Friends, I’m writing you from the Norwegian capital — no, not Minneapolis–St. Paul, but Oslo, all the way over here in Europe. The occasion is the Oslo Freedom Forum: a singular human-rights conference organized by the Human Rights Foundation, in New York. (They’re in the Empire State Building, in fact.) HRF is the project of Thor Halvorssen, a dynamo in the broad field of liberty. The name is Norwegian, but the man is Venezuelan: His paternal ancestry is Norwegian. HRF is designed to advocate freedom in the Americas. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a global conference — a meeting concerned with human rights, democracy, and decency everywhere.
I will quote some official literature: “The Oslo Freedom Forum is committed to bringing together the world’s most effective human rights defenders to share their experience and expertise with an audience of global leaders.” The theme for this year is “From Tragedy to Triumph: The Heroism that Changed History & Ideas for Transforming Tomorrow.” The language is high-flown but the impulse and purpose are 100 percent genuine.
There are many guests, all of them interesting, all of them noteworthy, but I will name just a few — for now. Lech Walesa of Poland. Garry Kasparov of Russia — now known as a political and human-rights figure, but once the greatest chess player in the world. What a significant life. To continue: Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian politician who was held hostage by the FARC, the terrorist army, for all those years (six and a half). Kang Chol-hwan, the North Korean defector who wrote the mind-blowing Aquariums of Pyongyang. Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, and one of the great proponents of liberty in the world. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York (and children’s-book author — do you remember?). Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.
Also, I see on the schedule that Yoani Sánchez is to appear — she’s the Cuban blogger whom readers of this column know so well. Really, they will let her out of Cuba? She will be here in Oslo? I believe it, I guess — but I will very much believe it when I see it. See her. And if the regime indeed allows her to travel, she has become safely famous — all but untouchable (although, as readers know, she was beaten to a pulp on the street by state security last November).
Last year saw the first Oslo Freedom Forum. Among the speakers were Václav Havel, the Czech hero; Yelena Bonner, widow of the hero scientist-dissident Sakharov (and heroic herself); and Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. At that forum, Halvorssen made a pithy and memorable statement: “It’s pretty simple. We all should want freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from torture, freedom to travel, due process, and freedom to keep what belongs to you.” Radical, huh?
‐I will have more to say about the conference in coming days. Want to hear a bit about Oslo in these present scribbles? The city is often called a “tidy” and “elegant” capital — and so it is. It is not a big city, by any stretch: About 550,000 people live here — same population as Tucson or Oklahoma City.
Way, way back, the city was called Oslo. Then, in the 1620s, it became Christiania, named after King Christian IV (a Danish monarch). (The Danes ruled Norway for almost four centuries: 1442 to 1814.) Starting in 1877, the name of the capital was spelled “Kristiania.” Go figure. And, in 1925, the capital became Oslo again.
‐Norway, like other countries on this continent, has a growing Muslim population. It is something like 8 percent in the country at large. In Oslo, it may be more like 25 percent. Norwegian Muslims lead largely separate lives; assimilation has been a problem, here as all over. In December 2008 and January 2009, Muslims rioted through the streets of Oslo. That was when Israel was carrying out its counterterror operation in Gaza. The rioting, which featured Molotov cocktails and rocks, was harrowing. Innocents were cowed and terrified. Shouts of “Kill the Jews!” rang out.
In May of that year — 2009 — something curious happened. Norwegian mosques receive many millions from the government, and Queen Sonja, wife of King Harald V, visited one of them. She did so wearing a headscarf. An imam there refused to shake her hand. In any case, this particular mosque has a worrisome inspiration, the Jamaat-e-Islami movement in Pakistan, which is murderous.
Norway has some problems to work out — as do we all.
‐Quick, name some famous Norwegians — I’ll help you along with a list. The writers Ibsen, Holberg, and Bjornson. (I’m not doing the slashes through vowels, if you don’t mind.) The composer Grieg. (Grieg wrote a Holberg Suite, you may remember.) The singer Flagstad, the pianist Andsnes. The painter Munch (think Scream). The explorer/athlete/scientist/writer/diplomat/humanitarian/all-around hero and stud Nansen. The actress Liv Ullmann. The figure skater Sonja Henie — “Sonja Henie’s tutu!” the Car Talk guys exclaim — and the marathoner Grete Waitz.
How about politicians? Well, there’s Quisling, sorry to say. And remember when Gro Harlem Brundtland bestrode the world like a colossus — or at least a colossus-ette?
‐The main drag here in Oslo, Karl Johans gate, or Karl Johan’s Street, is a very, very attractive boulevard — all the more so with smart blue banners saying “Oslo Freedom Forum.” This is Davos-esque. It also puts me in mind of sort of a human-rights Olympics (and I don’t mean to be flippant about so fraught a subject).
‐Standing outside the National Theater are statues of the big three: Ibsen, Holberg, and Bjornson. Elsewhere I see a statue of P. A. Munch, a historian who lived in the first half of the 19th century. He was the uncle of the painter. No, in his statue, he is not screaming, thank you.
And I was really pleased to see a statue of C. J. Hambro, a laudable figure of history. Born in 1885, he was a Conservative politician and member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee (which sits in Oslo and is composed of Norwegians, only). He was the one, on the terrible day in 1940, who organized the flight of the royal family, members of the government, members of the parliament, and so on. He got them out on a train about a half-hour before the Germans arrived. It was a white-knuckle thing. Hambro was up to the task.
‐Boy do the people here look Norwegian — maybe they should, huh? At least as much as in Minnesota . . .
‐Whenever I come to Europe, I’m amazed, for the first day or two, at all the people who smoke — just like in the America of old. It takes a while to get used to. Then, after those first two days or so, it seems normal. The de-mainstreaming of smoking in the United States was a remarkable development — fast, too. To think that, not very long ago, there was smoking in movie theaters, on airplanes — everywhere. It was a normal, fixed part of life. These days, smoking — widespread smoking — seems so . . . foreign.
I pass no judgment here, by the way — just reporting an observation.
‐Care for another observation? I see girls — I should probably say “young women” — in mini-skirts. Really mini, as in 1969, or whenever it was. And, ladies and gentlemen, it is not especially warm now either: 40s, that kind of thing.
‐Not far from our hotel is a large sign reading “Thune” — an historic manufacturing name in Norway. And that put me in mind of presidential politics: Will Senator Thune run in 2012? Why not? And, of course, he’s a Norwegian American — a South Dakotan, the representative of a state not unfamiliar with Norwegians.
From the Mother Country, I salute you and thank you for joining me. See you soon for Part II.