CRUSHING DISSENT IN THE BATTLE SPACE*
Untitled, Pencil and Charcoal on Paper, 26" x 39.5", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
The United States Constitution embodies and symbolizes liberal democracy. Liberal democracy requires, among other things, open government with limited authority, separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law and its equal application (a continuing aspiration), and reserving to individuals the fundamental rights that fully accommodate direct, unimpaired, active participation in governing.
Petitioning the government.
A free press.
A prerequisite to liberal democracy is non-political, civilian control of the military, a subordinate organization that serves the Constitution, regardless of the commander-in-chief's party affiliation. The military is designed and fully equipped to use violence, specializing strictly in warfare, to protect the sovereign, indeed to preserve the very principles of liberal democracy, from and against foreign enemies. A small group of elite war-trained individuals must not have the ability to subvert the political process and will of the people in declaring or going to war, invading a country or leaving conflict, and themselves subverting the very principles they serve to protect.
Equally anathema to principles of liberal democracy is civilian use of the military to suppress or defeat political opposition at home, to oppress and undermine the will of the people through force, intimidation or interference in democratic processes and the fundamental rights fully reserved to the individual. The military exists to protect, not subvert, those rights and principles. Hence, members of the military swear an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States, the embodiment of liberal democracy, and not to the transient occupant of the White House.
As Trump consolidates power, as despots do, his multi-front war on liberal democracy is on fuller display while the confluence of disasters continues to unfold under his watch, as he hunkers, or bunkers, behind a wall panicking over . . . poll numbers and, with some irony, appearing weak. Trump has made clear he will destroy all vestiges of liberal democracy to maintain power, if allowed. To date a majority of the Senate and all of his cabinet are on board.
Apparently attempting to excuse an atrocious abuse of power and excessive use of force, in related news, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association announced the two officers, now charged with felony assault, “were simply executing orders” when they were seen shoving a 75-year-old protester. Fifty-seven of their colleagues resigned the special riot suppression unit in protest and solidarity with their brothers.
As a refresher, I again poured over Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Gandhi’s On Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Written in the face of slavery, colonialism, class and race oppression and systemic, invidious discrimination including Jim Crow which foreshadowed Nixon’s Southern Strategy, their relevance, unfortunately, endures. The moral imperative is to disobey immoral laws. In ominous juxtaposition, Dr. King was murdered less than a month before Calley issued the order at My Lai.
These principles have clear application to the direction Trump and his enablers are attempting to take the country, dismantling principles of liberal democracy and self-government. We see growing numbers of courageous people who refuse to follow illegal orders or obey immoral laws, brave souls willing to suffer consequences which to them are morally preferable, even necessary, to the alternative. “I was just following orders” serves as hollow justification for following immoral laws or directives, for behaving atrociously and undermining principles of liberal democracy. To some extent, I fear, the imposition of curfews is a thinly veiled attempt by those in power to quell legitimate participation in self-government, an illegitimate use of the police power.
Having now spoken are a number of former commanders who understand the military's role in preserving liberal democracy and take seriously the oaths to defend and protect the Constitution. Even the Code of Military Justice recognizes the oath to defend the Constitution—the embodiment of liberal democracy—against all enemies, foreign and domestic, supersedes following an unlawful order. Military courts are clear that soldiers remain personally accountable for their actions even when following the orders of a superior. Just as disobeying a lawful order is a crime, following an unlawful order may also be a crime. Some examples are or should be clear. Abu Ghraib. My Lai. Caging children. Using military force against United States civilians on the streets of the Capitol to undermine the very constitutional rights and protections that are a necessary component of liberal democracy.
Trump and an overwhelming percentage of what was once the Republican Party give an enthusiastic thumbs up to atrocious treatment of United States citizens who dissent from Trump and his authoritarian tendencies. Many GOP senators avert their eyes. Some express “concern.” Others are vocal proponents. But for their unpatriotic complicity and that of the cabinet, Trump could not carry out his authoritarian designs. As Barr said, history is written by the winners. Let the writers be patriots who place the Constitution and precepts of liberal democracy above power and personal fear of a mendacious, megalomaniacal, un-self-aware dolt who cares for nothing but himself.
And, it’s hurricane season, so there’s that.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers