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Archive for December, 2007

Najam Sethi writes in the Daily Times, Pakistan,

Most Pakistanis are by instinct inclined to believe that the “agencies” did it. This is the easy explanation for anything that happens in this country which is either inexplicable or unpalatable. All political assassinations in Pakistan remain inexplicable since the truth about them has never been investigated or investigated but not made public. But the truth of Ms Bhutto’s assassination may also be subliminally unacceptable to many Pakistanis because a religious or “Islamist” element may be at its unpleasant core.

Very true.

It is natural that the first fingers of blame have been pointed at Musharraf. After all, he is the man in charge, and he failed to provide adequate security to a leader who has been repeatedly threatened with assasination since she returned home and who barely survived another suicide attack a month ago. Nevertheless Musharraf, though scheming and dishonest, is no fool and the question I’d like to ask those who believe he plotted this is: How on earth does this assasination benefit him?

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After much empirical evidence I have come to the following conclusion:

Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP sucks. It is insecure, clunky and really slow. And it actually gets worse with time. Go with Firefox any day.

Internet Explorer 7 for Windows Vista rocks (and is arguably superior to Firefox 2).

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Benazir Bhutto is dead.

The history of the Bhutto family is a tragic one and the assasination of Benazir, who recently returned from exile so that she could take part in the elections, is emblematic of the deep quagmire Pakistan is in.

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Shiv Sainiks vandalise paintings in Hussain exhibition.

This couldn’t have been a surprise -the exhibition was initially suspended due to vandalism threats and opened only after additional security was provided.

I’ll make an exception from my usual distaste for such measures and propose a new law. One that will provide for immediate non-bailable arrest and expedited trials – with a mandatory jail term if found guilty – against those who commit violent acts infringing upon others’ freedom of expression . That would include all these acts that our moral police prides itself on – harassing lovers, vandalising art, burning theatres.

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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, in an excellent article on Cricinfo, says that Dravid’s painstaking innings and the subsequent Indian batting collapse is just the latest evidence for an old truth: the wait-and-watch approach does not work against Australia.

Sixteen years ago Sanjay Manjrekar came to Australia as India’s best batsman. He had enjoyed a wonderful series in Pakistan and possessed the technique to counter any kind of bowling. He ended the five Tests without a single half-century and was never the same force since.

Four years back he revisited that trip. “I spent quite a lot of time at the crease, and never once felt uncomfortable,” he wrote in Wisden Asia Cricket. “My weakness was that I didn’t have the game to score off good balls. So I’d spend two hours scoring 30 before a good ball would get me. If I had managed to hit a few more fours, I could perhaps have got 60 in that time. The wait-and-watch approach is never going to be profitable in Australia. To succeed as a batsman, you should be able to create scoring opportunities, because there is little point in waiting for loose balls which never come.”

 

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The VHP mob has been killing Christians, burning churches in Orissa.

I have an idea. Let’s explain to the VHP that they should go to Iraq. After all, Iraq currently has Christians and Muslims. Whats more, they are already killing each other every day. The VHP can just go and kill a few more. It would be the perfect outlet for all their hatred … and no one will suspect skinny Indian men.

As for me, I would like to sneak up to heaven with a macho machine gun, bed a few of those promised virgins (I hear they dig guys with guns) and then … walk up to God’s chamber and kill Him. However I have a hunch that God will be disappointingly easy to bump off. By all accounts He is extremely old. Also, I doubt He has seen a machine gun in his life.

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I was a young lad once and like most kids was susceptible to the perceived infallibility of the written word. To give a relevant example, it wasn’t apparent to me that our civics text-books were less fact and more a bunch of Nehruvian platitudes. But even then, I often wondered about the role of the Constitution in a democracy. It seemed to be – contrary to the importance my book seemed to give it – little more than just a symbol or a guidance, not of much more significance than Gandhi’s “My experiments with truth”. After all, if the real authority was the democratically elected government, what role could a bulky book which no one reads have?

I was both right and wrong. I was wrong because I failed to realise that a Constitution is intended to be a check on what the government can do; it is a well thought out document that lays down certain core values which no law can violate. By its very nature it is much harder to amend the Constitution than it is to pass a law. In the US and other Western democracies, many laws – passed by the government of the day – have been deemed unconstitutional and overturned. The American government will find it impossible to ban a controversial book – without repealing the First Amendment, an unthinkability. Indeed the Constitution is a device for freedom, a vital muscle that makes a democracy tick strongly and prevents it from turning into a tyranny by the majority. We all know that mobs can be manipulated and fooled, not all of them and not for all time, but certainly temporarily. The Constitution keeps the flag of freedom flying at those times – it prevents the passage of parochial laws by extremist parties, it curbs populism, it can arrest collectivism.

Unfortunately, I was right in that none of the above is true in the Indian setup. The freedoms granted by our Constitution were peppered with so many caveats as to render them almost useless and successive governments have further eroded it through amendments that have taken away much of what remained. Today our Constitution is truly what it once seemed to me and probably seems to most other Indians – a mere symbol. And the real tragedy is that most people are unaware it can be anything else.

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Narendra Modi is back in style, winning 117 out of the 182 seats in the Gujarat assembly.

There are many legends about Narendra Modi. One is that he works sixteen hours every day, election or no election. Another claims that he is a loner to the extent that he always eats alone and never entertains any relatives or friends in his house (his mother does not live with him, and he is estranged from his wife).

I do not know if these legends are true but I suspect they are. For Modi is undoubtedly a skillful and ruthless administrator. Even in the icon-dominated landscape of Indian politics his status as a leader with a fanatical cult-following is remarkable. He is also his own man, pushing forward measures he believes in with total zeal and rejecting ones he doesn’t.

Some of the things he doesn’t believe in are secularism, freedom and the rule of law. He is unapologetic about the massacre of Muslims in the 2002 riots. His police – under orders from him – stood and watched while innocent civilians were burnt alive. He has also openly boasted about the “fake encounters” that took place under his rule. Undoubtedly this victory will cement his image in his own mind of one above all laws and answerable to no one but his own ambition.

Modi’s victory may be good for stability and economic progress in Gujarat. Yet all things come at a cost and in this instance the cost is the loss of something essential and irreplaceable- the soul of diversity and tolerance that defines this messy, beautiful country. Moditva will lead to better roads in Gujarat but it will never be the same Gujarat.

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Aamir Khan’s brother wants freedom.

Freedom. It’s so hard to come by, isn’t it?

Also read my earlier post: The dad, the brother and schizophrenia

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Rights and “Rights”

John and Terry Hoffius own an apartment building in Jackson, Michigan. In the summer of 1993, they had a vacancy and advertised it. They were contacted by a couple, Kristal McCready and Keith Kerr, who expressed interest in renting it. When asked if they were married, McCready and Kerr replied in the negative. Mr. Hoffius informed them that according to his religious beliefs it was sinful to cohabit out of wedlock and that he would not countenance it by renting to them. McCready and Kerr soon found another apartment in the area but would not just let the matter drop. They filed a suit against the Hoffiuses, alleging housing discrimination. The case went all the way up to the Michigan Supreme Court. In a 4-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Hoffiuses had violated the plaintiffs’ “rights” by not renting the apartment to them. [1]

In a 2002 decision, the California Fair Employment & Housing Commission fined Melissa DeSantis $500 for inflicting “emotional distress” on a would-be roommate by allegedly telling him that “I don’t really like black guys. I try to be fair and all, but they scare me.” The decision also required her to pay the would-be roommate $240 in expenses and take “four hours of training on housing discrimination.” [2]

Ann Hacklander-Ready rented a four-bedroom house in Madison, Wisconsin, and sublet three of the bedrooms to female housemates. After two housemates moved out, Hacklander-Ready and her remaining housemate, Maureen Rowe, looked for replacements. They initially accepted a rent deposit from Caryl Sprague, knowing that she was a lesbian. Hacklander-Ready and Rowe later decided they were not comfortable living with a lesbian, and returned Sprague’s deposit. Sprague then filed a discrimination complaint with Madison’s civil rights commission against both Hacklander-Ready and Rowe. The judge ruled against the duo, and ordered them to pay damages. Rowe settled but Hacklander-Ready appealed. She lost and was ordered to pay $23000 to Sprague in attorney fees, in addition to thousands of dollars worth of damages. [3]

In each of the above examples, someone’s rights were violated. It was the person who the court/commision found guilty.

The right to associate, fundamental to any free society, includes the right to not associate. The right to free speech incorporates the right to express opinions that may offend others. The ever-expanding scope of anti-discrimination laws strikes at the heart of these freedoms by telling us what we cannot do with our own property and what opinions we may not express. The greatest threat to liberty in the United States today comes not from the Al-Qaeda but from within — from the recent explosion of various laws that seek to erode civil liberties in the name of “compelling state interest”. Anti-discrimination laws are a prime example of those.

The original laws

“A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality”. -Milton Friedman

The two primary American federal laws that govern discrimination in businesses and property are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [4] (henceforth abbreviated to CRA) and the subsequent Fair Housing Act of 1968 [5]. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion and sometimes sex. For instance, Title II of the CRA mandates that a person cannot be refused entry into a public place (such as a restaurant, hotel or theatre) on the basis of these characteristics. Title VII forbids employers from discriminating against a member of the above “protected classes” in any aspect of employment including hiring, firing and compensation. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion or national origin and it also outlaws discriminatory housing adverts.

Now, equality before the law is one of the fundamental tenets of a democratic society. Thus, there is no place for any kind of discrimination in legislation, government agencies or state-funded institutions. Indeed much of the CRA is concerned with outlawing this kind of state-mandated discrimination and I have absolutely no quarrel with those parts of the Act. Titles II and VII of the CRA and much of the Fair Housing Act, however, go much further than that; they impose restrictions on privately owned businesses. They lay out a particular moral standard and require that this standard supercede the individual’s choices even in matters that ought to be strictly his business. That to me is unjustified and immoral.

Some might argue that certain restrictions on freedom are necessary for ensuring social justice; that a complete absence of anti-discrimination laws will inevitably result in terrible consequences. My answer to them is this: the restrictions on individual liberty that anti-discrimination laws impose are huge and therefore they cannot be justified unless the likely consequences (of not having these laws) are sufficiently catastrophic. Let us therefore pause to consider what will happen, in this day and age, if all anti-discrimination laws which curtail property rights are repealed. Will it lead to overt discrimination in private businesses? Yes, some. However there is no doubt in my mind that the loss of profit, and more importantly the social stigma this will invite will be a very strong discouraging force and will ensure that instances of discrimination remain extremely rare. The current mainstream attitudes, as the reader will undoubtedly agree, are overwhelmingly against discrimination and no business that gives even the slightest importance to its brand image will dare indulge in overtly discriminatory conduct. The beauty of a free society is that there is always plenty of choice and a person who is the victim of one irrational bias will nevertheless find ten other places that will serve him without reserve.

What about the destructive wholesale discrimination against blacks in the early part of the last century, some may ask. One answer, of course, is that times have changed and the example is irrelevant to our present topic. The discrimination against blacks that occurred then will have never occured today even if there was no CRA. Indeed, the massive change in the attitude towards blacks among ordinary people and the rejection of the slavery-era mentality occured in the years before the passage of the Act (the very fact that the Act passed with popular support is testament to that) and thus many of the provisions of the CRA were unnecesary from inception! In some ways, however, this answer is unsatisfactory for it seems to leave open the question of whether a CRA-like act would have been justified, say, a hundred years ago (disregarding the fact that it would have never passed then!). A better answer is obtained by taking a closer look at the precise nature of that wholesale anti-black discrimination. As Ruwart points out [6], that wholesale dicrimination was a direct result of legislation. Laws were passed by the government which made it costlier to hire blacks, made it illegal for blacks and whites to mingle together and mandated discrimination in several other ways. In a truly libertarian society such laws would not exist, nor would anti-discrimination laws like Title II and VII, for all these laws share a defining characteristic — they restrict freedom and choice.

However, the greatest irony is that coercive laws like these seldom have the desired effect. They may achieve some (forced) racial integration but that does not naturally translate to less racial tension. They take away basic property rights and replace them with governmental tyranny and meaningless political correctness. In the words of Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul [7],

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty; it also failed to achieve its stated goals of promoting racial harmony and a color-blind society. Federal bureaucrats and judges cannot read minds to see if actions are motivated by racism. Therefore, the only way the federal government could ensure an employer was not violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure that the racial composition of a business’s workforce matched the racial composition of a bureaucrat or judge’s defined body of potential employees. Thus, bureaucrats began forcing employers to hire by racial quota. Racial quotas have not contributed to racial harmony or advanced the goal of a color-blind society. Instead, these quotas encouraged racial balkanization, and fostered racial strife.

Of course, America has made great strides in race relations over the past forty years. However, this progress is due to changes in public attitudes and private efforts. Relations between the races have improved despite, not because of, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

The draconian morphosis

The original laws were however only the beginning; the top of the classic slippery slope. They opened the doors to more recent anti-discrimination laws that are much more draconian. For instance, Title VII of the CRA applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees. This was done in mild deference to the relatively private nature of small businesses as well as to save them from the often formidable costs of fighting a discrimination lawsuit. Many states however have since enacted laws that are essentially versions of Title VII without the 15 employee exemption. Thus, in California, anti-discrimination laws apply to employers with more than 5 employees; in New Jersey, the law applies to even 1 employee companies.

Many other examples are provided by David Bernstein in an excellent article [8] .

“While the civil rights laws of the 1960s were generally sensitive to civil libertarian concerns, contemporary antidiscrimination laws often are not. For example, in deference to freedom of association and privacy considerations, the 1964 Act prohibited discrimination only in public facilities such as restaurants, hotels, and theaters. Newer laws, however, often prohibit discrimination in the membership policies of private organizations ranging from large national organizations like the Boy Scouts of America to small local cat fanciers’ clubs.”

Of the many inroads that anti-discrimination laws have made into the private realm, one that I find particularly disconcerting concerns roommate selection. The original form of the Fair Housing Act only covered landlords, not roommates (except on the issue of discriminatory adverts). They also contained an exemption clause for landlords who rented less than four units and lived on the premises. Recently however, as the examples in the beginning of this article show, the law has been interpreted to cover roommates, even those who do not own the apartment. Deciding who to share a house with is an intimate matter and when laws and courtrooms interfere with that, something is very wrong. Eugene Volokh’s post on this subject [9] mirrors my sentiments.

Frankly, I am surprised at the relative lack of outrage on this issue. If the government attempts to clamp down on free speech there will be protests, and rightfully so, but many of these protesters will remain silent on issues of freedom that touch on politically sensitive themes like these. Of course, most of us are not racist, sexist, or anti-gay. However, a necessary characteristic of freedom of expression and association is that there be no caveats; the real test of liberty is when people offend.

There is no doubt that discrimination can be extremely offensive and pernicious; thus the idea of allowing people to discriminate may strike some as going too far. In the end however, as David Bernstein puts it, “it is a small price to pay for preserving the pluralism, autonomy and check on government power provided by civil liberties.”

References:

1. Housing Discrimination Laws and the Continuing Erosion of Property Rights-www.fff.org

2. FEHC Dec. No. 02-12, 2002 WL 1313078

3. http://volokh.com/2002_07_14_volokh_archive.html#85248159

4. Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Wikipedia

5. Fair Housing Act – Wikipedia

6. http://www.theadvocates.org/ruwart/questions_maint.php?Category=6&id=156

7. The trouble with forced integration – Ron Paul archives

8. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=2719

9. http://volokh.com/posts/1179259134.shtml

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It’s a brilliant morning. The air is cool and fresh, the sunshine abundant and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I sit on a metal chair outside Corner Bakery sipping my coffee. 

The road is full of colourful kids. It’s the annual parade day. They walk, they smile, some wobble along on their tiny bikes wearing their impossibly cute red helmets. The proud mothers and the enthusiastic drummers follow. I eat my breakfast, watching happiness and listening to the sound of drums and twinkling bells. Occasionally I read the mathematical paper I have brought along. I am struck by a sudden urge to extol, to write about this. But the air is magical, the beauty exquisite and I cannot make myself get up. There is too much love and freshness around. I sit there smiling, musing, dreaming – what?

Oh outdoor cafes, I love you so!

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The people who suffered (the violence unleashed by CPI(M) cadres and the police) were paid back in their own coin.

-Buddhadeb Bhattacharya , the Chief minister of Bengal, justifying the brutality in Nandigram.

I was astonished and aghast when Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made the above statement two weeks ago. He also referred then to the CPI(M) supporters who had been allegedly displaced from Nandigram as ‘our people’, thereby implying that his loyalties weren’t to the entire populace of Bengal. Well, it appears he is sorry for it now. He should be.

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Arundhati Roy is a powerful writer and while I disagree with many of her political stances, I have always admired her for her passion and her courage. In this highly readable interview, her comments on the Taslima Nasreen fiasco and the related issue of free speech are bang on the money.

Freedom of expression has always been a second-rate right in India. It has been curtailed with impunity by the government, brazenly violated by the fundamentalists and occasionally clamped down upon by the courts. In the specific instance of Ms. Nasreen, the actions of the government- both at the centre and the state – have been cowardly and unprincipled. The Bengal government, in particular, ought to be ashamed that it has allowed itself to be taken hostage by the same fundamentalist forces that it opposes elsewehere. But then, courage and consistency have never been the hallmarks of politicians.

On a more personal note, I am particularly disappointed at the stand taken on this issue by the Chief Minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, himself a poet and scholar. He has in the past often been accused of arrogance and heavy-handedness, most notably in the brutal and highly mismanaged takeover of Nandigram. Like all Left politicians he has scant regard for property rights when it conflicts withn the aims of the state. However, no sensible person or Mamata Bannerjee has ever accused him of corruption or playing dirty games. I have admired him in the past for his policies which have led to an economic renaissance in Bengal as well as for many of his qualities, principal among which were his honesty and his lack of deceit. In short I saw him as what one would call a straight person, a rarity among Indian lawmakers. Yet, I simply cannot reconcile these qualities with some of his recent actions and statements on the Nandigram and Taslima issues. That’s sad.

But perhaps it was naive to expect better.

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