The Blessings of Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
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In Iceland, where I have spent the past week, it is illegal to name your son Dweezil or River or your daughter Moon Unit or Fifi Trixabelle.  The Government has long maintained a list of legal first names, all of which come from the Norse (Thorgil, Gunnar, Guðrún) or Biblical (Jón, Margret, Kristjana) traditions. There is also a list of middle names, many of which refer to places. For most of Iceland’s history, people had only one name, sometimes with a nickname (Eirik Raud, or Erik the Red) or a patronymic (Leifur Eiriksson, meaning Leif, son of Eirik).

In 1913 the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, passed a law allowing people to petition to be granted family names on the European model, but that law was repealed in 1925. As a result, few Icelanders have what we would consider last names. The Personal Names Act of 1991 decrees that every Icelandic national shall have “one and up to three Icelandic first names.” If you want to look for someone in the phone book you search by first name and then patronymic, though with 70 Guðrún Björnsdóttirs in the directory it helps to know the middle name too. The law also specifies that a boy shall not be given a girl’s name, nor a girl a boy’s name. It’s not clear whether and under what conditions transgender people can change their names, though this has proven problematic in certain other Nordic countries. Children of single mothers may use a “matronymic” like Guðrúnsdóttir, though this too can cause problems. On my flight home yesterday on Icelandair I watched a movie about a man, Georg Bjarnfreðarson, born to and raised by a single woman, Bjarnfreðar, and ridiculed by his schoolmates, though probably more for his mother’s conduct than his name. When he discovers his father is an American soldier named Roy Washington, he decides to call himself Georg Washington. But I digress.

The 1991 law also required that “Foreign nationals shall adopt an Icelandic first name when they acquire Icelandic nationality and their descendants shall abide by the rule on patronymics,” but in 1995, as a bow to increasing ethnic diversity – as of 2008 the country had around 30,000 immigrants and about 12,000 people of mixed Icelandic-foreign parentage out of a population of 315,000 – the Althing repealed this requirement, thus avoiding the phenomenon of Thais and Koreans having to call themselves Björn or Sígurdur.

These rules – and the national committee on names, which has to rule on petitions to allow new names – are not universally popular in Iceland, and the entire membership of the committee has resigned en masse over some controversy at least twice since it was constituted. At the same time, I’m aware of no movement among Icelanders for the right to name their kids Kevin or Brittany or Dewayne.

Americans have an expansive notion of personal freedom, which includes the right to saddle our children with embarrassing and inappropriate names. We also tend to believe in the universality of our notion of personal freedom. This has gotten us into trouble innumerable times, most recently in our decision to bring the benefits of American freedom to the people of Iraq. Too many people who should have known better imagined that American troops would be greeted as liberators by a population craving American-style liberty. Few Iraqis, it is true, seemed to object to our Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, but other rights most Americans take for granted – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, gay rights, and freedom to wear miniskirts, tramp stamps and exposed belly-button rings in public – were somewhat more problematic in post-liberation Iraq.

It turns out that maximum personal liberty is not always and everywhere and for everyone the overriding consideration. All societies strike some kind of compromise between freedom and the perceived public good. Canada, for example, has decided that niceness is more important than freedom of speech, and has set up provincial “human rights” tribunals to punish people who make comments perceived as hurtful by a protected religious, lifestyle, gender, or ethnic group. Personally, I would consider vigorously exercising my Second Amendment rights if the U.S. were to introduce similar measures.

I have little sympathy with Canada for cravenly sacrificing a long tradition of liberty in the name of political correctness, but I have a great deal more sympathy for Iceland. Their language, the Old Norse from which modern Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian evolved, is spoken by only 300,000 people. Icelanders wrote – in the Icelandic language – the great sagas, which are among the only contemporary written records of the heroic age of the Vikings. It would be a tragedy if it were to disappear or to become a dead written language that no living person can speak. So Icelanders, with a strong boost from their government, try vigorously to protect their language and culture.

American TV and pop music, KFC and Taco Bell, have all made inroads in Iceland, though they seem to coexist easily enough with indigenous traditions and their modern variations.  McDonald’s was also here, but in October 2009 it shut down its three outlets, citing the collapse of Iceland’s currency, the krona, which doubled the cost of imported ingredients like onions, pickles, and beef.

On Laugurvegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, you can lunch on pizza (pizzur), cheeseburgers, (ostburgers) and nachos (nachos), but you can also find places serving smoked puffin, rotten shark meat, and whale kebabs. Icelandic pop music, sung in both English and Icelandic, is a major export. Most people, from business leaders to gas station attendants, speak good English and show no resentment of those of us who haven’t yet gotten around to learning their language.

At the same time, the Icelandic Government, working together with the Icelandic Language Council and other institutions, promotes the creation of new, Norse-based words to prevent the use of foreign loanwords. The Icelandic word for electricity is rafmagn, which literally means “amber power,” taken from the Greek electron, meaning “amber.” The word for computer, tölva, combines the Icelandic words tala (digit) and völva (seeress or soothsayer).  Whether through coercive power or popular support, Iceland’s Language Institute has done a much better job preserving linguistic purity than the French Academy has done with French in which, despite its best efforts, terms like “le marketing,” “le hedge fund,” “les piercings,” are in common currency, and if you don’t believe me you can go “surfer le net” to find out for yourself.

The United States – and indeed, the entire English-speaking world – wouldn’t accept this kind of control of the way we speak. People invent new words all the time, and the test of their value is whether they achieve common usage or disappear. Shakespeare himself may have been the greatest word-inventor of all time, credited with the coinage of hundreds of terms, including “flawless,” “obscene,” “hot-blooded,” and “eyeballs.” One of the reasons English has become such a dominant language is its ability to absorb and assimilate new linguistic influences, including the word “geyser,” which comes from Geysir, the site of Iceland’s largest (and the world’s second-largest) regular steam eruption.

Iceland has no ambitions to make Icelandic a world language and no illusions about the universality of Icelandic culture. But it would very much like to preserve the language and culture it has.

Iceland is not alone in this. Bhutan, famous for its King who coined the term “Gross National Happiness” as an alternative to Gross National Product in measuring national wellbeing, has long tried to limit external influences that might threaten its traditional way of life, even to the extent of mandating dress codes for its citizens and, less benignly, trying to expel its ethnic Nepali minority, who refuse to adopt the national costume or convert to Buddhism.  Though it scores near the bottom on most traditional measures of prosperity and development, a recent University of Leicester (UK) study ranked the Bhutanese eighth out of 178 countries in subjective measures of well-being, or GNH. This may not last, though.

Tourists were completely barred from Bhutan until 1974, and TV and the Internet were illegal until 1999. Mobile phones have been available only for the past year or so. Introduction of these new influences has contributed to a rise in crime and a drop in respect for authority and tradition. Perhaps worst of all, the country’s extreme poverty has made it succumb to the blandishments of the World Bank and other foreign donors promoting economic development, financing big infrastructure projects and providing cash grants and soft loans, which account for a growing slug of government revenue.  Though such developments are likely to increase material prosperity and improve human development indicators, they may well reduce, rather than increase, happiness. An article  by Rebecca Newman in this week’s Spectator magazine  quotes the British philosopher A.C. Grayling, whom she met on a recent visit to Bhutan – he had been invited to speak about civil liberties in emerging democracies – as saying “The irony is that the surest way to create unhappiness is to pursue happiness. It is an epiphenomenon of other things – a flourishing, liberated life. You can’t chase it.”

We Americans made our bargain a long time ago. Our Declaration of Independence is based on the proposition that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights, meaning that each of us is free to pursue our own vision of happiness. Or, to put it another way, we are free to make ourselves as unhappy as we want. As its preamble states, our Constitution was adopted in large part “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” The growth of regulation and the “nanny state,” however, reduces liberty and makes it increasingly difficult for Americans to pursue happiness, at least for those of us whose pursuit of happiness involves drinking, smoking, eating fatty foods, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or making derogatory remarks about people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.  I’m not happy about this happening in my country since I think freedom, as we Americans have defined it, includes the freedom to do incredibly stupid things as long as they don’t cause harm  – and by harm I do not mean hurt feelings – to anyone else.

What is embedded in the very fabric of my country is not necessarily part of other peoples’ and other countries’ notion of the good life. In places like Iceland and Bhutan preservation of tradition, language, and culture count for a great deal, and if this means that some individual freedoms are sacrificed, that may be a trade-off the people consider worth making.

In their country’s recent financial collapse, Icelanders saw the consequences of introducing American-style freedom (and American-style collusion between bankers and government) into financial markets, and are understandably reluctant to repeat the experience. If the freedoms of some financial wizards, venal bureaucrats, and people with a penchant for weird children’s names need to be curtailed to preserve the integrity of a society and culture that most Icelanders cherish, it strikes me as a very reasonable exchange.

Chip Krakoff

Posted 05-07-2010 3:45 PM by Charles Krakoff