When they attack a piano, &c.

On civilization, Pelosi & Schumer, grammar, and more

The headline in the New York Times read, “Olivia Hooker, 103, Dies; Witness to an Ugly Moment in History.” The deceased, we learn, was the first black woman to enlist in the Coast Guard and a professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York. A remarkable person, obviously.

What about this “ugly moment in history”? Olivia Hooker was a six-year-old girl in Tulsa when “white mobs stormed through the Greenwood District” of the city, “destroying homes and businesses in a wave of violence.” (I have quoted the Times.) A commission many years later — 2001 — found that 100 to 300 people were killed.

Apparently, it was hard to know with greater accuracy at that remove.

I’d like to quote further from the Times’s obit, and then fasten on a detail. In old age, Olivia Hooker

remembered that when the attacks started, she saw men with torches storming into the family’s backyard and her mother acting to protect her and her three siblings.

“Our mother put us under the table,” she recently told NPR. “She took the longest tablecloth she had to cover four children and told us not to say a word.”

The marauders entered the house and took an ax to the family piano. In the business district, her father’s clothing store was destroyed.

Think with me about the piano: Can you imagine how offended the “marauders” must have been that this family had a piano? The piano being a symbol of civilization?

Needless to say, human lives are much more important than pianos. But this obit made me think of Anthony Daniels, the British writer and doctor who also works under the name “Theodore Dalrymple.” In the early 1990s, he wrote a book called “Monrovia Mon Amour.” It is about Liberia, obviously. This is a country that was in the throes of civil war.

Tony entered the Centennial Hall in Monrovia, where presidents of the country were inaugurated. He saw a Steinway grand piano — probably the only one in the country — on the floor with its legs cut off. The piano was surrounded by human excrement. Tony saw in that scene a raw hatred of civilization.

Why talk about pianos in the face of mass human carnage! There is a connection, as Tony says: the hatred that savagery feels for anything higher or more decent or good.

• Krysten Sinema made me think of Earl Long. Sinema is a senator-elect from Arizona; Long (Huey’s brother) was governor of Louisiana in three different terms.

By the way, have you noticed how many variations there are on “Kristin,” “Kirsten,” etc.? Spelling is rather a nightmare. You have to learn each name, one by one, person by person.

At any rate, Sinema is a Democrat, and during her Senate campaign she pledged that she would not vote for Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, to continue as party leader. As it happened, Schumer was reelected — re-chosen — by voice acclamation. Sinema offered no objection. Thus, her critics are saying, “She went back on her word immediately.”

For her own part, Sinema wrote in a statement, “Had there been a challenger for Minority Leader, I would have considered new leadership and a fresh perspective.”

Okay, why am I thinking about Earl Long? Once, Earl went back on a campaign promise, immediately. His press secretary was besieged by reporters, asking for an explanation. He goes into Long’s office and says, “Boss, what’ll I tell ’em?” Earl responds, calm as can be, “Tell ’em I lied.”

(I’ve always loved that story. I learned it from David Brinkley, who told it on television, many years ago.)

• Let’s go to the other Democratic leader on the Hill — Nancy Pelosi, of San Francisco, who is set to be speaker again. I remember when she became speaker the first time, after the 2006 midterms. Saturday Night Live sent her up — and sent up San Francisco culture at the same time. It was one of the funniest political send-ups I have ever seen. Absolutely wicked, and perfect, satire.

Have a look.

• Stay on the subject of Congress — and have a tweet from Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine): “It is a grave mistake for the President to ignore the CIA’s widely reported assessment on the Khashoggi murder. If the President does not reconsider what actions our government should take toward the Saudi Government & MbS, Congress must act instead.”

I have heard “Reassert congressional prerogative!” all my life. But it has always been more of a cry than a happening …

• President Trump is a name-caller, as everyone knows. Some like it, some don’t. Lately, he has written of “Jeff Flake(y)” and “little Adam Schitt (D-CA).” Now, I’m sure that Jeff Flake has been called “Flaky,” etc., since his playground days; and I’m sure that Adam Schiff has been called “Schitt” since his own playground days. But did either man ever expect to be called those things by the president of the United States, a man in his 70s?

For many Trump supporters, the name-calling is a feature, not a bug. I have learned this over the last few years. It is a style that makes millions of hearts go pitter-pat, which tells you something about the state of things. Conservatives ought to point out to people why this is wrong.

But who?

• President Trump also likes to say “loser.” He called April Ryan, a reporter, a “loser.” It seems to me that when you’re president, you don’t have to call someone else a “loser.” You’re on top of the heap. You’re America’s winner, in a way. You can afford to be a little gracious. “Loser” is an epithet of playground bullies.

But again, a lot of people like it, indeed love it.

They must have loved this, too: Trump said to another reporter, Abby Phillip, “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question.” What was it? Referring to the new attorney general, the reporter had asked, “Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?”

In my view, that’s a good question, not a stupid one.

• A colleague of mine sent me an article published in Smithsonian magazine. It’s called “Becoming Anne Frank.” And its opening line is, “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”

I thought of Michael Gove, the British politician and writer. Once, in an interview, I discussed anti-Semitism with him. I said that I had observed something in life: There are people who like Jews when they’re weak and vulnerable, but not when they’re strong and armed. Gove said, “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”

Unforgettable, that phrase, at least by me: “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”

• I spotted a headline in the Moscow Times: “Russia’s Third-Largest City to Pay Tribute to Stalin With New Statue.” (That city is Novosibirsk, and the article is here.) Huh. I liked it a lot better when they were pulling those statues down.

• Did you read about Alyssa Milano, the actress? You can here, and elsewhere. She said she would boycott the next Women’s March unless it disassociated itself from anti-Semites (among them, Farrakhan).

Wow. Crush makes good!

• Let me alert you to an unusual book: The Sparrow and the Hall, by Donald Mace Williams. DMW is a longtime reader of this column and correspondent with its author, and he is a very sharp and interesting guy. A man of great cultivation. His novel is set in 7th-century England. Have you ever read a novel with such a setting? Me neither, but I look forward …

• There is a lady in New York who mans the Grammar Table. I read about her here — charming, unexpected article. Have a sample:

About four times a week, she schleps a foldable table and a chair to locations such as a triangular sidewalk plaza outside a subway entrance off 72nd Street or inside the underground expanses of Grand Central Station or Times Square and sets up the Grammar Table. Its laminated sign reads: “Vent! Comma crisis? Semicolonphobia? Conjunctive adverb addiction! Ask a question! Any language!”

A man — a customer, so to speak — complains about people who say, for example, “I am a friend of John’s.” (The man happens to be a retired reporter and editor for Reuters.) In his view, that has to be “I am a friend of John.” I have heard this over the years and often respond as follows: “If you say, ‘I am a friend of John,’ you must say, ‘I am a friend of him.’ But you would never say that. You would say, quite naturally, ‘I am a friend of his’ — and that goes with ‘John’s.’ See?”

Anyway, I’m delighted to know about Ellen Jovin and her Grammar Table. She and it are an adornment to life.

• I walked into a busy bakery. There was an elderly woman, an immigrant from China. She was working behind the counter. She was cheerful and energetic, but her English was uncertain. A younger worker, also an immigrant, seamlessly and diplomatically picked up the slack — the communication slack. I thought, “That is so American.”

Immigrants and immigration come in for a lot of criticism, much of it justified, I’m sure. It shouldn’t kill us to note something positive now and then.

• On the streets of New York, I had a bit of a jolt. I saw a politician who was felled by scandal many years ago. He had been talked about for president. In those days, he was gleaming, confident — almost knight-like. On this day, however, he was haggard, somewhat lost. He was damn near homeless in appearance. I thought, “Oh, the things that happen to us, here below! Watch, watch, watch.”

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