What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books. - Thomas Carlyle

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" - Pooh's Little Instruction Book

Bookworm - Carl Spitzweg

Monday, May 30, 2005

Book II - Voting begins

Here is the list of books for consideration for our next reading. Please email me your preferences by June 06, 2005.
  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude - by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  2. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda - by Philip Gourevitch
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God - by Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus - by Mary Shelly
  5. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed- by Jared Diamond
  6. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man - by John Perkins
  7. The Namesake: A Novel - by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - by Azar Nafisi
  9. No Future Without Forgiveness - by Desmond Tutu
This time the voting procedure is slightly different: you don't have to pick just one book. You may choose as many as you want - you only have to rank your selections in the order of your preference.

For example, I may vote for the first, third, fifth, and the ninth books in this order: 5, 9, 1, 3. Or even better, I may vote like this: 8, 5, 3, 4, 9, 1, 3, 2, 6 - to indicate that book 8 is my most favourite and book 6 is my least favourite. Get it?

Please email or post on the blog if you have any questions about the voting procedure.

Please remember that voting closes on June 06, 2005. And email me your votes - please do not post them on the blog. (If you post it on the blog, you will be asked to bring two bags of grapes to the next meeting.)

Book Discussion - Men in Black

The group met on May 22, 2005 to discuss Men in Black, by Mark Levin.

Members present:

George Jegadesh
Joseph Dratz
Jeremy Reiderman
Valerie Ottinger
John Ottinger
Nancy Jackson (hasn’t read book but here for the free food)
Bree Watson
Elaine Lin
Ray Fermo
Jason Livingston
Kevin Hake

(The comment next to Nancy's name was made by Valerie, our Hon'ble Secretary and diligent notes taker.)

The order of the meeting:
- Food and introductions
- Overview of the book by George
- Discussion of the question set.
- Feedback

The next ten posts or so are notes, as taken by Valerie, during the discussion of the question set.

Q1: Men in Black

When Levin calls the justices “Men in Black,” is he blatantly ignoring the women justices?

Jn: He addresses it in beginning - most justices were men.
Ge: Let’s just call him a chauvinistic pig.

[This was a poor attempt at humour.]

Q2: Men in Black

Why are the Supreme Court justices considered unelected? After all, the justices are nominated by the President who is elected and confirmed by the Senate body which is also elected to the office by the country?

Jn: B/c they are NOT elected. The Senate is technically not supposed to confirm them, just advise and comment to the President, who appoints.
Ray: They are unelected, but so they will be unbiased, not directly responsible to any constituents. B/c then they’d be worried about reelection.
Jer: They aren’t supposed to be political. The general public doesn’t know the Const as well as the Pres, in theory. ! Should be the best man for the job, not the richest.
Jason: They are unelected and … unaccountable. Don’t have to worry about reelection or renomination.
Jn: They can do and say whatever they want at this point, and they can pretty much do whatever they want.
Jason: We could make an Amendment and they could say it’s unconstitutional.
[big argument about the Amendment route!]
Ray: Interpreting the Const doesn’t go outside their bounds.
Jason: So they CAN say whatever they want about it.
Jn: Originally, being unelected was a good idea, but now… it’s something we should look at and decide if it’s needed now. I DON’T like direct election, but I do like Levin’s idea about being renominated at times.

Q3: Men in Black

"The Supreme Court has simply abolished your right to the free exercise of your religion in public." I am unsure how true this statement is. What do you think?

Val: I think it’s mostly true. For example, if you pray at a restaurant and someone objects, they could sue you but I doubt even this liberal SC atmosphere would accept it as a legitimate case. However, there have been cases where people had religious symbols like a cross or whatever on their lawn and they got sued and lost. It’s a slippery slope. The statement is probably NOT fully true now, but it is slowly becoming true.
Jason: Example: public high schools having graduation at churches.
[discussion with Kevin about nativity scenes on lawns and public high school prayer…..]
Joe: People get emotional about their kids and influences over them. That’s one way people’s rights have been curtailed, with how kids get influenced and raised. Ppl should exercise their religion at home if their kids are in public school.
Jn: Examples – kids’ choice to wear Christian t shirt at school, and they were asked to leave school or change shirt. Whereas, another religion could wear their shirt and not be asked the same.
Joe: What if a kid wanted to wear a shirt with “fuck“ on it? Freedom of speech.
Val: It’s against the rules; it’s not a religious thing. Kids cannot cuss on campus; therefore they can’t wear a shirt that has it on there.
Elaine: Compared to other countries, students have a lot of freedom with what they can do/wear at school.
Ge: France – law preventing students from covering their heads (Muslims included).
Elaine: When people judge something, they have their own opinions and it’s different from others. (Who’s to say who’s right?) People are judging based on their own experiences and what they think is right. I don’t think they should abolish your right to say things.
Jn: Yes, we have many freedoms, but we don’t want to go down the slope to become like other countries whose rights are more abridged. We have to prevent things now to prevent becoming like those countries.
Ge: What’s good for one person isn’t good for another.
Jn: It’s good that the Const is general when it comes to religion – then one group isn’t ruling. Not which religion is better, but who was violating someone’s rights.
Jer: I feel like secularism is our govt religion.
[discussion on judges circumventing will of people through elections by deciding on their own what they think is right, even if it goes “against” the will of the people]
Ge: But what the majority thinks isn’t always right
Val: I can see that – e.g., racial segregation, slavery…
Jn: But should judges interpret/decide what people should eventually think/feel, or…
[more discussion….]
Joe: Do you really trust your neighbor to decide what’s best for you?
Jn: That’s why everyone should be involved in politics and be informed.
Joe: That could be scary – look at Rock the Vote – stoned out idiots checking boxes?!

Q4: Men in Black

Religious tolerance: Seems like most of the conflicts with reference to religion seem to stem from religious intolerance. For instance, atheists unable to tolerate even the mention of ‘God’, and some of the Christians failing to tolerate other religious practices and rituals. So, how could we arrive at a mutual tolerance level?
[Calvary Chapel/high school graduations at churches issue]

Val: I’d be uncomfortable with my kid graduating at a mosque.
Jn: It wouldn’t bother me. It’s just a building. But I can see how secularists would be offended at the cross on the wall.
Carolyn: But the cross represents Christ, which is a historical event.
Jn: But it’s also a religious event.
Joe: I mentioned the shirt business – it bugs me. It felt intrusive, in your face. Why can’t school be about learning. Why does it have to be about what goes on on Sunday or whatever. More than being a Constitutional issue, it bugs me.
Ge: Is that intolerance on your part?
Joe: It didn’t bug me until it happened 100 times.
Ge: There seems to be so much intolerance that leads to these SC cases. Why do we have such intolerance toward religion?
Jn: Yes, school IS about intellectual endeavors. But isn’t religion a part of that b/c it has defined so much of that. Wherever the religion, it has fostered learning. And isn’t religion part of the human experience.
Elaine: What about students who are in the religious minority? What about their feelings when they see the majority wearing their t-shirts?
Ge: Here’s something I grew up with. I grew up in Christian schools. At home, there are a variety of religious schools. Parents have their choice of where to send kids. Since many people think Catholic schools are the best, Hindu kids went to Catholic schools. They learned the catechism just like everyone else, which you had to know to pass the grade. They didn’t complain about it. There was tolerance and it was good. These are Catholic PUBLIC schools.
Jn: I think everyone believes in SOMETHING, whether you have a definition of it or not.
Ge: What causes this intolerance?
Elaine: War is intolerance.
Joe: You’re saying religious intolerance is getting worse?
Ge: yes.
Jer: I don’t think so. Look at the Inquisition…
Jn: I think he means in the last 20 years.
Jer: People are more tolerant now than they ever have been.
Ge: My opinion comes from all these lawsuits.
Jer: That’s b/c of our ridiculously litigious society.
Ge: Our system accommodates it. …
Jer: People need crusades, like the atheist who couldn’t stand prayer in schools.
[George asks what’s a crusade; discussion …]
Val: People who say they are tolerant are intolerant of say, Christianity. In order to create tolerance and equality for someone and protect their rights, someone ELSE’s rights have to be trampled on.
Jason: Is it the judges’ purview to decide things like that?

Q5: Men in Black

Do the religious conflicts indicate the need for a secular society that is totally void of religion or need for equal rights and opportunities for all religions including atheism?
Kevin: Q is logically invalid – it’s an either/or, neither of which is possible.

Carolyn: It’s the first one.
Jn: I think people would prefer the second one, but it’s become the first.
Jer: I didn’t like how justices didn’t think laws should be based on morals. Where do you get your basis from?
Jn: One might say from nature. There is a natural morality, secularists would argue.
Caro: How can you define that though?
Jn: Someone who thinks they are smart would try to define that.
[comparing to Iran & govt religion rule]
Jn: I think secularism IS a religion.
Joe: Then where do you draw the line between dogma and religion? (Example – consumerism, etc.)
Ge: What do you think people want?
Jn: Where people are equally allowed to practice what they want. But some religions are mutually exclusive, as we’ve discovered in post-9/11.
Ge: And it’s the SC job to make sure people’s rights are protected.
Joe: I think it’s great that you’re such a happy-go-lucky idealist.

Q6: Men in Black

"California argued that its compelling state interest in the special admissions program (a la affirmative action) was to (1) increase minority representation in medicine, (2) counter racial discrimination in society..." (page 91, para 3).

I personally believe that points 1 and 2 are very valid reasons for implementing affirmative action - but Levin points out that they are unconstitutional.

So, the questions?

1. How much do you subscribe / extend support to this cause?
2. If not for affirmative action what do you propose as counter measures for racism in society?

[George starts by making a racist comment about “you white people.”!]
Joe: AA isn’t constitutional but I’m a big fan. In practice, it’s done good things.
Jn: Can you use something negative to do good? Does it really create a positive?
Joe: It has been a vehicle for change – offers white students a different perspective, people with different experiences.
Jn: The issue is with students who deserve to be admitted are not.
[discussion about AA]
Val: Whether you think AA is right/wrong, ethnic diversity at schools will be spotlighted if the percentages do not reflect diversity.
Joe: But did that come about BECAUSE of AA?
Val: I think it would be better if it came about naturally, instead of forced through laws and court cases (like slavery and the civil rights movement). People will follow it more willingly if they brought it about themselves.
[more discussion about AA….]
Ray: There’s no doubt that someone from an underprivileged societal status will benefit from AA.

Jn: AA tries to fix the problem from the top, not from the bottom (when they first start in school). It tries to fix the education system the wrong way. I wouldn’t want to be let into a school b/c I’m white – it’s insulting. I don’t think it really respects the people.
Ge: [explains India’s caste system and how India now has similar program to AA] People from upper castes complain, and lower castes don’t complain that it’s based on their skin.
Jn: Georgia example – public institution that was all black denied someone white entrance – he sued, and white guy LOST. AA should have “worked” there.
Ge: AA does a lot of good, providing opportunity to bring about changes.
Jn: Argument some ppl use – if you have white and black guys applying for same position and have the same qualifications & credentials, then the black guy gets it. Is that fair? No.
Ge: It’s fair in the light of all the oppression they had to go through in the past century.

Q7: Men in Black

Levin implies that morality is a sufficient basis for law (page 79, para 1). Is that correct? If yes, whose moral standard should form the basis?

Jason: The judges’.
Caro: Don’t most religions have the same moral standards?
Jn: Well, some believe murder is ok.
Ray: Well, many agree on things like murder, but maybe not homosexuality.
[talking about judges ruling based on their own personal morals]
Jn: It’s impossible for people to make decisions WITHOUT their personal morality as part of it. That’s what makes us humans.
[discussion about 5-4 rulings and how so many controversial decisions were based on such close votes, e.g., Roe v. Wade]
Jn: It would require an Amendment to change that majority….

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Q8: Men in Black

"Assume there are only two states, with equal populations of 100 each. Assume further that 70% of State A, and only 40% of State B wish to outlaw smoking in public buildings. The others are opposed. If the decision is made on a national basis by a majority rule, 110 people will be pleased, and 90 displeased. If a separate decision is made by majorities in each state, 130 will be pleased, and only 70 displeased. The level of satisfaction will be still greater if some smokers in State A decide to move to State B, and some anti-smokers in State B move to State A.

State Power also allows for societal solutions best suited to satisfy a given locality and permits experimentation with different public policy initiatives."

This power of self-determination or self-government for the states is a great opportunity for everyone. In a way individual and civil liberties have flourished because of this.

But this is a double-edged sword - because this also empowers states to authorise and endorse policies generally considered to be against the moral grain. (For instance, Massachusetts toying with the idea of making same-sex marriages legal.) So how do you propose a balance to be drawn between the states' self-directing powers and their decisions in matters in the light of values and morals?

Ge: If states are truly autonomous, then we might see weird stuff like prostitution being legal in Nevada.
Joe: States’ rights – founding block of our nation.
Jason: It has nothing to do with morality.
Joe: Each administration makes the federal govt bigger.
Jn: If one state recognizes (say, gay marriage), then do all states have to recognize it?
Val: If gay marriage is legal in one state, and a couple moves to another state, then all those issues that relate to marriage and legal ramifications just got transferred to that new state.
Jason: It’s a question of laws and Const. not morals.
Kevin: Your Q makes it sound like the federal govt is better at making moral decisions.
[discussion on if something needs to be changed/added, make an Amendment]
Joe: Does marriage belong in the Constitution? I don’t think so.
Jn: I don’t think so either.
Kevin: If it’s not in the Const, then how are standards established? By the judges’ whim?
[tangential discussion about marrying goats by Joe]
Joe: The trend is toward gay marriage, and it will happen somehow.
[tangential discussion about possibility of gay marriage in the future as being accepted widely]

Q9: Men in Black

Since the Constitution of course does not spell out the laws and regulations of every possible case and scenario, how could 'interpretation' be avoided by the justices while handing out a verdict? The fact that we have a body of justices indicates that there is a gray area that needs to be interpreted. If everything was spelt out clearly in the constitution then a system such as a simple income tax filing software would do the job. How could Levin be so against people who interpret?

Jn: Originalist means interprets the Const as narrowly as possible. Someone who believes the Const does not change.
Jer: Narrow is NOT going to international law, like O’Connor.
Ray: Originalists think the activists are adding to the Const., for example, the right to privacy.
Kevin: Another example – substantive due process. The Court has manufactured rights that the Framers didn’t intend.
[discussion of Federalists Papers]
Kevin: You have no problem with judges legislating from the bench, right?
Ge: If there is a case not covered in the Const, they can look at it.
Joe: They uphold the status quo or they don’t.
Kevin: That’s the legislature’s job…
[whose job is what]
Kevin: There was no question about how the Framers interpreted things like abortion, etc. There is no argument.
Ge: How do you know?
Kevin: Read history. The question is, who reverses those laws.
[discussion on who does what again]
Jason: Should judges be doing that based on their beliefs or on the law?
Ge: Judges need to interpret, exterpolation, etc because the laws do not contain every situation that could arise.
Jason: That’s just an excuse.
[tangential cracks about engineers and software terminology]
Jason: Const. says you have rights that can’t be taken away. Now, the court says that no matter what laws there are, there are rights that can't be taken away. That’s not right.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Today's meeting to discuss Men in Black went very well, I think.

Next time we will try harder to keep the time limit.

Thanks to everyone for their valuable input and support to make this meeting fun and worth-while. And thanks for all the food and wine! (Shiraz was a big hit. The girls on the couch loved the chardonnay, though.)

Special thanks to Valerie for taking notes of the discussion! The notes are sprinkled with signature Valerie humour. It's great! I will post them on the blog sometime this week.

Hurry up and get in your recommendations for the next reading soon. Deadline is next Sunday the 29th.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Books for the next reading

We have the following books recommended: Please feel free to add your recommendations in the comments section. From this list we will select a few for voting early next week.


I was wondering if I should arrange for pizza or any snack for the Sunday's meeting?

Please let me know your thoughts.

If pizza, let me know your choice of toppings as well.

Otherwise, our traditional favourite dish of slow-roasted guinea pig over grated ginger and a bed of rice will be served.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

Q's for Discussion

This thread is for simply gathering questions for the discussion meeting on May 22. So, please post all of your questions from the book in the form of comments to this post.

Lets please keep this thread only for questions. So, please do not post your answers / discussion points right in this thread. You are welcome to do so by creating another thread / post. Thanks!

Three Things

1. Please remember, our book discussion meeting is on May 22 at 6:00PM at my home.

2. Please email me / post in the blog your questions for the discussion meeting. I am creating a thread titled "Q's for discussion" in the blog this evening.

3. Please start sending me your recommendations for the next reading. You are free to recommend from any genre other than political theme.