The Corner


The Man in the Brown Suit, Etc.

Reagan and Thatcher at the White House, September 29, 1983 (White House Photographic Office / PD / Wikimedia)

In Impromptus today, I address the topic du jour, and the topic of many jours: the state of the Republican Party. Is there room for Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney in it? Or does the country need a third party — a significant third party, even if it starts out small? America is like the Big Ten of old. That conference was called, for many years, the Big Two (the two being Michigan and Ohio State). Then, everyone started to get in on the act — even Northwestern!

I also address North Korea — specifically, a nephew of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un — and some lighter topics as well: Do you remember Ronald Reagan’s brown suit? It was the subject of many news articles. At the end of my column, I provide a brief travelogue of South Bend, Ind., which I have visited for the first time. Very pleasant.

A little mail. I’m going to publish an exchange I had with Peter Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars — who is also an anthropologist. Said I,

I’ve been doing a brief study of Ethiopia — brief and shallow. About 80 ethnicities; about 80 languages. Layer upon layer. Really, anthropology — the study of man — is just about the most beautiful and interesting study there is. I don’t care what practitioners have done to the field. It just is, right?

Answered Professor Wood,

The real diversity of humanity is a wonder, and encountering it unsettles all the taken-for-granted assumptions we rely on. No wonder some anthropologists go crazy, but if you avoid the craziness, it is a beautiful way to look at the world.

Yes. (For my 2015 piece “Majoring in Anthro,” go here.)

A friend of mine writes,

Hi, Jay,

Based on your recommendation a few weeks ago, I went and got a copy of Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat. I usually don’t enjoy translations, I know nothing about DomRep history, and I’m fairly ignorant of Hispanic culture and politics. So when I say, it was a powerful book, you know this means something.

I originally wanted to write “a good book,” but “good” doesn’t fit a novel about dictatorship, corruption, torture, and a failed coup.

I thought of these things when I read your piece on Gulchehra Hoja, and how the Chinese government punishes her family for her actions. That was an undercurrent to The Feast of the Goat: Defy Trujillo and your family suffers.

It made me realize the incredible sacrifice made by anyone who resists totalitarians. It’s hard enough to get to the point of risking one’s own life — but to know the hell you’ll be bringing on others makes the decision more horrible. Sure, one can intellectually tell oneself that any guilt is on the heads of the oppressors only, but there’s always going to be some personal guilt.

Oh, yes. For my piece on Gulchehra Hoja — one of the Uyghur-American journalists who work for Radio Free Asia — go here.

In the North Korean diplomatic corps, there have been very few defections — because the regime takes it out on your family, if you defect. Two years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Incredible Guts of Thae Yong-ho.” A brief passage:

The Kim regime is a firm believer in guilt by association. If one person steps out of line, his family and even his friends and colleagues pay for it. This keeps North Koreans in line.

Okay, let’s lighten up — way up — by talking about high-school nicknames: specifically, the nickname of my high school in Ann Arbor, Mich.: We are the Huron High School River Rats. I had occasion to mention this in a recent column. Some readers asked, “What’s the deal with that name?”

My father was present at the creation (teacher, coach, athletic director, etc.). There used to be one high school in Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor High, naturally. When the population got bigger, there was a need for two: The old high school was called “Ann Arbor Pioneer,” and the new was called “Ann Arbor Huron” (for its placement near the Huron River). According to my dad,

“River rats” was a derogatory name for students at the new school, made up by the students of the old school: the Pioneers. But Huron students liked it. They kept voting for it in polls. Years after I left Huron, I continued to get letters and calls from around the country, inquiring about the nickname.

The original principal, Paul Meyers, opposed the name. He insisted that current students wouldn’t like it in future years: Would they want to tell their children and grandchildren that they had been “River Rats”? But the name stuck!

You bet it did. The split between the high schools, by the way, occurred in 1969.

A reader writes,

Your Impromptus today reminded me that, at least when I was in high school, the Ann Arbor Huron girls volleyball team was quite good, both at the varsity and the junior-varsity levels. My high school often played them in tournaments, and our mantra was “Drown the River Rats.” I have never forgotten the Huron team because of the unique mascot — similar to the UC–Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

And no, the mantra didn’t work most of the time — we still often lost.

Okay, we have some mail in, concerning the aforementioned brown suit — Reagan’s. In my column today, I link to one of the many, many articles about that garment. This is from UPI on August 20, 1985 (what were you doing that day?): “Reagan Makes Brown Suit a Success Mark.”

This morning, a friend of mine writes,

I bought one just before the Plague and then it went unrequited, so to speak, in my closet for 15 months. It’s now regularly deployed, as I’m back in circulation, and I never wear it without thinking of RR and the days when adults ran the country.

Another friend writes,

Back in my very short-lived haberdasher days, I had a brown suit made of really good material, because of Reagan. He wore one, so it was cool. I wore it once. So, if you wear a 44 long, I’ll donate it to your closet — and pay the shipping!

Ha, I wish I were tall enough to merit the “long.” Again, for today’s Impromptus, go here.


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