The Wisdom of Gail Collins

There’s no snappier commentator on our dysfunctional politics than the Times’ Gail Collins. Not only is she the snappiest, but for my money the most versatile as well. Take her excellent column today, which makes what I think are two crucial point, albeit very different from each other. I would paraphrase, but that would just foul up the eloquence, so I’ll let the woman speak for herself.

Point #1:

When was it that the singing of “Kumbaya” became a shorthand for weenieness? “Kumbaya'” is an excellent campfire song, especially for groups that border on tone-deafness and don’t know the words to anything.”

I couldn’t agree more, especially as I fit both the aforementioned criteria. It’s a good song. Angry partisans, go find another metaphor for naive  political compromise.

Point #2:

But let’s admit it. Nothing would have gotten done if Obama hadn’t swallowed that loathsome compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy.

If he’d taken the high road, Congress would be in a holiday war. The long-term unemployed would be staggering into the new year without benefits. The rest of the world would look upon the United States as a country so dysfunctional that it can’t even ratify a treaty to help keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The people who worked at ground zero would still be uncertain about their future, and our gay and lesbian soldiers would still be living in fear.

It’s depressing to think that there was no way to win that would not have involved giving away billions of dollars to people who don’t need it. But it’s kind of cheery to think we have a president who actually does know what he’s doing.”

Yes, I’m slowly coming around. I hated the obscene ransom deal Obama went along with just to get Republicans to agree to what they should have–as a matter of conscience–agreed to all along, and still do. The fight over extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent is one Obama and the Dems should have been spoiling for long before the midterms. I suspect it might have even saved them a bunch of seats by crystallizing once and for all just what the Republican Party is really all about. Alas, Democrats retreated to the safe ground of inaction and paid royally at the polls. But it was probably unreasonable to think that the damage could be undone with a two-week display of progressive backbone in the lame-duck session. With a Republican House on its way into town, the Republicans had the luxury of waiting out the clock on this Congress, ramming through a full extension of the tax cuts (with none of the sweeteners for Democrats in the current deal), and then daring Democrats to assume responsibility for letting everyone’s taxes rise.

We can now console ourselves for the next week with the fruits of this sudden and unforeseen blossoming of bipartisanship–DADT repeal, START, 9/11 first responders aid. And Collins is right that none of this likely would have happened without the (very costly) olive branch extended by the president to Republicans two weeks ago.

But let’s not delude ourselves. This feel-good moment of bipartisan cooperation is pure ephemera. The president will, come January, find himself right back in the trenches against a Republican opposition determined to deny him even the smallest legislative victory heading into 2012. Let’s just hope that the lesson the White House has taken out of this isn’t that for the small price of compromising all your economic principles you can notch up a few wins to email your supporters about but rather that if you don’t want to have to compromise all your economic principles in the first place, you had better be willing to stand up and fight for them early and often.

The new Congress convenes January 5. We’ll find out which message Obama and co. got soon enough.


Why I’m Not Expecting Amazing from Qatar

“Qatar to allow alcohol and Israel for 2022 FIFA World Cup bid,” read the November headline on, the self-proclaimed, “Ultimate Home for Non-Resident Indians in Kuwait.” Now that Qatar’s bid has been successful, great news for alcoholics and Israel. No such luck for gay people, whom Sepp Blatter warned, in response to a reporter’s question last week, “should refrain from any sexual activities” while in Qatar (jokingly, of course). Except it’s not really a joking matter.  Homosexuality is punishable in Qatar by five years in prison. And don’t think that only applies to Qatar’s 800,000-strong population. According to the UN Refugee Agency, “In 1996, the U.S. Department of State reported that an American citizen in Qatar was sentenced to six months imprisonment and 90 lashes for homosexual activity.”

After rambling for the next minute about the opening of the Middle East, which is “another culture because it is another religion” and affirming his belief that there “should not be any discrimination against any human beings,” Blatter then reassured homosexuals that if they “want to watch a match somewhere in Qatar in 2022, I’m sure they will be admitted to such matches.” Reassured now, gay fans?

In Blatter’s mind, he’s some sort of heroic liberal crusader, bringing western values and human rights to backward lands. Rumor is he has his eyes set on a Nobel Peace Prize. He reportedly claimed recently, “What can be wrong if we start football in regions where this sport demonstrates a potential which goes far beyond sport. It’s my philosophy to drive forward the expansion of football. The next regions we need to conquer would be China and India. Football has become a political matter. Heads of state court me.”

While I’m thrilled to know that Mr. Blatter’s ego is being sufficiently satisfied, FIFA’s choice of Qatar makes a mockery of its professed commitment to human rights. If I could borrow a few fun facts from Nate Silver’s blog at the Times, “[Qatar] ranks 121st out of 178 countries in the Press Freedom Index, and 144th out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index developed by The Economist magazine, which classifies it as an authoritarian regime….Protections for its substantial migrant worker population are limited, and it is one of 16 countries given the lowest ratings by the State Department for its propensity to engage in human trafficking.”

In fairness, some of the hysteria over Qatar might be somewhat overblown. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to learn from the State Department that women make up 26 percent of the local national work force and appear to receive equal pay for equal work.  But try brushing aside this little factoid: “The legal system allows leniency for a man found guilty of committing a ‘crime of honor,’ or a violent assault against a woman for perceived immodesty or defiant behavior.”

As much as I love the idea of soccer serving as a vehicle for social change, a World Cup transforming the Middle East is about as plausible as another war doing the trick. I’m not going to insist that every Cup take place in a model democracy (which is why if I hold my nose tightly enough, I can just about deal with Russia hosting the 2018 tournament). It would be nice though if FIFA at least pretended to take its own anti-discrimination campaign seriously.

I predict that in 12 years’ time things will go just fine. The games will be played in lovely air-conditioned domes, western visitors will find the red carpet rolled out for their arrival and no one will be arrested for homosexual activities. The biggest crisis will be an epidemic of tourists collapsing from heat stroke (the average high in June is 106 degrees).

The slogan for the 2022 World Cup is “Expect Amazing.” But for those of us who thought (perhaps naively) that the World Cup represented something more than a get-rich-quick scheme for FIFA or a fix for Sepp Blatter’s addiction to the spotlight, the inevitable sight of FIFA officials and pundits marveling at Qatar’s futuristic stadiums and mind-boggling wealth (Qatar has the world’s second-highest GDP per capita) will feel anything but.

News Flash: Julian Assange is AUSTRALIAN!

In the interest of surviving this semester in one piece, I imposed on myself a blogging ban through mid-December about two weeks ago. But then this weekend came word of more of that journalistic manna that my news-junkie self absolutely cannot resist: another WikiLeaks dump!

The latest documents, some 250,000 State Department cables ranging from discussions of Iranian nuclear capabilities to musings on Russian and Italian Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi’s reported bromance, have this country’s political elites every bit as worked up, although in a slightly different sense. New York Congressman Peter King  fumed that WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange were engaged in “terrorist activity,” while Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, ever the voice of reason, restrained himself to calling WikiLeaks’ disclosure “nothing less than an attack on the national security of the United States, as well as that of dozens of other countries.”

I won’t wade into the broader ethical debate on WikiLeaks’ actions. If you’re interested in sampling the gamut of what I’d consider rational opinion on the issue, I’d recommend Glenn Greenwald’s full-throated defense of WikiLeaks on Salon and Peter Beinart’s criticism of the latest dump as sabotaging American foreign policy without adding to the public debate.

I’ve only had time for a cursory survey of the debate online, but one, it seems to me important, issue that I haven’t seen broached is that of Julian Assange’s nationality, which happens to be Australian. Assange’s detractors have blasted him for undermining American foreign policy by revealing unflattering remarks made by US diplomats about world leaders or exposing the State Department’s use of diplomats to spy on foreign officials. (I’ll ignore the absolutely unfounded accusation that Assange has blood on his hands; US officials have conceded they have no evidence of WikiLeaks documents leading to anybody’s death.) Perhaps this would be a legitimate criticism of an American journalist, but what responsibility does Assange have, as an Australian, to protect American foreign policy interests? Surely journalists should refrain from putting any innocent lives in jeopardy (again, there’s no evidence WikiLeaks has done so), but is it really a journalistic no-no to make a foreign government’s life more difficult? Would the voices calling for Assange’s head be so loud if he had released, say, Chinese diplomatic cables? I suspect he might be treated more like a conquering hero in that case.

Whether we should consider American journalists and publications under some sort of patriotic duty not to jeopardize their government’s foreign policy agenda seems to me a legitimate subject of debate, although I’m highly skeptical of this line of reasoning. What could possibly justify applying the same standard to a foreign journalist is completely beyond me.