Leave it to Americans to invent a religion based on paperwork. Credit card bills. Birth certificate bonds. Form W-8BEN. The Titles of Nobility Amendment. These are the magical totems invoked by followers of something called the Redemption movement, a strange ideological offshoot of White Supremacist and tax resister causes that has ensnared thousands of Americans in a far-reaching conspiracy theory.
I was reminded of the Redemptionist subculture in the aftermath of Saturday’s horrific rampage in Tucson, Arizona, which killed six people and critically wounded a Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. For many liberals, thoughts immediately turned to the rhetoric of Tea Party favorites like Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, who encouraged their followers to resist government tyranny by (almost) any means necessary – “Don’t retreat, reload!” Palin declared; we may have to turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” Angle warned. One could be forgiven for connecting the dots between extreme rhetoric and an outburst of violence – perhaps a viewer of Glenn Beck was so enraged by Barack Obama’s Nazi/Stalinist dictatorship that he decided to take matters into his own hands – but most of us should probably have waited until the facts were in.
And what facts they are. The alleged killer, Jared Lee Loughner, is a 22 year old Arizona native who tried and failed to join the Army, named Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto among his favorite books, and posted incomprehensible musings on MySpace and YouTube. Loughner’s philosophy defies summarization. His opposition to a currency “that’s not backed by gold and silver” suggests that he might be influenced by the views of Ron Paul, but the bizarre non-sequiturs he posted on YouTube bear little resemblance to the Texas Congressman’s economic philosophy. Loughner appears to dream of starting a “new currency.” He speaks in a series of bizarre syllogisms that make no sense whatsoever, and tells viewers that “Every human who’s mentally capable is always able to be treasurer of their new currency.”
I recount these facts at the risk of amplifying the voice of a madman who may have intended to commit a horrendous act in order to promote his “philosophy,” such as it is. (His videos have already surpassed a million hits each on YouTube.) It is difficult to choose when faced with the dilemma of keeping quiet about important events or providing a platform for a violent ideology. On one hand, the suspect’s online ramblings seem unlikely to persuade or convert anyone watching at home. On the other hand, some Americans hold views that are only slightly more coherent than Loughner’s – namely, the followers of the Redemption or Sovereign Citizen movement.
Like Loughner, these individuals believe “you don’t have to accept the federalist laws.” Like the alleged killer, they believe that the original Constitution was somehow usurped or replaced by a new system of government that is fundamentally treasonous. Sovereign Citizen beliefs emerged out of the Posse Comitatus movement, a Nazi-inspired group founded in the 1960s that encouraged followers to resist paying taxes and uphold white supremacy. The ideology often included a hefty dose of anti-Semitism, directed at sinister cabals of international bankers who supposedly control the world. Sovereigns believe that the government of the United States was replaced at some point – perhaps during the Civil War, when the first greenbacks were issued, or in 1933, when the nation abandoned the Gold Standard. The new regime put in place admiralty law, the law of maritime travel and commerce. Tax expert J.J. McNab described the Sovereign ideology in a report for the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Since 1933, the U.S. dollar has been backed not by gold, but by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government. According to sovereign researchers, this means that the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans. This sale, they claim, takes place at birth. When a baby is born in the U.S., a birth certificate is issued, and the hospital usually requires that the parents apply for a Social Security number at that time. Sovereigns say that the government then uses that certificate to set up a kind of corporate trust in the baby’s name — a secret Treasury account — which it funds with an amount ranging from $600,000 to $20 million, depending on the particular variant of the sovereign belief system. By setting up this account, every newborn’s rights are cleverly split between those held by the flesh-and-blood baby and the ones assigned to his or her corporate shell account.
Through workshops and websites, preachers of the Sovereign gospel have taught their followers that they can gain access to this account by filing a series of convoluted legal documents. In the process, they can draw on the cash and free themselves from the rules of the US government. Divided from the fake identity created for them at birth – the one that appears in all-caps on their birth certificate, Social Security card and the like – they are now free, Sovereign citizens, subject only to a common law of their own deciding. The appeal of such a vision in economic hard times, when millions are hounded by debt and despair, is not hard to understand. Sovereigns refuse to pay for hunting licenses or child support, drive with a license, or file taxes, and they assault the courts with hundreds of confusing documents that cause cases to drag on and on. Once committed to this course, believers hope to find a tax-free paradise of no rules, and some have erupted in violence when the illusion crumbles.
This conspiratorial and fantastic view of the world may seem hard to believe, but it has its followers. A group called the Guardians of the Free Republics, inspired by Texas radio host Sam Kennedy, has demanded that every one of the nation’s fifty governors step down, while declaring that it has set up common law “juries” across the country to establish a new government. Wesley Snipes appears to have embraced such theories when he declared himself a “non-resident alien” and failed to pay taxes, leading to a three year federal prison term that began last month.
The Sovereign Citizen movement makes the Tea Party’s fantasies of a Marxist dictatorship look a lot less crazy, but the two groups have bled into each other to some extent. Just ask Bob Inglis, a staunch conservative who served for years as a Republican House member from South Carolina. Despite his record, Rep. Inglis suffered a crushing defeat in the Republican primary last year. Most commentators attributed the loss to a few critical words he said about Glenn Beck, and undoubtedly this misstep hurt his chances. But after the election, Inglis described some bewildering experiences he had out on the campaign trail. During a meeting at a constituent’s home:
I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there’s a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life’s earnings — I’m gonna try and not laugh here — and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ I’m trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, ‘You don’t know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don’t know this?!’
Inglis was either part of the conspiracy or totally clueless. In any case, that particular group of voters likely had little use for him. One can sympathize with the Congressman’s confusion, as he spent years catering to a conventional checklist of conservative causes – pro-life, school prayer and the like – and did not know what to make of this baffling narrative offered by his equally baffled voters.
Historians have a stack of easy explanations for this sort of thing. We can point out the awful economy as a strain that might drive many ill-informed and desperate to a strange but promising solution to their problems. Looking further, we can see the roots of Sovereignism in the tax revolts of the 1960s and 1970s, when many middle-class Americans, particularly in the West, mobilized to fight government spending and taxation that they believed violated their property rights and squeezed them out of the American dream. As journalists and pundits often do, we can turn to Richard Hofstadter’s thesis about “the paranoid style in American politics”; in 1964, Hofstadter looked at the rise of the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups and noted that Americans had a habit of turning their anger and frustration toward imagined enemies. Some of the Populist farmers, for instance, who organized against economic injustice in the late nineteenth century blamed their problems on the nefarious doings of Jewish financiers, a common trope that has unfortunately been adopted by many American political movements.
Bernard Bailyn illuminated the deep origins of such thinking in his work on the American Revolution, showing how many colonists believed in an epic conspiracy theory about the “rights of the Englishman.” Before the Norman conquest of 1066, colonists believed, the English had lived in a state of equality, but years of political chicanery had turned the people from free men into slaves – particularly in America. The English had a special dispensation of freedom as their birthright, and the forces of tyranny were closing in from all sides. In fact, the colonial-era rhetoric about England as the last reserve of freedom in a world of despotism certainly reminds one of the truism that America is the world’s last, best hope for democracy. In any case, the emotion kernel of this view is that we are special; we have rights that have been denied by some kind of extraordinary malfeasance.
There are other sources in American culture for the dreamlike thinking of the Sovereign Citizens and a lone nut liked Jared Loughner. America has been fertile ground for new religions and belief systems, giving rise to traditions like the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Nation of Islam. Many homegrown ideologies straddle the line between cult and movement, as enterprising Americans have used their powers of oratory and persuasion to sell every kind of snake oil from Scientology to aesthetic realism. Conspiracy theories like Redemption speak to a religious sensibility that there is a world behind the world we see – the workaday life of paying taxes and getting screwed by your employer is a kind of maya, an illusion, behind which the real truth is hidden. Esoteric methods of prayer, study, or fasting can give a seeker access to this truth. For the Sovereign Citizen, the key to opening that world is a Form UCC-3 – the perfect talisman for a modern life that seems to be made up of hard luck and bureaucratic traps.
Some Sovereigns look back to a Constitutional amendment proposed, but never passed, in 1810. The origins of the Titles of Nobility Amendment (TONA) are obscure and not worth explaining in detail here, but the basic idea was that any American who accepted a foreign “title of nobility” would lose his or her US citizenship. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the amendment was, in fact, passed but has since been suppressed, and some have attempted to use TONA to expose the illegitimacy of the American system of government, as in the 2003 case Sibley v. Culliver:
These documents allege in great detail a complex conspiracy by an illegal monopoly, the American Bar Association, which resulted in a take-over of the judicial systems of this country, both federal and state, by the ABA and its related entities… It is then alleged that the ABA-controlled system is illegal and in violation of what is referred to as the “missing Thirteenth Amendment,” to the United States Constitution, which stated that any person who accepts a title of nobility forfeits his United States citizenship and which Amendment was ratified but subsequently hidden or excised from the law. Since lawyers and judges accept the titles “Esquire”/”The Honorable,” it is argued, they are not citizens and the entire judicial system is illegal…
Personally, I don’t find it surprising that some people refuse to believe that this Amendment never became part of the US Constitution. The authorities are often wrong, and such stubbornness reflects an unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom that, of course, can be carried too far. My grandmother once told me that George Orwell’s 1984 was a polemic meant to warn people about all the horrible things that would happen in the year 1984; when I told her that we read it in school and it was actually a fictional story about a guy named Winston Smith, she concluded that the book must have been changed to hide the truth.
Conservatives like David Frum and Bruce Bartlett have recently written worryingly of “epistemic closure,” in which people of any persuasion wrap themselves in a cocoon of opinions that concur with their own. People can surround themselves with entirely conservative media or entirely liberal media, hearing nothing that upsets their predetermined view of the world. In such a condition, there are no commonly accepted facts and thus no mutually recognized meanings. It’s a long way from “universal healthcare” to “death panels,” after all. In one of his strange video posts, Loughner asked a question that we may ask of many people who believe in spectacular conspiracies, like the Redemptionists or Loughner himself: “What’s government if words don’t have meaning?”