Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Brad Lander on paid sick days for New York City; and Richard Kim on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell


LIU THE LAUREATE: Until recently, it was difficult to pick a single word to describe Liu Xiaobo. Not yet 55, he’s already been—or still is—a prizewinning essayist, human rights activist, poet, literature professor, political prisoner and co-author of Charter 08 (a bold Internet petition modeled on Václav Havel‘s Charter 77). On October 8, though, Liu received an honor that will define him for the rest of his life: the Nobel Peace Prize.

Liu’s win was not surprising—bookies had declared him the odds-on favorite. Equally predictable was how Beijing reacted, alternately trying to prevent news of the award from circulating in China and condemning the Prize Committee for honoring a “criminal.” One thing that was surprising was that Liu’s wife was able to visit him in jail and tell him of his victory. Soon, though, the authorities reverted to relying on the standard playbook and placed her under house arrest.

We hope Liu’s selection will contribute somehow to making China freer. Whether it will isn’t clear. For now, the government’s stance toward persistent critics will harden, while official complaints that foreigners are determined to meddle in China’s affairs will increase. Yet Liu’s win could bolster the resolve of a broad spectrum of activists there.

It is uncertain what the future holds for Liu the prisoner (and his cause); but for Liu the writer, becoming a Nobel laureate is a coup. More people will read his words now, poetry and petitions alike. China’s leaders have made many efforts to silence Liu. Ironically, though, it was partly the crudeness of their latest attempt (sentencing him to eleven years in prison for his Charter 08 activities) that helped him win a new prize—and gain new readers.   MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM and JEFFREY WASSERSTROM

MAYOR MIKE: DON’T GET SICK: Most Nation readers likely take paid sick days for granted. Unfortunately, millions of low-wage workers lack even this basic workplace right (disproportionately in food service, where we’d especially want sick workers to stay home for public health reasons).

So the New York City Council is considering legislation—supported by the Working Families Party, Gloria Steinem and the council’s Progressive Caucus—to grant a handful of paid sick days to all workers in the city. San Francisco adopted this policy in 2006, and a recent survey of employers by the Urban Institute found that “they were able to implement the paid sick leave requirement with minimal impacts to their business.”

But that hasn’t stopped Mayor Michael Bloomberg from fulminating against the bill in the Wall Street Journal: “It would be a disaster if the government tries to get in to run small businesses. If they run the bars and restaurants, they’ll try to run everything else. This is…a terrible, terrible idea and would be disastrous for New York City.” From a Tea Party conservative, this would hardly be surprising. But from the mayor who required bar owners to ban smoking and restaurants to post their calorie counts?

In the new urban manager model typified by Bloomberg, you can regulate for greener cities, friendlier to the creative class. But if you propose to use similar regulatory tools to provide even a small measure of security to low-wage workers, beware!

With a federal government all too likely to be gridlocked, cities must regain their historic role as laboratories of innovative public policy aimed at creating a more equal society. Making sure that no worker in NYC has to go to work sick is a good place to start.   NYC COUNCIL MEMBER BRAD LANDER

ROLLBACK REPUBLICANS: This year’s Republican Senate candidates have a lot of ideas for how to roll back the social and economic progress of the twentieth century. Kentucky’s Rand Paul got into trouble for expressing qualms about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Colorado’s Ken Buck has proposed “privatizing” VA hospitals. Alaska’s Joe Miller says unemployment compensation is unconstitutional.

But in the backward race, the winner might well be West Virginia’s John Raese, who says he “absolutely” wants to abolish the federal minimum wage. “You don’t want government to set wage controls,” says Raese. “It’s an archaic system that frankly has not worked.” Actually, it has “worked” for low-wage workers in West Virginia—roughly 60,000 of whom benefited from the last federal minimum-wage hike. So Raese is wrong. But he’s not alone. Alaska’s Miller has the federal minimum wage on his list of unconstitutional threats to states’ rights. And Connecticut’s Linda McMahon proposed that “we ought to review” wage standards— a stance that caused such a controversy that McMahon backtracked, claiming she “misunderstood” a simple question about the base pay for the poorest Americans. No surprise there. Like Raese, McMahon is a multimillionaire.   JOHN NICHOLS

OBAMA’S CHOICE: US District Judge Virginia Phillips‘s October 12 ruling ordering the military to immediately stop enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell” puts the Obama administration in an awkward position. Although President Obama supports a repeal of DADT, his strategy has been to lift the ban through consensus—asking the military to study the issue and Congress to pass repeal legislation. That process ground to a halt in September when every Senate Republican (plus Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor) filibustered a repeal bill, even though top military brass supported it. In the meantime, the Justice Department fought the Log Cabin Republicans in the case before Judge Phillips, arguing that the military and Congress, not the courts, should make the decision.

The Log Cabin Republicans won— Phillips ruled on September 9 that the ban was unconstitutional, paving the way for the October order. Obama officials have sixty days to decide whether to appeal the ruling. If they decline, DADT is history. If they appeal, the case could wind up in front of the Supreme Court.

Behind all this legal wrangling is the calculation that legislative advances of gay rights are more likely to endure, while court orders often foment a public backlash. That may have made sense a year ago, when Democrats had sixty Senate seats and the Republican Party was still relatively sane. But September’s lesson is clear: Republicans will obstruct legislation even if doing so endangers national security interests. So Obama has a choice: he can put the executive branch in line with the courts and with justice and decline to appeal Judge Phillips’s ruling, or he can further empower the Party of No.   RICHARD KIM

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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