Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, the Oslo Freedom Forum, the leading human-rights conference in the world, took place. It is held annually in the Norwegian capital. Jay Nordlinger’s journal began yesterday, here. We continue today.
I see Garry Kasparov in the hallway. Whenever I glimpse him — which is usually at this forum — I think, “What is he thinking? Normal stuff, relatively normal stuff? Or stuff beyond the imagination of the average person?” (Kasparov is one of the greatest chess champions in history.)
Part of the breakfast spread in the dining room of the Grand Hotel is chocolate — fragments of chocolate. As I think I’ve remarked before in these journals, I can hardly think of anything more civilized.
The conference begins in the Christiania Theater. (Do you recall that Oslo used to be called Christiania? Actually, it was first “Christiania” and then “Kristiania.” Then it became Oslo, as it was hundreds of years before. I could get into the history, but we have lots to cover.) First on the stage is a pop singer, to sing a song. It’s 9:30 a.m. — which is pretty early to sing.
I think of a story from Richard Tucker (the late, great American tenor). He was on a USO tour, I think, performing for the boys in Vietnam. A general or admiral or someone asked him to sing at 6:30 a.m. Tucker said, “I don’t spit before 9 o’clock.” But I think Tucker sang anyway.
Thor Halvorssen, the Freedom Forum capo, addresses the audience. He tells us something touching. A young Bahraini girl living in Norway was set to protest in behalf of Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini blogger who has been in hiding for more than two years.
But lo and behold, he is out of hiding — and with us here at the forum. So there is no need to protest. Thor unfurls the banner she had prepared anyway.
And she will attend the forum (though only after school).
This first session is titled “The Asymmetric Activist.” I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I have an inkling. I think of Solzhenitsyn’s famous title, “The Oak and the Calf.” Do you know this splendid book? It’s one of that man’s best.
Solzhenitsyn took his title from an old Russian image, or notion: A calf butts its little head up against a mighty oak, trying to knock it down. This is the epitome of futility. And yet, Solzhenitsyn, and other “calves,” to be sure, knocked that sucker down.
Chen Guangcheng is at the rostrum. I mentioned him in the first part of this journal. He is one of the bravest men in the world — his physical courage, coupled with his mental or spiritual courage, is almost unbelievable. Looking at him, and listening to him, you know that he’s a natural leader. That is obvious.
I remember something that Jianli Yang, another dissident, once told me about him: Even when Chen was a child, there was something about him that drew others to him.
Here in the theater, Chen speaks a little of his own ordeal. He speaks a lot of what his family is going through in China now — vile stuff. And he speaks of China’s future. (“Transformation depends on our collective efforts.”)
It’s bad enough that they’re beating the hell out of his brother and nephew. But do they have to pull up the garden planted by his elderly mother?
At the end of his remarks, Chen says, “The idea that universal values don’t apply to China is a myth propagated by an authoritarian regime that is trying to hang on to power.” I have paraphrased, but closely, I think.
And I will have more to say about Chen — to whom I have spoken — in the next National Review.
Later, I talk to three native Chinese speakers — one Chinese, two Taiwanese — who say the same thing about Chen’s talk: It was superbly written and read. Apparently, he had a Braille device with him on the lectern.
Bear in mind: This is a blind and self-taught kid from the sticks.
Zhen Li lives in Budapest. We talk a bit about Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing. “A true love story,” he says. Yes. Pretty much every dissident depends heavily on his wife, if he has one. Think of Sharansky. Think of Sakharov. Think of just about everybody. Think of Liu Xiaobo now.
But what if you’re blind? That dependence is even greater.
(I’m trying to think of female dissidents and their husbands. Aung San Suu Kyi is an interesting case. Before they got married, she made her future husband take a vow before the vows — that he would never stand between her and her national efforts. I get into this marriage a little in my Nobel book.)
I mentioned Jianli Yang, above. He is a magnificent, sterling, stirring man. For a 2007 article I wrote about him — “Leader of the Chinese” — go here.
A few years ago, I met a man named Bill at a gathering. “I’m sorry, what was your last name again?” I said. He said, “Browder. Bill Browder.” “Any relation?” I said. “Yes. Grandson.”
Bill Browder is the grandson of Earl Browder, the head of the Communist party — the CPUSA. He told me on that occasion, “My grandfather was the biggest Communist in America, and I was the biggest capitalist in Russia.” Bill Browder is the head of Hermitage Capital Management.
Sergei Magnitsky was his lawyer — the man who was tortured to death by the Russian authorities. You may have heard of the Magnitsky Act, in America: an act that places all the restrictions our country can impose, I gather, on the individuals who participated in Magnitsky’s murder. This has to do with visas, bank accounts, and that sort of thing.
That’s why Browder is here at the Freedom Forum: to tell the Magnitsky story, and to discuss the law.
First, he speaks a little about his background (his own background). Earl Browder was from Wichita, he says. I think, “Interesting — same as the Koch family.” Browder went to Moscow in 1927 and stayed several years. Married there. On home soil, he ran for president twice. The country preferred FDR.
When Bill Browder wanted to rebel against his family, what’d he do? “I put on a suit and tie, and I became a capitalist.”
If you want to know about the Magnitsky case, I suggest that you read a piece in World Affairs, by Michael Weiss. I once thought of doing a piece on Magnitsky. And then I saw this — and realized Weiss had said it all (or certainly enough).
To know about Sergei Magnitsky, and what the Russian government did to him, is to be sickened. I’m glad that Browder has made a cause out of Magnitsky. He could have sailed on, forgetting Russia, tending to his hedge fund. But instead he is burning for justice, and determined to get as much as he can.
Let me quote the beginning of Weiss’s article:
“There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!” thundered Max Shachtman — once known as Leon Trotsky’s “foreign minister” — in New York City in 1950. By popular account, the line had been cooked up that night by a young Shachtmanite named Irving Howe; it ended the debate between the anti-Stalinist socialist Shachtman and his opponent, Earl Browder, former head of the Communist Party USA, who had been expelled from the party in 1946 at the behest of Moscow Central after suggesting that Soviet Communism and American capitalism might coexist after all.
In 2011, I interviewed Eugene D. Genovese, the great American historian. He was a young Communist (and an older Communist too). And he was present at that 1950 debate between Shachtman and Browder. I wrote, “Genovese is a great mimic and raconteur, with a phenomenal memory, and he entertains me with impressions and stories. How many people today can do Max Shachtman?” The line he “did” was the famous line quoted by Weiss (though Genovese did it in a fuller version — in context).
The Oslo Freedom Forum is a strange mixture of glitterati and the wretched of the earth — or the formerly wretched, or their representatives. Let me tell you what I mean. I spot a young woman who looks like a model. She has a nametag. I Google her. She is, indeed, a model — and a very successful one.
A little later, I see her brush up against Yuan Weijing — who not very long ago was beaten to a pulp by Chinese Communist authorities in her own home, in a tiny, woebegone village called Dongshigu.
A weird world, sometimes.
A young woman named Arzina Begum speaks about child marriage. She is from Bangladesh, and she has devoted herself to the abolition of child marriage. She got her village declared — savor this phrase — a “child-marriage-free zone.”
We also hear from Hannah Song, who runs a group called Liberty in North Korea (there’s a concept!). She speaks of “collective punishment”: When one person displeases the regime, three generations of his family are put into camps.
Totalitarian regimes are very good at this: punishing family, friends, and others. That discourages dissent: because someone else’s welfare is, in a sense, in your hands. A despicable technique.
Think of what the Chinese Communists are doing to Chen Guangcheng’s family right now.
Song shows us pictures of famines in North Korea, pictures that look much like Holocaust pictures. And she shows the famous shot of the Korean Peninsula at night: The southern half is all lit up, the north is pitch black.
I have a memory: During an interview I had with him at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld handed me that very picture. (See the image here.)
Will the North ever be as bright as the South? Will it ever have even a twinkle or two? That would be a sight to see.
Thanks for joining me today, and we’ll continue with Part III on Monday.