The date: January 16. The place: the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations are interviewing the three individuals who have been appointed by President Obama as his new ambassadors to Norway, Iceland, and Hungary. All three, in the opening statements and in their answers to questions, roll out Fun Facts about the countries to which they are to be posted. Some of these facts are read off of crib notes; others are obviously the result of recent cramming for this occasion. It very quickly becomes clear that, despite their palpably strenuous efforts to project expertise, none of these three appointees really knows anything about the countries that they are talking about. At times, indeed, they sound frighteningly reminiscent of that Miss South Carolina contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant a few years back, who, when asked why many Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map, produced many of the right kinds of words but strung them together in a way that make no grammatical sense and conveyed nothing resembling a fact or opinion. Easily the worst of the three appointees facing the Senate committee is George Tsunis, the CEO of the company that owns the Hilton, Marriott, and Intercontinental hotel chains, and the prospective ambassador to Norway, a country in which, he admits, he has never set foot.
To be sure, Tsunis's appearance starts out promisingly enough. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York gives him an effusive introduction, describing him as a good friend who, out of his extraordinary patriotism, has agreed to serve his country in the role of ambassador, a position to which he is eminently suited and to which he will bring a range of extraordinary talents. Yet from the moment Tsunis opens his mouth he starts putting his foot in it. He refers to an unspecified “former president” of Norway – a position that does not, in fact, exist, since Norway is a kingdom, not a republic. In answer to one senator's question, Tsunis starts spouting out data about Norway, but utterly fails to shape it into anything resembling a sensible answer to the actual question. At around the one-hour mark in this video, his questioner rescues him from his own incoherent babble, to which Tsunis replies: “Thank you for that save.” The “save,” however, proves to be in vain, because a few moments later, in answer to another question, Tsunis again begins to make absolutely no sense, and when he trails off with the enigmatic words “it's important that we continue...interesting...,” his interlocutor is obliged to rescue him once again.
But the best, or worst, it turns out, is yet to come. Now it is Senator John McCain's turn to pose a question or two. “Mr. Tsunis, following last year's parliamentary elections,” says McCain, “Norway's Conservative Party now head a center-right coalition, as you know, that includes an anti-immigration party called the Progress Party. What do you think the appeal of the Progress Party was to Norwegian voters?” Tsunis, calling this “a seminal question” (“seminal” being in his view, apparently, a fancy word for “important”), explains that in “open,” “transparent,” and “democratic” societies like Norway “you get some fringe elements that have a microphone, that spew their hatred. And, although I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them. We're going to continue to work with Norway to make sure – ” At which point McCain interrupts Tsunis to point out that the Norwegian government has not denounced the Progress Party, because that party, far from being a “fringe” phenomenon, is, in fact – as McCain mentioned in his question – a part of the government. (Indeed, the head of the Progress Party, Siv Jensen, is Norway's Finance Minister, and another party member is Minister of Justice.) In response to McCain's correction, Tsunis says: “I stand corrected. The – uh, I stand corrected. I would like to leave my answer at…it’s a very, very open society and that most Norwegians, the overwhelming amount of Norwegians, and the overwhelming amount of people in parliament, don’t feel the same way.” After which McCain says, his words dripping with sarcasm: “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.”
Yes, I know: subpar ambassadors, nominated to their posts solely because they have donated large sums of money to an incumbent's election campaign, are an old story, and the practice is not confined to either party. But the kind of incompetence demonstrated by tsuris – sorry, Tsunis – seems particularly characteristic of this presidency, reflective of Obama's by-now familiar readiness to insult and offend our staunchest allies while bowing and scraping to our enemies. But what Tsunis proved during that hearing was not just that he is incompetent but that he has no hesitation to demonize people about whom he knows nothing. He hears the words “anti-immigration” and, like a schoolchild venturing a total guess on a multiple-choice test, spits back an answer that he presumably figures is likely to be in the right ballpark, to wit: “anti-immigration equals bad.” A more honest and responsible-minded candidate would have admitted that he didn't know the first thing about the Progress Party. But not Tsunis, who chose instead to fake his way through the whole show, lying and guessing and making things up and talking out the clock with empty words. It's not just incredibly ignorant; it's disgracefully, inexcusably irresponsible.
There's yet another significant factor here, however. One imagines that Tsunis has spent at least a few hours in recent weeks reading material about Norway provided to him by the administration and being briefed by people who actually know something about the subject. It seems probable that the recent Norwegian elections, and the name of the Progress Party, have come up somewhere along the line, and that Tsunis, while somehow forgetting that the party is part of the current governing coalition, managed to remember that, in the eyes of his friends at the White House and State Department, it is basically a gang of hate-spewing bigots. And the fact is that while it is profoundly inappropriate, of course, for any American diplomat, let alone an ambassador to Norway, to publicly characterize the Progress Party in the kind of terms used by Tsunis, Tsunis's answer to McCain's question was actually an almost perfect summation of the received view of the Progress Party among the Democratic establishment in the United States.
Witness, for example, an article that appeared in the New York Times on January 24, in which Steven Erlenger professed to explain what the Progress Party is all about and to account for its electoral success. The clear, if unspoken, premise of the article was that Norway's socialist establishment is the embodiment of all good democratic values, while the Progress Party represents an at least quasi-fascist challenge thereto. Erlanger, to his credit, did provide a brief quotation or two from an actual Progress Party member, but his chief source of “information” about the party was Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo. What Erlenger did not tell his readers was that Hylland Eriksen not only is one of the Progress Party's fiercest enemies but also, after the July 22, 2011, terrorist attacks by Anders Behring Breivik, was one of the leaders of a cynical, well-nigh totalitarian campaign to link Breivik's acts to the Progress Party and to all domestic critics of Islam – and thereby crush the party and silence the critics.
Part of the record of this nefarious effort is contained in the Times's own archives: only six days after Breivik's atrocities, the Gray Lady ran an op-ed, co-authored by Hylland Eriksen and notorious anti-Semitic novelist Jostein Gaarder, in which they sought to convince American readers that Breivik was a product of the Progress Party and of various Islam critics, including yours truly. A month to the day after the terrorist acts, on August 22, 2011, Hylland Eriksen and three co-authors called in an Aftenposten op-ed for tighter limits on free speech in Norway. “Certain hateful utterances,” they argued, “are legally and morally unacceptable....Neither freedom of speech or the right to express oneself are absolute in any existing human society....it is not a human right to express oneself in public.” Hylland Eriksen and his colleagues mocked “free speech absolutism,” rejected the United States (“the country in the world that goes the furthest in protecting the right to expression”) as a “role model,” complained that “the limits to hateful speech” had been “stretched very far” in Norway in recent years, and argued that this lack of speech restrictions had been a key factor in Breivik's formation. In short, the undemocratic tendencies on the Norwegian political scene in recent years have not been headquartered in the Progress Party – they have been headquartered on the left, highly placed politicians, academics, journalists, and cultural figures who, in the wake of a national tragedy, did their best to crush freedom of speech and destroy their ideological adversaries.
The other day, then, when George Tsunis casually smeared the Progress Party in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was perhaps not entirely a product of ignorance. Bring up Norway in private conversation in progressive circles in the United States and it will not be long before you hear precisely the kind of defamatory language about the Progress Party that Tsunis served up during that hearing – and that Hylland Eriksen, before him, proffered in his mischievous Times and Aftenposten op-eds. Chatting about Norway with Democrats in the U.S., or reading about the subject in the New York Times or Washington Post, you would never know that the Progress Party is actually the closest party in Norway to the U.S. political center; that it is by far the most pro-American and pro-Israeli of major Norwegian political parties; and that, yes, it is the only party in Norway that speaks in a remotely frank and responsible way about the dangers inherent in Islam. Yet, thanks in large part to credulous and left-leaning American reporters and editors who are prepared to believe anything that a Thomas Hylland Eriksen tells them, the Progress Party has been consistently disparaged and demeaned, libeled and lied about in the U.S. media and throughout the American left. In the final analysis, George Tsunis's sorry display in Washington last week was only a footnote to this long, despicable record of slander.
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