One after the other, speakers take the stage of the Christiania Theatre, across from the Grand Hotel in the heart of Oslo. Do you want to pause for a little lesson, concerning the name of the city?
Originally, it was Oslo. Then, after a great fire in 1624, the city was renamed Christiania, after King Christian IV. (A Dane, of the kind that ruled over Norway for about four centuries.) In 1877, the name was spelled “Kristiania” — a display of Norwegian nationalism, I believe. (Things “K” are Norwegian, things “Ch” are Danish.) In 1925 — as recently as that — the capital became Oslo again.
I know, I know, what would you do without me?
First to speak is Tomas van Houtryve, a Belgian-American photojournalist. He has put together a book called Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism. For Houtryve’s website, go here.
We all know that Communism “collapsed” in 1989, 1990, 1991 — in there. We saw that wall come down. But for a whole lot of people, Communism has not collapsed. Houtryve points out that there are still seven countries where the Communist party rules: China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, and Moldova.
In these countries, 1.5 billion live, with most of those, of course, being in China. “To put it another way,” says Houtryve, “1 in 5 people on this planet currently live under Communist-party rule.”
I’m sorry, but I think of something funny: For decades, a great baseball trivia question was, “What is the winningest brother-brother combination among pitchers?” The answer was Christy Mathewson and his brother Henry. Christy won 373 games; Henry won either one or none, depending on the source you consult.
Anyway, my point, as you know, is: China is wildly populous.
Houtryve knows exactly what’s going on in the seven countries in question. He shows pictures of Nepal that are very hard to look it. People love to mutilate others, don’t they? He talks about North Korea, that psychotic state. That’s what Jeane Kirkpatrick called it: a “psychotic state,” very rare in history. Houtryve shows pictures of the Hmong in Laos — the hunted, brutalized Hmong. It would never cross their minds, says Houtryve, that Communism is dead.
He also remembers all the glitterati who have supported Communism: Picasso, Chaplin, Sartre, Hemingway — everybody’s heroes.
Ladies and gentlemen, when I was growing up — and where I was growing up — anti-Communism was the uncoolest thing in the world. It was the psychological ailment of fat, ignorant, McCarthyite businessmen. But Tomas van Houtryve is a young international photojournalist — can you get any cooler than that?
Strength to his hands, and cameras.
Next to speak is Jeta Xharra, a Kosovar journalist, mentioned earlier in this journal. If I have heard her correctly, she says that people in the Balkans were egged on to hate. Extremists and troublemakers dehumanized the enemy (pick your enemy). People were encouraged — incited — to hate, and to kill. It did not necessarily come naturally.
“Ancient ethnic hatreds,” people say. Yeah, well, bad people keep stirring them up. “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” wrote Oscar Hammerstein II.
Anyway, as Xharra talks, I can’t help thinking of a Bosnian cab driver I had in Fargo several weeks ago. Readers may remember: I put him in my “North Dakota Journal,” here. He said essentially what I believe Xharra is saying.
Irwin Cotler is one of the most famous of Canadian public men. (No snickering, please.) He is the Liberal parliamentarian, former justice minister, and human-rights lawyer. His two most famous clients were Natan Sharansky (then Anatoly Shcharansky) and Nelson Mandela. He relates his life story, in a way, to the audience here in the Christiania Theatre.
He is keen on similarities between Sharansky and Mandela. And there are similarities, of course. Both are great men, overcoming awful circumstances. But there are dissimilarities too.
To begin with, Mandela was not a prisoner of conscience. “Prisoner of conscience” is a term coined by Amnesty International to describe someone jailed for his opinions. Mandela was the leader of the African National Congress’s militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. He learned the guerrilla arts in Ethiopia and Algeria. He was jailed for applying those arts.
Mandela always believed in the armed struggle — the gun and the bomb. That’s why Amnesty International could not classify him as a prisoner of conscience. (AI supported him anyway.) Mandela was offered early release from prison if only he would renounce violence. He refused. A great many people regard this stance as heroic.
After he was, in fact, released — still refusing to renounce violence — Mandela was a fervent supporter of Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba, and other vicious regimes. As the most respected statesman in the world, he could have done wonders for political prisoners in those countries. Instead, he lent all his moral authority to the persecutors.
Sharansky? A democrat through and through, a friend of political prisoners wherever they may be, whoever may be persecuting them.
Anyway, I could go on, but we have other fish to fry, and Mandela is practically untouchable. (I address some of these issues in my new book, a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. These issues are painful for those who admire Mandela, as I do. Mandela’s presidency was gracious, historic, and crucial.)
Closing his talk, Cotler quotes Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is one of President Obama’s favorite quotes. In fact, he had it woven into a new rug for the Oval Office.
But King, a learned man, was quoting Theodore Parker, the abolitionist minister. At any rate, it’s more appealing to cite King than Parker . . .
Humberto Prado is the director of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory. And he tells us about conditions within Venezuelan jails — a horrible scene, altogether. The violence is incredible. The prisoners are armed to the teeth. In one year, 2011, 560 inmates were killed, and 1,457 injured.
Prado shows pictures — very hard to see. He says that if he had been discovered with these pictures at the airport, it would have been very bad for him. As it is, the fact that he is speaking about these issues makes him “a traitor to my country” — at least in the eyes of Hugo Chávez’s regime.
Two years ago, I did a piece on an Iranian exile journalist named Manuchehr Honarmand. (Go here.) This remarkable man, who has led a harrowing life, found himself in a Venezuelan prison. Let me excerpt a bit from that piece:
His prison was an infamous one, known for depravity and murder: Los Teques. Honarmand recalls that three or four prisoners in his cellblock were killed every week — by other prisoners. They were armed with knives, pistols, other things. One evening, Chávez’s men did some killing themselves. They came in and executed a man, by beheading him. They left the body and the head in the cell, for the dead man’s wife to find the next morning.
Etc., etc. By the way, Prado makes a point that cannot be repeated enough: Chávez may be a clown, and much of the world sees him as a clown. Okay. But this is a clown who can do much damage, to individuals and countries.
The next speaker has a lovely name: Naomi Natale. In Italian, Naomi Christmas. She is from New Jersey but now lives in Albuquerque. She is an artist and photographer with an urge toward human rights.
Her current project, I believe, is One Million Bones, “a collaborative art installation designed to recognize the millions of victims and survivors who have been killed or displaced by ongoing genocides and humanitarian crises in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Burma.”
What a sick name, “the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Remember the old remark about the GDR, “the German Democratic Republic”? Three lies in one — not a republic, not democratic, and not even all that German, given control by Moscow.
Natale says she was shocked to read a book by Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. It is about Rwanda. I remember wanting to talk with Gourevitch about Sudan, for a piece I was writing. I did. (That piece, by the way, published in May 2005, is here.) Gourevitch is a man with important things to say.
Maryam al-Khawaja is in Oslo again — she is a Bahraini activist who grew up in Denmark and went to Brown University. Her father is in prison. She informs us that he is on the 90th day of a hunger strike — yes, the 90th day. And she is unsure of his whereabouts. She has not been able to reach him.
Last year, I wrote, “She shows remarkable composure for a daughter in such circumstances. How many of us could attend a conference, participate in a conference, with such poise in those circumstances?” I can only repeat myself now.
This journal will continue tomorrow. To get Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here.