Friends, I am writing you from the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference here in the Norwegian capital. For yesterday’s installment, go here. Just wade into Part II?
A reception is held at City Hall, in a beautiful upper room. As we enter the room, we’re greeted, individually, by the mayor himself: Oslo mayor Fabian Stang. That’s a big name in Norway, Stang. For example, it belonged to the country’s first prime minister, in the long-ago union with Sweden. Moreover, Mayor Stang is the son of a famous actress, Wenche Foss, who passed away in March.
She was born in 1917, the year America entered the world war — when this city, Oslo, was still called Kristiania.
Thor Halvorssen, father of the Freedom Forum, makes some excellent remarks on the universality of human rights. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace laureate, adds her own comments. (It’s here in City Hall that the Nobel ceremony takes place.) And the view outside the giant windows, of Oslo Harbor, is amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Scandinavia can be striking.
‐Earlier in this journal, I mentioned that I heard church bells, off in the distance. They were playing “Love Me Tender.” The effect was really nice, as well as surprising. But was the tune an indication of the secularization of society? Well, I believe the bells I heard were those of City Hall. Because, on a walk near the hall, I hear its bells play: “When I’m Sixty-four,” the Beatles song.
Elvis and the Beatles, live from Oslo’s city hall? Seems so . . .
‐At dinner one night, I talk to an elegant Venezuelan couple. They are wrestling with a question, and have been for a few years: When to leave? When should they leave Venezuela, which they very much do not want to do? The Chávez grip is not getting any looser.
What a terrible question to have to face: whether, or when, to leave one’s country.
‐Okay, this is strange — one of the strangest things I’ve ever reported in Impromptus. It’s almost like a dream. If you don’t believe it — I don’t entirely blame you.
In the lobby of the Grand Hotel, I’m talking about China with a prominent human-rights lawyer. We’re talking about the recent Chinese state visit, in Washington: President Obama really laid on the dog for them. (I am not making any cute culinary reference.) The American and the Chinese flags were entwined on Pennsylvania Avenue. Lang Lang, the piano phenom, did his act at the big banquet. And so on.
It’s about 11 o’clock — 11 p.m. — and I’m fulminating about the state visit, making particular points about Lang Lang: who is a vice president of the CCP’s youth arm, the All China Youth Federation.
At about 11:20, we’re still standing in the lobby, talking about China. And in walks Lang Lang. Out of nowhere, he walks into the lobby of the Grand Hotel, in Oslo, Norway. Over the lawyer’s shoulder — for his back is turned to Lang Lang — I say, “Speak of the devil.” Accompanying Lang Lang are two or three people, and much baggage. He heads briskly into the elevator.
I scratch my head even as I write (although it’s hard to type and scratch your head at the same time). What are the odds of what I’ve described? Can some mathematician, or statistician, or probabilities expert, tell me? Holy-moly.
The next day, I check Lang Lang’s website: whose calendar explains that, on the night of May 10, he is playing a recital here in town.
So, so, so weird . . .
‐I meet a young Japanese-American woman named Madison. Her parents named her after James Madison. “People sometimes think I was named after Madison Avenue,” she says. “But I was named after the father of the Constitution.”
Do you love it?
You know, as I think about it, I’m not even sure she’s a Japanese American — she may be a Japanese citizen only. Even more remarkable and fantastic.
‐Thor opens the conference, formally, at the Christiania Theater. He says that human rights can be “interesting” and even “exciting.” The first name he mentions — appropriately enough, I think — is Solzhenitsyn, that great witness.
He also makes what I regard as a damn good point. I don’t think I’ve heard it before — not put quite this way. “Consider the environmental movement,” he says. “How we treat the earth is a central cultural issue today. But how we treat each other is equally important, if not more important.”
‐The Christiania/Kristiania thing may be a little confusing. Let me do a little chron:
The name of the capital was originally Oslo. Then, following a great fire in 1624, it became Christiania, after King Christian IV. For more than four centuries — 1380 to 1814 — Norway was ruled by Danish kings.
Starting in 1877, the spelling was “Kristiania.” And, in 1925, the capital became Oslo again.
Hope you have that memorized, for the quiz . . .
‐In Part I, I mentioned Zoya Phan, the young Burmese activist. She speaks again in the theater. She says that, where Burma is concerned, the world is not helpless — maybe not as helpless as it thinks. “The regime in Burma is not immune to international pressure. It’s that the right kind of pressure has not been applied.” She says that “carefully targeted sanctions” would be most welcome.
She makes this point, too: that the regime survives and thrives on lies. Lies it tells about how great it is, and what reforms it is implementing. Often, foreigners repeat these lies — and that includes the U.N. secretary-general. I think of the great Solzhenitsyn admonition: “Live not by lies.”
At the end of her remarks, Zoya says, “All we want is to live in peace and without fear. To live side by side, different but equal. We would like to be able to elect our own government. We would like human rights to be respected. And people like me” — exiles — “just want to go home. Please help us go home.”
‐Barbara Demick is going to speak about North Korea. She is an expert, an American journalist who authored the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. She says that it’s a measure of how repressive North Korea is that there is no North Korean here in Oslo to represent his country and its democratic aspirations. (There was a North Korean last year, the great Kang Chol-hwan, who wrote Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.)
Demick contrasts North Korea with the other countries being discussed at the Freedom Forum. In other countries, dissidents are stuck, forbidden to travel. In North Korea, there are no dissidents, essentially. In other countries, the Internet is censored. In North Korea, there is no Internet. In other countries, opposition leaders are beaten, and elections are stolen. Yet in North Korea, there is no opposition, and there are no elections.
“This is the wet dream of all other dictators,” says Demick. The North Koreans have allowed no dissent whatsoever. Nothing can challenge the dictatorship. “North Korea must be applauding its decision to keep out the Internet,” she says, “given what’s happening in the Middle East.”
I think of something that Jeane Kirkpatrick said: North Korea is a “psychotic state,” something rare in history, something we have hardly any experience dealing with.
Demick says something I have never heard: that the Bible is banned in North Korea, for this reason: The Kims have “ripped off a lot of language from the New Testament.” Kim Il-sung is God, you see, and Kim Jong-il is the Son of God. If ordinary North Koreans could know the Bible, they might think, “Hang on, now . . .”
Something else from Demick: “There is almost no motorized transport in the country, except for the transport controlled by the military.”
When she says that North Korea is the worst country in the world to live in, it’s hard to disagree with her. Very, very few states have been like it: maybe Albania during the Communist period. Hoxha’s Albania made Hungary, for example, look like paradise.
‐George Ayittey is knocking ’em dead, as he reliably does. He is the economist from Ghana who argues that “Africa is poor because she is unfree.” He’s a free-market man who loathes political correctness. He is shockingly, gloriously no-nonsense.
In the Christiania Theater, he says that “Africa has more dictators per capita than any other continent.” He uses the phrase “briefcase bandits” — that’s a good one. He says that these bandits “cart away the entire treasury, plus the kitchen sink.” The West knows nothing about corruption compared with these characters. Speaking of the West, Ayittey says that it has spent “billions of dollars” on Africa, “trying to persuade, cajole, appease — enough!”
Dictators will never reform, Ayittey says. “They are allergic to reform. Stone deaf. Impervious to reason. They are not interested in reform, period.” The thing to do is remove them. And it takes three steps to do so.
First, you need a coalition. The opposition groups must be united. Second, you’ve got to know the enemy: his modus operandi, his strengths and weaknesses. Don’t fight him on the turf of his strengths, exploit his weaknesses. And third, get the sequence of reform right.
Ayittey has many ideas, well thought out. When you hear them, you nod your head: They have the ring of truth. He also has a bundle of phrases and terms, in the style of “briefcase bandits.” Gorbachev introduced glasnost, right? What Africa needs is “blacknost.”
Oh, is he fun, Ayittey is, and he’s also fearless, bracing, and valuable. Listening to him is like getting a bucket of cold water in the face, and healthful water, too.
‐I ask a knowledgeable local, “What do you suppose the Muslim population of Greater Oslo is, no matter what the official figures are?” He says 20 percent. There are sections where Norwegians almost never go. These sections are closed off, ghettoized. Some women never leave them. They pass their lives there, as though they weren’t in Norway, or Europe, at all. There are third-generation children who speak no Norwegian.
The knowledgeable local says, “If you try to help Muslim girls, speaking out against genital mutilation, child marriage, and the like, the ‘progressives’ will call you an Islamophobe. You’re a racist.”
Oh, I have no doubt. I love what Bernard Lewis says: “There are some who think that Arabs are born for dictatorship, that they can never know the freedoms that people elsewhere enjoy. This is known as the pro-Arab view.”
‐I meet a young Norwegian woman with the very English name of Hargreaves. She says that there have been ten generations of Hargreaves in Norway, in an unbroken chain. Pretty much all nations, to one degree or another, are “nations of immigrants.” (You know, of course, that there are more Norwegian Americans than Norwegians.)
‐As you walk around Oslo, you see so many attractive people, you may think that the city is holding some kind of convention for models. But it’s just plain old Norwegian society. Shall I repeat a story I told in a journal last year? Let me excerpt, briefly:
[An American living with his Norwegian wife and children in Norway] tells me a funny story about a friend of his — another American married to a Norwegian. The friend met this Norwegian girl at school somewhere. Thought he had something really extraordinary: this beautiful, Nordic blonde. Then they went to Norway, and, at the airport, he discovered that many, many women were like that. “Hey,” he said. “There was no disclosure. Why didn’t you tell me that you were basically run-of-the-mill?”
He meant that in the most loving way, I’m given to understand, and still does.
Had enough for one day, one installment? I agree. See you for Part III.