Politics & Policy

Oslo Journal, Part III

Welcome to the third installment of this journal — these notes from the Oslo Freedom Forum. For the first two installments, go here and here.

A Moroccan journalist, Ahmed Benchemsi, is on the platform. He says, in essence, “What is Morocco doing here? Why is Morocco being discussed, along with so many brutal and dictatorial societies?” He recites many of the good things about Morocco: its freedoms, or relative freedoms, and gentleness. But then he points out that the country is, nevertheless, a “subtle dictatorship.” Sometimes not so subtle.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are many, many worse societies in the world than Morocco. Many. One can have a quite pleasant life in Morocco, even if one is not part of the ruling elites. That does not mean that you and I, in our comfy liberal democracies, would like to live there (no matter how good the orange juice in Marrakech is).

Benchemsi relates something quite funny. His publication, or one of them, referred to the king, Mohammed VI, as a “brother.” The authorities thought this disrespectful. Benchemsi was hauled into court. He explained to the judge, “Our late king, Hassan II, referred to himself as ‘The Father of All Moroccans.’ So I thought I might be entitled to call his son a brother.”

The judge, to his credit, laughed. The case was dismissed.

‐Alejandro Toledo, the Peruvian politician, is here. He was president of his country from 2001 to 2006. Trying to come back, he lost an election three weeks ago. Amazing story, Toledo: from “Indian” poverty in South America to a Stanford Ph.D. to the presidency of his country. He says he was the first Indian in 500 years to rise to such a position. At least I think I have heard him correctly.

That’s an impressive phrase, “the first in 500 years.” I might be tempted to go with “half a millennium.”

Toledo’s main theme, here in Oslo, is that people can use democratic means to impose authoritarian, or totalitarian, ends. Chávez, Correa, Ortega, and the rest? Not democrats. But happy to use the tools of democracy to subvert democracy. They must be watched, checked, all the time.

A formidable man, Toledo. (I don’t ask him if he roots for the Mud Hens.) (Sorry, a Midwestern joke.)

‐A very keen political analyst from America is here. He is not a Republican, but Republican-friendly. Certainly not Obama-friendly. I say, “If you could appoint the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, who would it be?” He says, in a flash, “Jeb Bush.” I can’t argue.

‐I am waiting for a cab. The car is ready, but the cabbie is not in sight. A Norwegian informs me, in a loud, confident, helpful voice, “Your driver is on the toilet.”

I think, “I hope I can remember that for Impromptus.”

‐A journalist named Zhanna Litvina tells us about the agony of her country, Belarus. I did a multipart series on Belarus in this column four or five months ago. I will not say more here. But Belarus today is not exactly roses and lollipops.

‐One of our Nobel peace laureates, Jody Williams, takes the stage. She is wearing her “uniform,” in a way: bare feet and T-shirt. The T-shirt says, “Ban Cluster Bombs.” Back when she won the Nobel prize in 1997, many of the news reports said that she enjoyed going barefoot. Her image was that of an idealistic and canny nature girl from Vermont.

Here in the Christiania Theater, Williams gives her testimony, if I may put it like that. She tells a story that she has told many, many times, I’m sure: the story of how she led the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and won the Nobel prize.

“The United States is the country of my birth,” she says, “but I prefer to claim Vermont.” She says she wishes the state had remained independent from America. I have no doubt.

From what I know, Jody Williams is not a great fan of America, to put it mildly. And I am not a great fan of hers. But I can knock her and oppose her any old time. Let me spend a minute praising her. She says a number of charming things.

She says that people often credit her with changing the world by herself — with getting landmines banned, all on her own. But no one changes the world by himself, she tells us. In her campaign, she had plenty of help. Yet her mother enjoys hearing the boldest claims. Because “who wouldn’t want to hear that her kid changed the world,” single-handedly?

At the beginning of the campaign, Williams tells us, there was basically her, in the U.S., and a group in Germany — which “allowed us to call ourselves the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.”

And this is really nice: She says that the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty was the most exciting moment in her life — “except for when I married my husband.” Ideologues don’t talk or think this way, but human beings do.

Williams says something puzzling: More than 150 nations have signed the Mine Ban Treaty, but not the United States. And “I don’t know why.” She says this a couple of times.

President Clinton was pretty clear, at the time the treaty was signed. The U.S. wanted to sign it, he said, but the treaty organizers were allowing no exceptions. And the United States needed an exception for the DMZ. The zone’s minefields, he and others said, were necessary for the protection of American troops and the South Korean population.

So . . .

‐You may remember that Williams said that Clinton was “outside the tide of history” and “on the wrong side of humanity” — and, for good measure, a “weenie.”

I was rather proud of our Weenie-in-Chief, for once.

‐Thomas Glave is a writer from Jamaica, and a gay-rights activist. He gives a kind of performance: a dramatic reading (if that’s the right term) of a piece he wrote, about the harassment and brutalization of gays in Jamaica. It is an outpouring of poetic indignation. A bit arty, I’m afraid — self-consciously arty — but not ineffective.

‐Uki Goñi is a writer and journalist from Argentina. (Interesting name, that.) He is a particular authority on the flight of Nazi war criminals to Argentina. He writes for Time and the Guardian, among other publications, I’m sure.

He talks about the bad old days in Argentina — by which I mean the days of the “disappearances,” from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. He worked for an English-language newspaper called the Buenos Aires Herald. Mothers would come to them and say, “My son is gone. They kidnapped him. I went to the police station. I can’t find him. Can you help?”

They did this, at the Herald. The Argentinian media — the Spanish-language press — wouldn’t touch the subject.

The Herald had a principled and brave editor, a Brit named Robert Cox. He was subject to many threats. So were his wife and children. One time, he was arrested, and taken down into the basement of the police headquarters (if I’ve heard correctly). There, on the wall, was a huge swastika. And National Socialist slogans. The agents stripped Cox bare, but did not torture him. He did hear the sounds of torture around him.

When he and his family could stand the danger no longer, they left — that was in 1979.

Later in this day, I talk to a friend of mine, an Anglo-American journalist. I say, “Did you feel a tinge of pride, that the only editor who would do anything about this problem was a Brit?” He answers, “More than a tinge.”

‐Here is the bio of a remarkable young woman who is a speaker at this conference:

Violet Banda is a nineteen-year-old journalist and youth activist working to promote children’s rights in Malawi. A reporter for the national news program Radio Timveni, Banda highlights violence and abuse against children. By giving children a space to tell their personal stories, she uncovers cases of rape, abuse, and forced marriages. Born HIV-positive, Banda also uses her platform to combat the violence surrounding the stigma of the disease. She is committed to holding her government accountable for responding to the crimes she exposes and ensuring the rights of its citizens.

She talks about horrible things in a sweet, disarming way: children raped by their uncles, infected with AIDS — you get the picture. She mentions “a girl who is HIV-positive and an orphan, like me.” She says this almost cheerfully, or at least neutrally. Do you know what I mean? Hard to describe.

Anyway, Violet Banda is surely doing good and useful things with her life.

‐There is a statue of Churchill in town, and it looks like him. The figure is Churchill, for sure. (I lunch in sight of him, by the way.) But, as I pointed out sometime last year, the FDR is not FDR. The likeness is poor. Our guy is almost unrecognizable. But it’s a nice thought, honoring FDR. (For his wartime leadership, I hasten to say.)

‐My lunch is with a Norwegian lady who sailed to America, with her parents, when she was a little girl. This was not long after the war, I believe. She does not remember sailing into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty. But she remembers the first thing she noticed, when they landed: black people. She had never in her life seen black people. “I thought they were gorgeous.”

Kind of a touching recollection. Why should a little Norwegian girl of that time ever have seen a black person?

‐Garry Kasparov enters a room. I think, “The average IQ just shot up.”

‐I see Kasparov thinking. I wonder, “What does Garry Kasparov think when he thinks? What must that be like?”

‐I hear of a conversation — just an offstage conversation — with one of the participants. He has been asked if he, too, condemns the American hit on bin Laden. He answers, “I would have roasted the [big-time epithet, formerly hyphenated].” Another participant, of a notably serene, decorous nature, agrees.

Thanks for joining me for this northern, and global, experience, friends. See you for Part IV?




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