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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

We've sacrificed our principles on the altar of tribal loyalty

Stephen H. Provost

Note: I consider this is the most important essay I’ve ever written. Read it. Be pissed off. I don’t care. Someone had to say it.

Call it the “H” word: Hypocrisy.

Some days, it seems like every other post on social media condemns the opposition for this cardinal sin. It’s little wonder in an age principle has taken a back seat to tribal identity and the quest to win at any cost.

Republicans, those free-trading, anti-Russian patrons of the Moral Majority, are foursquare behind a protectionist president who adores tariffs, loves the Russians even more and breaks the commandments like they’re going out of style. Oh, and about the so-called 11th commandment, voiced by none other than GOP patron saint Ronald Wilson Reagan – “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”? They’ve brushed that under the rug, as well, to placate a president who routinely does just that.

But it isn’t just Republicans. Democrats do it, too. Only white people can be racists, and only men can be sexists – or so they say – as though bad (and good) behavior somehow morphs into something else depending on who’s doing it.

This hypocrisy transcends party or ideology. It goes to something more fundamental: We’ve exchanged broad principles for narrow judgments that benefit us ... and to hell with everyone else. These days, we view identity, not the nature of an action, as crucial in determining whether that action is right or wrong.

Violence is wrong, but it’s OK to “punch a Nazi” – without due process (another principle we enforce selectively). A hate-crime murder is worse than another murder? Maybe it is worse to hate someone than to simply have no regard for that person’s life, but tell that to the guy who just lost his daughter to the robber who shot her in the head because he wanted her purse.

Oh, and by the way, it’s just fine to condemn things like assaulting women and defaming your enemies, as long as their guy is doing it. When it’s your guy, you try to ignore it, make excuses and, if none of that works, flip the script by blaming the victim.

Whither the Golden Rule?

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”* Remember that one? It’s part of Jesus’ Greatest Hits, probably the lead track on Side 1. Confucius, Seneca the Younger of Rome and Hillel the Elder in the Talmud (among others) all said something similar, so you can’t beg off by dismissing it as Christian dogma. A whole lot of non-Christian folks have said the same thing.

Under this principle, if someone treats a white person unfairly, it’s just as bad as if someone treats a black person cruelly – because it isn’t the victim’s identity that matters. The behavior is cruel no matter who the victim is. Bringing the victim’s identity into it takes the focus off of the behavior, which is where it should be.

This is what apologists for sexual assault try to do, too. These sleazeballs say the victim was “asking for it” by dressing “too provocatively.” They flip the script, attempting to make victims responsible for an act of violence committed against them, because of the victim’s identity. As a woman. As someone who has the audacity to express some degree of individuality and expect not to be assaulted for it. Imagine that.

When we condemn people based on identity rather than action, we strike at the heart of principles – like the pursuit of happiness and freedom of expression – that this country was founded on. When we abandon principle for the sake of identity, those principles get discarded, too. What’s left is a dictatorship, or the building blocks of one.

But people are scared to death of invoking principles because they know it can come back to bite them. What if they have skeletons in their own closet? It’s much safer to demonize (or canonize) someone else based on his or her identity than it is to invoke a broad principle that can – perish the thought – be applied to little old you.

Political precedent

Politicians get away with this all the time. Case in point: Republicans who refused to vote on a Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Democratic president for nearly a year, saw nothing wrong with trying to force a hasty vote on an unpopular Republican nominee facing serious questions about his character.

But when principles are thrown out the window, character goes right along with them. Identity is what’s important. This guy is a Republican nominee. He’s golden, regardless of what he might have done. That Democratic guy? We had to block him because he was a Democrat. Republicans are doing the same thing in defending the current president against ethical charges after impeaching a Democratic president facing ethical charges of his own – a president whom, naturally, Democrats defended because he was a Democrat.

Loyalty is valued over conscience, and winning is esteemed more highly than playing by the rules. So much for what we used to teach our children: “It’s how you play the game.”

When you have no principles, its easy to argue that principles should be invoked selectively, because they’re no longer important in their own right. They’re weapons to be employed in fallacious arguments to destroy the opposition. But the more they’re used in this way, the less credibility they have. People aren’t stupid. They see what these politicians are trying to do, and they don’t like it.

The unfortunate byproduct of this, however, is that the principles themselves become tarnished because of how they’re (mis)used. When principle no longer carries any weight in an argument, people turn to something that does: identity politics. The term is most often associated with the left and conversations about race, but it’s far bigger than that. The right does it just as much and, sometimes, even more blatantly, dismissing anything negative as a product of the opposition’s “fake news” machine.

The right demonizes the mainstream media, regardless of whether the reporting is principled and the content is accurate. The left, meanwhile, demonizes white males, regardless of whether they’re advocates for equal rights or anti-immigrant, chauvinist pigs. What we don’t want to look at here is the fact that both sides are engaged in the same behavior: They’re putting identity ahead of principle.

The Fallout

This is how we get things we say we hate: things like negative campaigning and officeholders who refuse to apologize for anything they’ve ever done, no matter how questionable or even heinous. This is why we have to have a #MeToo movement instead of a society that respects women from the get-go. It’s why neo-Nazis feel emboldened and some people feel like it’s OK to pop them one: because we’ve abandoned our principles.

We’d rather demonize than apologize, because “the other’s” identity as our enemy is more important than our own principles. This is how armies behave during wartime: They churn out biased propaganda and dehumanize the enemy, so a soldier’s conscience – the seat of those principles – doesn’t get in the way of killing. The fact that we’re doing this during peacetime, against our own fellow citizens, illustrates just what’s happening to us.

We’re not just hypocrites, we’re heartless ones.

This is what happens when we mortgage our principles on the altar of our bitterness for the sake of mere convenience. If this is the kind of identity we want as individuals, or as a nation, history will judge us a colossal failure.

* Note: I like to add “if you were in their shoes” to this principle.

Read more political essays by Stephen H. Provost in Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.

 

 

White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

Stephen H. Provost

White guilt is a better look than racism ... but that’s not saying much.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by white people about privilege the past few years, and the more I see of it, the less I think it does any good. Hand-wringing in general isn’t the best way to get things done, for one thing.

So, it’s not surprising that all the guilt and self-flagellation over racism isn’t accomplishing much. If anything, the battle for equality has taken a few steps backward since it’s become fashionable among whites to bemoan white privilege. Take a look at who occupies the White House, at Charlottesville, and at racists emboldened by the president’s ambivalence become more vocal/active.

None of these racists are people who would have been the least bit guilted by talk of white privilege. They’re people who were just waiting for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and promptly declare that they were all for it. Hand-wringing doesn't do anything to keep them from spreading their hatred.

Why are privileged whites spending so much energy guilting other privileged whites – energy that could be spent fighting against police brutality, discriminatory prison sentences, unequal pay and other very real, very damaging consequences of racism? And why do they seem to be wallowing in their own guilt?

Guilt is a human response designed for one thing only: to alert us that something needs to be fixed. That we need to do something differently. The Civil Rights movement alerted us that we needed to fix our warped ideas about race back in the 1960s, and occasionally, we need reminding of that, now especially. But hearing a reminder is different than wallowing in guilt, because wallowing is the exact opposite of what guilt is supposed to promote: action.

The real problem with white guilt over white privilege is it puts the focus ... on white people. Sounds pretty egotistical to me. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people who are getting beaten up by police or bypassed for jobs? Shouldn’t we be trying to empathize with them, rather than becoming so wrapped up in our own “awareness” that we forget to be aware of the actual problem? The actual problem is not white privilege. It’s racism.

Mesmerized by the mirror

The problem isn’t that white people have it too good; it’s that people of color aren’t given the same opportunity to reach those heights. All this talk about white privilege might even be a form of racism in itself – because it keeps the spotlight on white people. It’s a lot easier to say you’re “looking at yourself” than it is to look at the results of poverty, poor health care and discrimination. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should look at what’s happening in the communities affected by racism. That’s where the problem is.

That’s where we must focus our attention.

I know if I have a problem, I’m a lot more interested in getting it solved than hearing someone express regret. If someone served you a dish that gave me food poisoning, how would you feel if he spent the next 20 minutes bemoaning what a terrible cook he was rather than giving you a ride to the doctor?

Awareness is a good thing. So is self-awareness. But any protracted infatuation with white guilt on the part of white people is self-centered and distracts from the real issue: People are being treated unfairly, and they’re suffering for it.

Want to help someone with food poisoning? Take her to the doctor. Want to end racism? Improve the lives of those affected.

Don’t waste time gazing mournfully at your own reflection.

Political fundamentalism: Our true constitutional crisis

Stephen H. Provost

“Your right to use your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

My father, an esteemed professor of political science, taught me that one. The idea is that rights – even the most fundamental ones – aren’t absolute.

Yes, I have the right to bear arms, but I can have that right rescinded if I’m sent to prison. I have the right to free speech, but that right doesn’t permit me to incite a riot. I have the right to practice my religion, but not to forcibly convert people or launch a jihad.

The limits on our rights should be obvious, but they seem to be growing less and less so. As politics become more polarized and positions become more hardened, more people are viewing issues in absolute terms.

This has long been a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, which views compromise as a dirty word and sees “situational ethics” as a tool of the devil to tempt the righteous. But of late, political partisanship has started to look more and more like a religious cult.

Identity, not issues

Donald Trump has tapped into this by casting himself as a pseudo-messiah who alone can fix it – whatever “it” is, and even if “it” doesn’t need to be fixed. But the problem extends far beyond Trump’s opportunism. It’s a rigidity of belief, a dogmatic loyalty that transcends issues and defines the true believer’s identity.

It’s not just Republicans; it exists on the Democratic side, too. Witness the anger among party regulars when Bernie Sanders, a (gasp) independent, dared to challenge loyal partisan Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

My point isn’t to rehash the 2016 primary or general election. That’s been done to death, resurrected and keeps walking around like a zombie with a score to settle. It’s to illustrate that both sides have become more concerned with identity than with content. That’s why Trump can act in ways that seem antithetical to Republican ideals (Russia, tariffs, personal character) with impunity. Think about it: Trump himself has, at best, a passing acquaintance with what’s in the Bible, but he can refer to the Bible as a mark of identity, and Christians will stand up and cheer.

It's also why Trump’s status gets all the attention, and things like health care, education and crime barely register on the national news. Events like the Flint water crisis, the tragedy in Puerto Rico and the Las Vegas shooting (remember that?) break into the headlines temporarily, only to quickly disappear and be forgotten. They’ve had their 15 minutes of fame. The woman dying in a hospital because she can’t afford a prescription and the homeless guy who couldn’t repay his student loan don’t even get 15 seconds.

We care about identity, not issues. About labels, not people.

This isn’t just a result of tribalism (although it certainly is that), it’s fundamentalism, the engine that drove the Russian Revolution, the rise of Mao Zedong and, yes, Hitler’s ascension. On the surface, fundamentalism seems to be about strict adherence to dogma. But it’s really about magnifying personal power through the lens of identity, usually provided by labels or charismatic leaders. If those labels or leaders are challenged, principle will be sacrificed in a heartbeat to protect them.

People have asked me why I dislike identity politics (which is, incidentally, practiced by both sides). There’s your answer.

Objectifying our principles

As positions are hardened and battle lines are drawn, the Constitution begins to function the way the Bible does in the world of Trump. It becomes less a source of guiding principle and more an object to be defended. Its contents and meaning become less relevant; all that matters is the identity it conveys on true believers.

They see the Second Amendment as an absolute right not only to bear, but to brandish and even to use firearms, including the most lethal. Especially if they’re the ones holding the guns.

They believe the First Amendment protects even speech that incites others to violence or curtails their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As long as they’re not on the receiving end of it.

They invoke it to defend the practice of religion – even when that practice involves discrimination, bigotry or passing restrictive laws based against “outsiders.” As long as their the ones making those laws.

This us-versus-them view of the world is the root of the problem. “We” are always right, good and superior. “They” are always wrong, evil and inferior. Such fundamentalist paranoia about “the world” and “heretics” and “unbelievers” has infected party politics to a degree not seen since the Southern white establishment’s resistance to the civil rights movement. It’s reflected in the attitude of many toward immigrants, regardless of legal status, and toward people belonging to the opposite party.

It has been, of course, the justification for slavery, pillage, murder and genocide.

Strict manipulation

Such attitudes are buttressed by the concept of “strict constitutionalism” – of applying the Constitution “the way the framers intended.” This sounds noble on the face of it. But not only is it problematic, it’s ludicrous and, in the end, dishonest.

It’s problematic because we can’t get inside the framers’ heads to determine exactly what they intended. We can consult their writings, but guess what? The framers didn’t all agree on everything. They reached compromises. In fact, based on their actions, that may be clearest conclusion we can draw about their intent: that they agreed on the value of compromise – quite inconvenient in the current political climate, where compromise is viewed as weak or downright evil.

(This aversion to compromise is, not surprisingly, another hallmark of religious fundamentalism. You don’t compromise with outsiders, unbelievers and heretics. You don’t give the devil a foothold. In American politics, you don’t call him the devil. That’s something Ayatollahs do. Instead you label him – or her – according to his or her political party or race or sexual orientation. You say he’s a communist or a Nazi. Or you call him names like “liddle” and “crazy” and “sneaky” and “crooked.”)

Now, where were we? Oh, yes ...

Applying the Constitution as the framers intended is ludicrous because they intended it for the world they lived in. Not ours. They set forth a series guiding principles were meant to be universal, or nearly so, not a hard-and-fast code of conduct.

They weren’t intended to be applied the same way every time; broad principles never are. Sometimes, “love thy neighbor” means to give of one’s self out of compassion; other times, it means practicing tough love. It all depends on the circumstances, and circumstances have changed dramatically since the framers’ era. They lived in a world of newsletters, bayonets and horse-drawn carriages, not social media, assault weapons and Teslas. They couldn’t have envisioned our world, and they didn’t try to. They counted on us to follow the principles they set down, not try to replicate how they would have interpreted them.

So, it’s ultimately dishonest to try to get inside the framers’ heads and apply things the same way they might have. It’s like trying to get inside the head of God – which is what religious fundamentalists do all the time. And guess what? The dictates of such a “God” nearly always wind up echoing their own biases and furthering their own agendas. In the same way, strict constitutionalists tend to substitute their own biases and agendas for what they imagine the framers might have intended. This isn’t strict constructionism.

It’s reconstructionism and, strictly speaking, a power grab.

The upshot

These days, many Americans no longer think twice about sacrificing principle in achieving their goals, whether those principles are contained Bible, Constitution or somewhere else. To them, identity is more important. “Winning” is more important.

Welcome to the Machiavellian States of America.

Neither Islam nor Christianity is the true threat to our republic. The real danger lies in the fundamentalist approach to both that has spread to our politics.

If we really believe in the Constitution, we have to stop “defending” it and start abiding by the principles it sets forth. If we don’t, we’ll be spitting in the face of the framers we pretend to revere and exchanging their vision for the very thing they fought to be free of: tyranny

We’ve started down a road that leads us to a place where we won’t recognize ourselves ten years from now. We won’t recognize our country. And worse still, a good many of us may actually like it.