Friday, May 18, 2007

Brief Message from the Universe

"You want your mind to be boggled. That is a pleasure in and of itself. And it's more a pleasure if it's boggled by something that you can then demonstrate is really, really true." —physicist Saul Perlmutter

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Family History

My middle name is my father's first name: Warren. I'd always assumed that the typical explanation was the correct one, until my mother mentioned that they'd made the selection in honor of Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In yesterday's Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor had this to say about the Warren Court:

The legal basis for segregation came from the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the precedent that separate facilities for black and white students could be constitutional as long as those separate facilities were equal. When Brown v. Board of Education first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, most of the justices were personally opposed to segregation, but only four of them openly supported overturning such a long-established precedent.

But in September of 1953, just before the rehearing of the case, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died of a sudden heart attack. For the new chief justice, President Eisenhower chose Earl Warren, then the governor of California. As governor of California, Earl Warren had helped to intern many Japanese Americans during World War II, and most historians believe he felt deep regret at having done so. Ever since the war, he had devoted himself to the issue of civil rights. So when he became chief justice, he was the ideal person to argue for declaring segregation unconstitutional.

Warren's vote alone could have given the court a 5-4 vote margin overturning segregation, but Warren decided that he had to get a unanimous decision for such a controversial case. Warren had never served as a judge in his life. But he was a master politician, and he used his art of persuasion to bring the last few justices around to his point of view. The final holdout was Justice Stanley Reed, from Kentucky. Warren finally persuaded Reed that a lone dissent from a Southerner could have an inflammatory effect on the nation.

Once he had all the votes, Warren drafted the decision himself. To announce the decision, he read it aloud to a crowd at the court on this day in 1954. He said, in part, "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race ... deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does." Justice Stanley Reed, who had been the final holdout, wept as the decision was read.

Onward and Upward with the Arts

Don't know who coined the phrase but I like it at least as much as The New Yorker.

I admit here that it's time to leave Mumbai as a setting and return to Shanghai. Anything approaching coherence in that narrative would require the time for a thoughtful revision. Considering my workload and our imminent departure from China, that luxury is unavailable at the moment.

Although I have been enjoying Shanghai in a way unknown to longer-term residents, and was detained briefly by the traffic police last week. At the corner of Nanjing Road and the Bund, by a cop with dark glasses who had perhaps watched one too many Clint Eastwood movies. He closed his fingers around my wrist and kept asking me what I'd expect if I'd broken the law in America.

The peak of his cap came up short of my chin but by the time I thought to break away we had attracted an encircling crowd of onlookers. I made the cowardly bid of pretending that I knew no Mandarin, but a saintly woman stepped in and interpreted for us, preventing an international incident and convincing him, somehow, not only to let me go without a fine, but to pretend as if he had never seen me before.

And that's the end of the Mumbai story, for now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One Sentence after Another

Note: This story began on April 25.

To misquote Marlon Brando, I am neither my brother’s keeper nor his executioner.

I don’t know how the Mumbai story swerved from fashion to immigration but I think it does, in the end, have something to do with the coincidences of birth.

When traveling in Asia, I am sometimes struck by the union of blue and brown: blue American passport, tanned brown skin. Their convergence on my person allows me to cross borders with relative ease, to mingle in crowds like a distant cousin.

Living in close proximity with millions of striving people, you can’t help but entertain the old questions of resemblance, advantage, and inequity. What if you were born to a family of peasant farmers? Or migrant laborers? To a mother who sells bootleg DVDS on a dusty bridge and a father who scavenges cardboard and Styrofoam in his bicycle cart?

Favored with the benefits of the American systems of economy, justice, and education, what have I made of myself? A bewildered onlooker.

The Economics of Champagne, Revisited

For more on the social and economic significance of expensive Champagne, read Floyd Norris, who argues that overpriced bottles represent another form of wealth redistribution, filling the void left by the demise of the progressive income tax.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Excuses Come to an End, Almost

Note: This story began on April 25.

I haven't been able to log on for several days, thanks to the Chinese censors. Wish I could use that as an excuse, but that would be dishonest. What with guidebook research and other duties and distractions, I’ve neglected to cobble even a counterfeit ending for the Mumbai story.

I wanted to focus somehow on that feeling of continuity and wonder that Cliff and I felt walking late one night in the Bhindi Bazaar, an ancient and predominantly Muslim quarter, drifting and surging with the tides of shoppers and shopkeepers.

There were men pushing wooden carts laden with crates and boxes, porters bearing woven baskets atop their heads, teenagers murmuring into cell phones, smaller children crowded around stone basins of fish, a merchant demonstrating a wind-up Victrola to a crowd of men in dusty robes.

I felt like I could hear the sounds of centuries overlapping.

I've traveled alone and with family but this moment was different somehow, maybe because Cliff asked if I could ever have imagined that we would be walking together in this strange place and I had to say no, this was beyond imagining on any sort of personal level.

No individual mind could have imagined that we would find ourselves at Decent Corner, two Chinese-American brothers who last shared a bedroom in a town best known, if known at all, as the childhood home of Chester A. Arthur.

The 21st president of the United States, nicknamed the Gentleman Boss, succeeded from his elected post of vice-president after James Garfield’s assassination. By most accounts, he was a better statesman than anyone had the right to expect. Even the deservedly cynical Mark Twain admitted that, “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.” It was during his term that Congress first passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Immigrants of Chinese descent would remain ineligible for U.S. citizenship until 1943.