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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Ice cream, logic and the Second Amendment

Stephen H. Provost

You’re hungry. You want to go out and buy a gallon of ice cream, despite the fact that you’re diabetic and doing so could kill you. But hey, we’ve all got to eat, right? Never mind the fact that you’re already at a healthy weight and in no danger of starving without that ice cream.

You’re thirsty. You decide to go to the bar and have a shot of tequila. Then a gin and tonic. And while you’re at it, you’d like a pitcher of beer to wash it all down. After a while, alcohol poisoning becomes a real possibility, but before you even get that far, the juice will begin to impair your judgment and lower your inhibitions. A one-night stand with the wrong person, a barroom brawl or, worse still, a fatal accident on the interstate could be just around the corner. But it’s all good because people have to drink, don’t they?

But do you have to drink alcohol? Sure, it’s liquid, but drinking too much of the stuff can actually leave you dehydrated.

Countless bad decisions have been justified by the phrase “I need that” —when the person doesn’t really need the thing at all. He or she may want it, to be sure, but as Mick said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Unless, that is, you can convince other people you need it.

Ice cream and guns

Enter the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

To paraphrase: “We need a militia to keep us safe, therefore …”

I’ll put aside the difficulties of defining “the people” and “arms” for now, because I want to focus on the premise. The writers were clearly saying, “We need this, so we’re going to guarantee that.”

But here’s the rub: In an age of standing armies, we no longer need a militia.

When a premise is obsolete, any conclusion drawn from it must be questioned. You don’t need a gallon of ice cream if you’re in no imminent danger of starving —and even if you were, another food source would work just as well.

In the same way, you don’t need a militia in an age when you're protected by the world’s most sophisticated, heavily funded standing force. The premise no longer holds, so the conclusion collapses.

The demands of logic

The Supreme Court majority disagrees with me. Its argument, stated in District of Columbia, et. al. v. Dick Anthony Heller, is that “apart from that clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause.”

In other words, the premise doesn’t matter, because what follows could stand on its own.

To illustrate this, the court replaces the actual introduction with an unrelated premise — a non sequitur. The Second Amendment, it argues, would be nonsensical if it read, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to petition for redress of grievances shall not be infringed.”

The first part obviously has nothing to do with the second.

But this straw man argument utterly fails to address the question that remains: If the conclusion could stand alone, without the premise, why did the framers include that premise in the first place?

The court answers its own question in the Washington, D.C. opinion by stating that “logic demands that there be a link between the stated purpose and the command.”

Logic demands.

With these two words, the court has given the correct answer to the question of why the framers included the introductory clause: It is, in fact, the premise in a logical argument.

Having it both ways

As we’ve already seen, though, a conclusion is worthless if the premise invalid: Without the premise it becomes merely an assertion. As a conclusion, it collapses under its own weight.

We’ve also seen that, in an era of standing armies, the premise that a “well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State” simply isn't accurate. It becomes just as nonsensical as the hypothetical non sequitur the court introduced concerning the petition of grievances.

The court simply cannot have it both ways. It cannot, on the one hand, assert that the conclusion stands on its own regardless of the premise while, at the same time, maintaining that both are components of a logical argument — thus making the premise necessary to support the conclusion.

The premise was valid when it was written. The disparate collection of rebels who formed our fledgling nation did, in fact, need militias to guarantee their security back in the 18th century. But that doesn’t mean we need them today. The premise is no longer valid and, therefore, neither is the conclusion.

To argue otherwise would be to state that the framers might as well have included that hypothetical premise about the redress of grievances. Or, for that matter, a belief in astrology. Or the quest to land on the moon. Or anything else you’d care to mention. The majority justices in this opinion are basically suggesting that the framers could have used anything to fill in the blank, as though they were playing a game of Mad Libs.

But they weren’t. They were making a logical argument — as the court itself affirms. The premise they included in the Second Amendmentwasn't some random statement without any bearing on the conclusion. It was, in fact something that the framers saw as a necessary component of a logical argument.

The fact that the reasoning is obsolete doesn't change that, no matter how much the court majority might wish it would.

Mental gymnastics

The majority is, in fact, is trying to perform an impossible task. On the one hand, it seeks to maintain the Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, as an essential component of the nation’s social contract — a necessary premise upon which our system of government rests. At the same time, however, it must deal with the fact that a premise within the amendment itself is no longer valid.

That’s quite a conundrum, and it helps explain why courts and the nation as a whole is so closely divided, philosophically speaking, on this issue. (They’re divided on a practical level as well, by competing agendas, but that’s another issue.)

We don’t like the idea of admitting that something in our founding documents is no longer relevant, because we’re afraid that in doing so, we might cast doubt on the rest of their contents. We therefore fall into the trap of defending the authority of the documents themselves, rather than affirming the principles upon which they rest: violating the spirit of the law in a vain attempt to preserve the sanctity of the letter; creating fallacious arguments to prop up outdated logic.

Where does that logic lead us?

Toward that tub of ice cream or that bottle of whiskey. To something we no longer need but still want. One could argue that we, as a nation, have the same attitude toward guns that the gluttonous man has toward his ice cream or the alcoholic has toward his Jack Daniels. In all three cases, we invoke a perceived need as an excuse to continue feeding an insatiable appetite that isn’t good for us.

We continue to defend outdated logic that we need guns for one purpose in order to preserve our right to wield them for other reasons entirely.

Burden of proof

I’ve been told that, in order to find a flaw in the Second Amendment, I’ll need to change the Constitution. But I disagree. The logical flaw is there, right in front of our noses, and our failure to acknowledge it won’t make it disappear.

There are other reasons to bear arms, but we can’t infer from the document as written that these are sufficient to secure a right to do so. And we can’t simply cast aside the premise of a logical argument that was an essential part of the document as written … unless, that is, we amend the amendment. The burden of doing so must be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who believe in the right they want to uphold: either by removing the archaic premise about militias entirely, or by replacing it with another premise altogether — such as a right to individual self-defense.

But it’s impossible, in my view, to deny that the amendment as written, is an invalid argument. And once we admit that, we must also acknowledge that such an argument is not fit to serve as a guiding principle for a great nation.

Guns are, most certainly dangerous. But it’s far more dangerous to engage in mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that something’s logical when it isn’t. Guns may kill the body, but logical fallacies destroy the mind.

This is what we’ve come to. The Supreme Court majority is flat wrong. Its reasoning simply backfired.

Discovery vs. Orville: Where no one has gone before ... and back again

Stephen H. Provost

On stardate 1672.1, Captain Kirk was the victim of a transporter accident that split him into two distinct sides of himself. (Actually, this happened in 1966, in an episode of Star Trek called The Enemy Within.)

Flash forward 51 years, and the same thing has happened to Star Trek itself. It feels like the franchise has been caught in a transporter accident and split in two, with the result being one show that expands on the vision and scope of its predecessors, and another that has inherited many of the qualities that made it so much fun to watch.

This year's Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville are both descendants of Gene Roddenberry’s original series, a family of shows that has now evolved beyond next generation.

What’s happened to the Star Trek franchise is kind of like what happens to a rock band when the guitarist and singer have a falling out, and each starts a separate band that sounds a little (but not exactly) like the group they formed together. The result will be endless comparisons, with fans likely enjoying both but, at the same time, many wishing the guitarist and singer could just bury the hatchet and make music together the way they used to.

Now, imagine one of those bands returns to the studio and spends a ton of money recording an ambitious new rock opera, while the other goes out on tour, playing all the old hits and having a little fun at its own expense. The first band is Discovery, and the second is The Orville.

Four episodes in, I’m watching — and enjoying — both. But I’m also, if the truth be told, wishing for a reunion tour.

Discovery is the more focused of the two. So far, it’s zeroing in on a single character, the disgraced but brilliant Michael Burnham, and following a unified story arc that involves a nascent war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. Star Trek started using story arcs, to fine effect, during the 1990s with Deep Space Nine, but before that served up mostly self-contained episodes. It also became adept at introducing us to a large number of interesting regular and recurring characters — who we came to care about because each explored the nature of our own humanity in his or her own way.

Perhaps ironically, this is where The Orville has the advantage in the early going. We’re already painfully aware of the awkwardness between the captain and first officer, who've been through a painful divorce; of the challenges facing the super strong security chief in dealing with her youthful insecurity; and of the family dynamics involving a crew member, his same-sex spouse and their newly hatched (yes, hatched) child.

All very human and all very familiar. They can’t call Seth MacFarlane’s series Star Trek, because CBS owns the rights to that name. But Brannon Braga, who’s created or developed several corners of Roddenberry’s universe, is an executive producer, and the cast includes members who seem a whole lot like Worf and Data from The Next Generation.

Indeed, The Orville is more like that show than it is like Galaxy Quest — the comedic send-up that both spoofed and payed homage to the original — and the humor can be unevern (the sniping between Capt. Mercer and his ex, Cmdr. Grayson, has already started to wear thin). But at least there is humor, which can be hard to find — apart from the stray tribble or a, subdued one-liner — on Discovery. No incarnation of Star Trek has ever aspired to be a laugh-fest, but there’s always been enough humor to leaven the heady, ambitious storylines.

When it comes to special effects, Discovery is light years ahead of The Orville — although it’s odd how sophisticated the technology looks compared to that in the original series, which was filmed a half-century earlier but is supposed to take place a decade after Discovery. Unaccountably, Discovery’s sleek starship with its rotating saucer section looks like it belongs 100 years in Kirk and Spock’s future, not their past. (At least Enterprise, which was set before either series but filmed more than three decades after the original, was designed to look like a bridge between NASA and the Federation.)

The Orville’s sets look like throwbacks to Next Generation or the 1980s movies, even though it doesn’t (technically) even take place in the Star Trek universe — and isn’t therefore bound by any constraints of continuity. It’s not as impressive to look at, but neither are reruns of earlier Star Trek series — which are still just as much fun because of the stories they tell and the insights they provide into our own humanity.

I trust Discovery will delve into some of those insights. The most intriguing human relationship, between Burnham and Capt. Georgiou, was short-circuited by the latter’s death at the end of Episode 2. But the Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, shows signs of developing into an interesting, multi-faceted character and, given time, here’s hoping others in the crew do, as well. The large amount of time spent developing the Klingons has slowed things down a bit, especially considering the large amount of Klingon dialogue presented in subtitles — which may please Star Trek geeks but frustrate newer fans. (For the record, I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek series; I don’t know whether that makes me a geek or not, but I still find the subtitles get in the way).

That’s a minor quibble, and I’m not complaining. Two heirs to the Star Trek television legacy are infinitely better than what we’ve had for more than a decade: zero. Still, I can’t help but hope each will learn a little something from the other.

That would make the future — imaginary, visionary or otherwise — even brighter.

Trump has made it clear he's #NotMyPresident

Stephen H. Provost

Today, I woke up and realized that Donald Trump really is not my president. Not because I say so, but because he does.

No, Mr. Trump doesn’t know me personally. I like it that way. The people he does know personally tend to become targets for his wrath, sooner or later, because it’s impossible to criticize him without being identified as a threat to his own inflated yet fragile self-image. And it’s equally impossible for any thinking person to avoid criticizing him.

This is why Mr. Trump isn’t my president. He doesn’t represent me — or people like me — because he doesn’t want to.

When the #NotMyPresident hashtag started trending, immediately after the inauguration, I dismissed it as sour grapes. Democrats and, specifically, hardline Hillary Clinton supporters, didn’t like the result of the election and were refusing to accept it.

I didn’t blame them for being frustrated with the outcome of a general election marred by an antiquated Electoral College system. Then again, I didn’t blame Bernie Sanders’ supporters for being upset about a primary election in which Democratic leadership clearly and unabashedly favored Clinton.  

Still, I recognize that, however unfair, Clinton was the party’s nominee and Trump was, ultimately, the nation’s president.

Except he’s not.

The Great Divider

Trump has said he wants the country united … as long as he gets his way and gets all the credit. (Remember his absurd boast to the Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix it.” It’s a statement that contains two assertions: He doesn’t think anyone else can succeed, and perhaps even more telling, he doesn’t think he needs anyone’s help.)

When Trump doesn’t get his way, his response isn’t to work collaboratively toward unity, but just the opposite: He makes new enemies. He lashes out at the Jeff Sessions, Stephen Curry, John McCain or anyone else he perceives as a threat to his personal glory. He picks fights with allies (Mexico) and adversaries (North Korea) alike so he can create or magnify scapegoats for people to hate — all for the sake of getting more pats on the back and attaboys.

Make no mistake, that’s what he’s in this for. Trump pursued the presidency for one reason and one reason alone: He wants adulation. He has neither time nor concern for anyone who doesn’t applaud him and affirm him.

To Trump, politics isn’t a means of public service but of personal aggrandizement.

Philosophical carpetbagger

This is why he consistently “plays to his base” … and ignores everyone else. It’s why he holds campaign-style rallies instead of town halls, long after the election. He’s not running for anything except the imaginary office of messianic control freak.

Trump ignored the conventional wisdom that’s been employed since Richard Nixon that Republicans should “run to the right” in the primaries and “run to the center” during the general election. In fact, he ran away from the center against Clinton, and it looks like he’s still running away from it as president. But for him, “the center” means something different than it does for most politicians. To Trump, the center is, well, Trump. The center of the universe, that is.

We’re dying here. We truly are dying here. I keep saying it: SOS.
— Carmen Yulin Cruz, San Juan mayor

He’s not about ideology or principle. This should be plain enough, considering he’s flip-flopped on virtually every major issue, from abortion to DACA to the Iraq War, over the past two decades. He’s the ultimate philosophical carpetbagger: He preaches to whatever choir will sing his praises the loudest.

At present, his choir of choice happens to be the Republican Party. But make no mistake: If the GOP’s rank-and-file members sour on him, he’ll turn on them and take his dog and pony show elsewhere. (Just ask Mitch McConnell, Sessions, McCain and other Republicans who have come under withering criticism for failing to support Trump to his satisfaction.)

Trump’s an expert in one thing: taking his ball and going home. Ask the USFL. Or bankruptcy court.

Most recently, he fired Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary, not because Price did something wrong by using charter planes on the taxpayers’ dime, but because “I don’t like the optics.” Translation: “I can’t put up with this guy making me look bad.”

Turning his back

Through all this, I resisted the idea of saying Trump is “not my president” — even though I’ve never felt as though he is. I believe in accepting the results of elections I don’t like and respecting the democratic process, even when it’s clearly flawed.

But once the election is over, it’s a public official’s duty to serve all the people, and Trump hasn’t done that. Individual voters can't expect to agree with his every decision, but they should at least get the feeling that he's trying to serve the entire country — not just his cronies and yes men.

I've never been a Trump supporter. I've always thought he lacked what it takes to be president. But I've never used the phrase "not my president" until now.

The last straw for me came when the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, pleaded for more help dealing with the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. “You have people in buildings and they're becoming caged in their own buildings — old people, retired people that don’t have any electricity. We're dying here. We truly are dying here. I keep saying it: SOS.”

Trump’s response?

Blame the mayor, the people of Puerto Rico, the Democrats, "fake news" — pretty much everybody else.

“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They ... want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

This is not the way you treat someone you’re supposed to represent when that person is pleading for hundreds, thousands of people’s lives.

“They (Puerto Ricans) ... want everything to be done for them ... “
— Donald J. Trump

It’s a way of saying you’re not their president. Well, Mr. Trump, if you’re not their president, you’re not mine, either. My wife was born on the island of Puerto Rico, and is a “natural born American citizen.” You’ve already indicated by your actions that you represent your base. Period. You’ve said things to alienate huge numbers of women, people of color, Latinos, Muslims … the list goes on and on. Now you’re essentially calling the people of Puerto Rico a bunch of lazy ingrates while they’re trying to cope with a lack of clean water, electricity, housing, health care and myriad other issues.

When a person elected to represent people turns his back on those people, they have every right to turn their back on him. They have every reason not to travel to the White House to accept his congratulations for their sports achievements. They have every right to protest. And they have every right to say he’s #NotMyPresident.

And, Mr. Trump, you’re not.

Not because I say so, but because you’re saying so loud and clear to millions of Americans every day.