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.
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