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Posts published in “Political Words”

Sovereign citizen


The phrase “sovereign citizen” sounds in its way innocuous, even an expression of basic Americanism - of the idea that the highest office one can hold in the United States is that of citizen.

Many people who aren’t familiar with the SC “movement” maybe suckered in by that. But among people who aren’t simply throwing language around loosely, and who are serious about it, “sovereign citizen” carries a very specific meaning. And it’s ominous.

There’s no central SC organization, or even much of a central contact point; its message is sent out in a diffuse network, carried (in the manner of a mosquito) by people who claim a special insight into the conspiratorial origins of the country. There being no core doctrine or document to quote from them, let’s try the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of how they view things:

“At some point in history, sovereigns believe, the American government set up by the founding fathers — with a legal system the sovereigns refer to as "common law" — was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way. Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when the U.S. abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihoods on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces.”

The theory gets a lot more elaborate.

You may find in some SC circles (and other circles in their neighborhood) a lot of interest in gold hoarding and the gold standard.

There’s a reason: Many SC advocates believe the end of the gold standard led to the federal government secretly selling the American people into de facto slavery as a prop for the currency. The fact that baby names on birth certificates ordinarily are written in capital letters is held to have a deep significance (its identity is not your identity, in rough terms) as well.

No, I’m not making this up, but they are.

And so what,you ask? Here’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.
This causes all kinds of problems—and crimes. For example, many sovereign citizens don’t pay their taxes. They hold illegal courts that issue warrants for judges and police officers. They clog up the court system with frivolous lawsuits and liens against public officials to harass them. And they use fake money orders, personal checks, and the like at government agencies, banks, and businesses.
That’s just the beginning. Not every action taken in the name of the sovereign citizen ideology is a crime, but the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive (and puts them squarely on our radar). In addition to the above, sovereign citizens:
Commit murder and physical assault;
Threaten judges, law enforcement professionals, and government personnel;
Impersonate police officers and diplomats;
Use fake currency, passports, license plates, and driver’s licenses; and
Engineer various white-collar scams, including mortgage fraud and so-called “redemption” schemes.

In January 2017 a New Hampshire legislator, Richard Marple, tried to introduce a measure intended to fine state agencies $10,000 per instance if they “don’t buy into sovereigns’ legal make believe.” Such as? One story notes "The bill refers to 'sovereigns' as though they were a legitimate legal class, and requires 'all corporations to disclose all elements of any contract,' 'particularly those contracts involving an ens legis or strawman'.”

The terminology is an exercise in pretzel logic, unworthy of your time.

If you hear the phrase “sovereign citizen”, you might ask:
Do you mean by that an informal sense that citizens should be treated with dignity? Or are you talking about a truly bizarre conspiracy theory? There’s quite a difference.



On September 7, Fox News host Tucker Carlson ran a series of video clips promoting the idea of diversity - presumably, ethnic, cultural and otherwise - in America, and then proceeded to take on the idea.

It has become an increasingly heated topic, much more so than two or three decades ago, and Carlson went right at it.

He offered a series of questions:

How, precisely, is diversity our strength? Since you’ve made this our new national motto, please be specific as you explain it. Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are?
Do you get along better with your neighbors, your co-workers if you can’t understand each other or share no common values? Please be honest as you answer this question.
And if diversity is our strength, why is it okay for the rest of us to surrender one of our central rights, freedom of speech, to just a handful of tech monopolies? And by the way, if your ideas are so obviously true, why does anyone who question them need to be shamed, silenced and fired?

Fair enough. A good many people around the country have been asking such questions, and answers should be given, not just assumed. They’re not always universally obvious, though there are ready answers.

I’ll offer some of those in a moment. Before we get there: What do we mean by “diversity”?

Most simply, it means (in dictionary definitions) a range of different things, a variety, a mix. It can refer to a variety of anything; a television network could be said to offer diverse programming if it airs enough different kinds of shows.

That’s not exactly what we’re talking about in a political or social (or even business) context, though. What we’re really talking about is things like race, religion and ethnicity - and a resistance in some quarters to anyone who is distinctive from oneself.

This makes diversity is one of the flash points in our society. It is something we should discuss seriously and not dismiss.

So to move on to Carlson’s questions:

How, precisely, is diversity our strength? The broad answer is, we gain strength from a larger pool of experience, skills, strengths, understandings and points of view. Narrow and limited perspectives - smaller pools of knowledge and perspective - increase the likelihood of mistakes.

Since you’ve made this our new national motto, please be specific as you explain it. Carlson needs to explain who exactly is proposing “diversity” as a national motto. Unless you count “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one,” the slogan on our national seal and on some of our currency. From Wikipedia: The 13-letter motto was suggested in 1776 by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere to the committee responsible for developing the seal. At the time of the American Revolution, the exact phrase appeared prominently on the title page of every issue of a popular periodical, The Gentleman's Magazine,[10][11] which collected articles from many sources into one magazine.”

Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are? In fact, marriage and military units are excellent examples of how diversity can work very well. In my own marriage, my wife and I have some things in common but also a number of differences - different skills and interests, perspectives and aspects of background (not to mention genders). That’s not a weakness in the marriage. We’ve made many things happen, and avoided many mistakes, because we jointly brought more to what we do than would have been the case if, say, either of us had been working with a clone.

In the military, concerns about diversity weakening cohesion often were brought up on the front end of a change in more varied forces. The concerns nearly vanished in most cases as the greater variety of personnel wound up contributing far more than any (most illusory) loss of joint identity. The Congressional Research Service said in a 2017 report that diversity in the military is “associated with better creative problem solving, innovation and improved decisionmaking.” Those sort of traits are becoming increasingly critical, not only in the military but also almost everywhere else.

Do you get along better with your neighbors, your co-workers if you can’t understand each other or share no common values? Please be honest as you answer this question.
The honest answer is that a little effort and communication results in greater understanding. That’s not kumbaya; that’s just the way people relate to each other.

And if diversity is our strength, why is it okay for the rest of us to surrender one of our central rights, freedom of speech, to just a handful of tech monopolies? Not sure where Carlson is veering off to here; the question about the growing power of the big tech communications companies is a serious and legitimate question, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with diversity as such. Nor do they have much to do with “freedom of speech,” which is a bar that limits governmental restrictions on speech; it does not, never has anyway, limit Google or Twitter or for that matter my blog from limiting the speech disseminated there.

And by the way, if your ideas are so obviously true, why does anyone who question them need to be shamed, silenced and fired? Still got a job, Carlson? Oh, right, you work for - well, actually, for 21st Century Fox, which in its 2017 annual report said it “appreciates the importance of valuing and serving a diverse marketplace. Different backgrounds and characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, culture and sexual orientation, bring innovative viewpoints and merit to the creation of our content and products.” Discussion is diversity is quite public and ongoing, so it’s hardly being silenced.

As for fired, that generally has related to companies which have policies and practices much like the one you work for. If those companies fire people on grounds of statements they make, it’s because they have a commercial, business or public relations reason for doing that.

As for shaming: That could work only to the extent people agree shame ought to be attached to expressing the idea. Approbation shouldn’t attach to a dispassionate discussion of the concept. But the idea of diversity, in this country, often is linked to attitudes about race, about a willingness to accept even the humanity of people somewhat different from oneself. In a country of many kinds of people, where we must work together to succeed, a certain amount of concern about trashing other people is probably appropriate.

The swamp


You know what it is when you talk about it, right?

But, well, who and what are part of the Swamp?

The “drain the swamp” formulation was one of the more clever linguistic developments of the 2016 election. It had been used before, such as by both Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi in 2006, but not as commonly. And it has some uses. Donald Trump used it often in his campaign that year, and the #DrainTheSwamp Twitter hashtag is highly popular. (It’s a busy Twitter handle as well.)

It caught fire and a lot of people adopted it because it had resonance. The idea of the political and economic centers of the country (even in the states) as a dank, sunken, corrupt place that does in the unwary and is full of “swamp things” is easy to get and even appreciate. And if you drain it, you get rid of disease-carrying insects and other unwanted pests. The metaphor is clear.

A John Kelley article in Slate points out that the phrase goes back much further, and was long used by the anti-capitalist left: “In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” So it has referred to the swamp of capitalism.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke of “draining the swamp” that is the federal bureaucracy.

There is even some loose truth to it.

But be wary of this one. “The Swamp” sounds wonderfully specific and concrete, but it is neither. It evaporates the closer you look at it.

So what exactly is The Swamp?

While Washington, D.C., was built on lowlands by the Potomac River, and the area around the State Department long has been famously called Foggy Bottom, the fact is that the district (or at least nearly all of it) never has been, in its time of human habitation at least, swampland. Humid and mosquito-ridden, yes; swamp, no. So that direct link doesn’t work.

An Illinois group called American Transparency in 2017 issued a report called “Mapping the Swamp,” but that was simply an attention-getter: Its content consisted of budget reports (and employee compensation statistics) about federal administrative agencies. Is the swamp, then, federal administrative agencies, or does it cover much else?

Kelly’s stab at a definition, at least one for the 2010s: “Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex.”

Writers Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles suggested in an October 2017 New York Times article, “Donald Trump’s pledges to 'drain the swamp' of corruption in Washington attest to his genius for unintentional irony. Nepotism, egregious conflicts of interest, flights on the public dime to see Wimbledon and the eclipse — the Beltway wetlands are now wilder and murkier than ever.”

In the end, the swamp is a test: It is whatever you don’t like.



Of all the dirty words that do not deserve the description, “politician” must rank near the top.

Almost every candidate for office who’s new to it, or even semi-new, will start their spiel by proclaiming, “I’m not a politician …” Even a lot of long-time, career-spanning pols do it.

With, of course, the assumption that people will then think more kindly about them. And may be right.

But shouldn’t be.

The comedian George Carlin, who knew something about “dirty words”, said in one routine, “Everybody complains about politicians. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? . . . They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. . . It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”

Politicians r us. Or should be.

Actually, to be called a politician ought to be a badge of civic honor. These, after all, are people willing to put themselves out there, to enter the arena. Wikipedia's definition will do: "Politicians are people who are politically active, especially in party politics." In other words, they are civic-minded. Some of them may have darker motivations, but most of them are in it to try to make their community or state or nation a little better.

Just as many people think of people in “the media” as simply high-paid Washington talking heads, ignoring the local reporter who covers the city planning and zoning commission, many people think of “politician” in a limited way: prominent members of Congress, the president, a governor, occasional others.

But one common definition runs like one at “A politician is a person who campaigns for or holds a position in government.” That’s a lot of people, from the local mosquito district commissioner up to, say, the (non-elected) secretary of the treasury. And how about many lobbyists? Much of what they do is as richly political as that of any elected official, even if they lack the title.
They’re not all rotten. In fact, most of them aren’t.

Okay, there are reasons politician is a reviled description. The word can be used to describe someone outside of government, but with the attached negative context, such as the online description, “a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.”

Wikipedia again: "In the popular image, politicians are thought of as clueless, selfish, incompetent and corrupt, taking money in exchange for goods or services, rather than working for the general public good. Politicians in many countries are regarded as the "most hated professionals". Many ex-politicians who could not bear the leadership in politics that causes reprisals for critical thought criticize those who remain politicians for lacking critical thought."

There are plenty of examples of lousy politicians, people who deserve the opprobrium.

But, as everywhere else, there are plenty who do not - many who work day in and out trying to get something useful accomplished, in a government system that ultimately reports back to - us.

They're also doing the more or less invisible hard work of keeping our system of government running. If politicians we're doing it, who would? Us? Are you kidding? We so often do such a terrific job even at the far more limited job of just choosing which politicians will represent us ... but that's a subject for another post.

Those who say

political wordsThis is the first in an ongoing series of posts about political language, its use and abuse in American politics of the new century - and the way so many of us misunderstand each other and talk at cross purposes. It will continue here, periodically, in the months to come.

When it comes to a particular statement, saying, formulation - who says so?

I try, mostly, in this collection to attribute statements, not with the idea of taking aim at anyone in particular but as verification that, yes, people are saying these things.

Take the often-used cluster of phrases concerning speakers “who say,” with variations including “people who say” or “those who say.”

It’s a common usage, because it allows the speaker to elide any specific person and either to invent a phony boogeyman or, often, to recast an argument into a form more easily knocked down. The usage isn’t necessarily dishonest, but it easily and often slides there.

In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George H.W. Bush remarked, “There are those who say that now we can turn away from the world, that we have no special role, no special place. But we are the United States of America, the leader of the West that has become the leader of the world.” But exactly who said we “we can turn away from the world,” that “we have no special role, no special place”? Did anyone?

In a country of hundreds of millions of people, someone may have. But that sentiment surely was not widespread, or at least would not be put in the way he put it.

A logician would call this a straw man argument - an argument made of straw so as to be easy (and safe) to demolish. As Wikipedia put it, “is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be ‘attacking a straw man’. The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent's proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., "stand up a straw man") and the subsequent refutation of that false argument ("knock down a straw man") instead of the opponent's proposition.”

There are a lot of straw men in our political arguments. In these discussions of words, quotes from particular people are included not as attacks on the person but as verification that what we’re reacting to here is something real - an actual use of the words, not a straw man.

There is another aspect to the “some people who” formulation: “Some people that.”

In his New York Times column, Frank Bruni [] noted that during the Republican presidential debates of 2016, the hazy formulation of who “was being exiled from its rightful habitat. It was a linguistic bonobo: endangered, possibly en route to extinction. Instead of saying ‘people who,’ Donald Trump said ‘people that.’ Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was ‘that’-ing when he should have been ‘who’-ing.” Bush, he noted, referred to “people that come with a legal visa and overstay,” and Rudio spoke of “people that call my office.”

Is this a problem? Actually, it is, because this is a matter of referring to people not as people, but as things. Things can be throw in the garbage, dismissed, tossed overboard. People - one would think - should not.

One web site breaks it down this way:

Here’s the thing: “who” (and its forms) refers to peo­ple. “That” usu­ally refers to things, but it can refer to peo­ple in a gen­eral sense (like a class or type of per­son: see “run­ner.”). Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “When refer­ring to peo­ple, both that and who can be used in infor­mal lan­guage. ‘That’ may be used to refer to the char­ac­ter­is­tics or abil­i­ties of an indi­vid­ual or a group of peo­ple.… However, when speak­ing about a par­tic­u­lar per­son in for­mal lan­guage, who is preferred.”

That said, many peo­ple and some respected ref­er­ences pre­fer “peo­ple that,” and it’s not wrong. Think Chaucer. Shakespeare. Dickens.

How is "people that" meant - in archaic fashion, sloppy fashion, or anti-human fashion? This may be more an argument for avoiding its use, than for sharply adjudging those who use it.

Words matter.