As I’ve said, this is a different kind of human-rights conference: That word “freedom,” in “Freedom Forum,” is suggestive. In my experience, most activists shy away from freedom, both the idea and the word. You hear about “peace,” and “rights,” and “justice” — but freedom, not so much.
At any rate, I have been over that territory, and will proceed.
In the Christiania Theater, we have some Arab Spring talk. Speaking to us by video is Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who made an impression during the Egyptian revolt. He is cheerful and articulate. He says that Arabs are catching a “freedom flu.” And he rejoices over one thing in particular: At last, people are talking frankly about societal problems. The reign of the lie is diminishing.
During the Egyptian revolt, I had a little blogpost about Ghonim. It was headed “The Quality of Patriotism.” The Egyptian authorities had branded Ghonim a traitor. And he said this: “Anyone with good intentions is the traitor because being evil is the norm. If I was a traitor, I would have stayed in my villa in the Emirates and made good money and said like others, ‘Let this country go to hell.’ But we are not traitors.”
‐We have a Libyan here at the conference — and Libya is one of the countries of the hour. On the world stage, not just the Oslo stage, I mean (as you knew). Allow me to give his bio, which says a lot, in a few sentences:
Ghazi Gheblawi is a Libyan essayist, poet, and physician. . . . Currently working as a surgeon in London, he is one of the leading cyberactivists pushing for democracy and human rights in Libya today. Gheblawi’s blog Imtidad is one of the top aggregators for breaking news on Libya.
Here is a man who could simply be going, “La-di-da,” doing his surgeon thing in London, impressing the nurses and everyone else. But he has an eye — at least one eye — on Libya. He wants his native country to have a better life. A normal life. And there are many people, in the West, doing as he does.
As he speaks to us in Oslo, you can hear the excitement in his voice: the excitement of someone who thinks that, at long last, his country might emerge from darkness. We Westerners have often laughed at Qaddafi. But, in Libya, for more than 40 years, they have had to live under this sadistic, murderous loon. They’re fed up.
‐A young woman from Tunisia takes the stage — she is Lina Ben Mhenni, the author of a blog called A Tunisian Girl. Her bio says that “she has reported from all over her country during its ongoing social upheaval.” She “risked safety” as one of the few Tunisians to “criticize the repressive government openly” even before the Jasmine Revolution began. “Much of Ben Mhenni’s writing has a core focus on freedom of expression and the rights of women . . .”
She has arrived at the podium in bare arms — which a journalist friend of mine will later say is significant: Videos from this conference will go around the world, and Ben Mhenni is making some kind of statement, even in her dress. You think about these things, if you’re someone like Lina. You don’t just kind of stumble along.
She talks about the Jasmine Revolution, step by step. And she says that Tunisia is still dictatorial. The world (whatever that is — probably the press) has moved on from Tunisia. Tunisia is “done.” Except for Tunisians.
Her voice quavers, almost breaking. She is on the verge of tears, but she holds off (I think — I’m sitting in the back). Her English is slightly broken. When she talks about “seizing the opportunity,” she pronounces “seizing” as though it were a German word: “sizing.” In everything she says, and every gesture she makes, she is totally sincere, refreshingly unpolished, not at all slick. She is one of the most touching participants here.
She ends her remarks by saying, “Hopefully, we’ll talk about the Arab Spring” — a real spring, in full blossom — “pretty soon. Thank you for your attention.” Many in the audience must want to hug her.
‐For five years, Amir Ahmad Nasr blogged anonymously as “The Sudanese Thinker.” He came out — revealed his identity — this year. He is a bright and bold advocate of the liberalization of places that need to be liberalized — desperately need it.
He says several things that catch attention, and I’ll record a few of them. First of all, he knocks “reflexive anti-Americanism” — knocks it hard. And he talks about the “weapon of mass distraction.” What’s that? The Palestinian-Israeli issue. Dictators use it to distract attention from their own repression, and their societies’ problems. Finally, Nasr tells us why we should be optimistic about the Muslim world: “The fear barrier has been broken.”
What a great phrase (expressing an even better truth). I hope I remember it.
‐It’s Maryam al-Khawaja’s turn at the podium. I discussed her earlier in this journal: She’s the young Bahraini activist who grew up in Denmark and went to Brown. She tells us, almost casually, that her father has been in prison in Bahrain for about a month now. And that he is being tortured. She gets into details.
She shows remarkable composure for a daughter in such circumstances. How many of us could attend a conference, participate in a conference, with such poise in those circumstances?
Bahrain is one of the better countries in the Arab world — one of the more liberal, one of the more humane. This remark would outrage many, if they heard it, but I believe it’s true. It does not mean, obviously, that the place is free of monstrous cruelty. In the Arab world, one tends to grade on a curve.
Would you rather be in Jordan or in Syria? Neither, probably. But if you had to choose . . .
‐At lunch one day, I hear the most sickening comment I have heard in — what, months? Probably. It’s the kind of comment that makes me think, “What in the world is wrong with people? What kind of species do I belong to?”
An East Asian dissident is talking with an American journalist. The dissident asks whether the journalist knows Kang Chol-hwan, the North Korean who authored Aquariums of Pyongyang, about the North Korean gulag. The journalist answers, “Yes. I liked him before George Bush endorsed his book.”
What kind of species do we belong to? Say what you will about Bush’s various policies, but is he not a sincere believer in human rights, democracy, and freedom? Is he not one to keep an eye on people like Kang Chol-hwan and their fates?
What is it about Bush that makes people absolutely lose their minds (and souls)? Reagan had the same quality. I remember well. People are calmer about him now, but he used to turn otherwise normal people into frothing, hate-filled maniacs.
So hard to understand . . .
‐Jamie Kirchick introduces a slate of speakers. He is a writer with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, and he says something about the mission of the “radios”: It is essentially the same as it was during the Cold War — to defeat the lies of dictatorships. I love this bold pronouncement, this unblushing statement of the truth. I imagine it makes some in the theater uncomfortable. Fine.
‐The most puzzling speech of the conference is given by John Ralston Saul — at least it’s the most puzzling to me. Saul is billed as “a Canadian author and a champion of free expression.” He is president of PEN International, the writers’ group. Here in Oslo, his task, apparently, is to point out the sins of the West. Which are many, of course. But I’m not sure that Saul identifies them.
His claim is that freedom of expression is under attack and on the wane in the West. People are inhibited from speaking their minds. Voter participation is declining. Nationalism — an “ugly” nationalism — is on the rise, and so is populism. Politics has turned brown. I think Saul means that Conservatives have won elections in Canada, and Republicans have won elections in the United States.
He also claims that “racism is back.” “It has become respectable to say racist things in a great deal of the West.” This racism may be “a little more sophisticated than it used to be,” but racism it is, and it has crept into “our politics” and “our dinner conversations.” People are “saying things they wouldn’t have dared to say before.”
I wonder, “What are those things?” Later, a friend of mine will quip, “I wonder where he eats.”
Saul has two main contentions in this speech (if I have followed him correctly). First, freedom of speech is in trouble. Second, we have too much of the wrong kind of speech. I can’t tell whether he would ban the type of speech that offends him. I’m not sure what he thinks about speech codes on American campuses (imposed by the Left). I’m not sure what he thinks of the hounding by Canadian authorities of writers who criticize radical Islam.
I hope he has been helpful on these issues. After all, according to his bio, he is “a champion of free expression.”
Here in Oslo, Saul speaks of a “sophisticated censorship.” That’s what we suffer from, apparently. We have an “administrative,” “managerial,” “mechanistic” approach to life. “The single biggest tool of censorship in the West is the employment contract.” I think he means that, if you speak out against your employer, you could find yourself out of a job.
He is one of those who claim that, in a post-9/11 environment, our freedoms have been taken away, because we are fearful of “disloyalty and treason.” Government secrecy is dangerously increased; transparency is reduced. Elsewhere in his remarks, he says that professors are underpaid. (I think I have heard him correctly.) He also says that we’re afraid to discuss nuclear power openly and honestly.
All of this makes me rub my eyes and shake my head a little. The theme here seems to be, “Look, we’re talking at this conference mainly about dictatorships. But let’s not be so smug: We here in the West aren’t as free as we think.” I can’t help wondering what’s going on in the minds of attendees from repressive societies: people from Burma, China, Belarus, Iran, and so on. Do they think we lucky people in the Free World are a bunch of fools and ingrates?
It’s odd to hear about the totalitarian nightmare of, say, Burma, or North Korea, in one speech. And then to hear the president of PEN International inveigh against employment contracts in Winnipeg or Sarasota. It’s like a man with a few pimples on his arm complaining to a patient in critical care — and the first guy may not even have pimples on his arm.
All my life — certainly since college — I have marveled at “moral equivalence,” as we used to call it, during the Cold War. Possibly the worst moment of the Obama administration came last year, when an assistant secretary of state, Michael Posner, huddled with PRC officials for “human-rights talks.” He expressed guilt to them over the new immigration law passed in Arizona.
You know how it goes: China is a police state with a gulag; one of our states wishes to ensure that immigration is legal, not illegal. Who are we to say that our society is better than Communist China? Everything is even-steven.
So, so sick.
That is not a very cheery note to end on, friends, but I think I will, saying I’ll see you for Part V.