Power Is as Much Consented to as Claimed

That’s a brilliant line from a review of Christopher Clark’s Prisoners of Time.

It’s a historic fact, as proven by something no more distant than (half of) America’s infatuation with Donald Trump. He didn’t coerce his way into almost complete control of the Republican Party—and very nearly the entirety of American politics—he was given permission by both his followers and party.

Logic and science and intuitive diplomacy are not bound to consent.

They are proven by constant argument to disprove. Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Jonas Salk polio vaccine are brilliant examples, the former by a decade to prove and the latter by wiping out polio.

We nibble around the edges of fact-based knowledge and climate change is the best example that comes to mind. We gaze out our windows, read about floods and fires but have not yet given our permission for the investment we are already too late to give.

In the sports world we swallow our heroes whole and one need merely peruse the sports pages for examples.

Quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t yet been given our permission to fail and, because he’s Tom, doesn’t give a damn as he plows on into his forties.

We gave our permission to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles for mental health timeouts because both women were at the top of their game. Yet we withdrew pretty much the same approval from Emma Raducanu’s walk away from an in-progress tennis match at Wimbledon. Apparently, she was too young and unproven to merit our favor and the sports gurus claimed she should have been tougher. Same condition, nearly even the same ages, but polar opposite reactions based on—what?—some clown’s opinion from a press box?

Opinion on the internet raises mediocrity to unsurpassed levels and as easily destroys whichever talent draws its ire. I would argue that that’s not consented to in the way Christopher Clark intends, but merely targeted praise or assassination by an anonymous few.

The standards may vary, but the theory holds true

Western Nations wandered into the First World War, not because permission was given but because no nation declared that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an obscure heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by an 18-year-old student in Bosnia was a silly reason to take up arms. Yet the total number of resulting military and civilian casualties totaled around 40 million.

Chalk one up for silliness and (in this case) a profound lack of permission.

And then there came Hitler

Hitler can hardly be discussed rationally because of his ‘final solution’ and the Holocaust that followed. But the fact is that every step along each rung of Hitler’s ladder to absolute power was approved by democratic election. He was a thug, a dictator and a madman, but he had the permission of the German electorate until it was too late to turn back.

Martin Niemoller’s poem speaks eloquently about permission. You are no doubt familiar, but it’s always worth another read:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Permission, of course, is not always a public matter

America’s post WWII history is a case in point. As we lurched from failed war to failed war, our presidents began those travesties by failing to even ask the permission of Congress, although that was required by both the Constitution and federal law. That’s a lot of failure for a single sentence, but it speaks volumes.

We have a War Powers Act, a federal law intended to check the U.S. president’s power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of the U.S. Congress. The resolution was adopted in the form of a congressional joint resolution. It provides that the president can send the U.S. Armed Forces into action abroad only by declaration of war by Congress, “statutory authorization,” or in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Pretty straightforward. Not a lot of wiggle-room

Signed in 1973, largely because of the Vietnam conflict, Richard Nixon vetoed the Act, but the Congress over-rode his veto. So, we have one, although every president up to and including Trump has found a workaround. So, for all practical purposes, we don’t have one.

As to permissions, in 1961 President Kennedy said, Kennedy said, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.” Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara consented, saying it would be okay, he’d be a hero.

The Gulf, Iraq and Afghan Wars amounted to a hat-trick by President George W. Bush. His Vice-President, Dick Cheney; Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld; Secretary of State, Colin Powell and successor to Powell, Condoleeza Rice fed him to the wolves. They unanimously consented to what would be, without doubt, short conflicts and ‘flowers in the gun-barrels.’

Christopher Clark traces matters of consent eloquently and with historic accuracy in Prisoners of Time.


Image Credit: The Guardian

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