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Is Obama Snubbing Russia?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will visit with Lee Daniels. He directed one of the most anticipated films of the summer "The Butler." That's coming up later. But we are continuing our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're getting the guys' take on the news. With us this week, Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Paul Butler and Neil Minkoff. He's a healthcare consultant and a National Review contributor.

Before the break, Neil, you were telling us your thoughts about the fact that there's a move afoot to lower the penalties, at least in federal cases, for some nonviolent crimes, and your thoughts were that you support this. You said the current system makes no sense. Do you want to tie a bow on that?

NEIL MINKOFF: Well, sure not only does the sentencing not make sense, but the drug laws, the way they're put together around possession, don't make very much sense. The vast majority of recreational drugs - there's very little science behind them being damaging and highly addictive.

There should be a group that looks at, you know, studied - maybe by the NIH or somebody to look at what the true addictive potential of drugs really are, and start to allow for the drugs that aren't particularly addictive to be sold more legally and regulated. And I think that, from just a public health point of view, I'd feel a lot more comfortable knowing that, you know, my patients or my friends or whoever were using a substance that was made by Merck or Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson and not Jimi in his bathtub.

MARTIN: Oh, no. Oh, my goodness. Throw the brother under the bus like that.


MINKOFF: Not you, Jimi, just conceptually.

MARTIN: Not that Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Not me, Jimi, like the royal Jimi.

MARTIN: Different.

IZRAEL: I got it. I got it. Well, Michel, you know what's...

MARTIN: ...Moving on, Jimi.

IZRAEL: ...Yeah. You know, what's interesting? It's like President Obama kind of told Russian President Vladimir Putin - he kind of gave him the hand, Michel. I mean, he had planned to visit Putin next month, but he telling him to talk to the hand. The White House has canceled - canceled that visit, Michel.

MARTIN: I don't know if that has to do with drug policy, but we'll go with it. And so...

IZRAEL: ...Yeah, why not.

MARTIN: ...The meeting was scheduled ahead of next month's G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, but the decision was canceled to made, obviously, after Russia granted temporary asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden. You know, it's so interesting that this even was a subject of President Obama's conversation with Jay Leno, the late-night talk show host. And here's what they talked about. Here it is.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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, you know, we've got to think about the future. And there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more...

JAY LENO: ...Yeah.

OBAMA: ...Effectively than we do.

LENO: And Putin seems to me like one of those old-school KGB guys.

OBAMA: Well, he...

LENO: I mean...

OBAMA: ...Headed up the KGB.

LENO: Yeah. Well, that's what I mean.

MARTIN: He is that guy. He is that guy. So, Jimi, what'd you think?

IZRAEL: I thought it was a good - I thought Jay Leno looked like a fool for not prepping for the interview, not knowing that Putin used to be the head of the KGB. But I also think that - I'm happy to see Obama is - he's coming out hard this term. You know, he's a lot more Richard Roundtree this term than Sidney Poitier.

He's not so much the accommodationist. He's not so much the accommodationist-in-chief. You know, this isn't something I think he would've done last term. It feels good to see him, you know, kind of exude this kind of passive aggression and downright contempt. Go dude, go.

MARTIN: Does anybody disagree? Does anybody think it was not a good idea to cancel the summit?


MARTIN: ...Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: ...This is Arsalan. First of all, let me put my bag of weed away before I start talking here. It's important to keep in mind that, you know, let's be honest. Nobody can be really surprised by the fact that Obama canceled this visit because of Edward Snowden.

What's interesting to me is, you know, I wonder how many former Russian spies we've given asylum to here in the United States, and, you know, whether or not Russia has ever canceled any sort of summit because of that. And so, you know, I think this is a little bit of, you know, sort of a millennial post-Cold War, you know, of structuring here. But, you know, I don't think anybody can really be surprised by what's going on.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing, though, that - there are other reasons why there are activists who are happy that the president canceled the summit, in part, because they want to make a statement about the new anti-gay law there, which has sparked, you know, protests in Russia...

IFTIKHAR: ...Right.

MARTIN: ...At great cost to some of these activists', you know, safety, clearly, and prompted talks of a boycott of the Olympics. So, I mean, on that basis, Arsalan, what about that?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you know, our barbershop comrade, Dave Zirin, from The Nation magazine wrote a great piece for Grantland, you know, about the crackdown on the LGBT community in, you know, in the light of the Sochi Olympics, the Winter Olympics, that are going to happen in 2014. And, you know, there was an op-ed by the famous Hollywood actor Harvey Fierstein in The New York Times calling for a boycott. And so, you know, people are debating whether or not to have a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

You know, people are remembering in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which was actually widely panned at the time as just Cold War posturing. And so, you know, I think it's interesting. I myself wouldn't call for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics, only because I would actually call for massive LGBT rallies during the 2014 Olympics to bring light to the crackdown. But, you know, I do see both sides of the point here.

PAUL BUTLER: Yeah, so...

MARTIN: ...Go ahead, Paul.

BUTLER: ...Hold up on the human rights stuff. It's not like the United States is perfect, you know. Even on gay issues, you know, I think 43 states gay people can't get married. On other human rights issues, if you're poor, you can die of illness because you don't have health care. So I don't know if we really have standing to call Russia out on human rights. It was a great macho performance by the president, but I think it's more the kind of symbolic than substantive.

MARTIN: I want to move on to the last topic 'cause I want to make sure we save time for that, that there's this new Reuters poll that shows that many Americans don't have friends outside of their race, particularly white Americans. Are most likely not to have friends outside of their race. Forty percent of white Americans, 25 percent of nonwhite Americans, say that they only have friends of people of their own race. And I'm just - I know I heard the gasp there, I assumed that was Jimi. But - clutching his pearls. But what do we think about this? It just seems so retro to me?

IZRAEL: Pres Paul, why don't you go first here, man. I'm going to let - go ahead first here.

BUTLER: So the good part of it was that young people are much more likely to have friends of different races, and I give hip-hop some credit for that. You know, I talk a lot about hip-hop based on my book, and people would give me push back saying hip-hop makes white people think that blacks are all thugs and strippers.

But I think this demonstrates the power of the art form and how the subversive racial justice work the artists are doing. On the other hand, though, I'm not all that optimistic. One of the things the study said is that there's a lot more interracial relationships among young people. If we look at countries like Dominican Republic, Brazil, Cuba, there's always been a lot of interracial sex and friendships. But light-skinned people...

IZRAEL: Hey now.

BUTLER: ...Still run stuff. Dark-skinned people still get discriminated against. So, you know, I think the lesson here is that white people can be your friend or your lover, but still promote white supremacy.

IZRAEL: Can I push back on the idea that hip-hop has somehow provided a bridge to the communities? I mean, I think it's got a good beat and it's fun to dance to, but just like Motown, I don't know that Motown music - it didn't really engender a lot of compassion. You know, it just - like I said, it's just got a good beat and it's fun to dance to.

There's not - I wouldn't say there's any sincere compassion, because, in my way of thinking, I don't necessarily think that race plays a part, or the color of skin, plays a part in why white people or black people don't have friends of another color. I think it's just about a shared experience or a commonality. And if you don't have anything in common with your white neighbor or your black neighbor, then you two aren't going to have a whole lot of conversation, period.

MARTIN: Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: Well, there's a psychology test called the Implicit Association Test, the IAT, that measures in a matter - it's computer generated, so you can measure, literally, to the microsecond - associations people have with skin color and with good and bad and, you know, all the different tendencies that go along with it. And one of the things that's been shown to improve the scores of how people view races is by looking at positive actions. So if someone reads an essay about...


MINKOFF: ...Martin Luther King, and then takes the IAT, their score about how they view black people improves. And one of the things that people who have pushed that test say is that more exposure to people of different races improve your view - improves your familiarity, and therefore, improves your IAT score.

MARTIN: OK, well, so your score must be really high.

MINKOFF: I hope so.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now, unfortunately. Rich topics here. We have to come back and talk about it some more. Neil Minkoff is a healthcare consultant and contributor to the National Review, with us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic, with us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. From WFPL in Louisville, Arsalan Iftikhar. Paul Butler, professor at Georgetown, here in D.C. Thank you all so much.


BUTLER: Thanks for having us Michel.

MINKOFF: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yep, yep.

MARTIN: And if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.