President Obama went on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night, and Leno asked him about Russia’s crackdown on gay and trans people, and about increasing concerns about the safety of gay, and gay-friendly, athletes and visitors at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
UPDATE: AP is reporting that President Obama is now canceling plans to meet with Russian President Putin next month at the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, in part because of US concerns about “human rights.” An administration official just confirmed to me that Russia’s crackdown on its gay and trans community was part of the reason for the cancelation of the summit.
The video of Obama’s appearance is at the bottom of this article. (For foreign readers, the Tonight Show is likely America’s most popular, and influential, late-night television talk show. And Jay Leno, therefore, is quite well-known, and well-liked, in America.)
Russia’s Minister of Sports, Vitaly Mutko, recently said that athletes and visitors to the Sochi Olympics would be arrested if they say, or do, anything perceived as pro-gay.
First, when answering a question about NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the President talks about larger problems we’re having with Russia, then he invokes the Cold War. While Obama doesn’t directly mention the gay issue yet, it’s interesting that he would accuse Russia of slipping back into “Cold War” – aka “Soviet” – thinking:
THE PRESIDENT: And in some ways it’s reflective of some underlying challenges that we’ve had with Russia lately. A lot of what’s been going on hasn’t been major breaks in the relationship, and they still help us on supplying our troops in Afghanistan; they’re still helping us on counterterrorism work; they were helpful after the Boston bombing in that investigation. And so there’s still a lot of business that we can do with them.
But there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.
Then Leno brings up Putin’s former work for the KGB:
JAY LENO: And Putin seems to me like one of those old-school KGB guys.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, he headed up the KGB. (Laughter.)….
In fact, Putin was only a middle-level employee at the KGB, though he went on to head the domestic successor to the KGB, the Federal Security Service. So Obama isn’t really wrong.
Then Leno and Obama start talking about Russia’s crackdown on gay and trans people. Leno, remarkably, invokes Hitler, and Obama doesn’t flinch, or dissuade him:
JAY LENO: Well, something that shocked me about Russia — and I’m surprised this is not a huge story — suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that. You round up people who you don’t — I mean, why is not more of the world outraged at this?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country. And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.
There’s a reason that Leno invokes Hitler: Russia has not just cracked down with the law, they’ve cracked heads as well. Russian vigilante groups now lure young gays via social media, then kidnap and torture them. There are growing concerns that one such victim may now be dead. All of this has led to an international boycott of Russian products, particularly vodka, and especially Stolichnaya, which begins its production in Russia, then is finished in Latvia.
That’s when Obama pivots to comparing Russia to Africa (ouch!):
THE PRESIDENT: Now, what’s happening in Russia is not unique. When I traveled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians. And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes. But one of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that’s what we stand for. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere. (Applause.)
JAY LENO: Do you think it will affect the Olympics?
THE PRESIDENT: I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They’re athletes, they’re there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it. (Applause.)
JAY LENO: Good enough for me.
A few points to consider. The fact that President Obama has now weighed in personally about Russia’s anti-gay crackdown is a huge deal. It helps to both generate additional publicity (adds a gravitas to the issue that the media appreciates) and puts additional pressure on Russia, and the International Olympic Committee. Second, Obama’s comments about the KGB, the Cold War, and then comparing Russia to Africa, in terms of its stance on human rights, will likely not go over well in the Kremlin. The President’s words are actually quite a stinging rebuke.
And I have to give credit to Jay Leno as well. In the past, people have expressed concerns about Leno’s penchant for telling what can only be described as “f*g jokes” (I use the asterisk so as not to run afoul of filters that block ads on bigoted Web sites). But, Leno not only facilitated the President directly speaking out on this issue, Leno also chose to put the issue in stark terms, invoking Nazi Germany. And he’s not wrong.
The lesson from the Holocaust is not that it was so unique that it could never happen again (if so, it would simply be a historical anomaly that, while horrifying, could safely be forgotten). The lesson was that it could happen anywhere, if good men refuse to recognize, and stand up to, evil.
Here’s the video of the relevant portion of Obama’s appearance on Leno last night: