Joel vs. the Volcano

In which I help Iceland write a new constitution

  • Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME

    People love guys who write constitutions. Their genius is celebrated by historians, their intentions debated by judges, their names attached to poorly performing middle schools. I figured I would never know that glory. Because no matter how good my columns may be, they will never cause people to stop drinking and then start drinking again shortly afterward, except for me while I write them. And not always.

    But after the financial crash in Iceland, the new Prime Minister decided to use the nation's disgust with corruption as a political opportunity to rewrite the constitution by the end of July — and they're letting people contribute to it on the Internet. This is my chance to get my name on a high-performing school with superhot Icelandic cheerleaders.

    Not only can you see the constitution being written and revised in real time by the 25 Icelanders appointed to the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly, but you can also send suggestions through its website, Facebook and Twitter. The current working version guarantees people all the rights they could ever want — privacy, anonymity for journalists' sources and the right for children to be listened to. Although it is not explicitly stated, any judge would rule that the document strongly implies the right to unlimited hugs.

    If Americans were allowed to revise our Constitution, we'd be taking to the streets to fight over gay marriage, gun control, abortion and whether to print "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" in 56-point Franklin Gothic or 128-point American Typewriter. But the Icelanders seem to agree on everything. Even more insane, the members of the Constitutional Assembly find time to cheerily reply to all the suggestions, even ones from dumb Americans suggesting amendments to stop up Iceland's volcanoes. When I used Facebook to send a message to Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir — the chair of the committee dealing with foundations, human rights and natural resources — she wrote me back in one hour. On a Sunday. You know how long it would have taken James Madison to return an e-mail when he was writing the Constitution? Two hundred years.

    In her e-mail, Ómarsdóttir invited me to become a framer. Taking my job seriously, I read the entire proposed draft of the constitution. The first thing I learned was that I was totally right to never have read our Constitution all the way through. Constitutions are boring. Second, Google Translate has some work to do on the Icelandic-to-English function. One line reads, "Do not make physical or looked at her, looked at his premises or items, except by court order or specific statutory authority." I'm pretty sure they meant, "It's creepy to stare at girls too long."

    Though it took me nearly an hour to get the bugs out of my Google Translate document, I submitted a bunch of constitutional suggestions based on the vast knowledge of Icelandic life I acquired by interviewing Björk there 10 years ago and drinking heavily. These included: 1) If elves, ghosts or other hidden folk make themselves known and are interested in participating in human Icelandic civic and social life, they shall enjoy all previously named human rights (now human/hidden folk rights) without discrimination on any grounds such as gender, race and sexual orientation (if they have genders, races or sexual orientations) or anything they have that differentiates themselves from one another in any way that is sort of like gender, race or sexual orientation but not quite gender, race or sexual orientation. 2) We hereby abolish the use of diacritics and other funny-looking letters in all official government writing. No Ý, Þ, Æ, Ö, Ð. Everyone gets it: we like heavy-metal music. Let's move on.

    It will be a few weeks before we find out if these ideas are incorporated into the final document, but I feel pretty confident in both, as well as in one requiring all Icelanders to get real last names instead of just shoving "son" or "daughter" after their dad's first name. No one wants to spend 45 minutes trying to find Jon Jonsson on Facebook, even if all 297 Jon Jonssons are incredibly handsome.

    As excited as I am about having my face on the Icelandic krona, I can't believe crowdsourcing is a smart way for even the nicest, most agreeing people in the world to build a democracy. America's Founding Versions of Me locked themselves in a room in Philadelphia for four months and wrote a document that prevents just this kind of direct democracy. They knew it could only lead to people giving themselves ludicrously low taxes and insanely generous benefits. A lasting political document must be full of divisive language and ugly compromises — bicameral legislatures, electoral colleges, a lot of stuff in Latin that could easily be in English. Honestly, I don't think the elves are going to want any part of it.