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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: free speech

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.

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!