Politics & Policy

Oslo Journal, Part IV

Editor’s Note: Last week, the Oslo Freedom Forum took place. OFF is the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. The first three parts of Jay Nordlinger’s journal are at the following links: I, II, and III.

Onstage at the Nye Theater now is Yulia Marushevska, the spokesman for Ukrainian democracy. She is, of course, young and pretty — which does not harm her cause. (Don’t shoot the messenger, i.e., me.) She notes that many people around the world can’t find Ukraine on a map.

“We are not part of Russia!” she says. “We have our own language, history, and culture. And we are actually a few hundred years older than they are.” (I have paraphrased, but closely.)

I think of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed “the Little Russian.” Why’s that? The nickname refers to Ukraine.

“Ukraine has been part of many empires,” Marushevska says. (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) “When we became independent of the last one — the Soviet Union — we thought we were finally free. Free to build the country our ancestors dreamed of.”

That included a country free of bribes. Bribes that have to be paid at every step: to get your child into kindergarten; to get a doctor’s appointment; to get a favorable ruling from a judge; etc.

I think of Viktor Yushchenko, the ex-president of Ukraine. I met him at Davos once after he had been poisoned, leading to the disfigurement of his face. He was very moving. Hang on, let me Google for the relevant journal.

Okay, here’s the particular installment, from 2005. I say that “the new president” is “amazingly candid.” And then I do some quoting:

He says, “My country is a deeply corrupt country.” He appeals to investors, and anyone else doing business in Ukraine: “Do not offer bribes to anyone.” In fact, you can enter a new line, when you do your accounting: “Saved expenses on ungiven bribes to Ukrainian officials.”

Back to Yulia Marushevska: She speaks of Ukrainians gunned down in the street, merely for protesting peacefully. She was shocked by the experience; there is still a tone of shock in her voice. “We lived in a completely European society,” she says. “We had a normal life, going to universities and theaters and restaurants.”

In my experience, people from the central and eastern parts of Europe are quite eager to stress their Europeanness.

Yulia strikes me as the kind of person who is desperate to share her story. I have seen this kind of person a lot. They want not to be ignored. They want people to know.

“More than a hundred people were killed in three days,” says Yulia. Ukrainians call these victims “the heavenly hundred.” “They came down from heaven to give us a chance for real independence and freedom. Today, we are naming streets after them. They are like angels watching us.”

Winding up, Yulia says, “The mentality of the Soviet era is gone. We were reborn in this revolution.” She appeals to people from various countries to help Ukraine, and show solidarity with it. “I ask you to stay with us in this fight. Join us. I believe that goodness has to stay together.”

Actually, she says “Godness” at first. Then she corrects herself to “goodness.” I rather liked the first version.

Let me make a final remark on her presentation: Yulia has shown pictures and video of Ukrainian protesters getting the hell beaten out of them by police. Being beaten to a pulp. I wonder why the police can’t just cart them off to prison and put them in a cage. Wouldn’t that suffice? Do they have to beat and bloody them first?

It seems to me simple sadism — or a technique to discourage others.

‐My fourth-grade teacher, oddly enough, was a Ukrainian immigrant. A man of about 60 (as I recall, or speculate). I wish he could meet Yulia Marushevska. He would appreciate her a lot.

‐I very much appreciate Suleiman Bakhit (as well as Yulia). He is “a Jordanian social entrepreneur and best-selling comic book creator.” I am quoting from his Freedom Forum bio, here. “He is also the founder of the Hero-Factor project, an organization dedicated to promoting heroism as an antidote to extremism for Middle Eastern youth.”

As I understand it, he has sold more than 2 million comic books. He aims to combat three “narratives” — three lies in the Arab world.

1) “The West is at war with Islam.” 2) “The Middle East is beset by infidel invaders.” 3) “Muslims who oppose violent jihad are not real Muslims.”

Bakhit tells us that he discerned something important: Bad actors in the Middle East are driven by shame. They are deeply ashamed of themselves. They try to obtain honor by destroying others.

Listening to him, I naturally think of my friend David Pryce-Jones, the British historian — whose book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs explains the shame-honor calculus brilliantly.

Bakhit says that little kids in Jordan were admiring bin Laden, Zarqawi, and other terrorist monsters, because at least those monsters were strong and “honorable.” He wanted to give them other figures to admire: superheroes.

For his troubles, Bakhit was slashed in the face, by extremists. He shows a photo of himself, right after the attack. He is mended now, but the scars remain. The extremists were trying to put a mark of shame on him, he says. “They were transferring their own shame to me.”

Bakhit is superb on the link between shame and terrorism. He also talks about the Nazis, back in the 1930s: and their shame over the Versailles Treaty. He makes a comparison between the Nazis and ISIS that is utterly convincing, to me.

Shame plays a role in all crime, right? Or at least much crime . . .

The biggest problem in the Middle East, says Suleiman Bakhit, is “terrorism disguised as heroism.” We must have a David to slay this Goliath of a lie, he says. And “the comic book is our slingshot.”

I must say, I am moved, inspired, by Bakhit’s talk. He has hit on some deep truths, and he is acting on them. He is “making a difference,” as we used to say. (I guess we still do.) Also, he has the gift of charisma. There is a spark in him. And he’s very funny. Completely bald, he says, “I have a lot of hair, just bad distribution.”

‐In Impromptus, I often have language notes, and I’d like to make two, stemming from Bakhit’s presentation.

First, that word “narrative.” It is all around us. It happened very fast, I think. My whole life, I never heard the word “narrative” (or hardly ever did). Then, suddenly, it was in every third or fourth sentence. Language moves this way. An interesting phenomenon.

Also, Bakhit has referred to a “low-income area” of Jordan. I very much dislike this Americanism, “low-income.” I would like to see it expunged from the English language, or at least made less common. “Poor” will suffice. It is stronger, better, less euphemistic.

Anyway, these are trivialities (but enjoyable).

‐Eventually, it is Jeffrey Wright’s turn upon the stage. He is an actor whose credits include The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Basquiat. He has come to talk about some issues in Africa, including Ebola.

At the outset, he says something charming — something like this: “Oh, good, just what we need: another actor pontificating about the world.”

Above, I related a memory from Davos, and now I have another one. I spoke with a man who had worked in the development field for 30 years. He was in the aid-to-Africa business. He had given his life to it.

I said, “Have these efforts done any good?” He said, quietly, “No.” I have never forgotten that. It was one of the most honest conversations I have ever had. (It was in the black of night, standing up, outside in the snow.)

There is such a thing as oversimplifying. There is also such a thing as overcomplicating. What do Africans need? The same things everyone else needs: the rule of law; property rights; an independent judiciary; accountability in government; economic freedom; other freedom. Then they will zoom. They are not born to be poor and desolate. The systems that control them make them that way.

Mankind knows pretty well what leads to prosperity and what leads to the opposite. Our experience has been ample — redundant. The road to prosperity is blocked by collectivists, tyrants, and spoilers.

Have I oversimplified? Probably, but the more common error is overcomplicating, I think.

‐At a coffee break, a delicious Norwegian pastry is served: skolebrød, or, literally, school bread. This is also known as a skolebolle, school bun. Kids have traditionally been served this at school. Back home, I don’t think Michelle O would approve. But I certainly do.

Eat your carrots, too, sure. Anyway, see you tomorrow.


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