The Poet, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 36", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
This week a close friend asked whether I thought we are overreacting to Indivdiual-1. I understood his question to imply that Individual-1 may not be as great a threat as many people believe him to be. My knee-jerk response was a self-congratulatory, emphatic ‘nyet,’ considering I’ve been blogging since the inauguration about the destructive force he is, domestically and geopolitically, something he proves in dangerous, inane and embarrassing ways on a daily basis. I decided, however, to give my friend’s question and my response more thoughtful consideration. Upon further reflection, I had a momentary, albeit selfish, thought that I may be overacting to Individual-1, not because he is any less an existential threat to the United States, its allies and the future of the planet than many people believe. He is singularly that and worse. I briefly thought that I could escape the personal angst I experience from my ongoing investment in the chorus against him by doing something else and tuning him out. Others do it, and successfully. Then I came back to my senses. Virtually any reaction falls short. I cannot do something else. I am morally obliged. I should find ways to do more.
I have taken much for granted, including a mostly functioning government that has worked for me. I have a comfortable life. I am able to do what I choose. I make one dollar for every 70 cents women make in Utah for the same work. I have never been racially profiled, except in positive ways, again something I have taken for granted. I know where my children and grandchildren are. They are together, safe, comfortable, uncaged. They know where I am. We know how to reach and see each other. We often do. We all have health care.
I have had a growing, inexplicable sense of urgency and helplessness. I usually feel best at this time of year. My seasonal affective disorder is in remission and in the evenings and on weekends I can problem solve while bicycling in Utah’s dry summer heat and dirty air. Exhaustion, endorphins, dopamine. People even tell me I am slightly less intolerable. This year is different. I have been trying to understand the cause or purpose of the dark, low-hanging clouds. After one of those long bike rides, I concluded it must come from a sense of personal stuckness, a term I first began to understand and appreciate upon reading Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. More on him later.
My stuckness derives from a perception that the assaults to undermine the traditional and institutional mechanisms for addressing the growing domestic and geopolitical problems, caused by those creating many of those problems, are succeeding. It’s the indiscriminate, overwhelming use of substitutes for thinking on public display which, unfortunately, is not the sole prerogative of the party of Individual-1 or its religious base. It’s the ominous realization that one-third of the citizens of this country overlook or even welcome dishonest, corrupt and otherwise reprehensible conduct precisely because they see it as attacks on intellectualism, on the critics of Individual-1 and on liberal democracy. It is recognizing that Individual-1 continues to have stunning success encouraging people to be their worst, most selfish, least empathic, morally irresponsible selves. It is the foreboding that comes with (at least the appearance of) congressional impotence at meaningful oversight, at holding Individual-1 accountable and at course correcting. It’s a growing sense of moral responsibility in the face of my own helplessness as the unprecedented history of Indivdiual-1 and his administration continues to unfold.
At that same friend’s suggestion, I (twice) listened to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense, #160, The Revenge of History, in which Harris interviewed Michael Weiss, a prolific investigative journalist who co-authored the 2015 book Isis, and Yascha Mounk, a writer, academic and speaker whose expertise includes understanding the rise of populism throughout the world which he discusses in his latest book, The People Versus Democracy. Despite Harris’s boredom with talking about Individual-1 and the meaninglessness of challenging Individual-1’s disciples (which Harris likens to the futility of arguing with religious fundamentalists over their beliefs), he engaged on the subject. I found the discussion powerful and cautiously hopeful. Government institutions remain in place and largely effective despite this political novice’s cumbersome efforts to dismantle them. We may disagree with the judiciary, but it remains a viable branch of government that exercises independence and oversight. Mueller completed his report despite what everyone knows were Individual-1’s serial efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russia’s interference which everyone knows he welcomed in the 2016 election.
One point the podcast made was that Individual-1 is too politically inexperienced and naïve, is motivated solely by a black hole of narcissism and, frankly, is not smart enough to pull off an authoritarian regime. It’s not usually the first person through the door. Mounk suggested we will not know for many years whether the stage is being set for a future, more politically adept and smarter executive to pull it off. One discouraging concern is that due to the widespread foreign breaches, United States’ elections may never be fully restored to sovereignty, because the traitorous and unpatriotic beneficiaries have no political or moral will to change the new status quo. By their very nature and not unlike political gerrymandering, the fix is in the interference and may take decades to undo.
I strongly commend the podcast to you. The dark, low-hanging clouds lifted a little.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when I was ten, I studied, and admired, the practice of civil disobedience. I read Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 by Taylor Branch, a masterful account of the Civil Rights Movement. I will post on civil disobedience another day. As Dr. King wrote in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
In that spirit, we see people stepping forward, shouldering the burdens and consequences of rejecting and refusing to comply with immoral laws. The examples of others inspire me in working through my own stuckness. Last week the media reported a hopeful event that reminded me of Dr. King. I encourage everyone to read this Amicus [friend of the court] Brief recently submitted in a case in support of a District Court’s entry of an injunction prohibiting employees of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) from being required to enforce the Migrant Protection Protocols (“MMP”). Local 1924 represents the interests of employees of the DHS in labor relations. Those employees are responsible to enforce the MMP. MMP requires individuals entering the US from Mexico illegally or without proper documentation to be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceeding.
“Local 1924 has a special interest in this case because, as the collective bargaining unit of federal government employees who are at the forefront of interviewing and adjudicating the claims of individuals seeking asylum in the United States, Local 1924’s members have first-hand knowledge as to whether the MPP assures the United States’ compliance with international and domestic laws concerning due process for asylum seekers and the protection of refugees and whether the MPP is necessary to deal with the flow of migrants through our Nation’s Southern Border. . . .
“The MPP, promulgated by the Trump Administration in January 2019, fundamentally changed our Nation’s procedures for the processing of asylum applicants who enter the United States through our Nation’s Southern Border with Mexico. Prior to the MPP, our country’s processing of asylum applicants ensured that people fleeing persecution would not be — pending adjudication of their asylum application or anytime thereafter — returned to a territory where they may face persecution or threat of torture. That process was consistent with our country’s longstanding tradition of providing safe haven to the persecuted, and was also compelled by our international treaty obligations and domestic law implementing those obligations.
“The MPP upended that process in favor of a new one purportedly designed to address the challenges faced by our immigration system as a result of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (referred to as the ‘Northern Triangle’) entering the United States through our Southern Border. Under the new process, asylum applicants entering the United States through the Southern Border, with certain exceptions, are forced to return to Mexico where they are required to remain pending adjudication of their asylum applications. In the course of waiting for a determination of their asylum applications, many will face persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. By forcing a vulnerable population to return to a hostile territory where they are likely to face persecution, the MPP abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and violates our international and domestic legal obligations.
“Moreover, the MPP is entirely unnecessary, as our immigration system has the foundation and agility necessary to deal with the flow of migrants through our Southern Border. The system has been tested time and again, and it is fully capable — with additional resources where appropriate — of efficiently processing asylum claims by those with valid claims while removing those that are not entitled to protection after they undergo the process designed to ensure that they will not be returned to a place where they will be persecuted. The MPP, contrary to the Administration’s claim, does nothing to streamline the process, but instead increases the burdens on our immigration courts and makes the system more inefficient. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth herein and in the Plaintiffs-Appellees’ submission, amicus curiae urge the Court to affirm the district court’s award of a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from administering the MPP.”
Robert Persig, who literally lost his mind in an obsessive quest for Quality, used motorcycles and their maintenance as Zen metaphor for meaningful endeavors. Persig explained that stuckness invites creative, innovative solutions so long as we open our minds, withdraw our egos and are willing to accept them:
“Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.
“So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. . . .
“If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality. When the facts show that you’ve just goofed, you’re not as likely to admit it. When false information makes you look good, you’re likely to believe it.”
*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’s 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