Constitutions represent the aspirations of a nation, delineating the basic legal principles that ought to guide it. But what happens when a political leader chooses to ignore this estimable idea and do whatever he wants to do?
When I think thus of the law, I see a princess mightier than she who once wrought at Bayeux, eternally weaving into her web dim figures of the ever-lengthening past—figures too dim to be noticed by the idle, too symbolic to be interpreted except by her pupils, but to the discerning eye disclosing every painful step and every world-shaking contest by which man- kind has worked and fought its way … to organic social life.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes; this quotation is inscribed above the entrance to the Berkeley School of Law
The evolution of jurisprudence, infused by centuries of thought and struggle, has given us a sophisticated justice system and, in both Canada and the United States, it has given us constitutions which set out the principles which define us as a people. It is an exquisite tapestry that forms the backdrop to our “organic social life.” The tapestry makes it possible to have a system of justice characterised by the rule of law. But it is a fragile thing – a tapestry – and it can easily be torn apart by those who know nothing of its rich heritage.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau brought us our Canadian version of a constitution in 1982. The American Constitution dates back to 1788, with 27 subsequent amendments. Judging of fealty to this law is the responsibility of the supreme courts in each nation. Challenges to our constitutions normally come about in a respectful manner, not questioning the authority of the document but recognizing the legitimacy of the need to interpret the clauses in the document as they apply to real life situations.
But what happens if a nation’s leader decides to defy its constitution? What if the leader and his henchmen decide that their constitution is for suckers, and what really counts is power? The weakness of a constitution is the lack of means of enforcement. If the tapestry is shredded by civilian leaders with the raw power to do so, who can save it? The army could step in, but who knows where that would go?
Donald Trump believes the army, and the police, and the biker gangs, and the right-wing militants, are on his side. If he is right, who is to stop him? Joe Biden and a flimsy bit of tapestry? The spineless Republicans? The toady who is the Attorney General?
By the time these words (written in October of 2020) are read we might know how this ultimate abuse of power will play out, but from here it does not look promising. There appears to be the real possibility that Trump and his supporters will defy the Constitution and illegally hold onto power – something that would have catastrophic consequences for the US, for Canada and for the whole world.
For Donald Trump, nihilism – an utter disregard for moral principles – has always been one of his defining characteristics. He was not seduced into abusing power; it is, simply, what he does. It is what a nihilist does. Moral considerations that might impede the actions of a normal person are for “suckers” and “losers.” The rough beast in Yeats’ poem (see In the News) is not just slouching towards us – he is here.
Meanwhile, in his normal manner, Trump projects his thinking onto others, claiming that the mostly non-violent movements seeking racial justice are the real domestic threat. Every protest movement, of course, will have a few bad actors who will be seized upon as proof of the movement’s evil intentions. But the Black Lives Matter movement, seeking justice for people of colour, is the offspring of earlier movements headed by the likes of John Lewis and Martin Luther King and, yes, Gandhi.
And who are the progenitors of Trump’s gang? That would include mass murderer Timothy McVey, among others, hiding in the woods – not just in Michigan – with their ever-present assault weapons, certain of the rightness of their ill-defined but manifestly ugly cause.
* * *
Canada, being a modest nation, does not have the wherewithal to engineer a cataclysm of Trumpian proportions, but our leaders too have at times abused their powers. These are more limited transgressions, to be sure, more limited because of their scope, but they can be just as morally reprehensible. Torture and murder of even a single individual is inexcusable in a civilised world.
One of the darkest events in Canadian international relationships was the Somalia affair in the 1990s. BC philosopher John Dixon happened to be working for Defense Minister Kim Campbell at the time and in this issue of HP he gives us a first-hand account of what happened. The story is one of power abuse – both active and passive – at many levels. I have wanted to publish this story for many years and finally, for this issue of HP, John agreed. It is a grim, disturbing and revealing story.
Trudy Govier explores a logical problem with the “believe the women” movement, pointing out that belief is not the same as knowledge and that abuse of power in the past does not justify similar abuse in the future. Janet Keeping writes about the difficulty, and the limitations, of controlling abuse of power by legal means. James Alcock discusses the many ramifications of social and political power.
Abusing power comes in many other guises, with domestic abuse being one of the most common. This is often a matter of the greater physical strength of the abuser, but it can also come from superior verbal agility. Names, too, can hurt you, sometimes in a deeper and more lasting way than sticks and stones.
The wielding of power is not always heavy-handed or obvious. John Gould’s captivating short story “Metal,” in this issue of HP, depicts the relationship of a teenage girl-band member and her mother. Theirs is a domestic power struggle of sorts – perhaps discomfortingly familiar. The modulated response of the girl’s mother is, for some of us, a lesson too late for the learning.
And noted film critic Maurice Yacowar gives us a novel reading of Shakespeare’s Othello, a play in which manipulative power is exercised by the evil Iago, and power is misused by the duped Othello.
* * *
Abuse of power is, really, the issue of the day – its cloud hangs menacingly over a troubled world. We have decided it is worthy of two issues of HP, so this one (#215) will be followed by another on the same theme. That issue will also be notable because it will be our first online production of HP.