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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

I Always Think there's a Band

Toward the end of the fabulous 1962 motion picture production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, there's a line - almost a throwaway line - that brilliantly sums up the secret behind every successful con. It comes as Professor Harold Hill, the flim-flam man who's just about wrapped up one more town-load of sales of cheap band instruments and even cheaper uniforms by pretending to be a band director who will give the town a boys' band - but who really plans to skip town with the cash - is confronted by Winthrop, the little brother of the woman he's slipped up by accidentally falling in love with. After admitting he's a "big fat liar" who never intended to actually set up a band, Hill tells Winthrop that he's a "great kid" who needs to let go of the anger he continues to nurse over his father's death and the embarrassment he feels over his own speech impediment. Then follows this exchange:

Hill: "That's why I wanted you in the band. So you'd stop moping around and feeling sorry for yourself."

Winthrop (angrily): "WHAT band?"

Hill (mostly to himself): "I always think there's a band, kid."

That's it. That's why successful cons are so successful. Because the con man, deep down, believes his own con. Because he's selling something he wishes he could really sell and pretending to be someone he wishes he could really be. Because his lies are far more attractive, even to him - especially to him - than the truth.

It's important for us to remember this as we confront the dismal reality that Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and their henchmen and followers are pushing us toward. Yes, they are lying, and fabricating, and bamboozling. Certainly they cannot avoid knowing this. But at the same time - deep down - they believe their own lies. They have bought their own cheap band instruments and moved into their own fantasy-band worlds. They are the first and most completely deluded victims of their own hustle.

So it is wrong, and self-defeating, to think of Trump and the rest as evil. That model leads to confrontations we will lose; deservedly so, because we will have prepared for the wrong enemy. Evil destroys for the sake of destruction. A con destroys for the sake of a vision. A vision so beautiful, so perfect, and so seductive that even as they work the con - even as they know it's a con - the con artists themselves wish desperately and whole-heartedly that they could make it come true.

22 million people will lose their health insurance if Ryan and McConnell manage to pass their health-care bill. They know this, and they deny it at the same time. They deny it because they can convince themselves that it is not really their fault. Nothing in the bill prohibits those 22 million people from buying health insurance; it will be their choice not to buy it. Ryan has specifically said this. People will choose to not be insured. The reason why they would make such a choice is not Ryan's problem. Those are real band instruments and real uniforms that have been delivered to River City. If the people don't use them to form a band, even in the absence of the promised band leader, then it's their own damn fault.

In Meredith Willson's make-believe world, the con man's self-con was undone by Marian Peroo's unselfish love. In the real world, things are more complicated; but surely, love must be part of our response. Hate and anger will simply push the con artists further into their own con. We will do better if we admire the beauty and the seductive appeal of those castles they have built in the sky - even as we demonstrate, gently but firmly, the gossamer insubstantiability of the foundations they are built on.
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