröyer, who was Iceland’s ambassador to the United States and Canada at the time, said, “The struggle for national independence did not end in 1918, nor in 1944. That struggle is still going on. A people’s fight for its right of existence as a nation, for its economic independence and political sovereignty is a never-ending struggle.” He went on to say, “We, who inherited Iceland from those who brought it beyond the threshold of political and economic independence, must ask ourselves today how we have guarded the heritage entrusted to us.” 

The simple fact that Iceland is the only country to achieve sovereignty in 1918 and maintain it bears witness to Haraldur Kröyer’s insightful observation. Independence is not a once-and-for-all achievement, but an ongoing struggle. Political democracy demands the active participation of its citizens; we cannot abdicate the responsibilities of citizenship to the few, especially those who mistakenly believe they know better than the collective will of the people. Economic independence demands hard work and resourcefulness, combined with fair play and equity. National sovereignty demands a willingness to pay the price needed to sustain the institutions of government through taxation and sometimes even personal sacrifice. 

Whatever shortcomings and disappointments there may have been along the way from sovereignty to the present day, when Icelanders ask themselves how they have guarded the heritage entrusted to them, they can honestly answer that they have done as well as any nation – arguably better. Iceland remains a robust democracy that prizes equality, tolerance, fairness, decency, freedom, and democracy. Icelanders have used their independence well.

This post appears as the editorial in the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Iceland's centennial as a sovereign nation

The year Iceland achieved its sovereignty as a nation would have been memorable even without this milestone of independence. The early months of the year are remembered as the “Great Frost Winter” and the record low temperature that year has never been surpassed. The volcano Katla erupted on October 12, threatening the countryside with devastation for 24 days. Overseas, the Great War came to an end, leaving much of the European continent in ruins, even though the war had been good for the Icelandic economy owing to increased demand for exports from farms and fisheries. The Spanish flu that gripped the world arrived in Iceland by ship on October 19, infecting nearly two-thirds of the residents of Reykjavík over the span of six weeks and resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 people, mostly in the southern and western regions of the country. 

In the summer of 1918, a joint parliamentary committee of the Icelandic Alþingi and Danish Folketing met to work out the terms of an Act of Union. The resulting treaty opened with the declaration, “Denmark and Iceland are free and sovereign states in union under the same king.” The next four articles established the succession to the crown and other provisions regarding the royal family. Article 6 provided that, “Danish citizens shall enjoy in all respects the same rights in Iceland as Icelandic citizens born there, and vice-versa,” while exempting the citizens of each country from military service in the other, and the following article provided that Denmark would continue to administer foreign affairs on behalf of Iceland at the direction of the Icelandic government. The remaining articles of the 20-article treaty dealt with transitional matters regarding the protection of territorial waters, supreme court jurisdiction, financial arrangements, procedures for approving the treaty, the establishment of a parliamentary consultation committee, a dispute resolution process, and provisions for renewing or repealing the treaty. 

Fullveldisdagurinn in 1918, outside Stjórnarráðhúsið.
Following passage by the two parliaments and the overwhelming approval of Icelanders in a referendum on October 19, the very day the flu arrived in the country, the Act of Union came into force on Sunday, December 1, 1918, and Iceland became a sovereign nation. The ceremony declaring Iceland’s sovereignty was a modest affair, but it was a bright, sunny day when of officials gathered outside Stjórnarráðhúsið (Government House) to mark the occasion – and the significance of the day was observed in churches across the land, including the National Cathedral. 

“We can assume that most of those who gathered at Government House – a building which had been a Danish jail, then the residence of Danish governors – looked hopefully to the future,” suggests President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, an esteemed historian. “That cannot be proved, of course, but contemporary accounts and memoirs give that impression. And no doubt those people hoped above all to be able to make a better world for themselves and their children, in a sanctuary of security, happiness and autonomy.” 

What occurred in Iceland in 1918 is comparable to what Canada had earlier achieved on July 1, 1867. Speaking at the University of Manitoba in 1961, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, who was President of Iceland at the time, said, “When the British North America Act came into force, in 1867, and Canada gained independence, we Icelanders cited this event as an argument in our struggle for independence and Iceland received its own constitution a few years later, in 1874, on the millennium of the settlement of the country. Since then the political history of Canada and Iceland have run a similar course. ... These developments have taken place without revolutions of bloodshed in either country.” 

“Gaining sovereignty boosted the Icelanders’ vitality and audacity, giving rise to advances which took us from poverty to prosperity with astounding speed,” says Einar K. Guðfinnsson, former Speaker of Alþingi and chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing the centennial. “Now, when we celebrate the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty, we should look back, bearing in mind the words of poet Einar Benediktsson about the need to ‘look to the past in order to build something new.’” 

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir observes that much has changed over the course of the past century and she questions whether modern Icelandic values are the same as they were a century ago – a reasonable question given the pace of change. Beliefs about national governance, cultural identity, language, the nature of society, and stewardship of both land and sea have evolved over time and anniversaries of noteworthy historical events offer opportunities for reflection and refinement. “We must seize the opportunity offered by this milestone, the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty,” says the prime minister, “to reevaluate and reinforce our shared values: to build on the strong foundation we have, and the ideal of a free and democratic society where human rights are honoured, equality of opportunity is ensured, and we safeguard the wellbeing of all the people of this country. Democracy, freedom, equality and justice are values that unite the sovereign nation of Iceland, which nurtures its land and its language, and also celebrates diversity and difference.” 

This post appears on the cover of the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A conspiracy of ravens

For some time, a pair of ravens has been nesting in the steeple of the Gimli Unitarian Church, much to the delight of people passing by – especially visiting Icelanders, it seems – and much to the annoyance of people who care about practical matters, like compromised shingles and moisture damage. I mistakenly thought they were crows until someone who knew better told me to take a closer look. Church leaders once had the nest removed by the Gimli Fire Department, hoping the ravens would make themselves a home in a better neighbourhood – a tall tree somewhere – but they returned and it is hard to escape believing that they’ve somehow become attached to the place.

Whatever the reason for the ravens’ staying power, having watched David Suzuki’s episode of The Nature of Things that examined the superior intelligence, memory, and remarkable ability to recognize human faces on the part of their cousins, the crows, I’m reticent to upset any members of this branch of the bird family and risk their ire, having seen what they can do to people who offend them. I used to fantasize about seeing a steeple without a nest, but “corvicide” is now out of the question because, while a group of crows may be called a murder, a group of ravens is known as an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” – and I’m not inclined to tempt fate by inviting either. People love them and they’ve waged a very successful publicity campaign in recent years, having become the subjects of feature stories in newspapers along with favourable mentions on radio and TV. They have become inescapable tenants.

I suspect that the reason visiting Icelanders, in particular, appreciate seeing them nesting on the steeple is that Icelanders, alongside North America’s Indigenous people, have an inordinate fondness for ravens (and even their close cousins, crows) which figure positively in the folklore of both people. In pretty much every other culture, these birds are viewed with disdain, but not among Icelanders and Indigenous people. I’ve stopped sharing my former desire to get rid of the nest with visitors from Iceland, since they have universally expressed their disapproval at the very thought of it, some suggesting that we should consider the ravens’ presence to be a good omen. It should be remembered, though, that these are the same people who compliment me on the dandelions in my lawn, sometimes expressing their envy that I’m so fortunate as to enjoy the beauty of such an abundant crop of wildflowers in my own yard. What can you really expect from people who think that eating putrefied shark and fermented rams’ testicles is a good idea?

The more strident raven-lovers from Iceland have reminded me that there are folktales and poems about clergymen who have run afoul of ravens nesting in their churches, warning me that I do not wish to share their fate. Ravens can be harbingers of kindness and wisdom, but also death and destruction. Choose kindness and wisdom, my Icelandic friends and family seem to be saying.

As it turns out, I’ve developed a growing fondness for both ravens and crows. At our country home, Huldukot, the ravens and crows visit in alternating conspiracies and murders. (That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it?) Cindy has noticed that when I’m sitting at the dining room table and these birds see me, they call to me to bring them peanuts. She has also noticed that I seem to respond to their calls faster than one of Pavlov’s dogs. So I now welcome each murder and conspiracy as it arrives without any hint of unkindness. And I’m looking forward to seeing the resident ravens of the church welcome people to Gimli from its steeple this summer.

The author with the raven's nest in the steeple behind him.

This post appears as the editorial in the May 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What's your one Icelandic book?

Last year, Condé Nast Traveler reported that the language learning platform Babbel had asked several ambassadors to the United States to name the one book each would recommend for first-time visitors to read before traveling to their home countries. Twenty-two diplomats responded and, looking over the titles they suggested, my initial reaction was to think: never ask a diplomat for a book recommendation.

That said, the best answer was clearly offered by Iceland’s ambassador to the United States, Geir H. Haarde, who recommended Halldór Laxness’s classic, Independent People. After all, Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel laureate – so far – and most literary critics consider Independent People his finest work, even though it received mixed reviews from Icelanders when it first appeared. I would personally argue that World Light and even The Fish Can Sing are superior works, but I readily concede that’s a matter of taste.

Recommending Independent People strikes me as a safe choice – one could fairly say it was a perfectly diplomatic recommendation. I can hardly imagine anyone (except me) arguing against it – but I will. Don't get me wrong – I love Independent People and almost everything ever written by Halldór Laxness – but I consider it advanced reading, something for the second- or third-year student of Icelandic literature, not the proper text for a class called “Introduction to Visiting Iceland.”

For Americans on their way to Iceland for the first time, I am inclined to recommend Bill Holm's The Windows of Brimnes, an affectionate portrait by a man who deeply loved both lands. For visitors of Icelandic ancestry, Sally Magnusson's Dreaming of Iceland reveals the country through the eyes of those of us who learned about it from the stories of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If you’re more into short stories, W.D. Valgardson’s “The Man From Snæfellsnes” (in two parts) from What Can’t Be Changed Shouldn’t Be Mourned offers an excellent primer for the diaspora Icelander returning “home.”

Specialists might wish to read something that intersects with their interests. Both naturalists and language majors would be moved to read Charles Fergus’s Summer at Little Lava while anthropologists and sociologists might want to consider Karen Oslund's Iceland Imagined. Historians and criminologists might opt for Dominic Cooper's Men at Axlir or Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which give an accurate flavour of life in past centuries. For psychologists and humourists alike, Einar Már Guðmundsson's Angels of the Universe might inspire them to wonder about everyone they meet on the streets of Reykjavík. 

Now, I understand the desire to read native Icelandic fiction. Several great books immediately leap to mind: Þorbergur Þórðarson's The Stones Speak, Guðbergur Bergsson's The Swan, Gunnar Gunnarsson's The Good Shepherd, Svava Jakobsdóttir's The Lodger and Other Stories, or (for a bit heavier read) Guðmundur Kamban's The Virgin of Skálholt

And before anybody posts something silly in their social media feed about Icelanders and their habits, they should read any one of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s “little books” – especially The Little Book of the Hidden People. But any of her books, which are all treasures, can save you from the most common clichés about Iceland.

If one must read Laxness, then The Fish Can Sing might be a better first choice, unless one is a theologian, in which case Under the Glacier might be a better pick ... except for liberation theologians, who should go with The Atom Station. Poets might prefer World Light, however, while political scientists should consider the merits of Iceland's Bell.

Once someone has visited Iceland and come face-to-face with the character and peculiar humour of the Icelandic people, then – and perhaps only then – will they really be ready to read Independent People. A friend of mine who is widely read once told me that it was the most depressing book he had ever encountered, which caught me by surprise, since I find it overflowing with that dry humour that is so characteristic of Icelanders. He had read it as a tragedy, whereas I see it as a droll commentary on the Icelandic character, more comedic than tragic. I realized then that a person needs to know Icelanders firsthand before they are capable of fully appreciating Independent People. It’s not a novel for beginners.

Perhaps editors are no better at recommending books than ambassadors. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, I find it difficult to name the one book everyone should read before visiting Iceland. Iceland’s history is too long, its geography too amazing, its people’s opinions too broad, and its culture too deep for any one book to capture the essence of the land and its people. 

If you had to choose, though, what’s your one book that speaks of Iceland?

This post appears as the editorial in the April 15, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

There he stood: 500 years after Martin Luther’s protest

Five hundred years have now passed since that seminal moment on October 31, 1517, when legend says Martin Luther posted what came to be called the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Saxony, a town of fewer than five thousand souls at the time. Although some historians have disputed the details of the story that has grown up around that event, there can be no dispute that what unfolded in the aftermath was one of the most dramatic stories in human history. Whatever else happened that day, it is certain that Luther wrote a letter to his superiors denouncing the sale of indulgences and soliciting their repayment, to which he appended his now famous theses (that is to say, propositions) on the subject. This act of conscience led directly to the Protestant Reformation, a religious transformation that reached the shores of distant Iceland some twenty years later.

Martin Luther in Wittenberg
(Photo - Andreas Breitling / Pixabay)
Indulgences were thought to be a means to reduce the punishment one would have to undergo in the afterlife because of one’s sins in this life. They also happened to be an important source of revenue for the church. Luther found the practice repugnant, having come to the view that forgiveness came through God’s grace, not the purchase of others’ surplus merit.

Luther had already been preaching against indulgences and other corruptions of the church, so the content of his theses was hardly news. However, this event did mark a turning point and has since been reckoned as the beginning of the Reformation. Luther shared his theses with a few bishops and friends, they were published using the relatively new technology of printing, and they subsequently came to the attention of the Pope, who directed his bishop to rein in the protesting monk.

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, where Luther had been summoned to defend his position, he declared: “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Although this differs from the common paraphrase of his words – “Here I stand; I can do no other” – it was an equally powerful moral statement and a measure of his courage in a moment of great threat to his own wellbeing.

When Luther left the room, he said, “I am finished,” which seemed obvious to everyone, and he was granted three weeks’ safe conduct to return home, where it was expected he would face the common fate that awaited heretics in that day. Following his departure from Wörms in the company of the nobles who supported him, the emperor declared Luther an outlaw, but Elector Friedrich the Wise staged a kidnapping and Luther was whisked away to safety in the castle at Wartburg, perched high above the town of Eisenach, where he lived incognito as Junker Jörg (George the knight) for nearly a year. While there, Luther translated the New Testament into German, a task he accomplished in just eleven weeks.

As it turned out, Luther was nowhere near finished. Indeed, history makes it clear that he had only just begun. By the time he returned to Wittenberg, the Reformation was well underway, forever changing the face of Christendom.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What the University of Winnipeg Means to Me

Personal reflections on the 50th anniversary of 
the University of Winnipeg
receiving its Charter from the Province of Manitoba.

I come from a long line of people who earned their living with their hands, by the sweat of their brows – farmers, carpenters, weavers, and mechanics mostly. There was also a brewer or two and at least one outright bootlegger. Save for members of the clergy who pop up every few generations, and a couple of scholars in the dim reaches of the past, I don’t have many ancestors who went on to higher learning after having convinced their priest or pastor that they were worthy of being confirmed, which generally meant demonstrating they were literate.

I have one 5th-great-grandfather who attended the University of Copenhagen to study art and another who attended cathedral school for the same purpose. One 3rd-great-grandfather studied agriculture, also at the University of Copenhagen, and another in the same generation attended theological school. My father studied commerce at the University of Manitoba and he had two uncles who were college educated, both of them teachers, along with a few of his cousins. That’s pretty much it. Over the span of two centuries, there wasn’t much in my family to suggest that higher education would be my destiny, although I assumed from an early age that I would attend university.

Wesley Hall, heart of the University of Winnipeg campus.
Although I recall looking at the brochures of a few universities, I somehow always knew that I would study at the University of Winnipeg. It was certainly conveniently located – about a 15-minute bus ride from my childhood home – and it seemed the least intimidating for someone who had spent most of his childhood attending a smaller school, but it was my great-uncle and godfather, Axel Vopnfjord, who had the greatest influence on my decision. Uncle Axel graduated from Wesley College, one of the founding colleges of the University of Winnipeg, in the class of 1923. Next to my father, he was pretty much the wisest person I knew at the time.

It helped that the university was still home to a high school and that students who enrolled there were allowed to also enrol in university courses. Having fallen just short of graduating from St. James Collegiate, I completed the last part of grade 12 at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate while beginning my university studies. I planned to study political science on my way to law school, but I became drawn towards anthropology instead. Sadly, my father died suddenly during my first year at university and the stress of earning a living was added to the usual challenges faced by any student. Looking back, I realize I was depressed. During my second year, I stopped attending classes and began working fulltime. 

I married, became active in the Unitarian church, gave up politics (for a while), lost one job when the company I worked for was sold, and started another in a completely different field. My minister, John S. Gilbert, tried to convince me that my gifts would never be fully realized unless I returned to school. Four years after leaving school, I returned to classes by enrolling in “Western Thought in the Making,” which was taught by Mac Watts. By the end of the term, I had switched my major once again, this time to religious studies, and embarked upon the long journey of earning a degree while working fulltime. Ten years after I started, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree and proceeded immediately to a master’s program. 

Once again, the path proved to be circuitous but, after another nine years, I received my Master of Divinity degree, having also graduated from the certificate in theology program along the way. All told, I’ve graduated from the University of Winnipeg four times, earned two academic medals, and benefited from bursaries, scholarships, and the forbearance of my wife, Cindy. 

Along the way, my professors influenced me deeply – Tom Graham and Carl Ridd, John Badertscher and Kay Stone, Harry Loewen and George Epp, Paul Trudinger and Eleanor Stebner, Harold King and Mac Watts, and several others. If anyone had mapped out the journey for me beforehand, I never would have started, but my experience as a student at the University of Winnipeg shaped me profoundly and I wouldn’t have become the person I am without it.

Years after graduating, I returned as a volunteer for the University of Winnipeg Alumni Association and was honoured to have served as its president. It is now my privilege to serve on the Board of Regents. Beyond contributing to the University of Winnipeg Foundation, these are small but tangible ways for me to express my gratitude for the incomparable education I received, the patience and support of my beloved professors, and the countless ways in which the university transformed my life for the better.

This post appears as the editorial in the September 15, 2017 issue of

Monday, July 17, 2017

Going to the Woods

In his iconic memoir, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This same aspiration is what led my wife Cindy and me to acquire a cottage near Lake Winnipeg a dozen years ago – a country home that has proven to be a year-round retreat and not simply a place of summer respite. We both tend to work long hours and our modest cottage, which we dubbed Huldukot, offered the promise of a break from the pace and demands of urban life. Hidden in small grove of ash, birch, and spruce – a short walk from the lake – it is almost like entering another world.

Like Thoreau, I embraced our second home in the woods in an effort “to live deliberately” – to relax and regenerate, recover and be restored, and not, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I had great plans to read books that had nothing to do with work, play my ukulele, visit with family and friends, ride my bike, and stroll along the water’s edge – maybe even dip into the lake from time to time.

The reality, though, is that I’m not very good at it – taking a break, that is. Every weekend, I tote my laptop computer along with me and, tethered to my phone, carry on pretty much the same as I do back in the city. I don’t disconnect much at all. At the same time, the satellite dish ensures that I can maintain a steady diet of cable news and mind-numbing electronic entertainment. During the summer months, I preach every second week or so at the nearby Unitarian church, which means that Saturdays are often spent revising and refining my sermon. I suppose that Thoreau had his own work to do – fishing, gardening, chopping wood – but a nagging voice in the back of my head tells me he was probably better at relaxing.

So this summer I resolve to do it right. If I’m going to go to the woods, I’m going to be there fully and not just carry on the same as I always do with a change of venue. I’ll continue to show up to lead church services, but the sermon is going to have to be done on Friday. I’ll still bring my laptop along, but I plan to leave it in my bag while the sun is shining. And this summer, I’m going to play the ukulele and ride my bike, but not at the same time. I’m going to live deliberately and relax with intention.

This post appears as the editorial in the July 15, 2017, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.