June 30, 2007

What happens to bodies of suicide bombers?

This article in NYT sheds light.

June 29, 2007

Judicial independence?

US Supreme Court yesterday delivered a judgement which is being seen as a form of resegregation. The case at hand was two programs in the cities of Louisville and Seattle that were designed to maintain racial diversity in their public schools. The program in Louisville worked by ensuring a certain ratio of black/white students, where as, in Seattle, it was only used as a "tie breaker". Basically, if you were a parent, you did not have complete choice as to which school your child can attend. All over the country such programs are in place in several school districts, and these particular programs are in news only because they happened to reach the Supreme Court.

US, of course, had a long and violent history with segregation, and things began to change for the better only in the last few decades. There is reason to believe that at least part of this change is directed by the judiciary. This was especially true when it came to school segregation. The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 set the tone for more reform in later years.

This is a thorny issue. Sooner or later everything boils down to one's value judgements. Should parents have complete freedom to choose schools for their children? Does government have the mandate to interfere to ensure a racially integrated class room? If governments think they have that mandate, should the courts rule against them? Should courts themselves interfere to ensure racial diversity? These are all difficult questions. They are sure to elicit diagonally opposite, yet passionate, answers.

Needless to say, I too have opinions on these matters. What fascinates me more, however, is the role of electoral politics in all this. Constitution is just a collection of paper with splashes of ink on it. It has no meaning whatsoever until someone comes along and interprets it. In any form of governance, but particularly in a democracy, its official interpretation is bound to change in time.

There is an episode of Seinfeld (The Couch) in which Elaine says that the Supreme Court gave her the right to abortion. She doesn't say that the constitution gave her the right, though that is obviously implied. And she is right, because really Supreme Court alone gave her the right and it can take it away. Indeed, later in the episode, Elaine's date, much to her dismay, expresses the hope that one day he would have enough judges on the Supreme Court to do precisely that. May be, his time has come!

So the ordinary citizen's recourse to the constitution is through the courts (primarily, the Supreme Court). And this is where the interesting stuff happens. How Supreme Court views the constitution is largely a matter of who is on it. And that is decided by the president and ratified by the Congress, both being elected by people.

I know that anyone who ends up on the Supreme Court is incredibly erudite and sophisticated. They are bound to have well considered, rational opinions on all matters. But here's the nub. Oftentimes, when it comes to a judgment, it is a simple black and white thing. And all the nuanced scholarship in the world must lead finally to a Yes or No. And this final answer is very often predictable. Once Bush was able to get confirmations for his two nominees, Roberts and Alito, from a friendly Congress these decisions were on the card. On the other hand, if Kerry had won in 2004, most definitely these two would not now be sitting on the court, and it is fair to say that the decision yesterday would have been different.

So it all boils down to this: if more Americans wanted Kerry to be the president in 2004, the programs in Louisville and Seattle would have been constitutional. Now they are not. This is either charmingly refreshing or gloomily depressing, depending on what kind of person you are.

June 19, 2007

Stupidity versus anti-Semitism.

In May this year a union of British college teachers voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in protest against their support of occupation. To be precise, this was only an initial vote that paved way for further debate on the subject in the union. It is not clear to me what form this potential boycott will take. On the one hand, they call for a halt to European collaboration with Israel. But then I can also call on India to stop playing cricket. These calls do not amount to anything. On the other hand, presumably this boycott will put a stop to all interactions between British colleges and Israeli academic institutions. Big deal.

This is funny. I agree that human beings (or institutions) are whole units, and that any assessment ought to consider them as such. When a brilliant scientist speaks nonsense on a general subject, my view of him is lowered just a bit, though my respect for his scientific skills is the same. However, it is quite foolish of me to insist that I will not work with another mathematician just because his views on world affairs differ from mine.

There is one subtle point here though. There do exist legitimate nonacademic reasons for refusing to work with someone. For instance, if a physicist (during the second world war) refused to work with another physicist working for Hitler, that would have been fine. Clearly the present situation with Israeli occupation is wholly different. It is surely stupid to suppose to that there is a systematic cooperation with Israeli government on the part of the universities. If anything, as far as I know, universities in Israel are the centers for vigorous anti-occupation debates.

Thus this whole episode caused some wholesome entertainment, and I naively suspected there was nothing else to be gained from it. But I was wrong! NYT's resident joker Tom Friedman chose his recent op-ed to accuse British college teachers of, you guessed it right, anti-Semitism. He comes up with watertight logic too. Here is a link to the article.

First, there are two Israeli Arabs who received Ph.D at Israel's premier university. So everything must be fine there. At the very least, situation is "so much more morally complex than the outside meddlers present it". Then there is the classic query: if you really want to help the Palestinians, why don't you do one of a number of useful things? If you are really worried about this kind of thing, why don't you also boycott Sudan? Syria? Don't tell me that there is nothing to boycott in Sudan or Syria. Finally, the clincher: don't you see that Israelis overwhelmingly want to end occupation because they elected Ehud Olmert, who will uproot settlers from the West Bank, just as his mentor Ariel Sharon did in Gaza? You tell me that he had two years and nothing happened. Ah, but that is not Israel's fault. It's only because "the Palestinians are in turmoil". Let them calm down and Israel will do the right thing.

It's all pretty obvious, isn't it? What part of this convincing argument do British college teachers not get? Having exhausted all other possibilities, we have no option but to conclude: they must be anti-Semitic. There isn't really any other explanantion. Well done, Mr Friedman!

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