What is “News”? Is it more than one “New”? Is it an acronym for “Notable Events, Weather and Sports”? Or “North East South West”? Yes, no and no. When we make that leap from adjective to plural noun, it carries some weight. Red turns from the color of love into “Reds”, a pejorative for Communists. “Blue” goes from the color of the sky to the “Blues”, an African American music form that transformed world culture. In both Hebrew and English the plural of “new” is “news”. So how did one singular and otherwise ordinary hamburger rise from fast food obscurity as just one among the “billions and billions served” become “news”? Such is the case of the undying 2009 McDonalds hamburger that sits under glass in Iceland and four hundred thousand people a day watch it via live stream.
Iceland is not a country that impresses itself into world consciousness very often, so when it does make “news”, it stands out in stark relief. The latest Iceland sighting in world press is a perennially recycled story about this mummified McDonalds hamburger and a side of fries. This week it was covered in the Washington Post, the BBC and Fox Business. As if responding to a biorhythm all its own, Iceland and in this case the undead Zombie-burger, rise episodically from their public relations hibernation to be recycled as performance art-like commentary on culture, health, politics, and even on Israel. I think the Burger’s story is actually about us, consumer gourmands endlessly hungering for “content”, no matter how empty the information calories.
A Burger is Born: An Icelander named Hjörtur Smárason, a marketing consultant, was in financial straits after the worldwide financial collapse of 2008. He purchased a hamburger meal with fries from McDonald’s on its last day in Iceland in 2009 after Mickey D decided Iceland was a losing proposition for them. Mr. Smarason put it on a shelf in his garage, and three years later it was still in a visually presentable state.
The burger’s staying power makes us question the composition of McDonald’s foods. Are they riddled with embalming fluid like chemicals? I think it’s just as likely that that an Icelandic garage like the one in which this burger was stored has a unique sub zero preservative quality of its own that may have contributed to the burger’s nine lives. King Tut had 48 cases of poultry and beef buried with him that stood the test of time. I’d guess that deeply frozen garage did as good a job of crystalizing the burgers molecular structure as Tut’s Egyptian embalmers.
Others have seen the famous burger as a cautionary tale about the economic health or competence of Iceland. “We couldn’t even run a McDonalds” one Icelandic financial analyst bemoaned as McDonalds pulled out. It is a big deal when a major international corporation pulls up stakes and leaves your country in the rear view mirror. Starbucks famously pulled out of Israel sixteen years ago and it’s still generating internet rumors that CEO Howard Schultz is either an antisemite, antizionist, or alternatively secretly donates to the IDF. (Pop Quiz: Is Howard Shultz running for president of the United States?) Other Icelanders saw the McDonalds pull-out as a symbol of their second class status as a post colonial outpost of Europe. The current WaPo article also weighs in on the side of the Burger being a “Cautionary Tale” in its headline.
Israel got a taste of Icelandic nihilism and irony last spring when “Hatari” (“Haters”) was Iceland’s entry at Eurovision in Israel. Their song entry “Hate Will Prevail” was a mix of bondage-leather costumes and techno death-metal tonality which Hatari used to forward their nihilistic blend of pro-Palestinianism, anti-Zionism, and anti-capitalism. They burst onto Tel Aviv’s Eurovision stage with the shriek-along opening lyrics “Debauchery unconstrained, Hangover uncontained, Life’s purposeless confusion, The void will swallow all”. If you didn’t sing along with that, you had to chime in on the chorus of “Hate will prevail, Europe will crumble”. I watched the music video so you don’t have to. You are welcome. Iceland’s Eurovision Competition Committee thought this would be a winning entry. Hatari thought they’d be oh-so-impressively naughty by cavorting about the Expo Tel Aviv stage with Palestinian flags but Isreali’s yawned, already accustomed to parrying thousands of incoming Palestinian missiles and incendiary weapons. Not content to quietly slink home after missing the finale round, Hatari sued El Al for giving them seating not befitting their rock-star status on their economy class budget return trip.
The Zombie-burger’s owner saw it as both an artistic and cultural statement. Iceland’s National Museum agreed and put the burger on prominent display, where it was a popular exhibit. It is now a feature display in a hotel, should you care to visit it. Or you can watch the burger on Icelandic Cable TV. Apparently both the TV feed and the display are popular. No one has subpoenaed Mr. Smarason’s bank records in a frenzy of breathless journalistic conspiracy theorism, but this crafty marketing consultant has no doubt created a nice side-hustle. Icelanders value their nihilism.
Icelanders have been trying to recover from a late 2017 BBC news story that gained world attention when a health official was quoted as saying Iceland had “cured” Down Syndrome, not with a medical breakthrough but with one of the worlds most liberal abortion laws and a nearly 100% abotion rate of Down Syndrome pregnancies. While not an official policy of eradication, the country chafed about the ensuing world wide discussion that included words like “genocide” which called into question this socially progressive country’s cold heartedness towards the disabled or anyone falling short of the Viking ideal. Icelanders tried to explain that that they think a child with a disability is the one who suffers. A country that has spent ten years watching an undead burger is at war on the unborn in pursuit of a frigid societal perfection.
I see the Icelandic Zombie Burger as a commentary on “news” itself. I found it odd when this story, which ran six years ago in The Verge, was carbon copied with almost no new content this week and spread like a zombie apocalypse through prestigious media outlets then the entire world press listed in dozens of references found on search engines followed plagiaristic suit in their endless quest for content. Is the press scrambling to stay relevant and not to miss a story that could attract eyeballs and ratings so important to their survival? Probably. Deadspin, a sports and commentary website with tens of millions of views, closed its digital doors this week despite strong corporate ownership. Its paid staff are hard pressed to find other work in journalism. Media of all stripes fawned self referentially over the story with transparent fear for their careers.
Print is dying and even the Bible can’t keep up. National Publishing Company in Philadelphia announced this week that it is closing its doors by the end of the year. This publisher of nearly a billion bibles can’t compete with digital offerings. You can visit biblegateway.com and read the scriptures in every language on earth for free. Hebrew, of course and Icelandic too. In Hebrew, chapters of the scriptures are titled by their first word: “In the Beginning” in Hebrew is “Beresheet”, both the title and the first word of Genesis. In Icelandic it’s “Fyrsta Bok Mose”. Moses’s First Book.
Even the “Fyrsta Bok” of the news world is being sucked into the same digital black hole: The New York Times is the world’s most visited news site but is scrambling to re-invent itself. It’s CEO, Arthur Sulzberger, said “We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future”. And if Jeff Bezos gets bored with his WaPo vanity project losing bits of his billions, it will join in extinction that inky newspaper filled with paid advertising I used to fold and wrap with a rubber band as a twelve year old and fling from a bicycle onto hundreds of doorsteps every day.
As the thirst for information dies, a new bland form of non-information is growing. It is called “Slow TV”, the category into which our Icelandic Burger falls. In Norway, over 2.5 million viewers, half of the population, tuned in to fixed cameras broadcasting the views from a 134 hour coastal voyage: Icelanders love Slow TV: a 24 hour feed of a 1300 km trip around Iceland’s Route 1 ring road set to music was live streamed and well received.
Interest in news is dying as viewers weary of parsing the bias of news content. I spend way too much time reading news in major outlets then having to research the actual information behind it. I don’t much trust the “news” and 60% of Americans don’t either. Only 28% of Israelis trust the press.
When the news does indeed die, in its place will be a 24/7/365 live-feed of a ten year old hamburger.