This Word Means – Korematsu case
News reports last week on the US Supreme Court’s endorsement of President Donald Trump’s travel ban order said the conservative majority’s judgment had also overturned the court’s 74-year-old order in the “Korematsu case”. Chief Justice John Roberts said “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided”. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who gave a dissenting judgment in the travel ban case, however, said that despite acknowledging the error in Korematsu, the court had ended up “redeploy(ing) [in the present case] the same dangerous logic” that underlay Korematsu. What was this decision that, according to The New York Times, “has long stood out as a stain that is almost universally recognised as a shameful mistake” by the Supreme Court?
In 1942, months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of the United States into World War II, President Franklin D Roosevelt issued an order allowing the military to round up all people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, and put them in internment camps. Fred Korematsu, a US citizen, refused to go, and was convicted of a crime. The US Supreme Court rejected his appeal by a 6-3 majority, and justified the internment policy on grounds of national security.
Both the policy and the Supreme Court’s decision to back it came to be seen as wrong in later years. In 1982, a congressional panel condemned the internment policy as a “grave injustice” that arose out of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. The government said “the decision in Korematsu lies overruled in the court of history”, and in 1988, when Ronald Reagan was President, a compensation of $20,000 was given to each surviving detainee.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia listed Korematsu as one of the Supreme Court’s worst mistakes, along with Dred Scott (1857), which denied freedom to black slaves brought to free states. A lower court reversed the conviction of Korematsu in 1984 — but since the government did not make another attempt to detain entire groups based on race or religion, the Supreme Court was afforded no chance to overturn its 1944 decision. Trump’s travel ban, seeking to restrict travel to the US from a clutch of predominantly Muslim countries, provided the Supreme Court that opportunity.
Delhi green cover growth fails to match plantation targets
Every monsoon, Delhi’s forest department and other government agencies set plantation targets. During 2009-2017, the target was planting an average 9 lakh trees per year. Its tree and forest cover, however, has not grown at a commensurate rate, the latest Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report notes. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forest, planting 65,000 saplings should add 1 sq km forest/tree cover. Going by that yardstick, Delhi’s cover should have increased 13.84 sq km a year, but it has grown by only 5.83 sq km over the entire period. The CAG has questioned the efficacy of the programme; forest officials say it is not possible for all planted trees to survive. This year’s target is 28 lakh trees. (Mallica Joshi)
Tip for Reading List – A philosophy of modern ideas
For his 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt travelled all over North America and Australia, interviewing physicists, philosophers, novelists and theologians to find an answer to the question that the nineteenth century American thinker William James described as philosophy’s darkest — the question of being, or, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In an interview given to Vanity Fair at the time, Holt described that question as “the most sublime and awesome in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry”.
Six years on, Holt, himself a philosopher of significant standing who has written extensively on time, truth, numbers, humour, logic and the string theory, has produced a collection of his essays from the past two decades that he says aims at “getting across a profound idea in a brisk and amusing way… by stripping it down to its essence (perhaps with a few swift pencil strokes on a napkin)”.
The idea of When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought, he says, “is to enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert. And never to bore”. The essays, which focus broadly on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, are, as a review in The New York Times put it, “an elegant history of recent ideas” — “infinity and the infinitesimal, the illusion of time, the birth of eugenics, the so-called new atheism, smartphones and distraction”.