During our last layout session, flummoxed by too many bunny images with which to festoon the masthead in honor of Easter, I decided–in my indecision–to go with something completely different: An Easter Island moai. This set our associate editor to chuckling. “What’ll you put on the May first issue,” he asked– “a hammer and sickle?”

“I was thinking,” I replied, “something along the lines of an S.O.S. signal.” But the many intersections of May Day– the traditional spring festival, complete with pole; the internationally recognized distress signal, spelled as a single word but always repeated thrice; the 1886 day from which, in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW, or Wobblies) declared, henceforth, an eight-hour work day–set me to thinking about how we’re going to rescue our economy.

Because we’ve already got the pole.

We have experimented on a personal level, with the Bush Tax Rebate, and on an institutional level with TARP–the massive banking, insurance and auto industry bailout. Further suggestions have been legion: increase the minimum wage; invest in or maintain better our infrastructure; tax breaks; scale back military spending. But our divisions are now more stark than ever, since the Civil War, and we’re sliding uncomfortably close to a service economy. Still, I’m sure we can do better than to subsidize Walmart.

Let’s take a phrase from the Republican playbook–”rugged individualism”–and begin, each of us, with ourselves. The answer is DWTS. Not Dancing With the Stars–that’s too silly to contemplate; not, either, Down With the Ship–which recent maritime disasters have confirmed as outmoded. No, DWTS must mean Don’t Waste Time Sighing. Or Shirking. It must mean that we all take personal responsibility, especially when it is onerous to do so. I’m not at all happy with the Federal Income Tax. I think it’s theft–but it remains my responsibility to pay it. I wouldn’t be a rugged individualist if I refused to pony up the money. I’d be a criminal.

Like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Here we have a caricature of a citizen–no patriot, certainly–but a man who considers himself to be sovereign unto himself. In other words, a “sovereign citizen”–someone who refuses to recognize government at any level above his county sheriff. Of course this is laughable. Bundy, who has been embroiled with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over nonpayment of twenty years’ grazing fees amounting to more than $1 million, has been quoted of late declaring his doubt that the federal government even exists. Please. Who does he suppose the federal government is if it’s not “we the people?” Whose land does he suppose he was using, lo these twenty years? It is not government over-reach when the government, naturally enough, seeks to collect what is owed it. And we’re talking more than a $1 million here. The BLM sought to seize more than 350 head of Bundy’s cattle, but sensibly stood down when hundreds of his armed supporters forestalled the effort. This was not a victory for the sovereign citizens–it was a wise avoidance of gun violence on the BLM’s part. Nobody wants another Waco.

But this is chilling. Sovereign citizens put the numb in the phrase “e pluribus unum.” They represent, in fact, its complete antithesis. For the United States, the Latin translates as “out of many, one.” For sovereign citizens it means more like “one out of many.” Can there be any doubt who the “one” is? Think the “Me Generation,” whichever demographic you care to ascribe that to–only include firearms.

In “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Bob Dylan wrote, “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.” I’ve always taken this to mean not that there is honor among thieves, but that, if you don’t want to end up in the belly of the legal beast, your best policy is honesty.

And these sovereign citizens are not honest people. If the BLM was somehow clamoring to return $1 million to Bundy–in, say, compound overcharges as the result of an ongoing, twenty-year clerical error–do you honestly think he’d not recognize the money? Well, maybe he’d have to consult the Clark County Sheriff first. Maybe down there he doesn’t use the United States Dollar. Clark County is, after all, home to Las Vegas. Maybe he just uses casino chips. And maybe he carries these chips on his shoulder.

Like the far right, which–shooting from the hip, of course–was a quick-draw in embracing Bundy as a hero. Until he revealed himself as an utter racist by uttering comments about “the Negro.” Bundy questioned whether “the Negro” were not better off, previously, as actual slaves–as opposed to the present, as slaves of government subsidies.

Sigh. What about not recognizing the government? He clearly doesn’t recognize that, by not paying his grazing fees for twenty years, we all have for that time been subsidizing him. Still, there should never have been an armed stand-off. The government Bundy doesn’t recognize has better methods than any at gunpoint to achieve its aims. It certainly can’t aim any guns at Vladimir Putin in its displeasure over his behavior in Ukraine. But our government can sanction Putin–and it sure as shootin’ can sanction entire echelons of sovereign citizens. Let’s see what happens when, not seizing their assets, the federal government simply freezes their bank accounts. Talk about the chips being down!

— Joseph Oldenbourg

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