I might as well start with something vulgar. Later in this journal, there will be the elevated, and the horrifying.
Anyway, I’m always amazed at the height of the urinals in the Oslo airport — high. What if you’re a short Norwegian (or a short anybody)? You’d better aim high, as they say.
And, when they go elsewhere, do Norwegians think the urinals strangely low?
‐On the way from the airport into the city, you see tidiness: a tidiness of landscape. A tidiness of habitation. This is a tidy country, I’ve always found, a country of law and order.
Which has its attractions.
‐Near the National Theater, there is a booth, or an exhibition, about China. It tells of organ harvesting: specifically the harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners.
‐As a rule, I think, a ground floor in Europe is the ground floor. And the next floor up is the first floor (our second floor). Yet, here in an Oslo hotel, the system is à l’américaine. Same with a subsequent hotel I stay in.
‐In the first hotel, I can’t figure out how to dial reception. Zero won’t do it. Neither will 1. There are some random buttons at the bottom of the keyboard. Ah, “R,” for reception! No. That does nothing. I press the button next to it.
And a voice answers gruffly.
I say, hesitantly, “Sorry, is this reception?” He says, “No, it’s the fire department.”
‐It is May, and thus lilac time in Oslo. (That was the title of an operetta about Schubert: Lilac Time.) This city is chockfull of lilacs. They perfume the air, literally.
‐Walking around Oslo, I have memories: memories of researching the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. (I wrote such a history, which you can find here.) The prize is given in this city, by a Norwegian committee. Practically each block meant something to me — each building, each statue of a statesman or writer (or what have you).
These days, I can walk without the pressure of learning, if you know what I mean. Also without the fun. It’s fun to learn things: to have a need of knowing. I enjoy that mode. (Makes you more engaged.)
‐There’s Sonja Henie, outside Frogner Park. She was once world-famous. Now, I suppose, you have to explain that she was a figure skater, and a film star. (Her dates are 1912 to 1969.)
When I see her — see her statue — I can’t help thinking of the Car Talk brothers, and their exclamation of wonderment: “Sonja Henie’s tutu!”
‐Except for the one in Washington, D.C., my favorite Lincoln memorial is here, in Frogner Park. There is a bust of the man. And two plaques, on either side of the memorial.
The one on the left says, “Presented to Norway by the People of North Dakota, U.S.A., July 4th, 1914.” The one on the right says, “Government of the People, by the People, for the People, Shall Not Perish from the Earth.”
To read about this memorial, go here. I wish someone would clean it up. It’s kind of a mess. Maybe I should do it myself, somehow …
‐In the park, I meet a couple of missionaries. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their religion has just been banned in Russia. I am extra-warm to them, I hope …
‐Later on, I spot Kang Chol-hwan — the first North Korean I ever met. I remember my amazement on meeting him: I felt I was shaking the hand of an emissary from a different planet, a planet that stood for hell.
Kang, of course, is the author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a gulag memoir.
‐I spot Manal al-Sharif, but it takes me a second to recognize her. It occurs to me: I have never seen her without a headscarf. (She is the famous human-rights activist from Saudi Arabia, who dared to drive. Driving is, of course, forbidden to women in her country, as are rights in general.)
‐As you have surmised, I am attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering here in Norway’s capital. It was founded in 2009 by Thor Halvorssen — who is now beginning an opening press conference.
‐He says that the death toll in Syria has now exceeded 350,000. I remember, years ago, being alarmed as it approached 10,000. Five digits, in a relatively small country? How could such ongoing slaughter be permitted?
That was an innocent time, I suppose.
Halvorssen calls North Korea “the cruelest of all dictatorships,” and one that has nuclear weapons pointed at democracies.
“A dictator and his Cuban masters” — that’s how Halvorssen refers to Venezuela’s Maduro and his patrons.
In Zimbabwe, Mugabe is now 93. He will run for office again. (“Run” for “office.”) His wife has said that, if he dies, they’ll run his corpse. So, Weekend at Bernie’s in southern Africa …
Halvorssen points out that the American president has just been in Saudi Arabia, “one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.” This was right after he received and celebrated the “elected dictator of Turkey.”
In light of things like this, where are oppressed and persecuted people supposed to go for help and redress? Can’t go to the Free World. Sure can’t go to the U.N. So — where? It is a puzzlement.
Halvorssen notes that when people are hit by earthquakes or floods or other such disasters, the world responds with alacrity. At a minimum, it expresses shock and concern. Yet one of the great killers of human beings is dictatorship. And about this, the world is more muted.
‐The theme of this year’s Freedom Forum is “Defending Democracy.” Actually, this could be its theme every year. Halvorssen says that there are four pillars of democracy. If you don’t have them, you’re not a democracy, really.
They are free expression, a vibrant civil society, separation of powers, and free and fair elections. (We could add to this list, but lists must have ends.)
‐Taking part in this year’s forum are people from more than 50 countries. There are activists, dissidents, and ex–political prisoners. There are also, says Halvorssen, businessmen, “because innovation and freedom are linked, and entrepreneurship thrives in free countries.”
I love that. And it’s too seldom said.
‐Halvorssen says that there are fewer free countries in the world right now than there were ten years ago. And “dictatorships couldn’t survive without Western support, Western commerce, Western engagement.” When we say “Western,” we mean “democratic,” of course. (I’m reminded that Cuba is in the West, although sometimes it doesn’t seem like it!)
There is also this problem: Men are elected freely and democratically, and then chip away at the democracy, dragging the country into authoritarianism. Venezuela is a case in point. So is Russia.
One of the guests here is Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader. Twice he has been attacked — by poisoning. Twice, he almost died. Twice he survived to fight again. Earlier this year, on this website, I did a three-part series on him: here, here, and here.
Back to the subject of democratic elections, followed by a slide into tyranny. Kara-Murza says that Vladimir Putin took a lesson from Mussolini, who said, “Pluck the chicken feather by feather, to lessen the squawking.” You don’t take over in a single day or a single act.
Putin took over carefully. He would make one move, and watch the reaction. Seeing little resistance, he would make another. So, you take over independent TV. And then you turn the parliament into a rubber stamp. Etc. Very effective.
‐At this press conference, Halvorssen is flanked by many Freedom Forum participants, including Vladimir Kara-Murza. Another is Wai Wai Nu, a young woman from Burma. She represents the Rohingya minority there. (These people have been ruthlessly abused.) One of the things she says is that oppressors use social media to spread hate and propaganda. You can feel pretty helpless, in the face of this onslaught.
Another guest is Jon von Tetzchner, an Icelander who lives and works in Norway, as I understand it. He is a tech whiz, the founder of Vivaldi Technologies and a co-founder of Opera Software. (These companies sound suspiciously musical, don’t they?) He says — if I have understood him — that technology once favored the freedom-seekers. But then oppressors got just as adept with it.
“The empire strikes back,” he says.
Tetzchner also makes a point that many of us have been making for the last few years: People are now customizing their news. They can read, or listen to, or watch, only those streams that please them. This creates problems. There is no agreed-on set of facts. (Was there ever?)
“Technology cuts both ways,” says Tetzchner. It can give you accurate and complete information, and it can drown you in “fake news.”
Thor Halvorssen chimes in to mention Eritrea — where no one knows that Qaddafi is no longer the leader of Libya, or that Mubarak is no longer the leader of Egypt. He also says that news of the American moon landing reached Cuba in the 1990s.
‐One highly interesting guest is Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives. His country had a democratic moment and then slid. About dictators in general, he says, “We should focus on beating these thugs who are moonlighting as heads of state.” Nice phrase.
I am also interested in what he has to say about tourism. People like to go to the Maldives for vacation. Does Nasheed mind? The same issue comes up with Cuba.
Nasheed does not mind. But “I would like you to please be aware of what’s going on in the country. Maybe read a little bit before you go.”
The ex-president has been jailed and brutalized several times. I’ll have more to say about him later in this journal.
‐Manal al-Sharif talks about Saudi Arabia — what women face there. The stories she tells would curl your hair. What a shocking and abhorrent regime and system. The men have mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters — women they love, presumably. Why do they keep it going, generation after generation? WTF?
‐Some participants have been talking about “fake news.” Kang Chol-hwan, of North Korea, says, “We have an entire society of fake news”! He also says that the Kim regime is “like Stalin and Hitler put together.” What Kang would like to see is a revolution as in Romania.
Incidentally, Ceausescu wanted to establish the first Communist dynasty — but Kim Il-sung (whom he admired and emulated) beat him to the punch in North Korea. I discuss this in my book Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.
How can I end on a plug? I shouldn’t, but I am. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen, and see you for Part II.
Speaking of plugs, here is a word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.