Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«Feb 2021»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


March 10, 2018

A New Lees on Life

A habitué of this blog, if any there are, will have noticed some changes lately. I have restored two of my books to be read here, since they were not making much money as downloads, and I would rather have them here for free. And there are now well over 4000 entries in the Encyclopedia (I could be adding more entries every week if it were not for all the interruptions: two surgeries on my back in the last five months, among other things).

But the most dramatic change is no doubt the addition of Gene Lees' Jazzletter. This is more than 300 issues of the private publication of the long-time writer and editor who knew everybody, and was an expert at backing into the limelight. His reminiscences, anecdotes and interviews (and contributions from other writers) were looked forward to by subscribers from 1981 to 2008, but were lost when he passed away, except for those of us who had collected them. My partner in this crime has been Claude Neuman, a translator of poetry who lives in France and was also a friend of Gene's; you can find out more by clicking on "Gene Lee's Jazzletter", where there is a blurb, and a disclaimer: "We have been unable to make contact with Gene’s family, but should they wish to upload or publish the Jazzletter themselves, we would gladly pass the torch to them."

Hundreds of people have been notified of the resurrection of the Jazzletter, and I have also received a message from a Canadian gentleman who thought that my disclaimer was 'presumptuous' (is that a Canadian word?).

Well, copyright can be a problem. My wife and I have published 20 or more books between us, depending on how you count them, and every one of them contains a similar disclaimer: "We have tried to find the owner of [this or that photo or whatever]; if you will kindly let us know..." I know people who have had to sue people to get their own work back! I nursed an idea for a TV version of The RIse And Fall of Popular Music -- I even had a good time writing some scenes in my head -- until a successful producer of TV films told me that he commissions original music for his works because licensing music costs too much. I wonder how many worthwhile projects never see the light of day for that reason. I myself am ashamed of American copyright law, driven by corporate types on behalf of the Mickey Mouse estate.

It is of course all about money. I belong to a group that shares broadcasts and out-of-print records of classical music; nobody bothers us because classical music isn’t seen to be worth anything. And maybe my disclaimer about the Jazzletter is similar to that: there is no money here. Claude put up quite a sum to have the pages turned into pdfs; now that I am buying extra protection from GoDaddy against scammers, malware etc, it costs me several hundred a year just to keep the site up. In ten years the site hadn’t earned me a dime (the donate button is new this month.). People have been cribbing my stuff for over 30 years, and I don’t mind because that’s what it’s for. When Cab Calloway died, there was a mistake in an obit in a national British paper that came from my Encyclopedia entry!

There is some irony and some comedy here. Gene was sore at me when he died; he was sore at a lot of people from time to time. (I was also corresponding with Max Harrison; they were a pair of loveable cranks: they each warned me about the other.) We tried to get in touch with those relatives of Gene's that we knew about and nobody seemed to be interested. Gene is on record as worrying that after he died he would be forgotten; we are trying to prevent that, for a while at least. But if I get any threatening letters from lawyers I’ll just yank the Jazzletter and Claude can do what he likes with it.

Meanwhile, the chap in Canada says that there have been proposals to put the jazz magazine Coda online, which always founder because it changed hands three times. So they do nothing, and Coda remains in limbo.


March 7, 2018

Yet another first-world problem

I subscribed to all those mail-order budget classical record clubs back in the 1950s: The Musical Masterpiece Society, Music Treasures of the World, there was no end of them. Some of the MMS tracks are still favorites, European recordings that could be leased at the time for very little. Now I am trying to buy a Music Treasures number just to find out if it's the one that still intrigues me. These came in a polythene sleeve, no jacket, no notes except perhaps an insert on a sheet of paper; a recording of Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite no. 2 was not only a fun performance, but in the Farandole used a tambourine-like instrument, allegedly the French folk instrument that Bizet wanted, instead of the usual little drum. Hard to believe that everyone else has got it wrong all these decades, but I'd like to hear it again.

So I ordered the record from Discogs (where you can find some pretty weird old stuff) and was supposed to hear from the seller about how to pay, but did not; next got a note from Discogs to say that the order was about to be cancelled because I hadn't paid; went to Paypal and paid and the payment seemed to be going to the wrong place, because the seller apparently has three different names: Atomic-Age, Vixen Vinyl LLC, and Now the record is supposed to be on the way. Such a lot of rigmarole just to gamble a couple of bucks.

addenda: The record arrived and the performance of the Farandole is not the one I was hoping for. In fact I had to put on headphones and turn up the volume just to hear the percussionist; he must have been using brushes. I lost the gamble.


March 7, 2018

Good reading discovered

Last week Billy Graham was on the news every night for several nights running; now I guess he is safely under the grass. Coincidentally, I saw an abridged version of an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the Times Literary Supplement that I enjoyed so much that I purchased a download of her new collection, What Are We Doing Here?

Robinson is a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, who is now retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, the most highly regarded such department in the USA. I read one of her novels years ago, because it was remaindered and I bought it very cheap; the rest of them are on my bucket list, which is already impossibly long. I did not know until now that she is also a lecturer and an essayist of the very first order, and takes no prisoners:

I mentioned how aware I am that I bear the stigma of living in Iowa and of teaching in a public university. This country grossly impoverishes itself with this condescending or contemptuous dismissal of vast reaches of its terrain and the multitudes who live and die there. I have been asked a hundred times why I teach at Iowa, by people sophisticated enough to know that in my field anywhere else on earth would be a step down. So perhaps I teach at a public school in the Midwest because I am an elitist.

She studies history, and takes nothing for granted. (We think of the Puritans as cruel and intolerant; in fact they were a vast improvement on what had come before: they did not believe in torture or burning people.) She is a religious person, regarding theology, history and science as equally important and indispensible, on top of which she is a spellbinding writer. Her stuff is absolutely thrilling, and makes the likes of Billy Graham sound like children ranting in their playpens.


March 7, 2018

The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.

I left my wife and children 53 years ago. We had two beautiful little girls; compared to all our working-class friends, our kids were better behaved, we had a nicer home, and fewer debts… But dear old Sandy, my high-school sweetheart, was unhappy. She complained constantly about everything, and about nothing. I could not seem to please her, and I finally decided that there was no point in both of us being unhappy, so I left.

I was young and dumb, and did not realize how hard this would be on the girls. Soon I found myself living overseas; they have each had somewhat rackety lives, and while somehow I stayed close to the oldest, the younger one was understandably resentful, and we were more or less on the outs for a while. She may have been too strict on her own children, but she has mellowed. I don't know what happened. The important thing is that we get along now.

Meanwhile, I had finally found my life partner, and for nearly forty years I have watched her make friends around the world. I'll never forget the first time I saw Ethne lecture, on the subject of some flower or other; in a round barn in the middle of Texas a large audience was bored almost to sleep by people attempting murder by power point, but as soon as Ethne opened her mouth people sat up and started having a good time. That was nearly 20 years ago, and last month it happened for the Nth time: she didn't want to go to Palm Springs; she had concerns at home, she thought there wouldn't be much of an audience and the trip would be a waste of time, but of course she went and lectured about mid-century modern and was a smash hit: the room was packed; some had come just to see her, no matter what she was talking about, and they didn't want to let her off the stage.

At her last job she had been head-hunted to revive a 70-year-old magazine. She won awards from the magazine industry, including Best Relaunch; but the atmosphere at that company was poisonous (nobody can know what passive-aggressive is until they've worked in the media). Even there she tried to mentor younger people, helping them along with their editorial skills, as she herself was mentored decades ago in London. She is a much nicer person than I am, or at least a lot more gregarious; people on almost every continent want us to come visit; if we were younger and had more money we would be travelling constantly.

But we have had some concerns recently; I have been in pain for several months thanks to osteoporosis, and Ethne has been heartbroken by something that has been going on close to home: there are always travails. And then along comes the eldest grandchild with a sledgehammer of imagined nonsense about Ethne picking on her about her weight. We have had trouble with this kid before; she apparently needs to be the center of attention. We were happy because she seemed to be looking happier lately; she used to look skinny and haggard. She and her second husband and her three beautiful and talented daughters came here last summer for a visit and we all had a wonderful time. Or so we thought. We were wrong: the eldest grandchild is not happy at all. It seems she thinks she is overweight: we did not know that, and we don't give a damn. But she thinks that Ethne has been fat-shaming her, which is a social media phenomenon of her generation, not ours.

She says that our relationship, hers and mine, has always been "fragile"; well, I was living overseas until she was a teenager, and I had not seen her since she was a toddler. And when it came time, who did her best to do something about that fragility? Ethne, that's who. She engineered a visit to the eldest grandchild when she was in college in New Jersey, and I remember being disappointed that her boyfriend couldn't be there: I guess that was the first husband. And there was a meeting in Philadelphia, where the eldest couldn't make it, but where I met a grandson for the first time. (He called me Grandpa, which I liked; at least we are friends on Facebook.) At some point, when we were living in Iowa, the phone rang, Ethne answered it, and a tiny voice asked "Ethne?" She was stuck alone with one or two babies in some godforsaken military town in Kentucky or wherever, and she needed to reach out, and we were pleased and deeply touched that she reached out to us. Again, on a visit to New York, Ethne brought the two grandaughters and the two oldest great-grandchildren to our hotel room as a surprise for me, and we all had a nice time going to the zoo. There have been other meetings: we went to visit her and the kids in Germany when the first husband was stationed there.

And most recently, when the eldest was living in a broken-down house trailer after a divorce, our son rented a trailer and hauled her car all way from Georgia to Pennsylvania; and when she decided to go back to college, we invited her to come and live with us, where she would be safer and closer to school: Ethne and I both had that idea, but Ethne suggested it first, so she gets the credit. And the eldest did her best to screw that up with her self-centeredness. And now when I remind her what a good person Ethne is and how hard she has tried to reach out to my earlier family, she says she is "flummoxed".

Okay, she doesn't like Ethne, she distrusts her, she's afraid of her, whatever. I don't care. Some women have to be suspicious of other women, perhaps especially older, stronger women; that's not our problem. Ethne isn't taking any more insults, and I find this mindlessness disgusting, so here I am on the outs again with a loved one. The eldest grandchild says, "This is high school nonsense. I wash my hands of it." She should have done that before she started. Somebody said that she'll probably turn into a nice person in 25 years, but I won't care. I'll be dead.

Here is the eldest grandchild, in February 2018:
"something incorrect…unacceptable behavior…rude, unbecoming, and an insult…passive-aggressive...cutting nasty comments with sharp teeth…disgraceful…in poor taste…foolish idiocy…vicious note…bitter woman…"

And here is Oliver Cromwell in August 1650:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Aftr 53 years, the moral of the story hasn't changed. One can choose to be happy, or one can choose to be unhappy. Maybe it's something genetic.


December 21, 2017

Oh, for a president with some character

Donald Trump could become a transformative president. Richard Nixon had to resign in disgrace, but before that he had already transformed the world when he went to China: remember how we used to argue about whether we should "recognize" Red China? Now Donald Trump could refuse to sign the tax bill, saying, "Nobody likes this, and there's too much stuff in it. We need to take another look." He could endorse sensible gun control laws, which the whole country wants. He's not a Democrat or a Republican; he despises the Republican leadership; in fact he despises Congress. He owes nothing to anyone, cares about no one but himself; he could throw his enemies off balance and become the center of attention. But he hasn't the brains or the balls.


December 21, 2017

It was a beautiful morning, so I took a picture

It was a beautiful morning, so I took a picture


December 19, 2017

Cuban music

Colin Channer, reviewing Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's book Island People: The Caribbean and the World in the TLS for December 2:

'His exploration of cubanidad or Cuban-ness skilfully reveals how the slave revolt in Haiti forever shaped Cuba's food and music. In 1803, 30,000 French planters "outrunning a final assault by Haiti's General Dussalines" established "hundreds of shaded coffee plantations in the mountains around Santiago, thereby implanting in Cuba a new industry and a new taste: cafés soon dotted Santiago and Havana". The refugees also brought with them line dances and quadrilles in an era when most of Havana's working musicians, Jelly-Schapiro writes, were creolized Africans.

'And these musicians, steeped not in the steady march tempos of Europe, but in more syncopated approaches to organizing sonic time, transformed the music's rhythms. They built songs around the repeated rhythmic figures that musicologists trace to the looping thumb piano melodies of South Central Africa.

'Along with Spanish influences, Jelly-Schapiro adds, this mash-up is the base ingredient of "all those Cuban styles to come, from the danzón to the habanera, bolero, and cha-cha-cha".'

I would add that the music of the islands, especially Cuba, had a profound inluence on the music of New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton loved the habanera, if I'm not wrong. An endlessly fascinating subject.


October 10, 2017

Columbia Records as was

I have received a news item forwarded from one of my music chatlists: "Yale collections open for research." One of the newly opened collections is the Goddard Lieberson papers: "Goddard Lieberson (1911-1977) was president of Columbia Records from 1956-1975. He spearheaded a number of recording projects for Columbia, and was the inventor of the LP (Long-Playing record)."

Lieberson must have been an interesting man, a highly-cultured New Yorker, whose classmates at Eastman/Rochester included Mitch Miller and Alec Wilder. He composed a string quartet, and sent a recording of it to conductor George Szell, who replied that it was good to hear of a record company executive who actually knew something about music from the inside.

But Lieberson had nothing to do with the invention of the long-playing record. That is usually credited to Peter Goldmark, who was president of CBS labs at the time, but he didn't have much to do with it either. The chief progenitors of the LP were Edward Wallerstein and Jim Hunter (who had earlier been poached  from RCA!) and Wallerstein hired Bill Bachman from General Electric, who had already experimented with microgrooves in the 1930s. 


July 3, 2017

Kaiser Permanente - anybody home?

We are both on Medicare and we both have supplemental insurance, and we have tried and tried to take advantage of their paperless option, and each month we each get a useless fat envelope full of "statement" offering the paperless option on the cover: "and we will send you an email notification whenever you have a statement to view." Oy...


July 3, 2017

A very talented lady

I am dubbing a pile of 78s for a friend, and it's fun and interesting to me, playing with all the old records, looking closely at the labels, looking them up in Brian Rust's Jazz Records...The last batch included Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, John Kirby, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy. Nice to hear Pha Terrell on four of Kirk's ballads; he was quite a good singer of that kind. Most of the records have just been the pop music of the day, but two instrumentals were unusually fine: "A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm" and "In The Groove". I was not surprised to find that they were both composed and arranged by Kirk's pianist, Mary Lou Williams, both in 1937. She no doubt would have been much more famous and successful than she was had she not been a woman.


July 3, 2017

John Kirby: "The BIggest Little Band in the Land"

Bassist John Kirby led a band in the late 1930s that was very successful on the radio for a black band, partly because of its amusing and elegant arrangements. Raymond Scott led one of the first integrated studio bands on the radio, at CBS; Scott also composed intricate arrangements, which also required very good musicians to play them, and also borrowed from classical composers, as Kirby's sometimes did. But Scott's arrangements were novelties, presenting intricacy for its own sake; Kirby's were still good jazz. 

Both bands recorded for Columbia. One of Scott's hits was a ripoff from Mozart called "In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room", and I can't help wondering if it inspired Kirby and trumpeter Charlie Shavers to write "20th Century Closet".


June 3, 2017

Through the looking glass

According to the NYT, colleges are celebrating diversity by having segregated commencements, and the President of the United States especially denounced global warming on days when it was cold out. I must stop reading the papers.


June 2, 2017

An unprecedented presidency

Kimberley A. Strassel, in today's WSJ, writes an interesting article about the things some of Trump's cabinet are accomplishing that are not getting any column inches. Even she however, a shill for capitalism and the Republicans, has to use her last four paragraphs to describe what an asshole he is. If he is most-mocked man in the world, the fault is his own; as she writes:

      "Thus Mr. Trump’s culpability. The president knows better than most the ills of the media; he rails about them constantly. Yet he continues to be the indulger in chief. He daily provides new, explosive tweets that give reporters every excuse to keep up their obsessions about Russia, Mr. Comey, Hillary, Carter Page.
      Mr. Trump’s Twitter handle may be the most powerful communications tool on the planet. He has the awesome ability, unlike any president in history, to force the press to focus on his agenda by putting it out into the world every morning (or late night, as it may be). He could use that tool to set the daily discussion. Instead, he’s using it to undermine his own administration.
      Mr. Trump also has at his disposal an array of famous surrogates who could spread his message. He has all the free media he could ever hope for, if only he used it in a strategic fashion. He has activist groups to help push for his reforms, but they can’t compete amid the crazy headlines.
      Team Trump owes it to voters to get the real news out about its agenda and successes. But that will require doing more than complaining about the press. This White House needs to set and define the daily debate. It’s that, or Russia headlines through 2018."

Regardless of what you or I may think about whatever the adminstration is doing, if it accomplishes anything it will be despite the big baby in the White House.


June 2, 2017

Isn't the Internet wonderful

This week I saw the following item:

Vivax Male Supplements---Get The Erection Of Your Life / Shocking News: Angelina Jolie Reveals The All-Natural Miracle Pill That Cured Brad's ED  Permanently! / Angelina: "Special Thanks To Dr. Oz"

This was accompanied by a photo of Brad and Angie. How do these people get away with this shit?

I have also received in my email in the last week over 20 phony messages so far from "auto-confirm@amazon" or "auto-update@amazon", each from a different phony address, each claiming that my order for a book has been successfully canceled. (Where a book is named, that's phony too. I do not buy anything from Amazon; if I want anything from them my wife orders it, because she has their Prime feature: free shipping.) Unusually for such scams, these phony emails are properly written and punctuated; and of course they are full of stuff for me to click on, so that my identity can be stolen or my computer infected with something awful. How long will this go on? 


June 2, 2017

An accurate picture of Donald Trump

I have shared this on Facebook, but it is too good not to post it everywhere I can. San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit is a contributing editor to Harper’s, where she is the first woman to regularly write the Easy Chair column (founded in 1851). She has written the best description of the Trumpetoon that I have seen:

The Loneliness of Donald Trump: On the corrosive privilege of the most mocked man in the world

Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.

He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.

Thinking of him, I think of Pushkin's telling of the old fairytale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish. After being caught in the old fisherman’s net, the golden fish speaks up and offers wishes in return for being thrown back in the sea. The fisherman asks him for nothing, though later he tells his wife of his chance encounter with the magical creature. The fisherman’s wife sends him back to ask for a new washtub for her, and then a  second time to ask for a cottage to replace their hovel, and the wishes are granted, and then as she grows prouder and greedier, she sends him to ask that she become a wealthy person in a mansion with servants she abuses, and then she sends her husband back. The old man comes and grovels before the fish, caught between the shame of the requests and the appetite of his wife, and she becomes tsarina and has her boyards and nobles drive the husband from her palace. You could call the husband consciousness—the awareness of others and of oneself in relation to others—and the wife craving.

Finally she wishes to be supreme over the seas and over the fish itself, endlessly uttering wishes, and the old man goes back to the sea to tell the fish—to complain to the fish—of this latest round of wishes. The fish this time doesn’t even speak, just flashes its tail, and the old man turns around to see on the shore his wife with her broken washtub at their old hovel. Overreach is perilous, says this Russian tale; enough is enough. And too much is nothing.

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.

I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful in their lives that there is no one to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.

“They were careless people,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the rich couple at the heart of The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Some of us are surrounded by destructive people who tell us we’re worthless when we’re endlessly valuable, that we’re stupid when we’re smart, that we’re failing even when we succeed. But the opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up.  It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.

We keep each other honest, we keep each other good with our feedback, our intolerance of meanness and falsehood, our demands that the people we are with listen, respect, respond—if we are allowed to, if we are free and valued ourselves. There is a democracy of social discourse, in which we are reminded that as we are beset with desires and fears and feelings, so are others; there was an old woman in Occupy Wall Street I always go back to who said, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” That’s what a democracy of mind and heart, as well as economy and polity, would look like.

This year Hannah Arendt is alarmingly relevant, and her books are selling well, particularly On the Origins of Totalitarianism. She’s been the subject and extraordinary essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books and a conversation between scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge and Krista Tippet on the radio show “On Being.” Stonebridge notes that Arendt advocated for the importance of an inner dialogue with oneself, for a critical splitting in which you interrogate yourself—for a real conversation between the fisherman and his wife you could say: “People who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what [Arendt] called ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Some use their power to silence that and live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be. The tyrant of a family, the tyrant of a little business or a huge enterprise, the tyrant of a nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it. Or reduces it: narcissists, sociopaths, and egomaniacs are people for whom others don’t exist.

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us; and those who do not have to cope with that are brittle, weak, unable to endure contradiction, convinced of the necessity of always having one’s own way. The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leapt as though they wanted there to be gravity and to hit ground, even bottom, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space.

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.

This one imagined that the power would repose within him and make him great, a Midas touch that would turn all to gold. But the power of the presidency was what it had always been: a system of cooperative relationships, a power that rested on people’s willingness to carry out the orders the president gave, and a willingness that came from that president’s respect for rule of law, truth, and the people. A man who gives an order that is not followed has his powerlessness hung out like dirty laundry. One day earlier this year, one of this president’s minions announced that the president’s power "would not be questioned". There are tyrants who might utter such a statement and strike fear into those beneath him, because they have installed enough fear.

A true tyrant does not depend on cooperative power but has a true power of command, enforced by thugs, goons, Stasi, the SS, or death squads. A true tyrant has subordinated the system of government and made it loyal to himself rather than to the system of laws or the ideals of the country. This would-be tyrant didn’t understand that he was in a system where many in government, perhaps most beyond the members of his party in the legislative branch, were loyal to law and principle and not to him. His minion announced the president would not be questioned, and we laughed. He called in, like courtiers, the heads of the FBI, of the NSA, and the director of national intelligence to tell them to suppress evidence, to stop investigations and found that their loyalty was not to him. He found out to his chagrin that we were still something of a democracy, and that the free press could not be so easily stopped, and the public itself refused to be cowed and mocks him earnestly at every turn.

A true tyrant sits beyond the sea in Pushkin’s country. He corrupts elections in his country, eliminates his enemies with bullets, poisons, with mysterious deaths made to look like accidents—he spread fear and bullied the truth successfully, strategically. Though he too had overreached with his intrusions into the American election, and what he had hoped would be invisible caused the whole world to scrutinize him and his actions and history and impact with concern and even fury. Russia may have ruined whatever standing and trust it has, may have exposed itself, with this intervention in the US and then European elections.

The American buffoon’s commands were disobeyed, his secrets leaked at such a rate his office resembled the fountains at Versailles or maybe just a sieve (this spring there was an extraordinary piece in the Washington Post with thirty anonymous sources), his agenda was undermined even by a minority party that was not supposed to have much in the way of power, the judiciary kept suspending his executive orders, and scandals erupted like boils  and sores. Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.

He is, as of this writing, the most mocked man in the world. After the women’s march on January 21st, people joked that he had been rejected by more women in one day than any man in history; he was mocked in newspapers, on television, in cartoons, was the butt of a million jokes, and his every tweet was instantly met with an onslaught of attacks and insults by ordinary citizens gleeful to be able to speak sharp truth to bloated power.

He is the old fisherman’s wife who wished for everything and sooner or later he will end up with nothing. The wife sitting in front of her hovel was poorer after her series of wishes, because she now owned not only her poverty but her mistakes and her destructive pride, because she might have been otherwise, but brought power and glory crashing down upon her, because she had made her bed badly and was lying in it.

The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence. He must know somewhere below the surface he skates on that he has destroyed his image, and like Dorian Gray before him, will be devoured by his own corrosion in due time too. One way or another this will kill him, though he may drag down millions with him. One way or another, he knows he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall. Another dungheap awaits his landing; the dung is all his; when he plunges into it he will be, at last, a self-made man.


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