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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Constitution

Founders' foresight: The two-party system is destroying us

Stephen H. Provost

“The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful manoeuvres, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.” – Thomas Jefferson

The two-party system is broken. Perhaps it was inevitable.

What’s amazing is that it’s taken us almost 250 years to reach this point. Actually, though, we’ve been here before. It pushed us to the brink during Vietnam and Watergate, and over the edge during the Civil War.

And now, here we stand once again, staring into the abyss of the chasm between us.

Because we’re divided. In two. And we hesitate to lay the blame where it belongs: squarely at the feet of an inherently toxic two-party system. We hesitate because this system has become so deeply ingrained in our political reality that we view it as an essential part of our culture. But it’s not essential. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, and John Adams even warned that it was the Constitution’s worst enemy.

Said Adams: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Thomas Jefferson, who was Adams’ rival in this emerging two-party system, agreed: “The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions, and make them one people.”

These two brilliant, gifted and esteemed rivals agreed, yet they couldn’t stop it. So now, it’s up to us.

Yes, it’s gotten worse

Why is the two-party system, in Adams’ view, “evil”? Because it encourages binary choices. Such choices leave no room for nuance or subtlety, and they create an atmosphere where extremism can thrive. Where we vote a party line, either because we’re too lazy to think for ourselves, or because the choices are so extreme – and we find one of them so unpalatable – there seems to be only one viable option.

Why does it seem worse now?

Because we’ve added unlimited money and endless propaganda, disguised as free speech, to the equation. And that’s a recipe for disaster.

Unlimited money is available via unrestrained campaign contributions. Propaganda is spread more quickly and effectively than ever – through conventional media saturation, social media pressures and election cycles that never end.

We’ve come to this place by accepting the lie that free speech is somehow absolute. Of course, it’s not. You’re not supposed to be able to slander someone, to perjure yourself in court, to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, to willfully incite others to violence ... No right is absolute. But a binary system encourages the belief in absolutes, even in the face of common sense, so is it any surprise that we’ve started interpreting free speech in those terms.

What’s worse is we’ve created a vicious circle. Not only does our binary system strengthen a false belief in absolutes. This belief, in turn, encourages us to think in binary terms. “I’m right, you’re wrong” – regardless of the facts behind the argument. Ad hominem fallacies become the rule of the day: The identity of the person doing the arguing becomes more important than the merits of the argument itself. This is why political parties in a two-party system, and their leaders, cast aside “bedrock principles” at the drop of a hat for the sake of winning.

The party that once believed in free trade becomes protectionist. The party that once encouraged slavery wants to consider reparations for slavery. The party that once railed against incurring debt runs up the biggest debt in history. The party that organized provocative protests on college campuses wants “safe spaces” on those same campuses to insulate people from provocation. These aren’t subtle shifts in ideology. They’re 180-degree turnabouts, and they often take place abruptly – over a few short years, not decades.

This isn’t how thinking people act to new information presented in a marketplace of ideas. It’s how people react to peer pressure in a binary system where the “marketplace” consists of just two vendors. These two share a mutually parasitic monopoly on ideas, each of them selling only absolutes that condemn the other, but each needing the other to serve as a scapegoat.

We’ve forgotten we agree

In a world of absolutes, there’s no room for agreement. There’s only us and them. Winning and losing. But this world of absolutes is not the world we live in.

Yes, we have our differences. Thomas Jefferson said, “Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth.” But, alas, this concept is being lost, due to the false binary choices being foisted on us in the current environment. Difference of opinion is no longer an opportunity to learn, but an excuse to attack and defend. It’s no longer a reason to discuss, but a reason to condemn.

Binary systems emphasize what we don’t like about each other – and encourage us to like it even less. And all this angst and fury does something else, as well: It obscures the fact that we actually agree on most of the important stuff. This is, I believe, the greatest tragedy that’s been foisted on us by our binary political system. Because the truth of the matter is, we actually agree on most things.

  • We believe in the Golden Rule, or some variation of it.

  • We believe in equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law.

  • We don’t want our environment poisoned.

  • We don’t want to die because we can’t afford medicine or a hospital stay.

  • We preferred the late 20th century employment model to the “shareholder is god, employee is dirt” construct.

  • We believe in education.

  • We believe in “live and let live” within the law.

  • We believe success should be based on merit, not on gaming the system.

  • We believe in taking care of our own.

  • We believe hard work should be rewarded, and those who can’t work should have help – but that those who lie about being unable to work shouldn’t get it.

  • We believe in science, and we believe there’s something more out there that we don’t and maybe can’t understand.

In all these things, we are united. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. Many people. Many ideas. Many approaches.

We still are the UNITED States of America. Those who feed (and get rich) off our toxic binary system want us to forget this. They don’t want us to focus on the many things that unite us, but on the few that divide us.

Expletive for emphasis: Fuck that.

It’s time for us to remind them who’s in charge in a democratic republic. It’s time for us not only to take back our country, but to recover our soul.

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.

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.