Politics & Policy

Words from the East, &c.

I wonder if you heard a notable comment out of Romania: For decades, said Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, Romanians had “only one hope: that the American troops would come and free us from Communism.” Today, however, “Romania is no longer a victim looking for a savior, but a partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism.”

Not bad. The prime minister said this in the context of a new agreement whereby U.S. troops will be stationed in Romania. (For a news story, go here.)

‐Let’s journey a little farther east. In Moscow, the Estonian ambassador has been subject to mob attack because Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial from downtown Tallinn. The ambassador is a woman named Marina Kaljurand, and she seems a cool-and-collected sort — just the kind of person you want as ambassador.

Consider a couple of points, please. When Ambassador Kaljurand was exiting her embassy, the mob yelled, “NATO lackeys, hands off the Russian soldier!” Are you struck by that phrase “NATO lackeys”? It’s so redolent of a previous, bad era — in a category with “running dogs.” Also, when Ambassador Kaljurand visited a newspaper office, the mob broke in and shouted, “Let’s get her.”

The smell of violence is in the air. For a rather unnerving report, go here.

The Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said, “I turn to Russia, Estonia’s neighbor, with a clear message: Try to remain civilized.” Yes, good advice for all, in every place and every time: “Try to remain civilized.”

‐As you may know, I have written many times about attempts by Cubans to escape their island prison by boat. Mainly, these attempts end badly. The other day, I noticed an unusual story about North Koreans:

Four North Koreans have defected to South Korea by boat and are being questioned by intelligence officials, news reports said Wednesday.

The four arrived on a small wooden boat in waters off Yeonpyeong Island near South Korea’s western sea border with the North late last month, the Chosun Ilbo daily reported, citing an unnamed government official.

Defections by boat are rare, with the vast majority of North Koreans fleeing to the South traveling by land through China and Southeast Asia.

And here is something terribly familiar:

South Korean officials are usually reluctant to talk openly about North Korean defectors, wary of the safety of their relatives still in the North. North Koreans reportedly face harsh punishment by their hardline regime when their relatives flee the country.

Yup — just as in Cuba, just as in every other totalitarian state, predictably, boringly, and evilly.

‐On the subject of Cuba: You know Raúl Rivero, the journalist, poet, and former political prisoner who is now exiled in Spain. This column has cited and hailed him repeatedly. Well, he won a prestigious Spanish journalism award: the Ortega y Gasset Prize. The jury acknowledged Rivero’s “tenacious and committed battle for journalistic freedom.” Wow. I didn’t know the Spaniards had it in them. (For a report, go here.)

Also, a current political prisoner, Normando Hernández González, won a PEN Freedom to Write Award. (A report, here.) Again, wow: Didn’t know they had it in them.

‐Did you read about the American protesters who were arrested on Mt. Everest? Members of Students for a Free Tibet, they were detained by Chinese authorities for “carrying out illegal activities aimed at splitting China.” In other words, they are for a free Tibet. Later, the PRC released them, expelling them. (An AP report is here.)

The protesters were particularly objecting to Beijing’s plans to make Mt. Everest part of the Olympic-torch route — Beijing will hold the Olympics next summer. Scarcely a word is uttered against those Olympics, or against China’s one-party dictatorship, or against the decades-long enslavement of Tibet. The world needs reminding (and more). Good for those brave if reckless protesters. The two often go hand in hand, it seems: bravery and recklessness.

‐Who is our new Fed chairman, with the funny name? Ben Bernanke. And he caught my attention earlier this week when he said, “Restricting trade by imposing tariffs, quotas, and other barriers is exactly the wrong thing to do. In the long run, economic isolationism and retreat from international competition would inexorably lead to lower productivity for U.S. firms and lower living standards for U.S. consumers.”

Nice — elementary but nice. And elementary can be nice, can’t it? (A story is here.)

‐I’ve been unable to get off the mailing list of a group called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. (I try to get off mailing lists in general — no particular offense intended.) But something good has come of it, because I’ve gleaned a tidbit. In a May 1 bulletin announcing a media event, they said: “***Great Visuals for TV and Cameras***.”

I thought that was startlingly, even admirably, blunt: “Great Visuals for TV and Cameras” (complete with offsetting asterisks). They know the game, don’t they?

‐The excellent writers at Power Line have started something new under the sun: a Candidates’ Forum, for the ’08 Republican presidential contest. You will want to check in.

‐Have to tell you something funny about a musical performance two nights ago. This was “The ‘Tristan’ Project,” which is a funky staging, or semi-staging, of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The director Peter Sellars has a hand in this “project,” and he is opera’s king of the freaky-deaky — and opera has enough freaky-deakiness as it is, you may agree.

At any rate, Sellars wrote the synopsis for the program — that is, he had the task of giving the synopsis for Tristan und Isolde. And it was . . . a somewhat creative synopsis, to say the least. Here is what he said about King Mark’s monologue in Act II: “As he pours out his heart we realize that the King is just a man, that he was Tristan’s first lover, and that the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is as strong as any other love.”

Yeah. Bear in mind, guys, that this is not presented as a theory or a fancy — it is presented simply as an objective truth of the Tristan story. And, far from an objective truth, it is . . .

Well, it would be nice if Wagner, the old devil, were around to weigh in on this. But maybe Sellars would tell him he was not fully conscious of what he was writing!

‐Speaking of music, have a review published in the New York Sun: a recital by Sergey Khachatryan, the young violin phenom, and his pianist sister, Lusine — here.

Wednesday’s Impromptus provoked a good deal of comment, and I’d like to address some of it. First, I wrote about President Bush’s infamous — undeservedly infamous — USS Lincoln appearance four years ago. This was when he touched down on that aircraft carrier and gave a speech in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

Many, many readers wrote in to say, “Why do you say Bush was wearing a ‘jumpsuit’? The correct term is ‘flight suit.’” And many of these reader correspondents were themselves fighter pilots. Well, I had “jumpsuit” in quotation marks, and I was trying to signal that this is what others called the garment in question. But those quotation marks did not do the job. The word “jumpsuit” is part of the derisive vocabulary of Bush’s critics, I believe.

Also, some people wrote in to object to my reference to Bush as a “fighter pilot.” Some of these letters came from the wild and nasty Left: “That draft-dodging, AWOL liar wasn’t a fighter anything.” Others came from the relatively sober Left. In my understanding — I think I’m on pretty solid lexical ground here — a pilot of fighter jets is a fighter pilot.

As for “Mission Accomplished”: Many, many military people wrote in to say that this is an unremarkable banner for a carrier group, heralding a job well done. And the men and women aboard the Lincoln, who were steaming home, had done their job well. This was not the president saying, “Ain’t no one ever gonna bother us again, ever.”

The symbolism turned out to be lousy, of course. But truth may be counted more valuable than symbols, perceptions, and impressions.

Later in that column, I had an item on language, and I said that Paul Johnson, in a column of his own, had used several words unknown to me. One of those words was “banting,” and I had not been able to secure a definition. Readers supplied it, in spades. In Brit-speak, it means dieting.

William Banting was a 19th-century Englishman who popularized a certain diet. He was described to me as a Victorian Atkins. And a lot of people said that, if I knew my Agatha Christie, I’d have no trouble with the word. I believe it.

Another word I hadn’t known was “esurient,” meaning hungry or greedy. It’s amazing how many readers wrote to say that they knew that word through a certain Monty Python skit — having to do with a cheese shop.

Culture certainly gets around, doesn’t it?

‐Friends, looking over this column, I see that it isn’t the most interesting, or most fun, or best-written of all time. And, of course, I’m too lazy to do anything about it at this point. So let me leave you with something good.

A couple of months ago, I was at the Salzburg Easter Festival, and I spent some time with a group of Germans. They persisted in refusing to let me pay for a meal. One night, a lady said, “After all those baskets we received from the Americans, after the war . . . I got my first pair of blue jeans from one of those baskets.”

I had nothing to do with the astonishing generosity of the Americans of that time — a generosity both of wallet and of spirit. And I never attach myself to great national deeds. Each of us stands on his own, really.

In any case, the evening had been merry and laughing, but this lady turned serious: “We may talk about the Americans, but they saved our lives. They really did. They saved our lives.”

Not the sort of thing you hear on your average visit to Europe. Hope you have a great weekend, y’all.

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