The Corner


A Briefcase, Guns, and a Song

Louis Jordan, c. 1946 — blowin’ it cool, hot, however you want it (William P. Gottlieb Collection / Library of Congress)

Impromptus today begins with — is dominated by — some challenging issues. Last week, I wrote about Ethiopia — the Tigray War, which features crimes against humanity. Some critics thought I was too soft on Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister (who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago). Others thought I was too hard on him.

Can you assign blame in a situation such as Tigray? Is it better to throw up your hands and say, “Tribes gonna tribe. There are no real guilty or innocent parties”? No.

You can’t win if you write about Ethiopia. You can’t win if you write about James Levine, either.

The great conductor died earlier this month. I wrote a brief appreciation of him, here. Toward the beginning, I said,

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 I right to do this? Some people thought not. Anyway, I explore this question in Impromptus.

I end my column with something pleasant — memories of William Shatner, who turned 90 on March 22. I met him in L.A., about 20 years ago (hard as it is to believe, for it seems like last week).

Okay, let’s have some reader mail — the first missive responding to this piece: “Voices from Philistia,” on the politics and rhetoric of populism. In that piece, I said,

Huey Long was maybe the outstanding populist and demagogue of the 20th century in America. George C. Wallace was not far behind him. There was a time, believe it or not, when briefcases were considered fancy. They were new, and newfangled — and excellent fodder for Wallace. Listen to him, rilin’ up the crowd:

“Up there in New York City, they walk around with briefcases, as if they had somethin’ impo’tant in them. You wanna know what’s in those briefcases? Why, nothin’ but a peanut-butter sandwich!”

The crowd(s) loved it.

A reader says,

Hi, Jay,

I won’t share the whole thing, but attached is a page from a letter that my dad wrote to his grandmother in 1957. He was a struggling salesman and part-time student with two kids and almost no income. . . . You can see that he envies his brother’s trip to Europe. It was many years before my parents traveled at all, and the late ’70s before they got to Europe.

So, I would tell George Wallace: Not every briefcase-user was rich!

In 1957, our reader’s father wrote to his grandmother,

. . . With the money I received and a few dollars more I bought a brief case. Something that I have wanted for some time. Even if school is almost over, I will use it next year and the year after. And of course a salesman always needs a brief case.

Charlie’s trip is something, isn’t it? A tourist in Europe. That is something to tell your children about — if they ever have any.

I hope you are well, Gramma.

In an Impromptus, I wrote about guns, and the current fetishization of them, as opposed to the matter-of-fact attitude that prevailed when I was growing up.

A reader writes,

My locker throughout high school was situated across from the wood- and metal-shop classes. Nearly every morning kids would be bringing rifles and shotguns down the hall for the purpose of fixing their stocks, working on the various metal parts of their guns, etc. No one ever gave this a second thought. Times have changed.

All right — feel like some language? A friend and reader writes,


You wrote today about “baseless smears.” I’ve always thought references to a “general consensus” fall into the same category. A consensus is, by definition, general. No?

That is correct. But: One can imagine a scenario in which you’re asking about the opinions of circus performers. “What is the consensus among tightrope walkers?” “What is the consensus among men shot out of cannons?” “Okay, what is the general consensus” — the consensus among circus performers at large?

Still, 99 percent of the time, I’m sure, “consensus” will do. I was warned away from “general consensus” by my grandfather, a long time ago.

Last week, I published a letter from a reader who cited O Brother, Where Art Thou? — in which a politician says, “Is you is, or is you ain’t, my constituency?” (He pronounces it “constitchency.”) Many readers were reminded of a Louis Jordan classic, from 1943. Louis Jordan is not to be confused with Louis Jourdan — the French actor and Bond villain. No, our Jordan was a saxophone player, songwriter, and bandleader.

That hit was “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” Listen to it — soak it up — here. Great stuff.

And today’s Impromptus, once more, is here. I was going to say it’s a peculiar one, but maybe they all are.


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