I might as well start out with something politically incorrect: At the Norwegian Air counter in JFK Airport, the women appear to be South Asian, and some are in headscarves — which I think is perfectly appropriate, given demographic trends in Norway.
Is that hate speech, somehow? (Even if I stress that I wish one and all nothing but the best?)
‐From the politically incorrect to the merely juvenile: The phrase “Boingo Wireless Self Care” — sounds dirty . . .
‐At the airport in Oslo, there are two or three different lines for passports, I believe. Norwegians are being directed to one of the lines. Twice, I am directed — misdirected — to the Norwegian line. It is rather flattering, actually. But I trudge my way to the World at Large line.
(I’m from Michigan, but I’m not Norwegian. In point of fact, Michigan is famed for Finns. I’m not that either . . .)
‐The immigration officer — a nice older woman — asks me why I have come to Norway. I tell her I’m here to attend a conference. She says, “Ah, yes, the peace forum.” Actually, it is a freedom forum: the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering.
I smile, inwardly, at what she has said: “peace forum.” There is a certain tension between peace and freedom (although you can argue that real peace entails freedom). This is a running theme of my history of the Nobel Peace Prize. I lived with this issue, these arguments, for a long time.
It occurs to me that the woman — the immigration officer — has heard the word “peace” her entire life. It has been drummed into her ears. Norway is a “peace nation.” (That is an entire chapter in my book, I believe.) The word “peace” comes naturally from the woman’s lips.
Later, an American friend who lives here will tell me, “You know, I think many of them actually think that peace and freedom are the same thing.” Could be.
Anyway . . .
‐Years ago, I wrote a piece called “Miracle of the Mundane.” It had to do with my ability to change a tire. (The piece is not as dumb as it sounds — I hope.) Well, I think it’s well-nigh a miracle these days when the window in your hotel room opens. Such a relief, a surprise, a joy . . .
You know what I mean?
Time after time, you have to turn on the air conditioning in your hotel room when it’s 60 degrees out — because the windows won’t open. Which is daft (as well as frustrating).
‐I’ve just done some Googling around, and I’ll be damned: That silly little piece of mine, from long ago, is on the Interwebs: here.
(Don’t worry. I’ll get to the torture, murder, and evil — the meat of the Oslo Freedom Forum — soon. Enjoy the frivolous while you can.)
‐You know the expression “As sure as the Lord made little green apples . . .” Well, for some reason, we Americans don’t make green-apple juice. At least I have never encountered it at home. But it is apparently common in Norway — which is nice.
‐At breakfast, over the green-apple juice, I meet a Serbian star, Srdja Popovic. He is the rock musician who led the student movement that hassled Milosevic & Co. Now Popovic is helping people all over the world in nonviolent democratic activism. He is bursting with charisma, as well as some impishness — and at this early hour. A performer indeed. A natural.
(By the way, you will forgive me for skipping Slavic diacritics. There is something funky in the “d” in “Srdja.”)
‐Here is something refreshing about the Oslo Freedom Forum: People talk about democracy uncynically, and unironically. In certain circles of my acquaintance, people roll their eyes at democracy. They think George W. Bush and war. Or they think of democracy as an Israeli plot.
Democracy, let’s not forget, is a good thing — and one that people are risking their lives for, every day. Including some attendees at this conference.
I must resolve to resist the cynicism and the stupid irony that are frequently in the air I breathe . . .
‐Thor Halvorssen presides over a press conference. He is the founder and leader of the Oslo Freedom Forum, and of the Human Rights Foundation (which is in the Empire State Building, which is a tall building a few blocks from the famous headquarters of National Review). The theme of this year’s forum, he says, is “Defeating Dictators.” That is the theme of every year’s forum, I think.
Thor notes that more than half of the world’s population lives under dictatorship, or at least in non-democracies. He further notes that the biggest human-rights conferences are organized by anti-democratic regimes. “They tend to take place at the U.N.” People can’t depend on governments to safeguard or promote human rights, says Thor. They must depend on civil society.
‐One of his partners — the Freedom Forum’s partners — is Amnesty International, or at least the Norwegian branch. I have long been of two minds about AI. I am of two minds about Human Rights Watch as well. When they are good, they are very good. And when they’re not . . .
This, too (it feels like I’m plugging), is a theme of my Nobel book. Amnesty International won the prize in 1977. It is a problematic award, in my opinion, as so many of the awards have been . . .
‐Thor Halvorssen has an array of guests at the press conference. I will mention a few of them.
There’s Iyad El-Baghdadi, who is a major voice on the Internet — an Arab Spring voice. As I understand it, he is a Palestinian who has lived all of his life in the United Arab Emirates. He was recently kicked out of the country, though — without being given a reason. Probably, he wrote too critically about the regime in Egypt. The UAE gave him the choice of indefinite jail or exile.
There’s Janet Hinostroza, a striking blonde woman who is a TV host in Ecuador (I’m not surprised). (About the TV part, I mean.) (I’m a little surprised about the Latin American part.) The chavista government of Rafael Correa has cracked down hard on the media. Hinostroza blows the whistle, loud.
A Tibetan woman is here: Lhamo Tso, the wife of Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker. When he made a documentary called “Leaving Fear Behind,” the Chinese government nabbed him. He was in prison from 2008 until just a few months ago. He was not able to be here in Norway, and his wife is standing in for him.
Yulia Marushevska is widely known from YouTube. She is the young Ukrainian woman — a student — who was featured in I Am a Ukrainian. Since it aired in February 2014, that video has been seen by more than 8 million people.
Yeonmi Park is a North Korean defector, or escapee. She has a lot to say, as you can imagine. What she has to say is hard to hear, and vital to hear.
Kasha Jacqueline is a guest who has been at the Oslo Freedom Forum before. She is a Ugandan gay-rights activist. When I say “gay rights,” incidentally, I am not talking about the right to jail a baker if he refuses to bake a cake for your wedding. I am talking about the right to live free of harassment, imprisonment, and, indeed, murder.
Thor gives us a side-note about Kasha: She is a princess. A real-live princess. So, King Harald is not the only royal in Oslo today . . .
‐I’m going to close this opening installment, inviting you to return for Part II. Before I leave, though, let me note the piano in the upstairs room of the Nye Theater where the press conference is being held. It is a dusty, dingy grand piano, off to the side. I lift the lid of the keyboard to check the brand — it’s an American piano, a Chickering. That was unexpected. I wonder how it got here. There is probably a story behind it.
Thanks, and see you.