Current Comment

Sentencing Saddam

When a court in Baghdad found Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging, President George W. Bush hailed the verdict as a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law and a vindication of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tabloid headlines in the United States reported with relish the imminent execution of the deposed dictator.

But the response of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a stalwart supporter of the war in Iraq, was far more measured, welcoming the guilty verdict but objecting on principle to the sentence. Mr. Blair’s position was consistent with the repudiation of the death penalty by the countries of the European Union. A spokesman for the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly warned that the execution of Saddam Hussein could also lead to greater violence, A country ravaged by violence and death does not need more violence, and especially not a state-orchestrated execution. Saddam Hussein is a criminal and should not be allowed to become a martyr.

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, condemned the sentence as a matter of principle and also on the pragmatic grounds that it could heighten the level of violence in Iraq. Throughout the Arab world, even those opposed to the Iraqi dictator expressed their concern about the sentence and its possible aftermath, warning that doubts about the legitimacy of the trial could offset belief in Saddam’s guilt.

O.K. to Single-Sex Classes

When Thomas Jefferson in 1779 drafted a bill for popular education in Virginia, he designed his schools for boys only. Girls were left out. Two centuries later it was still taken for granted that single-sex high schools provided a better climate for learning than coeducational ones. But nowadays the generally received opinion among U.S. educators is the oppositefor two reasons: Single-sex public schools are said to be ineligible for federal funds because they violate the anti-discrimination rule imposed by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, and such schools are said to perpetuate sexual stereotypes - boys are better at math and science; girls have better verbal skills.

There are, however, a good number of nonpublic single-sex schools and plenty of parents who prefer those schools for their children. There are also studies that show, as Cornelius Riordan reported in Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate? (1990), that data collected during the 1980’s support the conclusion that single-gender schools generally are more effective academically than coeducational schools - and at all levels.

In any case and for whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Education, in a set of regulations that took effect Nov. 24, ruled that it is legal to educate boys and girls separately in public schools as long as the enrollment is voluntary and the district offers comparable coeducational classes.

The American Civil Liberties Union is predictably outraged by this decision, but it should relax. It is unlikely the ruling will provoke a tidal wave of experiments any time soon. At present, out of a total of about 93,000 U.S. public schools, only 241, all of them small, are single-sex.

Genius - Comic or Evil?

What is one to think about the tactics of Sacha Baron Cohen, the comic geniusor evil genius, depending on one’s outlookbehind Borat, the popular new movie?

Mr. Cohen, a Cambridge-educated Jewish man whose dissertation at Christ’s College was entitled Black-Jewish Alliance: A Case of Mistaking Identity, is a satirist whose hero is Peter Sellers. Formerly he was best known for his HBO series Da Ali G Show, in which Cohen portrayed three patent idiots: Ali G, a hip hop rapper; Bruno, an Austrian fashion correspondent; and the now-notorious Borat Sagdiyev, a television reporter from Kazakhstan. Each fictional character encountered real people à la Candid Camera. In one episode Borat, accompanying a city councilman canvassing for votes, told an astonished woman, approvingly, that if not elected the politician would seize powerlike Stalin!

His new movie sparked a firestorm of controversy. Borat Sagdiyev is a grossly anti-Semitic man who coaxes grossly anti-Semitic (and racist) statements from unsuspecting participants. On the one hand, by clearly presenting Borat as a fool, viewers are encouraged to reject prejudice and stereotyping, which was Norman Lear’s approach with Archie Bunker. (Borat’s appearance on The Daily Show left Jon Stewart, who is himself Jewish, in stitches.) But some fear that viewers may simply enjoy laughing at anti-Semitic and racist slurs. (The Anti-Defamation League believes this.) Finally, some condemn Cohen’s duping of passersby trying to be solicitous to a foreigner. Overall, when dealing with incendiary issues that are still the source of intense pain for so manyanti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobialess meta-humor and more meta-caution is in order.

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