A fish stinks from the head down.”

an old proverb

I once designed the lighting for a play that was being directed by an opera director. He was trying his hand at directing something completely different from opera. The play was Harvey about an eccentric man who talks to a giant imaginary rabbit (Jimmy Stewart did the movie version). I shouldn’t need to mention that this play is a comedy, unless, that is, you had actually seen the production; the audience walked away from it slightly bemused and uncomfortably sad. The experience of working on this production caused me to put forth a theorem:

Art will always reflect the emotional state of the lead artist who creates it – usually, the director – despite their best efforts to hide said emotional state.

This director couldn’t get past the melodramatic influence of opera, his home art. He kept his head in the seriousness of the events, not the humor. Think of Opera Buffa, comic opera, have you ever seen the audience rolling on the floor with laughter at say The Marriage of Figaro? Sure, its light and humorous, there may be some moments of perplexing confusion, the music is great, but the effort required to perform the music leaves little room for the relaxed enthusiasm of comedy too.

There was more to our director’s emotional state than operatic intensity. He had just broken up with his partner of seven years and wasn’t speaking to us about it. It’s hard to be funny when your heart is broken. The design team would occasionally watch a rehearsal and wonder why it wasn’t turning out to be as happy as it should be.

Theatre has an authoritarian structure where the director is the boss and everyone helps the director achieve their goals. As a designer I work to understand the emotional elements of the director’s work. When I see the efforts of the director and performers at rehearsals I do my best to reflect those emotional choices with the lighting of the play. This was the saddest comedy that e’er I saw, my lord. And, consequently, it was the darkest lighting of a comedy ever.

I confirmed my theorem with every theatre company I worked for, so it holds true for art but what about other groups? Does the leader set the tone for other businesses or organizations? At my last university position the head of the faculty union was able to get the President of the University fired by using the same sneaky techniques everyone hated about the President. That event leads to a corollary of my theorem:

underlings adopt the behaviors of the leader, and the leader’s qualities are reflected in the workers and their output. 

In other words, we follow the bosses lead. We do this in subtle ways which means we are not always aware of the process. We experience the culture of the boss and it becomes part of us without our being aware of the influence.

This is why I worry about Donald Trump. We are the body of the fish and he, the head, waiting to be attached. His head was odoriferous long before we elected him, so very soon, every part of the fish will stink too. Do we really want to smell that way? Do we want to adopt the behaviors he exhibits and follow in his ways? Do we want the products we produce to be Donald-like? Our kids?

The more we behave like him the less we remain ourselves. Everybody would have to become petty just to survive.  We lost the first and most important battle, the election and now we’re stuck. Tyrannicide would leave us with The Pence, so that’s not an option.

As Trump’s underlings we might gradually start emulating his personality by:

  • blaming helpless immigrants and others for our problems,
  • hiding from the press,
  • and tweeting, too.
  • And lie.
  • And dissemble.
  • And pretend that so-and-so has committed…voter fraud, or something, even if it isn’t true.
  • Label those with conflicting opinions as our enemy,
  • register them
  • then limit everyone’s civil and religious liberties.
  • We’ll stack the military on our side
  • and make torture a virtue, like greed.
  • We’ll give our families un-earned positions of power
  • and become best friends with other tyrants.

I don’t like the solution I am about to propose.  I have studied bullying for some time now. The only solution to beat the bully is to be better at the bully’s game than they are. You have to forego your own reputation and descend to their level to try to win. It is stupid. Most people can’t play that way so they quit and leave while the bully moves on to another target. Look at all those republican officials who simply got out of the way rather than stand up to the bully. Many film and TV stories about bullying show the dad teaching his bullied kid how to fight as “the solution”. That may work for some people, but it lowers the victim to the bully’s level. It’s not a civil choice, but it is expedient.

The flaws inherent in capitalism seem to warrant democracy’s destruction now they have become so magnificently illuminated for us. A soulless demagogue can easily up-end an idyllic Democracy – Who Knew? Our ideals had been based on the assumption that virtue would remain important in society. No one could prevent the damage commerce would cause as a result of the cultural supremacy of greed.

So, are we doomed to become a nation of bullies? Shall we either:

  1. blindly accept, then adopt, his malicious customs, or
  2. lower ourselves to his childish level, or
  3. shall we flee?

All of these choices lead to the degradation of our civility and our culture. They are not tenable choices. Put those options aside. We should begin the rebellion now. We’ll build something better when it’s over. Why wait for a slow, painful collapse? Democracy, obviously, isn’t going to work without virtuous leaders who maintain a solid moral compass. Tear it all up and start again.

This ain’t gonna be no tea party, that’s for sure.

See why I don’t like this solution?

It may already be our destiny.


  1. Jessie Harban says

    The United States isn’t a democracy and it never was. As a person who “won” the presidency despite clearly losing the election, and losing the election only by a thin margin because the system is rigged to guarantee that a weak Democratic candidate was the only person allowed to beat him, and many of her supporters were banned from voting, Trump shatters the pretense of democracy and makes the underlying oligarchy plain for all to see, but it was always there.

    Talking about the “destruction” of American democracy is meaningless— we never had one. The last thing we should be doing is blaming democracy for the sins of American oligarchy.

    • odgraphix says

      Good point. The ‘pretense of democracy’ would be more accurate. The oligarchs have put themselves on display in the formal positions of power now, call it what you will. A rebellion would be against the visible leadership authority.

  2. danielwilliams says

    I pretty profoundly disagree with that conclusion. The :”be the better bully” solution is based on personal interaction with the bully, and the bully selecting targets by who is the least likely to retaliate. In personal interaction the only real tool then is to reflect the behavior. But what Trump is doing is signalling behavior to a whole society, and target segments of the society. It’s not a personal interaction. Since Trump rhetoric supports a persecution complex in his target audience, it seems very likely to me that adopting bullying tactics would actually empower him and give him and his followers more justification to do even nastier shit. Instead, if we’re going to be proposing sweeping changes to behavior, creating strong clear expectations of what is acceptable behavior and rhetoric is much likelier to have the effect you want. People are influenced by the “top”, but the positive or negative reinforcement for that behavior comes from peers. If the cast and crew recognized the dynamic happening in the play and consciously organized to make a happier production, then it would have been. Worst case would be the director would through a fit and leave. Power does not come from the top, but is owned by the masses until they willingly relinquish some power.

Any Thoughts?