Monday, March 8, 2010
My friend Goodwin
Housemates from 7, Fyfield Road. Standing, left to right: Henrietta Kaninda (Zaire); Me; Rick Russell (USA); Evelyn Tait (Scotland); Sitting, l to r: Jeff Moore (Canada); Dean Hickman (England); Goodwin Liu (USA); Beate Dignas (Germany); Patrick Callaghan (Irish Republic).
I was out of town with limited web access for four days, but managed to check Google News one afternoon, and was delighted to read that Goodwin Liu, my closest friend from my grad student days, has been nominated to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The Courts of Appeals are roughly the equivalent of India's High Courts.
Goodwin came to Oxford to study PPP (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology), after a degree in biology from Stanford, and seemed headed for a career in medicine, following his parents and older brother. He found himself drawn more to the social sciences and, after a bout of the soul searching to which he was prone, switched to PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), and busied himself with deciphering Locke and Hume.
We lived in adjoining quarters, and spent long periods in each others’ company. Most of the time it was I hanging out in his room, because it was hospitably done up, while mine resembled a cavern. I was a pretty good cook, and Goodwin an exceptional one. However, while I was often content to scramble a few eggs with Gouda or head for the college dining hall, he’d make full meals each day, usually a preparation of rice, vegetables and strips of pork stewed in flavourful stock, accompanied by a side dish like broccoli with oyster sauce. He was generous sharing what he cooked, as also everything in his kitchen cabinet. An exception was made in the case of chocolate products, once Goodwin discovered I tended to scarf huge quantities of these. He might feel like a chocolate covered Jaffa cake at midnight and discover the entire pack he’d bought the previous day was gone, with the Indian next door the lone suspect.
We talked a lot about politics, and have continued those discussions through letters and emails after leaving England, although our exchanges become less frequent each year. Having a fair insight into the way Goodwin’s mind works, I’ve been astonished to read the attacks on him after his nomination. Conservative critics have called him "a hard-Left ideologue", "one of the leading radical legal theorists out there", and "far outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence". On blogger wrote, "It is shocking that President Obama would nominate an extremist like Goodwin Liu, who expresses outright hostility to the most fundamental principles of our democracy, to the federal bench".
Unlike in India, where judicial appointments are made by a collegium without political intervention, federal judges in the US are nominated by the President and have to go through a confirmation process. This leads to partisan debates around the faultlines of US politics: affirmative action, abortion, gun control etc. Since it is difficult to fault Goodwin’s qualifications (Stanford, Oxford, Yale Law School, clerking for a Supreme Court judge, professor of law at Berkeley), conservatives are painting him as sympathetic to the far Left. I know this isn’t true because, back in University, I was a far Left ideologue of sorts, and Goodwin’s position was clearly very different, more or less that of a conventional coastal Democrat.
It wasn't what he believed that was interesting, however, so much as how he thought about issues. He was never summarily dismissive either of my Chomskian take on US foreign policy, or the perspective of another close friend of his, Micul, a moderate Republican whose critique of affirmative action had been moulded by Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter. I’ve rarely come across anyone as respectful as Goodwin of views opposed to or different from his own. If the common sense belief is valid that the two qualities most required in a judge are that he should be knowledgeable and that he should give both sides a fair hearing, Goodwin is a perfect choice for the post to which he’s been nominated.
When Jabeen and I first visited the US, Goodwin hosted us in San Francisco. The day we left the city, he offered to drive us to the airport early in the morning before going back home, dressing for work and heading to office (I think he was working for a private law firm at the time). Once at the airport, he got off to help us with our baggage, and I, out of habit, locked the passenger door before shutting it. In the US, I discovered, this has the effect of locking the entire car. When Goodwin tried to get in, he found himself shut out.
“Did you lock the door?” he asked.
“Well, yes, that’s what we do in India”, I said sheepishly.
He had a number for some insurance firm, and said he’d call it while we checked in. When we returned five minutes later, a man was using a slim jim on the car door. I was probably more relieved than Goodwin that things had been quickly sorted out. He waved goodbye and, against a background of patiently listening to dozens of my US foreign policy harangues, allowed himself a patriotic parting shot.
“You know, Girish, this is why I like the United States.”
A stressed Goodwin, probably trying to get an assignment done on time.