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Borde-nough: That’s not the way the world works: Barack Obama can’t always get an ‘A’

Published: October 16, 2009
Section: Opinions


‘Tis the season for papers and, at Brandeis, ’tis also the season for complaining about grades. This school introduced me to the notion that when an instructor puts a grade other than “A” on a student’s work, he has not actually assigned a grade. Instead, the instructor has knocked a chip off the student’s shoulder and challenged him or her to engage in an argument about the grade.

Last year, when I started out as a teaching assistant, I participated unquestioningly in this culture of complaint, taking time to explain to each concerned student why the grade I assigned was the appropriate one. Indeed, given that most people who didn’t get an “A” complained, the burden of explaining grades made it seem reasonable to stop issuing grades lower than an “A.” But I soldiered on.

This year, though, I see things differently.

It’s no longer clear to me that everyone who wants an explanation of his grade is entitled to one. If (or, rather, when) students complain that they didn’t get the “A” that they invariably insist that they deserved, I’ll tell them: “That’s the way the world works.”

And I won’t be lying. Just ask President Barack Obama. When he paid a visit to representatives of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen, Denmark earlier this month, he had a strong case to make for Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Chicago was no shoo-in, of course; its bid was contested by Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.

Rio won the games, and all the commerce, construction, and hoopla that come with them.

But whether Chicago should have prevailed or not, Rio, of all the possible venues, should not have. The IOC chose Rio because it most resembled the 2008 host city, Beijing, in terms of how it would deal with the all-important issue of preparing the necessary facilities and infrastructure for the games.

The IOC liked how Chinese authorities were able to plow hundreds of thousands of people’s homes and businesses out of the way to build new facilities without creating much of a public relations fuss. Displaced people had no enforceable legal rights on which to base a challenge to the authorities’ actions.

As a result, no matter how many lives had to be upended to build the needed stadiums and roads, the preparations did not reflect badly on the IOC.

None of the countries bidding for 2016 offered quite the same kind of opportunity to run roughshod over the locals as China did.

But Rio offered the next best thing: vast slums occupied by people whose legal rights to their land are often unclear. The IOC rewarded Brazil’s willingness to do some low-key, unceremonious slum clearance, thereby handing Rio an undeserved victory.

Chicago has big poor sections, too, of course, but for the most part they aren’t occupied by squatters. And, in the U.S, that means that the people targeted for eviction have rights to stand on, rights that allow them to make a fuss. They can challenge eviction efforts, resort to the courts, and can demand compensation.

In the end, the fatal flaw in Chicago’s Olympic bid was not in the materials that Chicago and U.S officials submitted to the IOC, but in the takings clause of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and its Illinois equivalent.

Of course, President Obama also learned that not getting what one arguably should have gotten can sometimes redound to one’s benefit. The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided that Obama deserved to win its prestigious Peace Prize.

It did so because, as it explained in a press release on Oct. 9, the president has made “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” He “has…captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

I don’t have the Nobel Committee’s 108 years of prize-awarding experience. But it doesn’t take an expert to understand that the winner of the Peace Prize ought to be someone who is instrumental in bringing about peace. One can think of a number of scenarios in which Obama’s actions could make him worthy of winning such a prize in the future.

But those scenarios haven’t happened yet. It would be surprising if they had. Obama has not yet been president for a year. His rhetoric on arms control and climate change, which the Nobel Committee credited with creating a “new climate in international politics,” has not yet been followed up with action.

Obama has not yet translated his talk about international climate cooperation into meaningful changes in U.S. policy. And he has not yet begun to make the case for a new climate policy to the U.S. public, which has good reasons to be skeptical of changes that could hamstring the U.S. economy and that may not be reciprocated by America’s most important competitors.

Obama’s talk of a “world free from nuclear arms” captivated the Nobel Committee, but it does not change the fact that the U.S. owns the world’s most powerful arsenal of these weapons. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s rhetoric amounts to more than window dressing for a policy of pushing around Iran and North Korea.

Obama probably hasn’t had time yet to make big, prize-winning changes in arms and climate policy. But there’s no way to be sure that he will.

Most significantly, Obama hasn’t ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For all the talk of withdrawal from Iraq, it’s going pretty slowly.

There are still 120,000 U.S. troops there. And in Afghanistan, the U.S. is increasing its troop presence, as Obama sends his generals to Capitol Hill to make demands that legislators cannot or will not refuse.

American troops might even wind up in Pakistan to make sure that a friendly government stays in charge–an option that, as the administration knows well, will be easier to choose once the troop presence in Afghanistan is sufficiently expanded.

Obama’s decisions in these matters have not been the stuff of which Peace Prizes are made. Ironically, the Nobel Committee has undercut those keen on ending the ongoing wars by placing its imprimatur on Obama’s policies.

Who can argue that Obama is doing too little to end these American interventions now that the president has been declared the world’s greatest peacemaker?

In effect, the Nobel Committee covered Obama’s political left flank on Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to ensure that the U.S. will continue to occupy these countries.

For karma’s sake, perhaps, Obama must have decided to give something undeserved to make up for what he undeservedly received. That seems like the best explanation for the Sept. 30 decision to shift more control over the Internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

With this agreement, ICANN, as this body is better known, takes a long step in the direction of replacing the government as the body that coordinates and administers the Internet.

The government has, in effect, given up its power to override ICANN’s decisions or to replace ICANN if it fails to perform well. This authority had value, but the U.S. got nothing for giving it away.

The government is not the most responsive institution in the world, but ICANN is even less so. No one forced the administration to make concessions to ICANN.

From the standpoint of the American public, it’s not at all clear that placing control over the Internet in ICANN’s hands is a better option than keeping some authority over it under the auspices of the Department of Commerce.

The Commerce Department is ultimately beholden to American voters; ICANN claims to act on behalf of its “stakeholders,” a mysterious grouping that in practice includes mainly well-placed businesses and individuals who have the money and influence to make their voices heard by ICANN’s bureaucrats.

But if, like Rio de Janeiro and President Obama, ICANN did nothing to deserve what it got, it certainly didn’t object to receiving it. Just as nobody at Brandeis ever seems to argue that they got an “A” that they didn’t deserve, nobody turns down benefits that accrue to them for no reasons or for bad ones.

In an ideal world, the freebies given to Rio and Obama and ICANN would invite the argument that something went wrong in the giving.

But that, unfortunately, is not the way the world works.