Questions of judgment, &c.

Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region wait for food at the Um-Rakoba camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Qadarif State, Sudan, November 23, 2020. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters)
On the Ethiopian civil war; the case of James Levine; lessons from William Shatner; and more

In recent days, I have written about Abiy Ahmed and war in Ethiopia. Abiy is the country’s prime minister, and also a recent Nobel peace laureate (2019). Not only is civil war being waged in the Tigray region, crimes against humanity are being committed, too: mass slaughters, mass rape, and all the rest.

Did you notice my use of the passive voice? “Crimes against humanity are being committed”? I hate that. People — specific people — commit crimes against humanity.

In Tigray, many forces are involved: the Ethiopian national military; the Eritrean military, allied with Ethiopia’s; soldiers of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front; various militias; and more.

I give a few details in my piece (which is mainly about the Nobel Peace Prize). And I ask, more broadly, “Who is responsible for the hell in Tigray? The prime minister, the Nobel peace laureate?” My answer:

The assignment of blame would take many pages of analysis. Suffice it to say, Abiy Ahmed is to blame for a lot, including the cut-off of communication between Tigray and the outside world, and the delay of humanitarian aid — desperately needed — to the region.

This piece attracted many critics: some slamming me for being too soft on Abiy; some slamming me for being too hard on Abiy. Some slammed me for whitewashing genocide in Tigray; some slammed me for failing to understand why Abiy and the federal government had to act.

The temptation is to say, “The hell with them. I’m not getting into their tribal quarrels.” And yet: There are persecutors and persecuted; slaughterers of innocents and those slaughtered innocents; rapists and raped.

Moral abdication won’t do, will it?

In 2013, Sarah Palin had a line that thrilled a lot of people. The Assad dictatorship in Syria had used chemical weapons against the population, and the United States was debating whether to intervene. Palin was against — and headed a Facebook post, “LET ALLAH SORT IT OUT.”

This is the spirit I’m talking about.

You heard it in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, too: “ancient hatreds, an alphabet soup, what can you do?” And yet there were real victimizers and real victims.

After the spectacularly gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, a reporter asked President Trump who should be held accountable for it. “Maybe the world should be held accountable,” the president answered, “because the world is a vicious place.”

The Biden administration released a U.S. intelligence report saying that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was responsible.

I could go on, but you take my point. Sometimes blame is difficult to assign, or even impossible. And yet people are responsible for their actions — and there are clear rights and wrongs. The world is a vicious place, sure — which is no excuse for the vicious, as I see it.

• It was bad enough that I wrote about Ethiopia, but then I wrote about James Levine. The great conductor died earlier this month, at 77. The New Criterion, of which I am music critic, asked me to write a post, an appreciation.

That made sense, didn’t it? If you cover baseball, you cover Babe Ruth; if you cover music, you cover James Levine.

Yet I was hesitant.

Early on in my post, I wrote,

His career came to an end in 2018 when he was accused — credibly — of a history of sexual predation and assault. I do not want to sweep these accusations under the rug. They colored practically everything, where Levine is concerned. A great fan of his — a music critic — told me that he could no longer listen to recordings by Levine. In this space, however, I am jotting a kind of musical eulogy.

Was that wrong?

A friend wrote,

This is you at your best. He deserves to be remembered for what he accomplished.

That note ticked me off. It felt sweep-under-the-ruggy.

On the other hand, another friend wrote that my piece had upset him. It was as though I had written about a monstrous dictator, said my friend. I had brushed the monster’s crimes aside in order to praise the art collection he had amassed or something.

About Levine, my friend said, “I stand with his victims.” Well, where the hell do I stand?

There are some who won’t watch Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies. Or listen to Michael Jackson. I understand them. In the past, there have been Nazi artists, Communist artists — I have written about that issue, too (repeatedly).

Should I have let Levine’s passing pass? Maybe I should have. Was a “musical eulogy” — even one acknowledging the accusations (which Levine always denied) — illegitimate? Maybe it was.

I know people who love and cherish James Levine, and are grateful for every minute they ever spent with him. In general, they don’t believe the accusations, or think that they are exaggerated.

Do I believe them? Yes — but you have to understand: I tend to believe the worst. I have a dark, dark view of mortal man.

In 2017, the comedian Louis C.K. was accused of gross conduct. “These stories are true,” he replied. He apologized, abjectly. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” he said. “And I wielded that power irresponsibly.” More than once did he say that: They admired me — they looked up to me — and I took advantage of them, which was horrendous.

I thought this was exactly right — a perfect analysis and self-indictment. Other people dunked on him: Oh, they admired you, did they? What an egotist! Nope — someone who knew exactly what he had done, and why he was able to do it.

Men have been exploiting people who admire them for a very, very long time — especially younger people, and especially sexually. I suspect this was the case with Levine. Do I know it for sure? No. Should I take his denials into account? Yes. Would I bet money — big money — that he was guilty? Yes.

In the post I cited above, I used the word “colored”: The accusations “colored practically everything, where Levine is concerned.” They did and do.

One more thing, before I get out. Not long ago, I reviewed a great musician — another one — who was once accused of sex crimes. There was no trial, and there has been no proof, so far as I’m aware. The musician strenuously denied the accusation.

“He’s a rapist,” wrote a friend of mine, in reply to my review. Do I believe this? I’m afraid I do. But then I would, wouldn’t I?

I’m not sure I’ll write about this musician again. I probably will — and think about all this. Being a music critic is not as la-di-da as you might think. (You might be better off writing about ethnic cleansing and genocide in Tigray.)

• In the NCAA basketball tournament, the Ohio State Buckeyes were upset by the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles. An OSU player, E.J. Liddell, received “vulgar messages and threats,” according to one report. Liddell commented, “Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human.”

I thought of something that Jeff Van Gundy said. Van Gundy is a former NBA coach and now a broadcaster. He was working a game in last year’s NBA Finals. In the previous game, a Los Angeles Laker, Danny Green, had missed a shot at the buzzer. Thereafter, he got death threats, and so did his fiancée.

Commenting, Mark Jackson, Van Gundy’s fellow broadcaster, said, “We’re better than that, as a people.” Van Gundy said, “I’m not sure we’re better than that.”

One of the coldest, and best, remarks I have ever heard on air.

Responding to the E.J. Liddle matter, Charles Barkley said, “I’ll never do social media because of this” (meaning things like this). I know what he means. Jonathan Last once asked me why I was on Twitter. “Why would you want to have sheer malice burned into your retinas?” Well, you separate the chaff from the wheat. But, man, is there chaff.

• I noticed — on Twitter, in fact! — that Monday was William Shatner’s birthday (his 90th). A couple of memories, please.

Years ago, I met him in a green room. We were going to do a kind of talk show together. A documentary, Trekkies, had just come out. So I discussed with Shatner — Captain Kirk — the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom. He said that he and his co-stars had discovered something about Star Trek conventions. The people really didn’t care whether they, the stars, showed up or not. “It’s not about us,” he said. “It’s about them.”

Just before we were to walk out onstage, I said to him, “For you, this must be like sitting in your living room or something.” He said to me, “There’s always a certain anxiety.” I very much appreciated that, coming from him.

And I appreciate you, dear readers. Thanks for joining me and catch you soon.

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