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.


Blackfayth said...

your friend Jeff Moore looks like a young Allen Cunningham at first glance... Or maybe its just me... :)

Girish Shahane said...

That he does :)

seana graham said...

This is a very nice tribute to your friend. Yes, these appointments are very political, at least at the present time. The Republicans are trying to thwart Obama on every level, so it's not surprising that they'd thwart him here. I doubt it will be successful, though. Good luck to him.

I think you are giving a slightly inaccurate picture of the American car, though. It's not universal that the whole car would be locked by the passenger door being locked.

That being said, I did manage to lock a friend and myself out of a car in Yosemite once. I don't actually remember why it was my fault, but it was. My friend was not entirely as gracious as Goodwin. In fact, that might have sort of spelled the beginning of the end of our friendship.

Girish Shahane said...

Good to know the locking mechanism isn't universal, Seana, it makes me feel a little less guilty :)
A lot of things related to cars surprised me on that first US trip. Like people who live in suburbs often leave (or left) their cars unlocked. That's unheard of in India, needless to say.
How did the Yosemite thing end? Did you find somebody to help or did you need to take a long hike?

seana graham said...

Luckily we were in a parking lot up by the store, so it wasn't so bad.

Most people here do lock their car doors, I think. I assume that in both our cases though, one person thought, it's only going to be second, and the other acted reflexively, thus leading to disaster.

Here's another perhaps cultural difference. Once, we were driving a couple of Frenchwomen around the Bay Area, and they were quite disconcerted that we locked the doors while we were in the car. But what if we need to jump out? one asked. Good point, but not the only way of looking at the thing.

Girish Shahane said...

Lol, quite. On a completely different note, I recall asking a chap in Italy if the coffee they served had sugar.
He looked at me contemptuously and said in broken English, "And what if you don't want sugar?"
It was hard to explain that I came from a country where 99% of the population of coffee drinkers took it with sugar.
Since that time we've had loads of coffee chains open up which don't preload coffee with sugar.

DS said...

Enjoyed the post.
And that's you with hair!
I have regularly locked myself out of my car and am now ace at sliding a metal ruler stategically and resuming my day.

Girish Shahane said...

DS, the Art India volumes from when I was editor also have pics of me with hair; and an incipient beard at one point :)
So where d'you get those metal rulers from, when you lock yourself out?

seana graham said...

Coat hangers are the preferred lock opener here, I think. Of course, it means that a window has to be open a crack.

I liked the coffee and sugar story. So much of this stuff that we assume is "the way it's done" is really just a convention.

seana graham said...

I just saw this evening that Goodwin Liu's senate hearing was one of the many hearings shut down in the capitol today by a Republican fit of pique. I'm sure it's a temporary setback, but the tactic is discouraging, and I hope your friend Goodwin isn't also discouraged by the process.

Girish Shahane said...

He's just had a second child, so I suspect he has bigger things on his mind than a Senate hearing :)

seana graham said...

That's the right way to look at the thing anyway...