Oslo Journal, Part II

Manal al-Sharif at Oslo’s City Hall (Oslo Freedom Forum)
A freedom festival and its astonishing participants

Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum took place last week. This is the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. Jay Nordlinger’s journal on the gathering, and related matters, began yesterday, here.

I see a man in the elevator whom I recognize. But I can’t place him. Have we met? In a few seconds, I realize who he is: Guillermo Fariñas, the great Cuban dissident. I have read about him and written about him for years.

And here he is, in the flesh. Which to me is somehow astonishing. (Later, I will interview him at length.)

‐There is a reception in City Hall, site of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Among the many at the reception is a human-rights advocate I know, who is currently working on resettling endangered Turkish journalists in democratic countries.

I mention a recent episode in Washington, D.C.: where Erdogan’s goons set upon a group of peaceful protesters. Right on American soil. They beat the hell out of those protesters, including the women.

My friend says, “Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” What they do at home is — unspeakable.

She makes a further point, my friend does: For a very long time, democracies tolerated Erdogan in part because his Turkey was a buffer between Europe and floods of refugees and migrants — even more than arrived in Europe regardless.

A big topic …

‐The mayor of Oslo, Marianne Borgen, makes remarks. She is followed by Manal al-Sharif, whom I mentioned in Part I of this journal: She is the Saudi human-rights activist. (She has dared to drive a car, for example.)

She mentions similarities between her country and Norway: two oil kingdoms; beautiful landscapes (though very different); wonderful people. Yet the mayor of Norway’s capital city is a woman, and so, for that matter, is the prime minister.

Not very Saudi …

The Oslo Freedom Forum gives a Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Winners receive a statuette, in the form of the “goddess of democracy,” carried by students in Tiananmen Square. Manal al-Sharif is a past winner of this prize.

Here in City Hall, she tells us that she had never heard of Havel. Or Tiananmen Square. Or the goddess of democracy. In Saudi Arabia, you can be kept in the dark about many things, and that goes double if you’re a woman.

‐Among the attendees is Rosa María Payá, a marvelous young woman. She is the daughter of Oswaldo Payá, the Cuban democracy leader, murdered by the regime in 2012. His daughter is carrying on his work.

I did a podcast with her last year. To hear it, go here.

This year, she tells me that Cuban democrats put up a plaque in honor of her father. Within a few hours, the government had taken it down.

Well, one day, I hope, there will be a big statue of Oswaldo Payá in Havana. Maybe one of Rosa María too.

‐I meet a friend of mine who’s an expert in free speech. We discuss the situation on U.S. campuses. I say, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when free speech is treated as some kind of right-wing plot.” We both shake our heads, virtually speechless.

‐In America, I don’t see 7-Elevens much anymore. The most I have ever seen anywhere was Taipei. Oslo has its share, too. They often smell of those wieners, don’t they?

‐At an intersection, the light tells us that there are 58 seconds left until we can walk. Everyone is waiting obediently. There are no cars coming. I can’t stand it. I’m a scofflaw. My American feet just want to move.

Come and get me, copper! (They don’t, thankfully.)

‐At the opera house, there is a long, long slope — concrete (or something). It’s like a small mountain. Not a bunny hill. And little, little kids are riding their scootery things down it, going very, very fast.

I can barely look …

‐At the Nye Theater, the Freedom Forum is taking place. First at the podium is Erna Solberg, the prime minister of Norway. She is a jolly-looking woman. (Is that hate speech?)

She begins, “Ladies and gentlemen, friends of democracy, defenders of human rights.” I like that.

I also like her occasionally creative English — as in, “The lackage of human rights fuels extremism.” Why not? (And the statement is of course perfectly true.)

She mentions that May is the month of democracy and freedom in Norway. On the 8th, they celebrate their liberation after World War II. And the 17th is their Constitution Day.

In my experience, politicians rarely refer to themselves as politicians. Other people are politicians. I like that Solberg refers to herself as a politician — as in “not least for us politicians.”

Later, she says something like the following — I am paraphrasing, but closely: “We should all be troubled when politicians invoke the ‘will of the people’ to put themselves above the rule of law. This is a dangerous form of populism, which undermines democratic checks and balances and weakens democratic society.”

Hear, hear.

After her formal remarks, she does a brief Q&A with Thor Halvorssen. Thor brings up the “resource curse.” He says that, of the top ten energy producers in the world, only two are democracies: Canada and Norway. Why is oil a blessing for Norway rather than a curse?

Solberg says, simply and rightly, that you have to have democratic institutions in place. Transparency and all the rest of it. Then oil is a blessing. But if you have a tyranny or autocracy, with a culture of corruption — floods of wealth make it all the worse.

Thor also asks her about women in politics. As you know, Norway has plenty of women in high places. I love how Prime Minister Solberg begins her answer: “I don’t believe that everything good in Norway is due to the fact that we have women in politics, but …”

‐In Part I, I mentioned Wai Wai Nu, the young woman who represents the Rohingya minority in Burma. A brave person, who has already been through a lot — too much — in her life. Here in the theater, she is giving a formal talk.

I’ll tell you something sad: Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese heroine, and Nobel peace laureate, is indifferent to the sufferings and persecution of the Rohingyas. I would like to know what she has to say for herself on this score.

Wai Wai Nu says that Buddhist nationalists target not only Rohingyas but Hindus, Christians, and other minorities too. (Typical, the majority lording it over other people.)

By the way, Wai Wai Nu has taken part in the Liberty and Leadership Forum at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. (Her bio from this program is here.)

I’m not surprised. GWB, what a man. A great man. And doing a great deal of good.

‐Now on the stage is Grace Jo, a North Korean escapee. I won’t give you too many details. They are very grim, as usual.

As a child, she was starving. For ten days, she went without food. Her body got very hot. Her black hair turned yellow.

Two of her brothers starved to death.

One day, her grandmother found six newborn mice under a rock. She boiled them and gave them to her granddaughter to eat. The little girl was five years old.

State agents beat her father to death. They beat her mother, too, though not to death, apparently.

I could go on. Anyway, Grace Jo is now in the United States, and takes part in a group called NKinUSA. She tells us that, in 2013, she gained American citizenship, and “I am now considered Korean American.” She then breaks into a wonderful smile — a wonderful smile after all that grimness. Behind her is a picture of herself at what is apparently her citizenship ceremony. She is waving a little American flag.

Not a bad country, for all that’s said about it …

By the way, Grace too has an association with the GWB Center (go here). Not surprised.

‐Over the years, I have heard a great many speakers at the Oslo Freedom Forum, and interviewed a fair number: dissidents, ex–political prisoners, escapees. It’s amazing how many of them mention Animal Farm, George Orwell’s parable. They mention it to say, This describes our situation.

How did Orwell know? He knew. And he expressed it brilliantly in Animal Farm and 1984.

Raed Fares mentions Animal Farm. He is a Syrian democracy activist and journalist. He tells us about the brutality in his country. He also shows us video, documenting the same. It all beggars belief.

The Syrian uprising began in 2011 in the midst of the broader Arab Spring. Despots throughout the region were under pressure. Two schoolboys in the city of Daraa daubed a graffito: “Your turn, doctor.” In other words, “You’re next, Bashar Assad” (the ophthalmologist-turned-dictator).

This triggered a hell that has not let up.

In the Nye Theater, Raed Fares says, “Assad will continue to murder, but we’ll keep going until our dream comes true: a free and democratic Syria for all.”

At this point, Fares takes a guitar-like instrument — I don’t know what to call it — and strums a patriotic song.

‐We have a coffee break. A young German entrepreneur says to me, “How can we do normal things — how can we have a coffee break and chat — after hearing what we’ve heard? After seeing evidence of these horrors?” Well, that’s what you do. You keep on with life.

It can be jarring, however.

This young man’s grandfather was in the war — World War II. So were his six brothers. They all died. He survived. He had a body full of bullets, however, courtesy our boys in Normandy.

The things people go through …

‐The term “Arab Spring” follows on from “Prague Spring,” of course. Garry Kasparov will make an important point. He’s the chess champion, as you know, and a democracy champion. He’s the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, the companion organization of the Oslo Freedom Forum.

He points out that the Prague Spring failed, miserably. It was crushed by Soviet tanks. Snuffed out by dictatorship. Just like the Arab Spring, most of it.

And yet — it lit a spark, and 20 years later that country (Czechoslovakia) had its “Velvet Revolution.”

You never know. I’ll see you for Part III. Thanks, dear readers.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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