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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: free speech

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Yes, I have the right to bear arms, but I can have that right rescinded if I’m sent to prison.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.

What do liberals and conservatives hear when they argue?

Stephen H. Provost

My father taught me a good debater is able to argue both sides of a point, and I discovered on my own that it’s a lot more fun to do it with a little (or a lot) of sarcasm throw in.

So, I’m going to be tweaking both liberals and conservatives with this post, but there’s a serious point behind it: We don’t tend to realize how we come across to other people, especially in political conversations. While you’re making those deeply considered arguments for your deeply held beliefs on social media, it’s quite likely that those on the other side of the issue are hearing something entirely different.

What are they hearing?

Maybe something a little like this:

What conservatives might hear when liberals get on their soapbox ... 

  1. Men are bad – They’re a bunch of clueless oafs who use their entrenched gender-based privilege to push people around. Besides they’re only interested in sex and beer and football. (What about women who like those things, too? Shhhh. We’re conveniently ignoring that).
  2. Pro athletes are bad – We should be paying teachers that much! Screw supply and demand. Besides, the fine arts are the only acceptable form of entertainment. NASCAR? UFC? Boxing? They all gotta go!
  3. Faith is bad – Unless it’s faith in myself. (Hey, stop reminding me of how many times I’ve screwed things up, OK? It takes a village, don’t ya know!)
  4. Other liberals are bad – Unless they agree with everything on the accepted liberal “Litmus Test Checklist of Acceptable Knee-Jerk Responses.” What’s that? You say liberalism is about thinking for yourself? Puleeez! That’s so 1960s.
  5. This chemical is bad – There’s a 0.03 percent greater chance of contracting (insert fatal condition here) if one consumes 200 gallons of it a day. This must be stopped at all costs!
  6. Humans are bad – We’re destroying the environment! (But please give us free health care so we can live longer and make it worse.)
  7. Success is bad – If you have too much money, it either means you cheated to get it, inherited it from someone who did, or that you’re hoarding it and not giving it to the less fortunate people who deserve it more than a cheapskate like you!
  8. White people are bad – Because skin color defines us, don’t ya know. Wait a minute ...
  9. Cars are bad – Unless they’re electric. Everyone should ride a bike to work, even if your office is sixty miles away! Or telecommute, even if you work loading goods onto containers in a warehouse. Don’t you know you’re part of the problem? That diesel truck you’re loading is destroying us all!
  10. The Electoral College is bad – Because it’s unfair? Get real. No one cares about that. Because we lost! Twice!

What liberals might hear when conservatives get on their high horse... 

  1. Immigrants are bad – They take all those dirt-cheap jobs that should go to Americans so the corporate honchos can keep all the money!
  2. Government is bad – But elect us anyway! Because it's good for us (we want those speaking engagement fees, do-nothing corporate board seats and seven-figure deal for our memoir)!
  3. Taxes are bad – Unless they’re used for the military. Who needs roads, health care, education? You’re on your own with that shit.
  4. The arts are bad – Most of that shit was either made by people on LSD, about to commit suicide or trying to brainwash you to give to the DNC. Ever notice how LSD and DNC kinda rhyme? You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence!
  5. Science is bad – Especially if it disagrees with my interpretation of my scripture, which just happens to support my financial agenda. Isn’t it nice how that works out?
  6. Universities are bad – They fill our young people’s heads with all sorts of perverse ideas about evolution and equality (communism!) and diversity. Egads! There’s a reason they call it liberal arts. (Makes the sign of the cross).
  7. Gun control is bad – Because the NRA said so. The gun manufacturers need to sell more guns, and we’re in their pockets (but we can’t admit that).
  8. The media are bad – Biased! Fake! Trust only Fox News and Drudge and Rush and Hannity. They’re not biased! No, not at all!
  9. Same-sex marriage is bad – Don’t get us wrong. We still believe government should stay out of everything, but sex is different. It’s only in the most private, intimate setting that government has a place! You have to admit that makes sense!
  10. Poverty is bad – It means you didn’t try hard enough! It’s all your fault! You want a living wage? So sorry. You want to survive, you gotta play the game, baby. You’re the one who worships Darwin, right? Well, maybe you oughta take a page out of his book. It’s all about survival of the fattest … er… fittest.

And the one they both agree on: a distaste for the First Amendment:

Free speech is bad (conservative version) – We can’t let J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain and John Stewart corrupt our youth now, can we? “Harry Potter” almost ended civilization as we know it: They used that witchcraft to elect that guy from Kenya! We can’t let that happen again!

Free speech is bad (liberal version) – We can’t let anyone offend our delicate sensibilities, now, can we? We need safe spaces to protect our little ears from your bad, bad words.

Now I’m sure there will be some people on both sides who don’t like that I’ve said any of this – which just reinforces my last point about free speech.

Besides, you’re not supposed to like it.

Are debaters these days still able to argue both sides of an issue? Or have we become so addicted to political defensiveness that our debate preparations consist solely of buttressing our own POV – with both reasonable points and kitchen-sink-dumping fallacies?

People on both sides of such “dialogues” are at fault, whether they’re arrogantly pushing their views on others or refusing to listen when presentations are calm and rational. We need to start talking to each other again, rather than spouting talking points and then raising objections before we’ve even heard what the other side has to say.

We might just learn something … if we’re not too busy coming off as such know-it-alls!