Threats Against Writers: My Answers

Culture - February 19, 2024

Recently, I received two interesting documents. One of them was a report by the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) Party on Media Freedom and Pluralism in Europe 2014–2023: Threats and Opportunities for Thriving Democracies. The other one was a list of questions sent to me by the Icelandic Writers’ Association on threats, aggression and violence against writers, to be used in a Nordic survey by the Swedish Cultural Institute Kulturanalys.

The ECR Report

The ECR Party report contains many intriguing observations, for example about the threat to journalists in Turkey, where about forty of them are now in prison, about the attempts by the Serbian government to label independent journalists as agents of foreign powers; and about Russian efforts to spread disinformation and stir up trouble among the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic countries. There are a few points I would myself have added to such a report, however. One is the danger of self-censorship about the Islamist threat to traditional European values. Few dare challenge the radical Islamists. Another point is that I am ambivalent about trying to restrict the freedom of business moguls to promote their opinions (and interests) in their own media: it may be a real danger in a small media market as in my own country Iceland, but in large societies presumably self-correction would take place, with others challenging abusive moguls and offering better services in the media market. A third point is the worrying dominance of left-wing journalists in government media, such as the BBC in Great Britain and the television stations run by government in the Nordic countries. The ‘law’ named after British poet and historian Robert Conquest still applies: Any institution not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing. The do-gooders and would-be saviours of the world flock into the schools and the media, while people reasonably content with themselves and with life in general become doctors, engineers, and businessmen.

Outside ‘Polite Society’

The list of questions sent to me from the Writers’ Association prompted me to reflect on my own career as a right-wing academic in a left-wing environment, and as a writer expressing opinions unpopular in ‘polite society’, although silently shared by many, especially hardworking, normal people, the man on the Clapham omnibus. Did I, as a recently retired Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland, know any examples of ‘threats, aggression, or violence’ against writers?

I am afraid that the answer is yes, although I am generally in favour of the rule ‘Never explain, Never complain’. Although people usually pretend to listen sympathetically, nobody is really interested in the woes, toils and troubles of others. Usually it is better received if you light up a candle instead of cursing the darkness. But since I was asked, I want to give straightforward answers.

An Assault in Broad Daylight

The only time I have experienced direct violence was on 27 August 2009 at Parliamentary Square in Reykjavik. I was participating in a protest meeting against the deal which the left-wing government had made with the United Kingdom, issuing a government guarantee of the debts of the Icelandic banks in the UK. My view was that people should make transactions in the financial markets at their own risk. A reporter saw me and wanted to interview me. We left the meeting and started taping the interview. But some radicals followed us and started to accost me and to throw stones at me. I escaped into the House of Parliament. What was weird about this was that the bystanders were only interested in capturing the incident on their smart phones, not in stopping the violence. At least two videos are found about this, one on Youtube and the other one at the homepage of a newspaper.

Aggressive Behaviour

I cannot say that I have ever been subjected to violence at the University of Iceland. Most academics are quite polite. I only recall two incidents bordering on being aggressive. Shortly after the 2008 bank collapse when I was walking from my office to the University coffee shop I met in a hallway a philosophy teacher, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, a specialist on Nietzsche, but unlike him a fervent feminist, even an ultra-feminist. I greeted her cheerfully, as is my wont with my colleagues. She passed me in silence, but then she turned back, stared at me and exclaimed in a quivering voice and with great emotion: ‘I did not greet you, because I hold you at least partly responsible for the bank collapse. You were very influential in the years before the collapse.’ I shrugged my shoulders and thought by myself that this was not exactly Socratic behaviour. But in all fairness it should be added that the next day she came to my office and apologised.

On 14 October 2016 I was leaving the Senior Common Room in the Social Sciences Building when a woman came in, a member of the staff, Margret Bjornsdottir. I said ‘Good afternoon’ to her. She was looking down, deep in thoughts, and she replied ‘Hello’. But when she looked up and saw who had greeted her, she yelled at me as I walked out: ‘I retract my greeting because I do not speak to you.’ Apparently, she was angry because I had then recently pointed out some irregularities in the finances of the Social Democratic Party in 2009 when she had chaired the Party’s Executive Committee. I had also observed that the party was supported by two mysterious funds, originally derived from the considerable properties of the old Social Democratic Party and the now defunct People’s Alliance.

Demanding my Dismissal

Some Icelandic business moguls have been less than happy with my criticism of them, although as a strong supporter of the free market I am in general sympathetic to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. But one businessman, Johannes Jonsson, one of the owners of the Bonus retail chain, demanded a meeting with Kristin Ingolfsdottir, then rector of the University, on 9 December 2009, stating publicly before the meeting that he would request me to be fired. My attacks on him and his family were becoming intolerable, he said. (I had criticised the willingness of the Icelandic banks to write off the huge debts of his retail chain. He and his family were by far the largest debtors of the banks before the collapse. I have however since then modified my opinion. In retrospect, many of their investments were quite sound. They were able businessmen. But that is another story.) To my surprise, I never heard anything about this meeting except what I read in the newspapers. The rector did not contact me to inform me about what had gone on. Again, I shrugged my shoulders.

I would not call it aggression and not even intimidation, but perhaps this is the place to mention that two plays have been put on stage in Reykjavik where I am one of the main characters, and that an Icelandic poet has published a whole book of poems where I play a leading role as the spokesman of unbridled capitalism, the economic man. I take this however as a compliment rather than as harassment. ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’

 A Biased Reviewer

Of the many stories I could tell about attempts (often unsuccessful) to deny me grants and access to academic journals, I will single out one. I translated the Black Book of Communism into Icelandic in 2009. Originally I had intended to write an addendum on the Icelandic communist movement, perhaps 100 pages or so. But I soon found out that much more research was needed on the subject. I therefore in 2011 applied for a grant from the University’s Research Fund. My application was denied on the ground that a reviewer had filed a negative report. The reviewer turned out to be a woman by the name of Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir, the stepdaughter of one of the main characters in the history of the Icelandic communist movement, Svavar Gestsson, who had been educated at a communist party school in East Berlin. When my 624-pages book came out in the autumn of 2011, the Association of Icelandic Historians held a special meeting to try and refute its main conclusion which was, unsurprisingly, that the Icelandic communists were quite similar in theory and practice to communists in other countries. I went to the meeting, defended my main conclusion and confronted the speakers (one of them being Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir) with some inconvenient questions. Almost all the old Icelandic communists attended, and I still remember how heavy the atmosphere was when I spoke. But, as Charles Mackay said: ‘He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure, must have made foes. If you have none, small is the work that you have done.’

Strange Incident

One of the strangest incidents in my academic career took place in early 2014. A person by the name of Sigurbjorg Sigurgeirsdottir had been appointed lecturer in public administration. I had never heard of her until she published some papers in foreign journals about the Icelandic bank collapse. Alas, they were full of factual errors as well as dubious but debatable points. Amongst other things she invented a quotation from me in the Wall Street Journal from 2004. She had to retract this and apologise. The Cambridge Economic Review also grudgingly published three corrections of mine to an article she had co-authored there. I wrote a newspaper article in Iceland on 31 January 2014 where I listed some of her most egregious errors and dubious points, as she was giving a lecture to a public meeting at the University the same day. I wanted to give her an opportunity to correct at least the factual errors. I was myself abroad on a sabbatical that term. But some time later this person sent about 20–30 academics abroad a long letter about my harassment of her! She said for example that with my article I had published a photograph of her which was wrong; it was a figment of her imagination. She also said that some ‘intimidating and most unpleasant looking guys’ had turned up at the meeting. She asked the recipients of her letter to write to the University and support her against my harassment! Four people did so. I wrote to all of them and explained the matter and asked them to retract their letters. They all did, in one way or another. Of course I had not sent anyone to the meeting where she gave a lecture. I had not the faintest idea who those ‘intimidating and most unpleasant looking guys’ could have been. This was a pure fantasy.


It is an interesting philosopical question whether shunning or social exclusion should be regarded as aggression. I am not sure. In general I think we should use words in a narrow and exact sense. But some other people think shunning is indeed aggression, even violence, so perhaps I should mention two examples, both telling, but neither of them important in itself. On a lovely summer day, 26 June 2015, I was immersed in work at my office when I suddenly remembered that in the afternoon there was a reception at the Senior Common Room in the Social Sciences Building. I decided to go and discuss an historical puzzle with my colleagues. It was why in Iceland the communists in the 1940s defeated the Social Democrats in the labour movement and among the intellectual elite, whereas in the Scandinavian countries, in many ways similar to Iceland, the Social Democrats prevailed over the communists. I had a lively discussion about this with Professor Olafur Th. Hardarson, our expert on political sociology. The chairman of the politics faculty, Baldur Thorhallsson, came late to the reception and I noticed that he seemed surprised to see me. When the reception was coming to an end, I remarked that I had to leave. Olafur said affably: ‘I will see you at Baldur’s place, isn’t it?’ I said: ‘No, I am not invited to Baldur’s place.’

I have hardly ever seen a man as surprised as Olafur Hardarson was then. He opened his mouth, but closed it again, while his eyes widened, as he stared at me in wonder. There are at least one thousand parties held every night in Reykjavik to which I am not invited, but this seemed a bit peculiar. The next day I ran into one of the faculty staff members and asked him: ‘What was all this about? What was Baldur doing yesterday evening?’ He replied: ‘Oh, it was a party held by the faculty and actually paid for by the faculty, the summer feast.’ I must confess that I did not consider my exclusion a big loss. I am invited to a lot of interesting parties, although my preference in the evenings  is to enjoy a good book. But the next time I saw the faculty chairman I asked him about this. ‘Nobody would have shown up if you had been there,’ he said. ‘But you realise,’ I said, ‘that by excluding one tenured professor at the faculty, you turned a faculty event into your private party that you should pay for yourself. You obviously have to return the money to the faculty.’ He has not done so yet.

A Gracious and Enjoyable Exit

I must however emphasise that the university authorities, especially the present rector, Jon Atli Benediktsson (an internationally respected scientist), and the two consecutive deans of the School of Social Sciences, Dr. Dadi Mar Kristofersson and Dr. Stefan Hrafn Jonsson, have both behaved impeccably towards me. The University was also very gracious on my retirement when it held an international conference with several prominent speakers, including Dr. Barbara Kolm, Her Excellency Gabriela von Habsburg (former Ambassador of Georgia to Germany) and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. No less than 180 people turned up at the conference, but few noticed that only one of them was from the politics faculty where I had worked for thirty-five years! Probably shunning does not qualify as shunning if nobody pays any attention to it. I also hasten to add that, while I have tried here to give honest answers to the list of questions from the Writers’ Association about ‘threats, aggression and violence’ against writers, I personally really have no complaints. Many bright candles have been lit up in my life. The darkness is all outside.