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As I sat down to watch the United States play at this year’s World Cup in Qatar, I found myself reflecting upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence. In his short essay “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Why, you might ask, was I thinking about Fitzgerald instead of U.S. men’s soccer star Christian Pulisic?
In 2016, I traveled overseas to teach two general education courses at Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Qatar. They were both American-focused courses, one on the history of American education and the other on the history of American public policy. Like my courses in the United States, I engaged my Qatari students in a critical history of the United States, one that centered the history of race. My hope was that in engaging my Qatari students in a set of courses that frontloaded critical self-reflection on my country that they would similarly engage in critical self-reflection on their country. Put another way, I hoped my students would see that the United States represented a hopeful example of democracy, even if the experiment is flawed and limited. In the same way, I hoped students would see Qatar’s transformations as containing many political possibilities while recognizing the country had much work to do in terms of human rights.
At the end of my American public policy course, students engaged in a debate about a pressing public policy issue in the United States. On the second day of the debate, they were to engage in further policy debate, but focused on Qatar. In preparation for the second day, students read a series of reports that highlighted Qatar’s use of migrant workers, especially as it pertained to their lack of legal status and protection.
I was impressed with the first day of debate, in particular the ways the students were attuned to the constraints of American institutions and the need for reform as well as the political diversity of the American public. I was disappointed by the second day. The kneejerk reaction to defend their country—indeed, the kneejerk reaction to say that the reports of migrant workers’ mistreatment were false—revealed to me that I failed in one of my central goals of the class: to develop critical thinkers who are, in the sense of Fitzgerald, able to hold in their minds multiple truths. That America is flawed. But so too is Qatar. I worried—I still do—that I provided my students with tools for whataboutery.
Indeed, I worry that much of our contemporary political culture, both domestic and global, is shaped by whataboutery, or the tendency to deflect with counteraccusations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the World Cup, which brought worldwide attention to the abuses of the migrant workers who built the infrastructure for the tournament. In the leadup to the first game, FIFA president Gianni Infantino accused Western critics of Qatar’s human rights record of being hypocritical, seemingly referencing the history of European colonialism when he said, “I think for what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years, before starting to give moral lessons.”
What Infantino said was historically accurate. Western countries, including both European nations and the United States, have a terrible track record when it comes to the history of human rights. But one can simultaneously hold both views. We can acknowledge the troubled history of Western colonialism while maintaining the right of Western organizations to criticize Qatar for its failure to protect the human rights of its workers. This is not an intellectual stretch, either. After all, Qatar’s migrant labor system today, what is known as the kafala system, was based off the labor system used by the British Empire in the region.
But it’s not enough to simply acknowledge multiple truths. In fact, it’s easy to fall into the trap of political pessimism in doing so. The world is a dark place where we continue to make the same mistakes. But the next sentence of Fitzgerald’s often-quoted essay offers some further guidance and hope. Fitzgerald wrote, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” The history of Western colonialism, the mistreatment of workers in Qatar and the whataboutery of FIFA can make us feel hopeless. But uncomfortable truths can also help motivate us to think differently about both what is and what is possible. A good liberal arts education should make us do that.
And maybe, just maybe, I provided a better liberal arts education in Qatar than I thought. In 2019, one of my former students emailed me an article suggesting that Qatar would move forward with legislative elections that had been repeatedly postponed. Of course, as I told the student, I would wait to see the results. But they never came. The elections were postponed yet again (it turns out that Qatar did hold its first symbolic elections in 2021). Nonetheless, the email showed that my class at least encouraged my student to more critically examine the Qatari political system and to what extent it aligned with its stated political ideals. After all, one of the questions I raised during our end-of-the-course debates was why Qatar had not held any elections despite its constitutional commitment to do so. The email, in other words, meant the student was still thinking about my question many years after the completion of the course.
Admittedly, I am also still thinking about a set of questions that I raised for myself when watching the FIFA World Cup. It’s why I was thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Does watching the World Cup make me complicit? On the one hand, I might argue no. The international spotlight of the tournament can help push Qatar to make further political reforms. The human rights organization Amnesty International recognizes the “noticeable improvements for the country’s two million migrant workers” since 2017.
On the other hand, the answer is clearly yes. Arguably, despite the extensive media attention on Qatar’s poor human rights record, we may quickly forget as the World Cup continues. And, ultimately, the reforms are limited at best. Indeed, Amnesty International also raised deep concerns about continuing issues facing migrant workers including delayed or unpaid wages and denied rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs, limited access to the justice system, and failures to investigate thousands of workers’ deaths.
Both statements hold kernels of truth. Both are conflicting. There is also another question: Did my presence teaching at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus also make me complicit? More often than not, I remember most the defensive posturing of my students during the debate. But I also hold on to the potential of my student’s email. Here, again, Fitzgerald’s reflections in “The Crack-Up” might prove helpful: “I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort,” he wrote, “and the sense of the necessity to struggle.” Indeed, a good liberal arts education should make us struggle. Both professor and student alike.