Jon Wos: Lighting the Darkness

Jon Wos is a fascinating artist and human being.  Read my profile of Wos and his work at The Objective Standard.


The Impertinent Quesion

Today’s Washington Posted reports on a Cub Scout who apparently asked a local politician some trenchant questions on gun control. The young scout’s troop leaders subsequently dismissed the boy from his den. I read the boy’s questions. They reflect a premise on guns that I do not accept. Nevertheless, it’s galling that the boy was dismissed from his den. If I were the politician, I’d be mortified that the boy received punishment for his questions. An advocate must be able to answer any question critical of his or her position, or not be an advocate.

Story: A Cub Scout pressed a lawmaker about gun control. Then his den kicked him out, his mother said.

The late unpleasant anthem bruhaha.

Here are my thoughts on the recent debate surrounding football players who kneel during the playing of the National Anthem.

My stepdaughter’s father was murdered in Iraq in 2005 by a soldier under his command. This soldier issued hundreds of threats behind his victim’s back, but no one who heard these threats had the presence to hold this soldier to account before his rage rose to murder. In 2008, a military court acquitted this soldier. Nothing rational explains it. Few would be bold enough to argue that the government didn’t prove its case. So as I and many others see it, the Army allowed an innocent man to be murdered and allowed a guilty man to go free.

My stepdaughter will soon be an adult. What if she decides because of the injustice dealt her late father that she wants to take a knee during the anthem? What if she decides that she does not wish to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because the “justice for all” part rings hollow for her? Apparently, some would tell my stepdaughter that while America is the land of the free, she’s not free to do that. Because…well, veterans.

I don’t agree with the football players who take a knee during the anthem. I believe they make a great many errors. But at least they point to dead bodies and say, “these people should not have died.”

The people upset about football players kneeling for the anthem—all they point to is a lack of sufficient piety. And in my view, when piety is demanded above all considerations—to include one’s judgement—it’s undeserved.

Moreover, I don’t think we should let Donald Trump twist the anthem from something most people celebrate into something we choke on. A self-confident nation ought not to wilt in the face of dissent. If the country deserves it, good people will honor it. And if some don’t, I doubt the matter requires presidential attention.

Justice for Phillip Esposito and Louis Allen

Eleven years ago, in the blinding dust of an Iraqi sandstorm, an American soldier placed a wire-activated landmine on the windowsill of Army Captain Phillip Esposito’s office. There, Esposito was playing a game of Risk with First Lieutenant Louis Allen. The soldier, believed by military prosecutors to be Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez, then detonated the landmine, blasting hundreds of small ball bearings into the room where Esposito and Allen sat. Esposito died almost immediately, this despite medical care that included cracking open his chest and massaging his heart. Allen died a few hours later, conscious at first, but suffering wounds too grievous for any man to endure.

I’ve seen the photos of the crime scene and of the victims. These images lay bare the essence of violence. They lay bare the essence of negated humanity. They lay bare the essence of evil.

But for their deaths, Esposito and Allen would not receive justice. In 2008, an Army court-martial acquitted Staff Sergeant Martinez for his alleged role in the murders, ostensibly one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict.

Based upon my examination of the evidence in the case, I believe the military jury delivered the wrong verdict and let a guilty man go free. Moreover, I do not believe that the Army has engaged in the soul-searching necessary to properly address the circumstances that led to the murders, primarily, the lack of military discipline that allowed a recalcitrant soldier to issue hundreds of threats and gestures of contempt unchecked. In my view, had the Army acted like an army, Esposito and Allen would be alive today.

In the face of this failure of military justice, Esposito and Allen deserve a larger, moral justice. They deserve to have their story told, in appropriate detail, and with sufficient accuracy and objectivity that the good may learn from it and work to prevent future tragedies.

That is the long and short of it. Esposito and Allen were good men. Eleven years after their deaths, they deserve a justice yet undelivered.

Memorial Day for Phillip Esposito

This is what I would consider an appropriate Memorial Day tribute to Army Captain Phillip Esposito—perhaps the only appropriate Memorial Day tribute given the circumstances of Phillip’s unpunished murder and the subsequent acquittal of his accused killer. I would like the soldiers who voted to acquit Phillip’s accused murderer to come out and explain their votes. I would like these soldiers to step up and show exactly what their reasons were to find Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez “not guilty.”


Phillip Esposito, with his daughter Madeline.

We know why the jurors in the OJ case voted to acquit OJ. We know why the jurors in the Casey Anthony case acquitted her. I can think of no infamous case that ended both in acquittal and where the reasons for the acquittal remained as opaque as they are with Phillip’s murder. The soldiers who voted to acquit Phillip’s murderer have hidden in silence. That’s cowardice. That’s disgusting.

Yes, if these soldiers who voted to acquit Phillip’s murderer attempted to explain themselves, I’d probably be able to demolish their arguments while standing on one foot. Yes, I would analyze their reasons and lay any flaws I saw bare. But also, I would point out where I might agree with them, or where I saw reasons for honest disagreement.

But at least, for the sake of the victims’ survivors—who should be of our utmost concern—there would come the clarity of knowing precisely why these soldiers saw fit to acquit Alberto Martinez of the crimes alleged to him. At least there would come the ability to say, “this is what happened, and this is why it is right, or wrong.”

If such honesty is too much to ask for, then these military jurors should never consider Memorial Day a day where they remember fallen patriots. They should just treat it as any other day—a good day to buy a cheap car or a new mattress, but not a day of honoring and respecting our dead. Dead soldiers like Phillip Esposito—a soldier who deserved far, far more justice than he ever got.

Five Great American Paintings (Part V: Freedom of Speech)

This installment discusses the last in the series of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

Freedom of Speech (1943)


In 1943, as America fought a desperate struggle against tyranny in a worldwide war, artist Norman Rockwell sought to depict the essence and value of America with his brush. Inspired by the “Four Freedoms” that Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined in his January 6, 1941 address to Congress, Rockwell produced four canvases, each reflecting an aspect of the freedom that America sought to define and defend. And while there is much to be desired in Roosevelt’s formulation of the “Four Freedoms” (I argue that Roosevelt is woefully imprecise, creating illegitimate entitlements instead of advancing a proper view of freedom of action), my focus here is not on Roosevelt’s errors, but instead upon what he got right and what inspired the most important work in Norman Rockwell’s entire artistic career. I hold that Rockwell’sFreedom of Speech is the single greatest painted expression of America’s single greatest constitutionally enumerated freedom: the freedom to speak one’s mind in peaceful assembly without fear of physical force or coercion.

In his painting, Rockwell depicts a standing man as he makes a statement at a public meeting. The man is adorned in the attire of an everyday workman; he wears a well-worn jacket and underneath it, a common plaid shirt. Hanging out of his jacket pocket is a folded document that is indicated in the foreground as some sort of report; the man’s coat is not designed for this kind of use and his public speaking is not part of his typical domain. Both of the man’s hands grasp the back of bench in front of him; these strong, muscular and tanned hands use the bench to give the man’s body support as he tilts his frame back ever so slightly to allow his voice greater projection. Nevertheless, the man does not appear to scream or yell; his mouth and eyes reveal not rage or bombast, but instead depict an earnest man speaking his heartfelt truth before his fellow citizens.

And his truth is unexpected. Others in the painting have to twist themselves to hear what the man has to say, one middle-aged man turning his head over his shoulder and tipping it back in order to see and hear the speaker, another wrinkled and white-haired man turning sideways as he looks at the speaker with earnest attentiveness, his own hands gripping his copy of the blue report in a gesture of passionate solidarity, while a boy, who is only partially revealed, simply turns his eyes sideways as the man speaks. No one interferes with the speaker or prevents his address; he is one individual, offering his ideas for all to hear and take as they see fit (as indicated by the subtle foreground depiction of the head of a man who does not turn around to listen). The freedom concretized in Rockwell’s work is nothing less that the subordination of physical might to individual right, of coercive force to reason and persuasion.

As today marks the seventh anniversary of the horror of the September 11th attacks, I cannot help but note that this freedom is under attack yet again. While I recognize that it has become passé in some circles to claim that America’s enemies hate America for its freedom, it is precisely America’s freedom that they hate. If the man depicted in Rockwell’s painting were to blaspheme Islam, if he were to utter a defense of why politics and faith are incompatible, if he were to say that religion is and must be strictly a matter of private conscience and that reason alone must guide man’s life, America’s enemies would have this man silenced and crushed, his mind utterly subordinated to the dictates of their mystic creed, his life but a plaything for their caprice.

To borrow from Jefferson, the proper response to those who design to shackle the mind of man in such a fashion is eternal hostility. In the era when this painting was created, such hostility was the given response, that is, until the advocates of tyranny were compelled to surrender and the peace that they had broken was restored.

Yet in the seven years after our own generation’s Pearl Harbor, we have not fared as well. Our nation fights what can only be described as a compassionate war and not a war of righteous self-defense. We sacrifice life and treasure to bring freedom to a foreign people who do not want it, and all the while ignoring the larger threat that the imposition of political Islam places upon our lives and security. Some now even claim that America itself is to blame for the atrocities committed that day and that if we only withdrew from the world, our enemies would not detest us.

In this light, can a 65 year-old painting help inspire us in our ongoing struggle today? Can it help set the terms of the debate? I believe that it can. Rockwell’s goal may have been to depict an American freedom, but I think he achieved far more through his creation. He created an artistic representation that shows the world a fundamental human truth; that man deserves freedom of conscience and expression and by implication, those who would deny it to him are mankind’s proper enemy.

And thus, the man in Rockwell’s painting could be any of us living today. Can we now afford to tolerate those who seek to silence us? Can we build a wall strong enough to repel them should they attempt to attack us with more ruthless weapons than box-cutters and jetliners? Can we live in a world where their might is considered right and where our rights are considered nothing? Our enemies have made their intentions crystalline clear. They seek our complete compliance with the terms of their creed, the reestablishment of their caliphate, and barring that, they seek our deaths. Their own lives are not even a value to them; they chant “God is Great” as they impale themselves in order to kill us. Can we afford to leave such an enemy unchecked?

I hold that we cannot. And thus, we must choose, deliberately and purposefully, to rededicate ourselves and our nation to the moral message of “Freedom of Speech.” May this artwork give you that inspiration. It has given it to me.

This article was originally published September 11, 2008.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II:
The Homecoming Marine
Part III:
Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV:
The Problem We All Live With
Part V:
Freedom of Speech

Five Great American Paintings (Part IV: The Problem We All Live With)

This installment discusses the fourth of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

The Problem We All Live With (1964)


Norman Rockwell is most clearly identified with 20th-century American sentimentality; that is, with the creation and alleged over-romanticizing of the American mythos. This identification is intended as an indictment, for while better-respected artists were busy depicting the universe as expressed through the sundry nuances of multi-color ink-blots, Rockwell dedicated his brush to representing real Americans (along with their quintessential spirit). One such American was six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges on November 14, 1960, the first day black children in New Orleans would go to school with white children. Yet far from sentimental, Rockwell juxtaposes the beauty and innocence of this young child against the savage racism that animated large swaths of the American public at that time.

Rockwell’s painting depicts a young black girl, with the viewer looking at the girl at her eye level as if they were a child themselves. The girl wears a pristine white dress with white socks and sneakers; this is an outfit one often sees children wearing to Sunday religious services and indicates her finest attire. In her left hand, the girl holds a ruler, pencils, and two books; she carries the tools of a young student. She is surrounded by four white men in business suits; their anonymous faces are not shown to the viewer. The men wear badges of office on their coats and yellow armbands that indicate that they are federal marshals and they march together in lockstep and with fists firmly clenched; the men expect and are ready for a physical fight.

The reason for the men’s aggressive posture is made clear when one looks at the wall presented in the background. Scrawled out in paint is an ugly racial epithet intended to communicate the writer’s view of the alleged sub-human status of the members of the child’s race. A splattered tomato sits on the pavement, its fresh ejecta dribbles down the wall, the trace of its rays indicating that these ejecta were mere inches away from sullying the girl’s immaculate dress. Drawing the viewer into the drama of the scene, the tomato lies on the ground in a way that makes it seem that it was thrown over the viewer’s own shoulder; Rockwell does not permit the viewer to escape as a mere passive observer, but makes him an active participant in the scene depicted in his painting.

Yet in perhaps the most striking aspect of Rockwell’s canvas, the girl does not seem to notice the rage that surrounds her; instead, she innocently pantomimes the marshals, her small hands clenched as theirs are and her tiny feet in step with their own. Furthermore, while the men guard the girl, they make no emotional contact with her; they do not hold her hand or offer any gesture of warmth or compassion. They protect her from physical assault, but on every other level, the girl stands alone and is as exposed as her white dress against the angry invective of the mob. Yet through all, she remains pure; her youthful innocence remains intact.

I have yet to encounter any parallel to this work in American art. Rockwell assembles a host of contrasts, from the innocence of the young girl, to the tomato-splattered wall, to the grim determination of the marshals to defend the girl, to their seeming emotional indifference to her plight and he presents them for us to reconcile. Yet there is no easy reconciliation; such is the nature of the problem we all live with. What Rockwell makes clear to his viewers are the stakes of this conflict; one must truly be depraved not to feel empathy for the girl and contempt for those who would act with such irrationality and malice against her. The cornerstone of the creed that animated this child’s enemies was that by nature, blacks were separate and beneath whites, yet Rockwell shows us a young girl thrust into a maelstrom with her humanity plainly in view and for all to see. The world seethes angrily around her yet she remains a guiltless girl, a young scholar on the first day of classes.

As I alluded to earlier, Ruby Nell Bridges, the first black child to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South, is a real person. Now a mother and speaker on the history of the era that she as a six-year-old child helped to pioneer, she is able to share her story and its implications in her own voice. Nevertheless, the voice that Norman Rockwell was able to give her and others like her though his painting continues to inform us to this day. At root, it is a message of humanity in the face of adversity and contempt, and it is a message that deserves to be told.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II: The Homecoming Marine
Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV: The Problem We All Live With
Part V: Freedom of Speech

Five Great American Paintings (Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter)

This next installment discusses the third of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965)


The power of art rests in its ability to encapsulate the essence of a thing, often in a way that would otherwise be quite difficult to explain in plain words. For example, a philosopher can talk about human virtue–its source and its central role in our lives–but an artist possesses the ability to show virtue; that is, to quantify it and make it real before the viewer. It is in this way that art serves as a crucial spiritual compass, guiding man toward his proper path, inspiring him to persevere when confronted with adversity. Norman Rockwell achieved as much through his 1965 depiction of Abraham Lincoln as a young man in his painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter.”

Again, squelching what we know about Lincoln’s life and focusing only upon what Rockwell presents in his depiction, we see a tall, lean and strong man from a ground level vantage point. The man, perhaps in his early twenties, is dressed in the simple attire of a common laborer. He carries a large ax in one powerful hand; a thick book is gently cradled in the other so he can study it as he walks. He carries a coat draped over his arm; he is prepared for colder weather. A red bandana is tucked into his front pocket, at the ready for him to use it to wipe the sweat from his brow as he works. A plumb-bob hangs from his suspenders; his work, while manual labor, nevertheless requires a tool that ensures accuracy and precision.

All the while, the gray fall sky accents the man’s giant silhouette. In the background, one sees a simple log cabin with a faint trace of smoke emanating from the chimney; fuel for this fire demands work and neither is wasted wantonly. In the foreground, a simple split-rail fence marks a boundary; this is private property. Two stumps of felled trees mark the extreme foreground. Perhaps the man cut these trees down himself with his ax; this settlement is the product of hard work performed recently.

Yet, of all the elements Rockwell presents before us, it is the eyes of this man that most command our attention. Almost closed, they reveal the focus of a man deep in thought; if you walked by him, he might not even notice you ensconced in his book as he is. The man walks with a dual purpose, but it is the discovery of new ideas though his book that indicates his primary goal.

The magnitude of Rockwell’s artistic identification is made clearer if one envisions the man without his book, instead relying strictly upon his physical prowess to secure his place in life. With his ax carried as a latent weapon, we might even evaluate him as a threat. Instead, with his book in hand and his focus firmly upon it, we see a man working diligently to make something better of himself.

Adding what we know of Abraham Lincoln’s history to the image presented before us, we see in Rockwell’s image the essential attributes of the man whose knowledge and wisdom would serve to preserve the American union and liberate the slaves.

Rockwell, in the space of his canvas, shows us that knowledge is power and that even a man from the most humble of circumstances has the ability to shape his own mind, character, and destiny. In another culture, the man presented might be a mere brute, yet his by his pose and the tranquil background that Rockwell presents, we are instead shown that under the Pax Americana, this man can choose to master his life through his mind and that he rises solely through the strength of his own efforts. He may face a struggle, but it is not a bitter struggle; he can prevail, and so can we.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II: The Homecoming Marine
Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV: The Problem We All Live With
Part V: Freedom of Speech