Confidence in the System

We were introduced to both Monty Python and Firesign Theatre in college, in the late Seventies, and it’s pretty safe to say they both left deep, enduring impressions upon our gentle soul.

Of Python, no explanation is needed. Firesign is much less known, their work much less consistent, and much of it is of their metacultural moment. We don’t know how fresh ears would regard it at this distance, but our fresh ears at the time were enraptured by the clever absurdity.

Being introduced to pot at the same time may have had something to do with it.

What endures from Firesign are moments, snippets. Their work was contemporaneous with Nixon, Watergate, America’s institutional failures — themes that were rooted in the mood of the day, and which have recurred too often since.

Just this week, “Confidence in the System” came to mind after a couple of conversations with folks of very different generations. The bit itself is from a less-adored later album, but in few seconds and few words it crystallizes something that amused us at the time, but is now giving us second thoughts.

The first conversation, on Facebook, found us trying and failing to convince someone that Trump could certainly fire Robert Mueller without consequence, and there was sufficient reason to believe that he might.

Our deep cynicism about the deeply cynical people running our government was our premise: They deeply fear Trump’s base, and they deeply crave their power to pass any damn bill they please, knowing that Trump will sign it. There’s nothing, nothing at all, that would “compel” impeachment, since impeachment is a political act, not legal, and the politics work strongly against it.

They counterargument boiled down to “they would have to impeach”, that the unfolding evidence would be too strong to ignore. Our interlocutor could not imagine anything else being the case.

Our second conversation was with a young colleague, excited about the latest revelations, certain they have Trump on the ropes. Just look at his tweets! He’s desperate!

Yes, but. Trump is a veteran huckster, a congenital liar — Believe me! — and his tweets are not his secret diary, but very consciously a public performance, tailored for his audience. The investigation moves forward like a vast lava flow, as TPM’s Josh Marshall aptly put it, but lava is a slow-moving menace, not a tsunami.

We do think Trump has sprung his own trap with the Comey firing, but it also took Voldemort three books to fall after Dumbledore discovered his fatal flaw. Events still have to play out, and while today’s headlines may have Trump shouting at his television, he’ll still be president tomorrow.

(Resignation by Thanksgiving, of course, but out of sheer misery, not anger.)

In both conversations, we were facing a presumption of normality: This is how people behave, in America at least, and behavior outside that norm was either unimaginable or highly doubtful.

That’s the power of Confidence in the System.

It’s a power we’ve long been deeply inclined to dismiss or disparage, a power that lends itself so easily to Harold Hill scheming his way through River City, fleecing the trusting good folk. It’s why The Kids tell their friends to Get Woke, to open their eyes to what’s really going down, and ignore specious claims that everything is awesome.

And yet.

Trump’s actual crimes aside, what has been a major point of public fretting from the moment he launched his campaign? Trump’s violation of democratic norms, America’s Unwritten Constitution of expectations and behaviors, evolved over more than two centuries as a self-governing republic.

The System, for all its flaws — please, not everybody at once — and one brief interlude, has worked. It long ago earned our confidence, so much so that we’ve been able to take it for granted for generations-long stretches. The resistance to the very possibility that the edifice may collapse is itself what keeps it standing.

We still think some healthy skepticism is in order, especially now, about the State of Our Union. And we still think some people are just adorable in their faith that Things Will Work Out. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in our years as a native citizen in this land, faith is a pretty powerful motivator.

27 comments:

8:46 am • Saturday • June 17, 2017

It took four seasons of Game of Thrones to get rid of Joffery. It will take about as long as to get rid of Joffrey the Senior Citizen.

The GOP is the Grand Old Enablers. Their now very open attitude of “I’ll sell my own grandmother and kids into slavery to keep my (relatively) petty amount of power” exposes them, but things won’t change until the voters of those districts get rid of many of them which won’t be easy since they jury rigged, I mean, redrew their districts to mostly include angry ignorant and/or brainwashed due to fear white people.

1:34 pm • Saturday • June 17, 2017

What kills any confidence I might have had in things working themselves out quickly is that 4 out of 10 citizens still think Trump is doing a good job. You only need one more to hate the opposition to keep him in power. It’s so depressing.

3:02 pm • Saturday • June 17, 2017

@DElurker: In the back of my mind were various failed attempts to “export democracy”, “export capitalism”, and so on: Imposing a legal structure on others without understanding how much of our own legal structure reflects our own practices, not just the formal system as codified. We do have a Living Constitution after all, and it is us.

That’s the Confidence, our enduring fundamental understanding of How Shit Works Here. It’s our tribal identity as Americans.

I don’t think that faith is misplaced, if only because it’s sustained us for centuries — and centuries before, since America is the New Testament to England’s Old. Our President may not be King, but England’s monarch never wielded absolute power, either.

But! I’m not saying be cool, everything will work out on its own. A perfect storm brought Trump into power, and another perfect storm could keep him there. What I am saying is that there’s a deep gut reaction to who he is and what he represents, one we saw expressed in those extraordinary marches the day after his inauguration, one we saw expressed again when people rushed to the airports, and one I see expressed when people can’t imagine Congress not impeaching when the evidence is incontrovertible.

That’s just who we are. At least 60 percent of us, anyway.

3:29 pm • Saturday • June 17, 2017

Note for future consideration: The flip side to this is Alienation from the System, which can take many forms, many of them justified. That’s the asterisk of “for all the System’s flaws”.

12:42 am • Sunday • June 18, 2017

Didn’t peg you as a Harry Potter fan, nojo.

8:06 am • Sunday • June 18, 2017

@mellbell: I’ve read the last four books three times. Rowling is a brilliant satirist.

I also have a Snape wand.

And I’m Ravenclaw, although I keep getting stuck at the door because I refuse to engage with stupid riddles.

8:36 am • Sunday • June 18, 2017

@nojo: This is why I detest the “Read another book” insult on Twitter, whenever someone drops a Potter reference about today’s news.

The insult’s presumption is that fukkin millennials have only one reference at hand, and work it to death. Well, I’m far from millennial, I used to buy books by the armful at Powell’s, and I have, like, a master’s in philosophy. My mental furniture is well-upholstered.

So, when you have at hand a brilliant extended meditation on evil and bureaucracy (political and educational), and your country finds itself in the grip of evil and bureaucracy, where do you turn? Do you keep working that one Hannah Arendt line you know to death to impress your tweedy friends, or do you endure their scorn because you happen to choose an epic work of magical realism that isn’t in Spanish?

8:51 pm • Sunday • June 18, 2017

@nojo and mellbell: I have to confess, I never got into Harry Potter books or movies. I read the first one, thought it was meh, and got halfway through the second book.

9:21 pm • Sunday • June 18, 2017

@SanFranLefty: The first three books are Rowling learning how to write. The fourth book is largely in the lighter mood of the first three, until the end, when Rowling shows she’s serious about this shit. (Reading Cedric’s fate the first time was a total jawdropper for me. Whoa.)

The last three are dark, darker, and darkest. Before the final book was published, Rowling was asked whether she was going to kill off any more beloved characters. “I’m afraid so,” she replied. “Sorry.”

It’s really the moment that Cedric meets his fate to the end that fascinates me, and keeps me returning. It’s a rich, sustained, deeply considered stretch of writing. The lady knows what she’s doing.

And the movies? The only one I can bear to watch is Alfonso Cuaron’s. It’s very clever, the first to take (thoughtful) liberties with the text, and the last that isn’t burdened by enormous condensation. It’s also delightful.

Me, I got lucky. I pretty much started with the fourth book when it came out, on the recommendation of a friend. So when I backtracked with the first three, it was knowing where they were heading, and I could be more patient with their limitations.

11:57 pm • Sunday • June 18, 2017

@nojo: Also, if you don’t read through to the end, you miss Molly Weasley dropping one of the greatest lines in (supposedly) children’s literature.

11:05 am • Monday • June 19, 2017

@SanFranLefty: I started reading the first one as part of a babysitting gig (the kid was in kindergarten at the time — his parents were those people) and got hooked.

@nojo: What still surprises me is that she didn’t kill off Harry at the end. In my mind that was the only logical conclusion to the prophesy. But whatevs.

12:23 pm • Monday • June 19, 2017

@mellbell: But she did kill him. And then resurrected him. Sorta. Your horcrux may vary.

12:33 pm • Monday • June 19, 2017

@nojo: It’s a mighty big loophole.

1:43 pm • Monday • June 19, 2017

@mellbell: There’s a long tradition of exegesis that allows for that.

4:14 pm • Monday • June 19, 2017

@nojo: Touché.

3:51 pm • Tuesday • June 20, 2017

Cory Gardner and Mike Lee [insert running gag here], both members of the Senate healthcare cabal, are now both saying they’re only involved with specific aspects of the bill, and haven’t seen the beast in its entirety.

This really intrigues me, whether it’s true and they’re being excluded from a much smaller group, or whether it’s a futile attempt at plausible deniability.

7:39 pm • Tuesday • June 20, 2017

Whenever I read that the system worked, I wonder, for whom?

Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that the Revolutionary War was one of history’s collossal mistakes, and we would’ve been far better off remaining part of the British empire. As evidence, may I present Exhibit A: US history 1776 to present.

Slavery would’ve ended decades earlier, and we would’ve benefited from the far superior Westminster parliamentary system, rather than the anti-democratic, unrepresentative, dysfunctional mess that we’re stuck with now, which constantly produces disastrous results and guarantees that our nation’s worst, most backward assholes are always in charge due to the supremacy of geography over population when allocating political representation and power.

It’s funny when talk of Twitler impeachment mentions “overturning the will of the people.” Well, the Supreme Court did it in 2000, then the (s)Electoral College did it again in 2016, and look how great that all turned out. Twitler “won” by -3,000,000 votes, and now we’re gonna spend the rest of our lives explaining how a bullying, lying, fascist psychopath seized the presidency and plunged the nation into an amoral, lawless abyss.

7:44 pm • Tuesday • June 20, 2017

That said, I expect that this crisis will produce a far more polarized and balkanized society, at least for the next decade until the Great White Racist Die Off, with city dwellers waging a cold war against rural residents and vice versa.

I’ve been forced to consider how I would respond to a leftist demagogue, and the answer is disappointing but unsurprising given that US voters cannot be trusted to make sane choices.

10:19 pm • Tuesday • June 20, 2017

“Every day is take your kids to work day at the Tdumbp White House.”

— Mad Magazine

3:19 pm • Wednesday • June 21, 2017

@¡Andrew!: I think that your glasses are rose colored. For all intents and purposes slavery continued in the various British Colonies until it was specifically called out on a local basis, up to I believe the 1880’s in parts of the Caribbean. In India I would argue that it may not have been called slavery, but it was still practiced. As for representative government, only the gentry that kept property in both England and the colonies had any say in how things were run. The commoners in the colonies, even wealthy ones, had no representation in Parliament to speak of.

5:30 pm • Wednesday • June 21, 2017

@DElurker: Perhaps, however most of the Commonwealth countries have all had better outcomes.

One interesting speculation is that the South still would have seceded over slavery, and they would’ve joined forces with the German Nazis, though it’s impossible to say that world events would’ve unfolded the same way.

11:49 pm • Wednesday • June 21, 2017

@nojo: How are you doing, slugger?

1:12 am • Thursday • June 22, 2017

@SanFranLefty: Doin’ fine, just geeking some server API stuff.

11:26 am • Thursday • June 22, 2017

Some good news to kick off the day:

Seattle company with $70K minimum salaries doubles office space

Hateful internet cranks and greedy, fascist RepubliKKKan asswipes keep lying that businesses can’t succeed by paying all workers livable wages. I’m so proud that Seattle continues to prove them wrong.

7:17 pm • Thursday • June 22, 2017

And now a contribution from the esoteric field of RepubliKKKan ‘bortion humor:

N.H. Republicans Accidentally Approved a Bill Allowing Pregnant Women to Commit Murder

The bill’s original language stated that “any act committed by the pregnant woman” or a doctor acting in his professional capacity wouldn’t apply in cases of second-degree murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide. Unfortunately, “any act” implied, well, any act. The bill “allows a pregnant woman to commit homicide without consequences,” Republican representative J.R. Hoell told the Concord Monitor. “Although that was never the intent, that is the clear reading of the language.” *blooper sound effect*

The bill cleared the state Senate and the House before anyone noticed this fully dilated loophole. To be fair, lawyers consulted by the Monitor said that if the bill actually became law, the state would likely have been protected by existing legal language including the principle that laws cannot be read literally when such a reading would yield an “absurd result.” Still, it’s probably fair to assume that New Hampshire was mere weeks away from having an army of Kill Bill–style avenging mothers-to-be roaming the state with Uzis propped on top of their bulging bellies.

1:40 pm • Friday • June 23, 2017

Only 43 months to go, folks.

4:18 pm • Friday • June 23, 2017

@mellbell: I can suffer the last 24 if there’s some kind of brake in the next 19.

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