by Bruce Bawer
The United Nations never ceases to impress. As noted here recently, Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 28. Halvorssen offered a few frank, bracing words about the state of human rights in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, and expressly argued that Chavez’s government, which is seeking a seat on the council, has no right to such a seat. For good measure, Halvorssen pointed out how disgraceful it is that another tyrannical Latin American government, that of Cuba, currently sits on the council.
The result, as also noted here, was an explosion of righteous indignation on the part of some of the council’s least worthy members – China, Russia, and, especially, Cuba, whose representative was so quick to rise to his feet in outrage that he knocked his chair over. The message sent out by him, and by his Chinese and Russian friends, in response to Halvorssen’s dose of truth-telling was clear: it’s one thing to engage in vague, pretty talk about human rights, but it’s another thing to point fingers and name names.
Two days later, interestingly enough, the very same message was communicated to a group of teenage girls from Norway at the U.N. Headquarters in New York – or, at least, so it would appear from the available evidence. Here’s the story. The Norwegian Girls’ Choir was in New York as part of a music festival produced by something called the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, which, according to an article that appeared in the New York Times on June 30, “has promoted cultural exchanges between American and international arts groups since its founding in 1973. This year the group, which often focuses on youth initiatives, has produced the inaugural Rhythms of One World festival, a series of choral performances featuring adult and children’s choirs from Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Luxembourg, Canada, Australia, Norway and the United States.”
As the Times reported, “The choirs performed individually at various halls in the city this week, and joined forces for an event on Thursday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, which celebrated the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945.” The Times described each act in some detail, and singled out the girls’ choir as a “highlight of the evening,” saying that they “sang with nuance and elegant dynamic contrast.” The Times article closed by noting that the festival would conclude that evening, Saturday, June 30, “with a performance at the United Nations General Assembly Hall.”
So it was that on Saturday afternoon, the girls’ choir was rehearsing lighting cues in the General Assembly hall. That’s when the trouble started. The girls were doing a piece by composer Maya Ratkje entitled “Ro-Uro,” which can be translated as “Peace-Unrest.” It’s an archetypal Norwegian statement about the beauty of peace and the evil of war. (You can see a video of a 2007 performance of it here.) The work, which lasts just under ten minutes, alternates throughout between harmony and discord; the girls are almost constantly on the move, one moment dancing happily arm-in-arm and making pretty music, the next moment dashing madly across the stage – and around the auditorium – as if in sheer terror, all the while shrieking out harsh dissonances.
It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d think was tailor-made for the U.N. But there’s one problem. Toward the end of the piece, the girls shout out the names of famous people who have abused their power, such as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Quisling, Castro, and Mugabe.When those notorious names began to echo in the hall during the rehearsal of the lighting cues, “they reacted strongly,” the piece’s director, Anne Karin Sundal-Ask, told NRK, the Norwegian national broadcasting company. The “they” in question were apparently the event’s arrangers, who at once requested a list of all the names mentioned in the piece. The Norwegians were totally cooperative, making it clear that they were prepared to hand over a list and to remove any names that might cause discomfort. “But even before the list was handed over,” said Sundal-Ask, “we were informed that we would not be permitted to perform this piece.” She was puzzled and disappointed, because the festival is, after all, about peace, and “that’s why it was so important to perform this particular work.” They came up with a replacement piece, and the show went fine, “but it wasn’t as important as the piece we wanted to perform.”
According to NRK, the choir members were told that the U.N. simply couldn’t allow them to perform “Ro-Uro” under its auspices. Some people, they were informed, might consider it offensive.
To her credit, Ratkje, the composer, was angry. “This is a totally innocent work. It is about war and peace, but it is anything but scandalous. What’s scandalous here is that it’s being censored.” She added: “I don’t understand it. I think it’s a very strange decision.”
Of course, no one with the slightest understanding of how things work at the U.N. could possibly be puzzled by the decision to pull the plug on “Ro-Uro.” I am not privy to the full list of names included in the current version of the piece, and watching the 2007 video linked above I can’t make out all the names that the girls reeled off at that performance. (Maybe you can make them out better than I can: the girls start shouting them out exactly eight minutes into the video.) But the inclusion of the names Castro and Mugabe alone is enough to explain everything. Yes, both of these men fully deserve to be included in a litany of the great despots of modern history. But Mugabe is also the current head of state of a member country of the U.N., and Castro is the still-living former head of state of another member country, and for this reason it simply cannot be permitted for a group of Norwegian girls to insult them from the stage of the General Assembly.
Then there’s Stalin. Russia may no longer be Communist, but he continues to be officially honored in that country as the hero – indeed, the savior – of the Great Patriotic War. It would be a mark of disrespect to that sovereign nation for the U.N. to allow a girls’ choir take his sacred name in vain.
Personally, I’m delighted by this story. No country worships at the altar of the U.N. more ardently than Norway does. Most Norwegians are nominally Lutheran, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the closest thing the country has to a real religion may be the United Nations. Seen through many Norwegian eyes, the U.N. is the ultimate Teflon organization: no matter how many scandals may have damaged its reputation elsewhere in the world, in Norway it continues, thanks to a constant flow of almost exclusively positive media coverage, to be looked upon as the holiest of holies, the Ground Zero of goodness, the organization that can do no wrong. Rest assured that every last one of the girls in that choir has, since infancy, been fed an image of the U.N. as the very embodiment of peace, love, virtue, and the milk of human kindness; they’ve been brought up to regard anybody with any position at the U.N. with the same kind of unquestioning admiration and trust – even reverence – with which the most naïve of Irish grandmothers, in more credulous times, used to regard the parish priest.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Norwegian composer and director of “Ro-Uro” should find it incomprehensible that the U.N. put the kibosh on their performance. I can only pray that this cancellation, which (yippee!) has actually made headlines in Norway, will open at least some Norwegians’ eyes to the reality of the U.N. The foolish, puerile fantasy has gone on long enough.Bruce Bawer
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