Book Review-After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s

I was just graduating high school as the book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s was published.  There was, obviously, a lot going on in my world, so I can’t say that the perspectives in America about homosexuals was top of mind for me.  I was aware of the fear and hatred but largely as a part of the awareness about AIDS and HIV.  For me, it was never a thing one way or another.  Within a year or two of graduating I met some openly gay and transsexual friends, and we didn’t talk much about how other people treated them.  To me, they were – and are – simply friends.

Reading After the Ball wasn’t about trying to understand homosexuality for me.  I realized that the book stirred a lot of controversy when just putting my hands on a copy was so expensive.  I learned that many of the books had been destroyed by hate groups and that drove the price of the few remaining copies up.  The reason I wanted to read After the Ball was because it was effective.  It changed the perception of gays in the 90s.  A friend of mine with a non-binary child pushed back as I was speaking with him saying that it hadn’t gone far enough.  I suppose that’s true – but it’s equally true that the ball was moved very far down the field towards acceptance of alternative approaches to sexuality.  (See The Anatomy of Love for other approaches to sexuality.)

I was hoping to find a way to bridge the gaps that were created over the past few years as the world faced COVID-19 and the divisiveness that had been created.  I wanted to find a way to help families heal from the divisions that formed Fault Lines.  I can’t say that I found those answers, but I did find some other answers that might be more valuable.

Hate Groups

Calling the religious right a hate group is likely to win me more enemies than friends but that’s what they are – or at least were.  Jesus’ directives are clear: love your neighbor; these things remain faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.  However, somehow some people get wrapped up in righteousness and pursue fear, hatred, and alienation instead.  Unable to reconcile homosexuality with their view of “right,” they lashed out and attacked – and they encouraged and legitimized psychological and physical harm towards gays.  The enlightened writing of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind wasn’t available – and probably would have been rejected if it was.  Understanding and acceptance of others wasn’t on the agenda.

I first encountered the title After the Ball in the book The Marketing of Evil.  It called out the book as evil.  I was so shaken by The Marketing of Evil that I broke my process of reviewing books for it.  I didn’t want to draw attention to a book that was so inflammatory.  I still feel that way today as I realize that the worst thing that After the Ball proposes is a propaganda campaign – something that even major corporations do all the time now.

In Defense of Sacred Ideas

It’s not that the perception that the Bible finds homosexuality wrong is completely unfounded.  The hate groups can point to passages that support their assertion.  The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is where we get the word “sodomy” from.  And yet, it seems as if the context is twisted and bent to fit the desires of those who tell the story.

For me, one of the most mis-told stories in the Bible is “turn the other cheek.”  While growing up, I probably heard the sermon a dozen times or more that this meant you should not lash out to protect yourself.  However, when you raise the historical context, you’re confronted with the awareness that what was likely being said is that you should give others a chance to show who they really are.  In historical times, one hand was used for wiping your feces and the other for interacting with others.  If someone was willing to smack your cheek with their left hand it was clear the kind of person they are.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story that is as much about a failing to respect others’ wishes as it is about sodomy directly.  However, it’s easy to miss this subtlety when the passages condemn the whole of cities instead of focusing on the fundamental lack of respect for one another.

Homophobia and Homo-hatred

The manifest problem isn’t a fear of homosexuality but rather is a hatred of it.  It’s not that people are afraid of homosexuality directly, it’s their lashing out against it and the decision that gay and lesbians must be somehow bad or evil.  It’s the response that causes us to separate the world into us vs. them, and homosexuals are decidedly “them.”  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on us vs. them.)

Hatred is the unfortunate and natural outcome of a fear.  Too few people are taught how to address their fears head-on and conquer them in a positive way with tools like desensitization.  (See The Body Keeps Score for more on desensitization.)  Instead of the fears getting smaller, the reactions get larger, and the result is the need to lash out to reduce the fear.  It’s been said, and it’s psychologically accurate, that those who lash out the most about homosexual behavior are the most drawn to it.  Their attacks on homosexuality are primarily to protect themselves from it.

The Big Lie

After the Ball calls it “the big lie.”  The lie is that homosexuality doesn’t exist.  The data puts it at about 10% of the population – and yet too many people don’t believe they know a single homosexual person.  At least, that is what the data said decades ago.  Somehow, one in ten people were homosexual, but people didn’t know anyone who was gay.  Given Robin Dunbar’s work on stable social relationships, this is statistically improbable.  (For more on Dunbar’s work, see High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.)

However, if no one knew anyone who was gay, then maybe, just maybe, it didn’t really exist after all.  We’re willing to accept that there are Yeti with shadowy, impossible to see photos that depict a dark blob, but when it comes to gays, we just can’t believe.

Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are

“Olly Olly Oxen Free” was the call we’d make when hide and seek was over, that we had given up.  We’re still not quite there with homosexuals.  While much progress has been made with the acceptability of homosexuality, there are still prejudices and biases.  There are still stigmas and shunning, and it makes it hard for those who have homosexual feelings to come out into the open.  It’s hard coming out of the closet.

Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s moving forward despite the fear.  (See Find Your Courage for more.)  If you want to increase courage, you reduce fear.  More people put themselves at professional and personal risk by “coming out of the closet” and openly sharing their homosexual orientation.  This courage is one part of the plan for overcoming fear and hatred.  The more that gays and lesbians are seen as normal and acceptable, the harder it will be for individuals to be attacked, dismissed, and shunned.

Call It What You Will

An exasperated Abraham Lincoln was said to have asked his Cabinet, “How many legs does a lamb have if you call the tail a leg?”  The answer five came up and was quickly rejected by Lincoln. “Wrong!  It’s still four.  Calling it a leg doesn’t make it one.”  The easiest – but not the best — way to deal with a problem is to deny it exists.  The premise here is the problem that straight America just wants gays to cease to exist, and denying that they do in some distorted way makes it true.

Like Lincoln’s quote, it doesn’t make it so – but more importantly, I’m slightly disturbed that it’s framed as a problem.  Instead of looking at homosexuality as a different perspective or set of beliefs, many attempt to elevate it to a difference in values at the level of morality and immorality.  It turns out that what you call it – and how you communicate about it – really matters.

Real Immorality

Part of my frustration with it being converted into a moral issue is that I believe that immorality should be reserved for those things which violate the foundations of morality.  (See The Righteous Mind for the foundations of morality.)  Albert Bandura spoke of the conditions that lead to immoral behavior in Moral Disengagement, and Philip Zimbardo spoke of it in The Lucifer Effect.  Vicktor Frankl spoke about what he saw of the Nazi concentration camps in Man’s Search for Meaning.  The differences are striking.  The first moral foundation is care/harm, and these other examples violate care/harm in ways that all but a few deviants who happen to be homosexual haven’t done.  It should be quickly noted that there are plenty of heterosexual deviants, too.  The point is that homosexuality in and of itself doesn’t mean – or imply – that other people are harmed.

Certainly, we face issues then and today which could be called moral issues – but they’re not the issues about how we interpret the nuances of the Bible – or of other religious texts.  Because people don’t subscribe to your views and are not motivated by the same things that you’re motivated by doesn’t make them evil or bad.  It makes them different.  (See Who Am I? for more on Reiss’ 16 basic motivators and how we’re all motivated by different things.)

The Propaganda Machine

Propaganda gets a bad reputation.  It’s been used in very evil ways.  Perhaps the greatest example is the propaganda war that Adolf Hitler waged against Jews and Russians.  (The Russians get less attention because they had an army and put up a more violent fight.)  The propaganda specifically made both groups seem sub-human.  That process created the conditions which enabled the concentration camps and the attempted genocide.

Propaganda at its most fundamental is a one-sided approach to a topic designed to persuade others that the purveyor of the propaganda’s point of view is right.  The proposed Waging Peace Campaign rests on three pillars.

#1 – Desensitization

If you want to get over fear, the technique developed by Albert Bandura may just be the thing.  Afraid of snakes?  Find safe ways to look at pictures of snakes, then be in the same room, then near them, then touch them, then hold them.  It takes time, but desensitization works.  It’s not the fear of snakes that After the Ball is trying to cure.  It’s fear of homosexuals – and the process works en mass as well as it works one-on-one.  The more that homosexuals are portrayed in mildly uncomfortable but not threatening ways, the more normal it becomes, and the less fear there is.

We know that anything that becomes common elicits less of a reaction.  If encountering openly homosexual people is common, then it shouldn’t be such an issue.

#2 – Jamming

Another, more disruptive, approach to changing perceptions is to introduce two incompatible emotional responses at the same time.  For instance, introducing the idea of a wholesome family and then revealing that the parents are homosexual necessarily creates the need for the two conflicting emotions to be reconciled.  While the process is not easy for the individual, it can be effective at causing the lesser emotion to recede.

Other approaches to jamming place a negative emotion with the positive emotion that drives bigotry.  Bigotry continues because we receive a reward for acting on our bigotry, thus reinforcing it.  (See The Power of Habit for more on reinforcement.)  However, if you spoil the reward by adding in guilt, shame, or regret, you steal the power that the engine needs to reinforce the behavior and thereby lessen it.

#3 – Conversion

While the first two techniques are aimed at reducing fear and bigotry, the third is about increasing likability.  That is, while ambivalence is a good start when you’re coming from bigotry and hatred, it doesn’t go far enough to protect against backsliding.

The real trick is to create friendships with straight people – and to allow those friendships to spread.  This is easier said than done as Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) relates how Al Campanis could like Jackie Robinson and know that he was a fine baseball player but simultaneously not believe that he’d make a good manager.

Certainly, making friends and creating affinity with others is the right strategy, the degree to which it may be generalizable is questionable.

Out Come the Freaks

One of the most direct criticisms of the homosexual movement for equality comes in the form of the visibility of the “freaks.”  That is, those people who represent the furthest extreme.  Those who would seek to shock straight America into accepting the movement do more damage than good.  It’s for this reason that Kirk and Madsen recommend that the more socially acceptable come forward (where they’re able) to be spokespersons for the movement rather than allowing parades of debauchery to be the single message that heterosexual America sees.

After the Ball divides homosexuals into two broad categories.  The “Rs” look like and can be seen like straights – and they like it that way.  The “Qs” can’t look like straights – and they don’t want to.  They want to be queer (different).  Despite the natural aversion to standing out and being recognized as gays, if desensitization is to be effective, it needs the “Rs” to take up the banner.  Without the normalcy, gays could be rejected out of hand.

Free Software

Richard Stallman was the programmer-activist who led the charge for free software.  It’s spawned a whole market of open-source and openly licensed software that has made the world better.  Yet many in the world of open-source software cringe when they hear that he’s spoken at another event or to the press.  His beliefs are so extreme that they seriously jeopardized the legitimacy of open source software.

Quietly, other voices started emerging with more moderate views and a less militant approach to finding ways to drive commerce without perceived exploitation.  This is the same approach that After the Ball proposed for improving the relationship between heterosexual and homosexual people.

The Principles

After the Ball proposes a set of principles that gays should use to improve the situation realizing that gays would have to be better than straights to gain acceptance.  They are:

  1. Don’t Just Express Yourself: Communicate –Focus not just on expression but what the message is that you’re sending.
  2. Seek Ye Not the Saved nor the Dammed: Appeal to the Skeptics – The greatest opportunity for any movement is to appeal to those who are interested in learning more and who have not yet developed any prejudices.
  3. Keep Talking – The goal is simply to work on desensitization, and that requires a lot of low-grade discomfort. It’s the kind of discomfort that is acceptably generated through talking.
  4. Keep the Message Focused: You’re a Homosexual, not a Whale – Don’t pickup every other cause like lost puppies and bring them into the fold. Stay focused on what is important.
  5. Portray Gays as Victims of Circumstance and Oppression, not Aggressive Challengers – Look for support and sympathy rather than invite conflict, resistance, and battles.
  6. Give Potential Protectors a Just Cause – Make it easy for others to join the cause by focusing on the fact that gays are being discriminated against rather than trying to convert others’ sexual practices.
  7. Make Gays Look Good – Appearing as model citizens and pillars of society makes it easier for others to support you.
  8. Make Victimizers Look Bad – Where possible and appropriate, allow victimizers’ actions to become well known, so that others are repulsed by their actions.

Civil Disobedience

After the Ball has advice for civil disobedience, from ensuring non-violence (on the part of those practicing it) to communicating the willingness and acceptance of being arrested for the disobedience and the need to connect the act of disobedience with the cause.  Unfair taxation of tea preceded the Boston Tea Party, and so civil disobedience must make the connection between the act and the cause clear.

Stand and Be Counted

Today, we’re three decades after the publication of After the Ball.  Much has changed and gotten better.  Thankfully, gay bashing has receded to rarity.  However, there are still legitimate concerns about the degree to which someone can be open about their sexuality for fear of reprisal.  In some sense, this feels like a continuing journey.  It may be that there is no after in After the Ball; you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Book Review-One Minute to Midnight

It was the closest that the world had ever come to a global nuclear war, and it started in America’s back yard. Metaphorically speaking, it was just one minute from the end of the atomic day. The clock advanced to just one minute before midnight, a whisper from the end of the world. Then slowly, magically, it receded to a spot where both sides stepped back from the abyss and found a way towards peace. It was a peace that would start the world on a track of lower risk of mutually-assured destruction.

The time spent one minute from midnight started from October 16th, 1962, when the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was notified that we had aerial reconnaissance confirmation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun, and it had the effect of advancing the atomic clock to One Minute to Midnight.

The Story

In brief, the Soviets had worked with Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, in a partnership that put medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on Cuban soil aimed at the United States. Castro has suffered intrusions into the Cuban state through US-sponsored incursions, most notably The Bay of Pigs. The relationship with the Soviet Union was a way of protecting himself from the US and at the same time allowed Nikita Khrushchev a way to give the US back some of what it was giving to Moscow. The US had deployed MRBMs to Turkey – roughly the same distance to Moscow as it was from Cuba to Washington, D.C.

The situation was ultimately resolved through a blockade and subsequent diplomacy, but not before having nearly two weeks of very tense moments. The missiles were removed from Cuba and the US agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey.

That’s the history lesson and the context of the book. However, in addition to the twists and turns the story takes, there’s a second story that’s told of how our world has changed and how it has stayed the same.

Communications

Perhaps the most striking observation was the change in communications from then to now. Commands relayed from Washington could take 6-8 hours to make it to the commanders of the Navy stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. Official communication to the Soviet Union could take 12 hours or more. Even before the red phone was installed to provide direct communication between the US and the Soviet Union, we had improved communications dramatically.

Today, we take for granted that we can reach out and contact anyone on the planet in a matter of minutes if not seconds. We have video calls with friends and colleagues half a world away. We expect that our messages will arrive nearly instantaneously and that everyone has access to the internet in one way or another. However, at the time, the internet wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t even a wish.

One of the major challenges for the Soviet submarine commanders was the requirement that they surface to communicate with Moscow each day. While the timing made perfect sense in conflicts centered around Moscow – midnight – it made them very vulnerable during the daylight in the Atlantic waters.

Time and Distance

Never had the Soviet Union deployed ships and troops in such quantities so far away. Simple challenges like communications seemed onerous until they needed precise time signals that were too weak to receive from Moscow. Instead, they had to accept their time signals from US sources – unbeknownst to the US army.

Intelligence

It took nearly 30 hours for the US to notice that the Soviet ships that were on their way to Cuba to turn around and start heading home – after the initial awareness that the US knew of the missiles and Khrushchev started pulling back. Still, there was a spy providing the US with lots of useful information including the technical manual for the missiles being deployed to Cuba. We also had a sophisticated (for the time) set of listening posts that made it possible to detect the location Soviet submarines without their knowledge.

Spy planes, including the U-2, were used to gather aerial reconnaissance. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more about spy planes.) Where now we have satellites orbiting to safely photograph locations of interest, back then, we had to put people at risk to gather the photographic intelligence we needed to make decisions.

What we knew was mostly wrong – particularly as it pertains to the number of nuclear warheads that were in Cuba and the troop deployment. Moreover, we had dramatically overestimated the Soviet nuclear capacity. Where we underestimated the deployment strength, we vastly overestimated the total strength.

Missiles

The crisis wasn’t really about the ability to hit the US from Cuba. The truth was, as Kennedy was aware, that you were dead whether the nuclear warhead was delivered through an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a MRBM. Kennedy never liked the Jupiter missiles deployed to Turkey and he tried to remove them – but he was always blocked. His “ace in the hole” was the Minuteman ICBMs that were scattered throughout Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Where the Jupiter missiles were mounted above ground and took 15-30 minutes to fuel, the Minuteman missiles were in underground silos and were ready to launch “within minutes.” Their farm configuration – which spread the missile silos over large areas of sparsely populated space – made them difficult for the Soviets to wipe out in an initial attack scenario.

The missiles in Cuba were a pawn of the much larger nuclear one-upmanship that the two superpowers had been playing. It was the case of American imperialism against communist solidarity. The missiles weren’t the point – the fact that the US was being threatened was.

Cuba’s Castro

Ninety percent of Cuba was owned in some way by the United States companies or individuals before the revolution. Cuba’s liberation meant that the government ceased the assets of foreign owners for state control – and even despite this grab of economic power, the country nearly collapsed. Castro’s revolution was a success – barely – but his economy was a wreck. He was intent at doing whatever it took to ensure that the economy survived, so that the country would survive under his leadership.

He was, however, a revolutionary at heart, and as such, he was willing to go to much greater extremes than either the US or his Soviet counterparts. Where the US soldier wouldn’t tolerate poor conditions and as much as one-third of the soldiers becoming ill, this was tolerable for the Soviet troops. The Soviets had done testing on their own people with regard to the impacts of nuclear radiation. Many died as a result of their radiation exposure. Castro knew the impacts of nuclear radiation and was willing to poison his country for decades to stop an invading US force.

The Soviets brought more with them than the MRBMs. They brought tactical nuclear weapons that would wipe out an invading force – but not without rather permanent and lasting damage to the ability for Cuba to be habitable. This didn’t seem to bother either the Soviet suppliers or the Cuban Dictator, who seemed locked in his revolutionary ways and the belief that winning was all that mattered.

The Consequences of Nuclear War

Kennedy and Khrushchev were both painfully aware that there was no such thing as a limited nuclear war. They knew that once the first weapon was fired (even inadvertently), there would likely be little turning back. Where Castro seemed intent on using whatever means necessary, both leaders saw their roles in history differently. They felt like that if they stepped too far forward, there would be nothing to step back to.

What does it mean to be the victor when the world is destroyed, they wondered. Victory is hollow when it is only to survive longer before inevitable death.

Communism

The threat to democracy was communism. There was a belief that it just could be a better system of government, and the US’ democratic approach was bound to be buried by communist efficiency. Where Khrushchev made promises to crush the US economically, we now know that this was just bluster. That didn’t stop the inquiries at the time or the fear that our way of living might be changed by forces outside our control.

It’s interesting to me as I compare it to Microsoft’s response to Linux in the 1990s. Linux was a real threat to Microsoft’s Windows desktop market – only to be revealed to be a non-issue. Microsoft did lose some market share to Linux in the server market, but this was hardly as pervasive or as redefining as it was anticipated to be.

When you’re standing too close to the problem, you fail to put it into a proper perspective.

Kennedy

JFK is a hero. However, his image is much larger than the real-life person. His handling of the crisis, his push to the Moon, and his famous speeches anchored a place for him in the American psyche. Having been assassinated, he didn’t have to accept the messiness of the fall from grace. However, when you look deeper, you see parts of the man that don’t reflect the hero image.

His medical issues were a secret to me until One Minute to Midnight. I never realized all the care that he was receiving behind the scenes to remain functional. I recognize these host of problems as the result of stress and incongruency in his world – something that the doctors at the time didn’t appear to be aware of. However, the man that spoke for everyone in America was as fallible as any other man.

There are the stories that you hear about JFK and his infidelity. Marylin Monroe’s relationship with him – including the alleged sexual relationship – are well known. His string of sexual encounters was also well established. However, the relationship with his former neighbor and former wife of a senior CIA official was an aspect I had not previously been aware of.

I can only believe that these were different times for different people, when it was expected that men, particularly powerful men, would have affairs. I don’t understand it or how it would be acceptable to the wives, but it’s far from the last time that a politician – or sitting president – would have an indiscretion that the wife knew about and either condoned or concealed. (Think Bill Clinton.)

I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the same place that we were with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union’s attempts to keep pace with the US economy and defense spending broke it. Communism, it seems, wasn’t as great as it was made out to be. What I do remember from my history class is that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it – and not just the high school history class. If for no other reason than avoiding the possibility of nuclear war, perhaps it’s time to give some thought to One Minute to Midnight.

Book Review-The History of Iceland

I’m by no means a history buff, but there’s something about Iceland that drew me in and made me want to understand the story behind the island nation in the North Atlantic. The History of Iceland is a tome about the Icelandic people and how this amazing island came to be.

Sucking You In

My interest started with an invitation to deliver a keynote presentation to the Icelandic Records Management Association. Iceland arose from the deep recesses of my memory as a place that seemed wild and different. I accepted the invitation and began learning about the island, the people, and the history.

The more I learned about Iceland, the more interested I became.

Geography

The first bit to understand is where it is. It sits on the fault line between the tectonic plates that North America and Europe sit on. The gaps between the plates created a way for lava to flow up and create the land mass that is Iceland.

Though it’s very far west compared to European countries, the time zone that it observes is GMT/UTC. That means it’s on the same time as London, and five hours ahead of the US Eastern Time Zone. The time zone is as good as any other, since there’s plenty of light in the summer and not much in the winter due to its very high longitude.

However, the relatively low habitation means that it’s a great place to see the northern lights. (Or so I’m told — we did get to see them on our visit.)

Government

The initial settlement was by the Vikings, and because of the rugged nature and some misfortunes, the island struggled to reach and maintain a population of 50,000 people. Modern day Iceland boasts roughly 400,000 people – roughly 40% of which live in the capital of Reykjavik and the surrounding area.

As a result of their heritage – and failure to desire independence – they remained subject to the king of Norway and eventually Denmark. Independence was officially conveyed in 1944. However, in an odd turn of events, not a single shot was fired. Independence was granted without a fight.

Through the ages, Iceland had a largely decentralized government. Though subject to the King of Norway, the King largely left the Icelanders alone. It seems like no one really wanted to put up much of a fight over Iceland. In fact, the Danish rule of Iceland was overthrown by the capture of a single person.

Icelanders have, reportedly, protected their national image of neutrality and defenselessness. Having a national identity in defenselessness is to me – an American – a very foreign concept. However, for a country that’s spent most of its history largely undefended, the concept seems to make sense.

Farming and Fishing

The early history of Iceland required that everyone have or work on a farm. While it seems like fishing would be a primary commercial activity, the Icelandic people are described as sedentary pastoralists. That is, they would live off farms and livestock. Fishing, while done in the winter months, wasn’t a full-time vocation for centuries.

Today, marine products may make up 70-80% of exports, coming down from an estimated high of 90% in the 1940s through 1960s. So, while there are still many farms, most of what is grown locally is eaten locally. Fishing became so important that Iceland extended its fishing rights from 2 miles to 4 miles to 12 miles and, ultimately, to 50 miles and 200 miles. The extension of the fishing around the island was the cause for the only real “war” the island had when the British had a different idea of where their trawlers should be able to fish.

What’s in a Name

Iceland is greener than Greenland, and that’s a bit of marketing by Erik the Red. He figured if it had a good name, then men might like to come there. Iceland had no such marketing-based name, thus there’s a reversal of conditions between Greenland and Iceland.

There’s another name-based uniqueness in Iceland. They don’t use family (or sur-) names. Instead they use patronymics. That is, your second name is the name of your father or mother followed by son or daughter. To trace your lineage, you track back through the names of your ancestors one at a time instead of claiming and continuing a family name. The result, I’m told, is a propensity to just use first names, even if you’re not very familiar with the person to whom you’re speaking.

Christianity

Though initially the island was settled in pagan times with pagan chieftains, the island was converted to Christianity in 999 or 1,000 A.D. through public decree at the big meeting – called Althing – after a dispute was brought forward because of the different laws that were being followed by the pagans and Christians on the island. With a non-existent centralized government, it made sense that there needed to be an agreement on what the laws should be.

Christianity in countries outside of Iceland would ultimately prove to be a boon to Iceland because of the decision that fish didn’t count as meat when it came to fasts – particularly during Lent. There was an increase in demand for fish since it was allowed during fasts.

Christianity becoming the law of the land would ultimately drive literacy but not always in the most straightforward manner. Literacy was defined as the ability to recite Luther’s catechism (summary of principles as a question and answer), while literacy in other countries at the time was the ability to write your name. Despite this, the requirement that children be “literate” before they were confirmed started the process of learning.

Real Literacy

Real literacy came from the humble beginnings of Christianity. Children were required to be literate and this eventually transformed into the kind of literacy (reading and writing) that we expect today. However, adults were often concerned that the effort spent learning to read and write would prevent the children from doing their work on the farm. So, like all good teenagers, the thing that was forbidden became the thing they did. They would often learn how to read and write in secret despite the concerns and sometimes instructions of their parents.

Today, Iceland has a love affair with books – both reading and writing. Much of this love affair can be attributed to generations of literacy – and probably at least to some degree due to the lack of distractions. Radio and televisions service came to Iceland late – and only due to the American base.

Social Support

A network of neighbors and churches along with some interesting economic policies kept unemployment low in Iceland. Unemployment didn’t officially exist in a unified way until 1956. Perhaps that’s because being able to work – but not working – was considered a crime. It may also be related to the fact that if you had received public assistance you would likely not be allowed to marry. (Which was mostly a sign that you intended to have children.)

The other policies that led to people working was as high rate of inflation that made it useful to spend your money when you had it – generating a demand for labor – so that it would not become devalued. This high demand for labor and the societal stigma surrounding not working likely kept the rate low.

As I prepared travel to Iceland to get a chance to learn more about these amazing people and this amazing land, I looked at my research as a kind of social support as I felt more prepared to take in all that Iceland had to offer. The History of Iceland is amazing. I’m grateful to have read it before I experienced the island.