Hope, heroes and useless optimism – A report from Oslo Freedom Forum 2014

“What is it that drives these people?” I thought. “Where do they find their strength?”

Oslo Freedom Forum gathers activists for freedom and democracy from all over the world. The theme of this year’s conference was “Defeating dictators”. Speaker after speaker talked about how they’ve confronted tyrants in their home countries. Many of them have been imprisoned. They live in fear of their lives. They’ve been beaten up, exiled, tortured, and raped. They’ve been through Hell.

Now they were all on the same stage, telling their stories.

The story that touched me the most was that of Marcela Turati Muñoz (7:06), a journalist who covers the drug war in Mexico. More than a hundred thousand people have been killed in fighting between the government and drug gangs over the last decade. Journalists who write about these killings are threatened, tortured, and murdered.

Muñoz describes herself as a war correspondent. She covers a war with no front lines and no clear rules. Any story you write about the drug war can be the one that gets you killed. Some journalists have left Mexico, others have given up journalism. As the media falls silent, the violence becomes invisible. People die, but nobody hears about it. It’s like turning off the lights in a house full of monsters.

She had the cautious and tired voice of someone who has cried much over lost friends, and knows that one day it may be her own turn.

What is it that drives these people? Where do they find their strength?

Yeonmi Park from North Korea spoke about learning what freedom is in the least free country in the world. Her first lessons came from the black market. When you trade, she says, you must think for yourself. It changes you. Another eye-opener was the movie Titanic, because it was a love story. Love of something other than the state and the Leader does not officially exist in North Korea. Love is revolutionary.

After her escape she read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Only then did she fully understand the nature of the Kim dynasty.

Today she lives in Seoul, where she helps other North Korea refugees adapt to life in freedom. Refugees travel a long road out of North Korea. Geographically, it goes north through China, where many end up as debt slaves. Psychologically, the road is even longer. Arriving in South Korea is a culture shock.

Hyeonseo Lee (50:25) too survived the trip to South Korea, and learned that the Kims are not gods. Then she returned, to help her family escape.

What is it that drives these people? Where do they find their strength?

It’s always easier to obey those who have power. It’s the safe option.

Between sessions I met a Swede. I told him, reluctantly, what I’ve been writing about Swedish politics lately. I’ve argued that the political correctness of Sweden’s media over immigration is to blame for the rise of the Swedish Democrats, a radical anti-immigration and anti-Islamic party that is now Sweden’s third largest.

Sweden’s progressive elites are touchy about this subject, which they see as a fight between good and evil. I expected a tense reaction. But no, he agreed. He had thought a lot about this, and he talked at length about the subject.

And then, without much shame, he said that he would of course never say anything like this out loud in Sweden. It was an absurd moment. Were we at the same conference? Had we just watch the same speeches?

What is it that he lacks, that the speakers at OFF have? Where do some people find the strength to risk torture, while others fall silent for fear of hard words?

Iyad El-Baghdadi is an Arab Spring activist who was recently forced to leave the United Arab Emirates. After the conference, he applied for asylum in Norway. He calls himself an Islamic libertarian. He believes that the reason that the Arab Spring failed was that the democratic activists didn’t know what they wanted to achieve with their protests.

The protesters knew how to fill the streets, but that was all they were good at. Only the Islamists and the tyrants had a vision for what would happen after the protests were over. So that’s what they got. More of the same. More fanaticism and more tyranny.

He is now writing an Arab Spring Manifesto, for use during the next uprising. In the most powerful moment of his OFF speech, he spoke directly to his newborn son. I would rather that you die young, he said, than for you to grow up to become another of those cowards who gave us the Arab world that we have today.

In an interview, he says he wants to promote a rational Islam that is able to observe itself critically. He believes Muslims will want this, if they can only be convinced that it is possible.

Norway has been ambivalent about the Oslo Freedom Forum, which does not spring from its own human rights community, but from a Venezuelan of Norwegian ancestry, Thor Halvorssen Mendoza. Norwegians feel more comfortable talking about peace and development than freedom, in any case. Some suspect that OFF’s focus on “freedom” is some kind of right-wing Venezuelan plot.

But OFF has proven its critics wrong by consistently inviting some of the most important and interesting freedom activists in the world. What makes the conference so exciting is that so many of the speakers are personally involved in the conflicts they talk about. They’re not academics and pundits. They’ve been to prison. They’ve been tortured. Many in the audience have too.

OFF is sometimes compared to the World Economic Forum at Davos, but that’s unfair to OFF. There are very few “Davos men” there.

But there are some. Jeffrey Wright (38:15), an American actor, began his speech by making fun of American actors who show up at human rights conferences to talk about themselves. He then proceeded to talk about himself, before ending with some platitudes about Ebola.

And after two days in darkness, Steven Pinker (53:18) ended the conference on a happy note. Yes, he said, it is true that in the short term the bad guys often win. The battle for freedom and democracy is an uphill struggle. But in the long term, we have every reason to be optimistic.

Pinker brought out his graphs. Here, he said, is a long term trend line that points upward. And here is another one. Peace, democracy, and everything nice has been making progress, in the long term. And if we simply extend these trends into the future, (and why shouldn’t we?), the lines will surely go even further up than they are now. Oh joy!

Pinker’s optimism felt out of place at the OFF. It was as if he was taking part in a different conversation than the rest of the speakers, the kind people in safe countries have among themselves when, after a summer of particularly grotesque events, they hunger for a dose of contrarian optimism.

His graphs reflect the emergency of liberal democracy. Why should we assume that this story will repeat itself? Pinker speaks seriously about “historical forces”. There’s no such thing, and if there were, there’s no reason to think they would be on our side.

More importantly: Pinker’s optimism is useless. I do not believe that this kind of optimism is where the activists at OFF find their strength.

When I left El-Baghdadi’s speech, I overheard someone calling him an optimist. After all, he is still confident about the potential of the Arab Spring. His was the most electrifying speech at the conference. “Those who love liberty must learn to organize just as well as those who love tyranny”, he said. He spoke like a revolutionary leader in exile. “We are the future”.

He and his rational Islamic libertarians may very well be the future. I hope so. But his passion is something else entirely than Pinker’s abstract optimism. Let us call it hope. Hope is what gives you the strength to carry on when everything goes against you. Your revolution failed, the bad guys won, but you’re still fighting. That’s called hope. You can have hope and optimism at the same time, but optimism is fragile. It shatters against the rocks of reality. Hope doesn’t.

Optimists don’t need hope. They think the “historical forces” are on their side. It may be true that tyranny will disappear in the long term. But in the short term, the tyrants have the power to destroy your life. They can harass you, exile you, imprison you, or kill you. In order to defy them you need something more powerful than a cheerful long-term trend line. You need hope.

You also need ideals that you believe are worth being destroyed for.

There were plenty of such ideals on display at OFF this year. OFF is a freedom conference. All the speakers are fighting for freedom in one form or another: Personal freedom. Political freedom. Freedom of speech. In order to secure these freedoms for others, they are willing to sacrifice what little freedom they have themselves.

The father of Ti-Anna Wang (20:00) was kidnapped from Vietnam in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison for his activism against the Communist Party dictatorship in China. She has been working for his release ever since. But, she told the audience at OFF, her fight often seems futile. It’s little but year after year of press conferences that don’t lead anywhere. She finds her strength in the belief that she is on the right side of history. It’s an honor, she believes, to make her own small contribution to the progress of humanity.

Activists need hope, and hope is created by heroes. Think back to times in your own life when you’ve fought for something against all odds. Why didn’t you give up? What gave you hope? For many, it may have been a story about somebody else who overcame a difficult challenge. A sports hero, perhaps, or an artist, a thinker, an activist, a religious figure. They didn’t give up, so why should you?

We humans are easy to motivate. When the right inspirational story strikes roots in us, it can feed our hopes for decades.

The wrong story can do the same, with disastrous results. When Suleiman Bakhit asked children in Jordan who their heroes were, they answered Al-Zarqawi and Bin Laden. They didn’t know of any other heroes. They had never heard of Batman and Spider-Man. So he decided to create the first Arab super hero comics. One of his comic books is about an all-female Jordanian anti-terror unit. His goal is to give children an alternative to the mythology of the extremists.

Grown-ups prefer heroes from real life. We find them in a mythical version of our own history. When Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot were put on trial, they modelled their behavior on Russia’s tsarist and Soviet dissidents. Heroes inspire heroes, who in turn inspire more heroes. When the history of the powerful dictator Vladimir Putin is written, the one story everyone will include is of the time he was humiliated by a group of masked girls.

As I watched the speakers at OFF, I realized that I was probably watching the future national heroes of their countries. Turkey will remember Erdem Gunduz (28:35), “The Standing Man”. Cuba will honor Yoani Sánchez, the blogger behind Generation Y. Perhaps. Or they will be forgotten, and rediscovered by historians in a better future. I hope.

Even Mikhail Khodorkovsky had the appearance of a hero, as he stood there on stage. Maybe it was the lighting, or the visuals, or just the whole context. The kindest thing that can be said about what he was up to in the 1990s is that he was among the less dirty of the Russian oligarchs. There was nothing heroic about it. But now he has spent a decade in prison for getting in Putin’s way. He’s fighting for a democratic Russia. So he gets invited up on stage, with the heroes.

What makes someone a hero isn’t their goodness, but their ability to inspire others. Heroes aren’t saints, otherwise there wouldn’t be any. But I am skeptical of Khodorkovsky’s ability to inspire Russians. I suspect he’s the kind of enemy Putin prefers: One that reminds Russians of the humiliating chaos he “rescued” them from.

In any case, all heroes are regular human beings when you look behind the mask. Tearing masks of heroes is something we need to do from time to time, as a kind of mythological spring cleaning. We must bust their myths. We need to know that our national heroes and founding fathers were human, that Churchill and Roosevelt and other “great people” were flawed.

Otherwise their myths will grow corrupt, and sell out to the powerful, who will use them for their own ends. War heroes inspire patriotism, but are also used to start bad wars. This creates more war heroes, who are then used to start more bad wars. Heroic myths are powerful. Heroic myths can be dangerous.

Yulia Marushevska (3:50) said in her speech that she believes the “Heavenly Hundred”, the martyrs who died during the Euromaidan protests, were sent from Heaven, and that they now watch over the new Ukraine as angels. How long will it take before such hero worship becomes a tool the powerful can use to stifle dissent? Ukrainians should bust such myths before it’s too late.

But we do need heroes. When times are at their darkest, it is heroes that inspire us to hope, and hope gives us strength to act. If your country becomes a dictatorship, who do you think will prove most useful? A cynic, or somebody who believes in heroes?

Heroes are real, as long as we remember what they really are: People who inspire others. That is all they are, but it’s often all we need.

Jamila Raqib (38:10) said that it was the civil disobedience of Norwegian teachers during the Nazi occupation that inspired Gene Sharp to study non-violent resistance movements. He learned that dictatorships are weaker than they appear. But you must attack them at their weakest point. If you use violence, you’re attacking them where they’re strongest. There are better ways.

Today, Sharp’s theories are used by activists all over the world, such as those who overthrew Milosevic in 2000. This is one of Norway’s small contributions to world freedom. And with Oslo Freedom Forum, we have, reluctantly, and through little effort of our own, made another.

Originally published in Aftenposten.

_More articles by Bjørn Stærk. _Also read Warblog: Armchair Generals of the War on Terror, available for Kindle and other formats.