“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this rhetorical dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated these kinds of novels, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. But at first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff it’s too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount has passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right. Moreover, in this chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us to her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current  state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with a bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed them children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practicer) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss it outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preaches out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”

Notes

1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

The Press Conference

During my lifetime, before today, I remember two times when I thought this country, and possibly the planet, was facing an existential moment: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the days around the Saturday Night Massacre (when the U.S. was also dealing with a Mideast crisis that would lead an out of control Administration to put the military on nuclear alert). In both cases the United States was facing an aggressive Soviet Union sensing vulnerabilities in the White House. In the first case a young president, having already been humiliated by the Soviet Union, had to control a military bureaucracy who had no trust in him. In the second case, a totally dysfunctional president facing a special counsel who had subpoenaed the tapes that would prove Nixon had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, was simply incapable of dealing with the Arab-Israel conflict which the two superpowers had taken sides in.

Today marks the third one. If you have not seen the president’s first news conference, you can see and read the transcript via the New York Times. I urge everyone to contemplate this. We have a chief executive who is intellectually, temperamentally, morally and developmentally incapable of the kind of responsibility he was elected to assume. There is no need for me to highlight the more bizarre aspects of this performance, because it will be obvious to anyone who takes the time to read or watch.  Personally, I feel rather stupid having spent two days analyzing Sean Spicer’s cover story for the Flynn scandal, because, as we should have known, Trump was not going to follow the story, and in fact would continue to incriminate himself, because he just can’t help himself. Trump has no poker face, he has no ability to think two steps ahead. His one tactic which he has used all his life is: You gave me the credit, if you force me to repay, I will go bankrupt and you will lose more than me.

Here is the current story concerning Flynn. It is unbelievable to read:

No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence. Very simple. Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So, it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it.

I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job. And it came out that way — and in all fairness, I watched Dr. Charles Krauthammer the other night say he was doing his job and I agreed with him. And since then, I’ve watched many other people say that.

So here we see where Sean Spicer got the “instinctive” part of the limited hangout. It came from Trump himself. It combines the deniability of wrong-doing of a coward with the lawyerly argument that could have been made if he was man enough to admit he was behind Flynn’s actions. But the story has now moved beyond Flynn. We are now in the realm where his campaign aides may have actively conspired with Russia to influence the election. And Trump refused to answer those question, evidently this is going to take a while for Spicer and crew to come up with a plausible cover.

The fact that he is cracking is evident from everything about this conference. He was unbelievably confrontational, utterly inarticulate (even for him), totally undisciplined and evidently unprepared for the conference. There is nobody there in the White House who can control this man. He spoke of how someone told him about his electoral vote margin, how he was briefed about how “nuclear holocaust would be like no other,” about how Hillary Clinton gave Russian a quarter of “our uranium” from which “bad things” can happen, etc., etc., etc.

It is clear to me that the stress of his campaign’s crimes has gotten to him. But that isn’t even the worst. What we see is a 70 man, unprepared this, trying to flair about juggling not only the baggage his conduct brings to the job but the stress that takes a toll on much younger office holders, who have, unlike this man, have prepared their entire lives for this job. We have seen a man already pushed to his brink, and he hasn’t seen nuthin’ yet.

We are about to see if this country has the institutions and good will among its citizenry to survive this crisis. I don’t want to see the betting odds on that question, because we probably would not be around when we win our bet.

The story couldn’t hang together for even one day

Yesterday we noted that the White House’s amateurish modified limited hangout would not fly because it was inherently unbelievable. It required the listener to believe:

(a) The President didn’t know that his campaign’s foreign policy advisor and soon to be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was going to (and did) call the Russian ambassador to advise them on how to respond to the United States’s sanctions on Russia for interfering with our national elections.

(b) Even though he didn’t have any knowledge of what Flynn did, he “instinctively” knew that it was not illegal. And in fact it is not (per Spicer).

(c) Shortly after Flynn falsely told Vice President Pence about the phone calls, Trump receives information from the Justice Department advising that Pence had made compromising calls to the Russian ambassador.

(d) After receiving that nonpublic report, Trump fires the acting Attorney General and tells reporters he never heard anything contrary to Flynn’s false description of the phone calls to Pence.

(e) Three weeks after Trump received the intelligence from Justice, newspapers publish the information, and Trump fires Pence noy because he did anything wrong, but because the president had lost trust in him.

Now this cover-up has the weakness that several of the premises can’t be believed at the same time by a rational person, because they cause cognitive dissonance. But cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant feeling that can be understood only by those who are trained not to lie to themselves, something that the Cover-Up planners evidently have no understanding of.

But they couldn’t even float this boat for a day, because the chief actor, Donald Trump, blew the whole premise—that he lost confidence in Flynn—by characterizing Flynn as a “wonderful man” done in by the press, during a joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister today.

Now far be it from me to offer advice to professional liars in how to lie, but why didn’t they follow this line: At first hint of trouble, Trump issues statement: Yes, I told Flynn to talk to Russia because I thought Obama was being precipitous. I would be in office in less than a month and I did not need an unnecessary confrontation with a world power—one precipitated by a president who worked to defeat me. We will get to the bottom of this, but the answer is not throwing a world power’s diplomats out of the country at a sensitive time: during a transition of government. If this was technically illegal, then you can blame me. Frankly, I did it to secure this country from needless hostilities. Particularly when I knew for a fact that Russian did not offer any kind of help to my campaign.”

Could Trump have pulled that off? Maybe. It would still hard to believe that Trump was not acting nefariously. But it would have cut the legs out from under the opposition because it is plausibly related to our national interests. It would have gotten Flynn off the hook, and it would have given Trump the much needed patina of a guy in charge. It would also explain his December 30 tweet, which the modified limited hangout did not.

So why didn’t he do it? My suspicion (and I used to examine people in depositions and courts for a living) was that he could not carry out the deception part: namely, that his campaign had no dealings with Russia. So the usual route had to be followed: Throw underlings under the bus and pretend that the jefe had no knowledge. It is very unlikely, however, that Trump has the self-discipline to have conducted himself to maintain plausible deniability. This, after all, is a guy who tweets in the middle of the night when celebrities are mean to him. But one thing is for sure. Whatever involvement Trump had is far worse than the Cover-Up I propose (even though it probably included his ordering Flynn to make the calls). Anyone who thinks that a rouge general (even one as loopy and delusional as Flynn) did this on his own will probably be in the minority. And in any event will have to explain why Donald Trump still says he is a “wonderful guy.”

Trump’s Amateurish Modified Limited Hangout

Before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office (which seems like two years ago at this point), there was another U.S. President who was addicted to lying as policy—Richard M. Nixon. There are many similarities between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Both are thoroughly dishonest; both are contemptuous of their enemies (which group consists of anyone not showing unquestioned loyalty), and both think they are much smarter than they really are. But there are important differences. While not as smart as he though he was, Richard Nixon was vastly smarter than Donald Trump. And while they both surrounded themselves with men who were bad for the country, Nixon’s men only wanted to enrich his friends a little bit, not bankrupt the country so that they could roll around naked in money, which seems to be Trump’s singular goal. And while their regard for the truth was probably equally nonexistent, Nixon at least understood that other people had some, maybe even a lot of, regard for the truth. It’s uncertain whether Trump’s chronic narcissism allows him to believe that other people exist, let alone concern himself with what they think.

The difference manifests itself in how they go about deceiving the public. Nixon was smart enough to know how things work. Trump’s one bit of knowledge is that he has fallen into bucket-loads of problems all his life and by lying he has always gotten himself out and with a couple of showers he almost didn’t smell bad. So he leads his life believing in his unceasing luck. Nixon on the other hand knew that luck had to be prodded, and he spent his life plotting his deceptions. He was smart enough to surround himself with men who liked plotting grand deceptions, and on March 22, 1973, two months after his second inauguration and less than a year after the Watergate break-ins, his inner circle was plotting what deception would fly that would extricate them from the tightening noose. With Nixon were Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, and two of the most loyal hatchetmen ever to act as White House yes-men. They were plotting The Cover-Up. And the theoretical question came up, How much deception was necessary? They borrowed a concept from the world of spooks, “the limited hangout.” The phrase involves a spy whose cover has been blown. His backup plan is the “limited hangout”: where he admits some minor inculpatory information while hiding the major crimes. The theory of it is that the opponent will jump on the limited information and forego the more damaging rest.

The Nixon people decided that they were going to give a little bit of information to the Senate Watergate Committee that might look politically bad, but deny the truth, saying that none of them were involved in any crime. Nixon hesitated, concerned about what bad stuff they were giving up. Dean tells him that it is really limited. Haldeman jumps in and describes it as a “limited hangout.” Dean agrees. But to mollify the President Ehrlichman tells him, “It’s a modified, limited hangout” because it is really only going to go to the committee, not the public. And hence the most psychodelic phrase of this square but delusional administration was born.

The Flynn case has birthed another modified limited hangout. But this time it was created by a group who really are not skilled at the game, headed by a leader who doesn’t play well with others anyway. Now the chronology that we know is this: Flynn lied about what he spoke about to the Russian ambassador on the day that Obama ordered sanctions in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. (Once you state the issue like this, the question is: Why go on? Shouldn’t this be the end of the Trump administration, without more?) A little more than 3 weeks ago Flynn lied to Vice President Pence about what was discussed. Almost immediately thereafter, the Justice Department advised the White House that Flynn has been compromised, because he discussed the sanctions, contrary to his statement to Pence (would he would continue to insist upon publicly thereafter). the discussions were potentially in violation of the Logan Act and possibly evidenced other felonies. For three weeks the President did nothing. Indeed, Flynn was given access to all national security material in the interim and as late as Monday White House Counsellor (the John Dean equivalent) Kellyanne Conway was telling the press that Flynn had the full confidence of the President. That evening Flynn resigned.

Today White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a man who really is in over his head and maybe (I know you will balk when you read this) even less articulate and intellectually on-the-ball than Donald Trump, was tasked with explaining how the president could have allowed Flynn to remain in his sensitive position given what the Justice Department told him three weeks ago. Here’s the story that came out: The president didn’t know anything about what Flynn discussed with the Russians. But “instinctively” (a word he used five times in the press conference) Trump knew that whatever Flynn talked about (namely, that the sanctions would be re-visited once Trump, the candidate the Russians helped to win the election) was not illegal. And Spicer maintains vehemently that nothing illegal happened. But because over the three weeks the president’s trust in Flynn eroded, he was forced, against his will, to ask Flynn to leave.

Now, given that they had 3 weeks to concoct a story (and that’s if you believe that Trump and Pence first heard of the talks three weeks ago), this would be a pretty flimsy cover-up. What does instinct have to do with it? Why didn’t the President listen to Justice? Why was there no further investigation? The answer might be that these guys are so sure of their ability to come out sweet-smelling from any muck they pour on themselves, that they thought it would go away. Especially since Trump fired the acting Attorney General. (This shows a tragic flaw in narcissism—not understanding that making an enemy unnecessarily will cost you.) So when the New York Times disclosed what Trump knew (at the latest three weeks ago), they finally saw the noose tightening. And they had to come up with a story. Instead of a limited hangout (like: Trump just couldn’t believe the intel because of other signs of honesty by Flynn; it was clearly a mistake) they reached too far. They wanted to make Trump look good coming out of it (intuitively knowing that what Flynn did was legal, even though he did not know what Flynn did) and avoiding any further scrutiny.

The fact is they modified this limited hang-out so much, that it doesn’t work. No one can rightly believe this story. Especially, since the acting Attorney General, the messenger, was fired.

But there is one little thread that might unravel the whole story if it’s given a little tug. The conversation between Flynn and the Russians took place on December 29. We can speculate that he advised the Russians not to retaliate against expulsion of their diplomats and other sanctions in like manner, because Trump would undo them. In fact, the Russians did not retaliate. The very next day, the compulsive Twitter-in-Chief pushed the send button on this message to Twitterdom:

Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

Richard Nixon was undone after careful, long and intense scrutiny by dozens of lawyers in several branches of government and relentless investigative journalists turning over every rock. He was never dumb enough to create his own incriminating evidence.

We are not alone

For those who might be saying, I’m probably over-reacting, nobody believes this is for real, here’s some crowd-sourced information that might both assure you (that you are not the only one) and terrify you (that it probably is for real):

Amazon’s top 12 editions of political fiction as of right now (Feb 10, 12:50 .m. EST):

1. 1984 by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
3. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Signet ed.)
6. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Kindel ed.)
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
10. 1984 by George Orwell (Berkley; 60th anniversary ed.)
11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
12. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Audible ed.)

Bird Lives!

Several decades ago I was looking for a specific book. This was before the internet was known outside the military-academic complex, and so obtaining an out-of-print book was somewhat complicated. In those days, if you wanted to find a rare book, you approached a rare book dealer and made a request. He would tell you that for some amount of money he would “make inquiries.”  The amount was usually nominal, because the chance of obtaining the book was so low.

The book I was looking for was Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker by Ross Russell. This may seem like an easy “get” these days because amazon.com claims that it was published in 1996 as a “first edition.” But Amazon is selling a reprint by Da Capo (which did not exist when I was originally looking for the work).   In fact the book was originally released in 1973, published by a quirky British independent press called Quartet Books Limited, whose website claims it was founded on socialist principles. A search of its web presence reveals no institutional memory of having published Bird Lives!, but it is quite proud of having published the same year The Joy of Sex when others refused it. (I would guess the sales of the book floated the company for quite a while. Even in socialists circles sex sells.) It was that book (Bird Lives! not Joy of Sex) that I spent much time looking for. And I eventually found it. Not because I paid $5 to the used book dealer (who 30+ years later seems not to have found a one), but quite by chance at a used book sale (which particular one it was I don’t remember).

Once I had the book, I, for some reason, decided not to read it. There was much discussion by the circle of jazz “experts” I then travelled in that Russell was quite sloppy and the work was inaccurate. (I suspect part of this had to do with a record producer stepping out of his element into the rarefied world of writing.) Since I am easily dissuaded from launching on a new endeavor this nonspecific criticism was enough to make me simply put the book on the shelf for later review at a date when all the masses of unread books on my shelves would be read.

Well, this week I took it up again, and I made two interesting discoveries. First, the book in my possession has an inscription by Peter Pullman (an engineer and production guy for Verve and Mercury Records) giving the book to Max Roach! Occasionally one finds odd comments by Roach throughout the book. (He seems to have given up before he himself shows up in the story.) So I now own a copy of the work that was once owned by Parker’s greatest drummer. (One of the three or four greatest jazz drummers ever.)  So the book has an “authenticity” that I never imagined. And while Max has nothing good to say about either Dean Benedetti or Ross Russell, he never contradicts any factual statement in the book (at least as far as he got).

But more importantly, whether the book is accurate in factual details or not, it contains surprising insights into the work of Bird. As for the rest, who knows? And frankly, what is there to know in the details anyway? Bird was a troubled personality, self-absorbed, driven, and addicted. Many of the problems he suffered from were imposed on him by the racist society he had to endure. It is not useful to debate whether he added to those problems by defects in his personality or conduct. It was simply too much to expect anyone to overcome the arbitrary limits that society imposed on African Americans then. Music was one of the few avenues an ambitious and talented young black man could pursue. Of course, it had to be popular, or more specifically “race” music, because other avenues were cut off. Russell tells the story of one of Parker’s early band leaders; in fact, the first one after Parker bought his first real saxophone. His name was Tommy Douglas, and he became one of the major Kansas City band leaders after Count Basie left. Douglas was known as perhaps the most knowledgeable musician around. He not only could play all the reed instruments, but he understood music theory. He had somehow obtained a scholarship to attend the Boston Conservatory of Music. He applied himself for four years, working summers in the dance bands of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, and after he graduated he even got an interview by a major symphony orchestra. But once he appeared, he couldn’t hide the fact that he was black and did not get the job. It was not a hidden fact that no classical orchestra in the country had a single African American member. So he came back to Kansas City whee he faced the opposite prejudice. Jazz musicians thought he was “dicty”—too “uppity” for his fellow “race” musicians. He was subject ot minor indignities for having stepped outside his circumscribed pale.  He spent the rest of his life playing night clubs and social events in Kansas City and nearby Topeka and St. Joseph, and he never spoke of Boston Conservatory.

If anything Russell does not emphasize enough the real obstacles to those who tried to contribute to an art form that could not escape from mob control, drug infestation, official racism and other pathologies of the underworld. He is not interested in investigating that pathology, beginning with the political corruption and mob connections of political boss Tom Pendergast, who by virtue of being Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party dominated the Kansas City clubs where jazz was played. Perhaps Russell could not completely investigate the exploitation of Parker, because he himself, as record producer of his own label Dial arguably participated in it. He after all was the one who produced the record of Lover Man, where an utterly strung out Bird struggled to even play his notes, rendering his solo an agonizing listening experience. That night Bird set fire to his mattress, was arrested and spent six months in California’s Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Russell stood bail for Parker on his release and is reputed to have put Parker under an exclusive contract as his part of the deal. Even if that were true, and even if russell squeezed Parker’s royalties as a result, it probably would have not even amounted to a misdemeanor in the record industry. Jazz musicians made almost nothing for their recordings.

But nobody would read Bird Lives! if he were interested in an academic biography. (Those interested in academic biographies probably would not be interested in Charlie Parker.) The main interest is finding out how someone, born dirt poor with essentially no break given by anyone, clawed his way into the center of what is now considered one of America’s great cultural achievements—modern jazz, which Parker along with Dizzy Gillespie and one or two others essentially invented. The answer, as the headline of an article published yesterday in the execrable New York Post proclaimed: “Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction helped make him a genius.” (If Sigmund Freud were black, the New York Post would tell us that Cocaine helped Freud invent Psychoanalysis.) The answer is found how he drove himself to seek out whatever music theory he could, from band leaders, fellow musicians, and especially by memorizing the music he heard on records, particularly the solos of Lester Young. Because of the vagaries of record production in the days of Parker’s coming of age, particularly the strike by the American Federation of Musicians which precluded record making by its members (including Parker) from 1942-1944, we have no recorded document of his (or any of the Bebop pioneers’) development right before the breakthrough. But occasionally Parker left a bit of evidence. And here it is that Russell is particularly perceptive. So let me give a little example. It comes from a record date on April 30, 1941 in Dallas.

Decca records had agreed to record six “sides” (songs of about 3 minutes which fit two to a side of a 78 rpm recording) of the Jay McShann orchestra in Dallas as part of a tour it was making throughout the South. Jay McShann was a band leader who filled the void that Count Basie left when he moved from Kansas City north as part of his deal with the race label of Columbia. McShann (who was still playing in New York, albeit it with a small group, and who I heard in New York four decades later) was the perfect successor to Basie as foremost proponent of the Kansas City jazz style. He could evaluate talented musicians, he himself was a competent pianist, and he could handle all the business necessities of keeping a big band employed which required negotiating the tricky business of observing all the Jim Crow rules of the South when the band was on the road. Not the least of this required a repertoire of music that spanned the variety that audiences across the Midwest and South might take to. the bulk of McShann’s music was riff-based Kansas City inspired music (much as it was for Count Basie’s orchestra). But he also had a sizable collection of ballads, on which Al Hibbler sang, backed by obligatos of Parker, and another  batch of pure Kansas City blues, which were the bailiwick of blues singer Walter Brown.

Decca was not Columbia, but it was nonetheless the big times. It was big enough to ensure that its records would be included on juke boxes around the country, which was the principal means of exposure in the days before radio took over that role. The recording coincides with the first maturation of Parker as a musician (at a time when he was entirely unknown in the country at large.)  One of the six sides was a blues that Brown sang on, “Hootie Blues.” the song was destined to be the B side of the song that Decca (rightly) hoped would be a best-seller, Brown’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” But “Hootie Blues” had a twelve bar solo by Parker, which, Russell says, “sent a shock wave” through the jazz musicians who discovered it. Short as it is, it has almost all the characteristics that Parker’s music would have for the rest of his life. It is liquid and crystalline at the same time; lilting but firmly rooted in a particular structure. In short, it has the characteristics of something that was thrown off without thought but at the same time it strikes one for its inventiveness. The harmonic inventions were still largely in the future, and they were a crucial (perhaps the crucial part of the bebop revolution). But given how radical those departures would be and how much resistance established jazz musicians, older critics and record companies would be to those advances, it was essential to sell the music with an beguiling tone and rhythmic approach, and Parker provided that, as did other key figures in the jazz upheaval of the 1940s, notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. This brief solo shows how early Parker acquired his signature approach, and how assured he was even in early 1941, a time he had never been heard on a major lable. Here is how Russell describes the solo:

To all intents and purposes Hootie was another Walter Brown vehicle. Sandwiched in between the opening orchestral chorus and the lyric are twelve bars if alto solo, occupying an interval of about thirty seconds (metronome♩= 100). Those twelve bars were heard as a sermon from the mount. The sinuous line and the stark, pristine architecture of sound reveal a totally new jazz concept. There are seven cadences, a line of buoyant updrafts and tumbling descents. with the rests not on odd or unusual intervals of the scale but on the very common ones for jazzmen, the third, the fifth and the tonic, arrived at in a new way. Each note is shaped, and the plastic quality of the sound is unique. True pitches are more often suggested, or just touched upon, than played. The loud/soft dynamics are manipulated against the carefully controlled variations of pitch. And, as a final stroke, Charlie brings the line to rest at precisely the point required to cue the vocalist into the first line of the lyric. Hootie is a miniature, yet a performance so rounded, assured, and musically right, that it constitutes a landmark among the literature of jazz. It is a Pandora’s box of things to come.

Forty or so years ago it would not have been possible to hear this solo unless you knew of someone who had the old 78s. Brunswick in 1957 issued a 7 inch LP (bootleg?), which included the original “Hootie Blue,” but I never found that disc. The 1958 LP re-issue by Decca, called Jay McShann And His OrchestraNew York  (Decca Jazz Heritage Series DL 9236) had a version of “Hootie Blue” but it was the one McShann recorded in New York the following year (and notably had Al Hibbler, not Walter Brown, as vocalist). Most record labels, even Columbia (which was the best of the lot until the 1960s), were careless with their old collections and driven by new fads, rarely issued its past library in any coherent or systematic way. Even when bootlegs began appearing in the 1970s (which provided most of us the means to understand early modern jazz), they were incomplete and the information they provided was unreliable. Spotlite Records, a British Company, in 1968 begun reissuing Bird’s Decca material (the sessions that Ross Russell produced in the second half of the 1940s). It soon branched out, but when it released the LP The Jay McShann Orchestra Featuring Charlie Parker Early Bird (SPJ120), ostensibly covering the 1941-1943 period, the LP did not include “Hootie Blue.”It wasn’t until 1992 that I was able to get hold of this music, when at the end of the jazz re-issue craze of the 198s Orrin Keepnews had GRP re-issue the early Kansas City Bird as Blues from Kansas City (GRD-614) as part of GRP’s Legendary Master’s of Jazz series.

But nowadays it is possible to hear this music with the click of a mouse owing to the miracle of YouTube. (The miracle resides in the fact that Google hosts a platform  where blatant copyright infringement is practiced on an unprecedented scale, but no one is sued, there has been no legal effort to shut it down, and no criminal proceedings have been instituted. I guess we should not pay attention to those warnings at the beginning of DVDs about how serious a crime copyright infringement is and how the FBI will prosecute it. Or maybe we should conclude that it’s not a crime when Google does it.) I have included a popup to a YouTube reproduction of the tune as well as  a work from the very end of Parker’s career that shows his liquid lines and slightly acid tone remained a signature part of his sound.

On “Hootie Blues” Parker’s solo follows a four bar piano introduction and a 12-bar chorus by the band in unison. It picks up around the 38 second mark on this recording.

“Hootie Blues”
(Jay McShann, Walter Brown)

Buddy Anderson, Harold Bruce, Orville Minor (trumpet); Joe Taswell Baird (trombone); John Jackson, Charlie Parker (alto sax); Harold Ferguson, Bob Mabane (tenor sax); Jay McShann (piano); Gene Ramey (bass); Gus Johnson (drums); Walter Brown (vocals).
Recorded: Decca Recording Studio, Dallas, Texas, April 30, 1941. Catalogue number: Decca 8559.

The other tune is from a 1953 recording. This small group session was the last one on which Max Roach performed with Bird. You can hear the light touch of his stick on the cymbals behind the brief piano introduction. Roach was a master of nuance on all percussion instruments. The undulating, rhythmic lines with an assured sense of architecture is still a hallmark of Parker’s solos.

“Chi Chi”
(Charlie Parker)

Charlie Parker (alto sax); Al Haig (piano); Percy Heath (bass); Max Roach (drums).
Recorded: Fulton Recording Studia, New York City, July 28, 1953. Catalogue number: Verve MGV 8005, 825 671-2

What’s Poland among us autocrats?

I promised myself I wouldn’t obsess over the insanity of the fringe characters our new madman has assembled.  Really, it’s not possible to keep it up. When the inmates are running the asylum, one could spend his entire time pointing out how insane they are. But the leaks are coming so fast and furious, and they reveal a mind-set that is so antithetical to those few bits of bipartisan axioms that we have left that I really have to remark on them to see if other people see what is going on or whether I’m just a lunatic screaming in the wilderness.

The latest outrage (or at least the latest outrage that I have had time to read and consider) comes from an AP report today entitled “On foreign policy, Trump still speaking campaign language.” It is about how the new “national security” team is settling in with the real professionals (the deep state, so to speak). And as you would expect, the Trump team, headed by Michael Flynn, a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, equally dangerous but not nearly as smart, is seen with their pants down, making fools of themselves and showing they are in over their heads. But one paragraph is astounding, even for this group, and even knowing how much Trump admires the one global leader who assisted him to salvage his flailing international real estate ventures, Vlad the Impaler. Here is the paragraph. And consider that AP says its report is sourced by “three U.S. officials and three others” (!):

“According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.”

Consider this: Our president’s main security advisers are asking for evidence that Poland, a NATO ally, is making border incursions into a neighbor that is currently ruled by a Putin-styled autocrat. And no one has ever heard one credible shred of evidence about this. But it is precisely the kind of unfounded accusation that have “justified” Prussians, Austrians, Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union from repeatedly carving up the country since the last part of the 18th century through the last part of the twentieth. (Note that all the partitioners were cut from exactly the same kind of authoritarian stripe that our current Strong Man has been cut from.) Did Trump hear this from Putin? Or was it just the scuttle-butt passed between Russian and Trump campaign officials when they were cooperating during the election?  We now live in a world where “alternate facts” are becoming the basis of policy. Perhaps the only possible response is for “other facts” to become the basis of the resistance. I keep having to check when the Inauguration was, because clearly this level of surreal lunacy unmoored from our established worldview could not have happened in less than two weeks.

I keep wondering where Trump developed this Russian-authoritarian-mobocratic view of the world. It had to come from a deal. Deals are the only thing Donald Trump thinks exist in this world. It’s the only thing he has done in life. (Except calling New York tabloid reporters, claiming to be Trump’s press agent, to notify them of what models he was out with the night before.) So it had to come from some sort of “deal” involving his Russian business interests. But this could not have been one of his more successful negotiations. Because it looks like whatever he walked away with, Putin kept his balls, the organs which, for Donald Trump, perform the same function that brains do in other people.