Monday, June 19, 2017

On Secession Part II: Henry and Violence

In part I of this series, my desire to figure out why Sheriff David Clarke and the Oath Keepers believe the things they believe was hampered by the fact that there is an enormous amount of history to account for. Thus, we began a historical accounting of American ideologies and cultures (as per David Fincher’s Albion’s Seed). Left hanging were the questions of whether or not the South was morally or legally justified in secession, and whether states or individuals should have rights that supersede the federal government.

Why do we have a Second Amendment? It's not to shoot deer. It's to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!
Senator Rand Paul

David Clarke saluting the crowd at the RNC, without his trademark sheriff’s hat.

Now that we’ve covered some of the history, who the heck is this guy?

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him before, I hadn’t either. He’s been Sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin since 2002 and started his career in the Milwaukee Police Department in 1978. He’s got a wife, a horse named Rodger, and is a registered Democrat.

But he’s also been a speaker at the Republican National Convention and at CPAC, a guest on Alex Jones’ radio show, as well as frequently appearing on various Fox News programs, so we’re going to need to dig a little deeper.

Understanding David Clarke means understanding his ties to the Oath Keepers. On June 13th, 2016, he received a “Leadership Award” from the New York Oath Keepers, and gave a 35-minute speech. He is not a formal member of their “militia” but, for context, here is the Oath Keepers list of “Orders We Will Not Obey”:

1. We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.

2. We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people.

3. We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to military tribunal.

4. We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

6. We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.

7. We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control."

9. We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

With a list like this, you might think that this was an organization dedicated to ensuring lawful behavior among America’s civil servants, albeit one with a maniacal obsession with gun rights. In this, unfortunately, you would be wrong. There’s significant ideological (and membership) overlap between the Oath Keepers, the Sovereign Citizen Movement, and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), of which Sheriff Clarke is a member. Here is a quote from the CSPOA’s “Statement of Positions”:
America needs to make a strong turn around to get back on the freedom track laid for us by our Founders.  We believe it can’t be done from the top down, due to many factors, not the least of which is corruption and entrenched bureaucracies in high places.  We must, and we can, accomplish this turn- around starting locally at the county level, and lower.  The office of county sheriff is the last hope of making this happen, and we are witnessing great deeds of protection, service, and interposition across America by courageous sheriffs who only want to serve the people who elected them.
It’s a lot to unpack. I’m going to attempt to read through the lines, by referring back to the values of the 4 main American cultural traditions (Puritan, Quaker, Cavalier, and Borderer) and their different views on liberty that we established in part I.

To refresh, they are (in order):
  • Reciprocal Liberty: The right of each person to demand all liberties they would extend to others (aka the Golden Rule).
  • Natural Liberty: Liberties are innate, and it is the right of people to (violently) defend them.
No, it’s not “Whoever has the Gold makes the Rules”.
But what is that “freedom track”? I'm not sure, but I think I have an example that comes close to what the CSPOA means: The doctrine espoused by Patrick Henry, as he argued the Parson’s Cause.
An 1834 painting, depicting the 1763 case. It’s not very good.
The exact words used were not recorded, but the case itself, and the arguments used, became notorious. Our most accurate rendition comes from a letter penned by one of his courtroom opponents, describing the events to another Parson. I have (heavily) edited it, mainly for brevity:
That a King, by annulling or disallowing [this law], degenerates into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience… The only use of an Established Church and Clergy in society, is to enforce obedience to civil sanctions, and [other] duties of imperfect obligation; that, when a Clergy ceases to answer these ends, the community have no further need of their ministry…the Clergy of Virginia… [should therefore] be considered as enemies of the community; and …punished with signal severity. [The Jury must] rivet their chains of bondage… [and] dispute the validity of [any] laws, [not] authenticated by the… authority of a legal representative of a Council, and of a kind and benevolent and patriot Governor.
The details of the case are less important than the fact of Henry’s (successful) argument: an act of government that opposes the stated will of the people renders that government tyrannical and superfluous.

Later, as the colonies moved toward revolution, Henry went on to denounce strong government in any form, and vowed to fight against it (“Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!”). That the liberty he demanded was “natural liberty” is obvious, but interestingly, this appears to be the main type of liberty that the Oath Keeper groups are concerned with. The “courageous sheriffs who only want to serve the people who elected them” are dead ringers for the “kind and benevolent and patriot Governor” insisted upon by Henry.

And this is where I run out of cleanly packaged information and start asking questions. Questions like: Is the concept of Natural Liberty consistent and actionable? Is it justified? And most importantly, can it be reasonably implemented in the 21st century?

(Note: I know I’m avoiding the Confederacy’s argument, but I think the Natural Liberty argument is both stronger and more relevant. I’m trying to answer a more general form of the question, but I’ll come back to them later — they’re not off the hook yet.)

As someone who strongly backs the Quaker concept, I’m struggling to make sense of the Borderers. Namely, I’m trying to make sense of the end game. This question can be more narrowly posed to the groups from earlier, but what does society look like if you get everything you want? I mean, I understand the Quaker end game, a quasi-socialist utopia where everyone is nice, kind, and respectful to one another, but I do not understand where Borderers are trying to go. My biggest question is: where does it end?

I’m going to try for a thought experiment. Let’s say we have this group of people, they don’t like their current government. Could be that it’s infringing on their natural liberties, or it could be that they don’t have control, whatever. They gather themselves together (with guns) and demand the ability to form their own government, the way they want. There’s a bit of violence, but they win and now there’s two governments, one in the north and one in the south.
Pop culture references are very popular.
Ok, great. But now some of the people who rebelled (the Karstarks and the Boltons??) don’t like the new government they made, and want to make their own government. And so on and so forth. I’m struggling to come up with a coherent system of Natural Liberty that allows you to demand liberty on pain of violence, that doesn’t immediately threaten to unmake any systems you’d try to put in place. If violence is political power, and assuming everyone has nearly equal abilities in that regard, doesn’t it just eventually end with every man for himself? Or with a bunch of warring clans jostling for territory or vengeance for some perceived slight? (ref: the history of family feuds in America)

I know the idea of a man who doesn’t answer to any law but his own, a sheriff trying to do good as he sees it — it’s appealing. We’ve seen characters like this in countless films and stories. But, and I fully admit this is the most boring answer possible, it just doesn’t seem practical. I mean, yes. I like rights, I like freedom. But two things seem readily apparent: 1. Some amount of government is needed to prevent tribal barbarism. And 2. Part of that government’s responsibility is to maintain a monopoly on violence.

This is a point where I imagine I will lose some of my readers. Gun control is a contentious issue, and I will make no attempt to adequately cover it. But to sidestep the issue of “self-defense”, my question is: to what degree are individuals empowered to take the law into their own hands? Again, any explanation I could give would be insufficient, but it seems to me that society is maximally stable if individuals are not able to self-adjudicate. I say this because any two random people will likely disagree on issues, but if they are enforcing their opinions with violence, they cannot mutually exist in the same society.

For an unnecessarily provocative example, say you believe in the right to defend yourself (and others) from people who would cause them harm. This is a common belief, so it shouldn’t be too hard. But say you also believe that fetuses are people from the moment of conception. In this case, killing abortion doctors (to stop abortions) would be justified. And, in the implied corollary, the doctors (and anyone nearby) would have the right to kill you too (in justified self-defense). A single intense disagreement could snowball into an actual war, or at least a violent feud.

Now, I won’t eliminate the possibility that I’m being incredibly dense, but I just don’t see a way to reconcile “having a stable society of laws” with “the right to self-determine what those laws are”. It seems that the “cost” of existing in society includes a necessary abdication of choice.

And if society is good, this is a good thing. Certainly, the Puritans/Quakers would happily cede their choices if they could trust their society to be just and good. Indeed, as with the modern-day Democrats, making sure the government as good, wise, just, and strong becomes a moral imperative, since leaving people to their own devices means inevitable strife and anarchy. A more glowing recommendation of the status quo can scarcely be imagined.

Obviously, the world is not so optimized a place, and insisting on abstention from self-defense is the most untenable argument I’ve backed in a long time. Clearly, in the balance between order and chaos, it’s difficult to not cede territory to chaos. This is a contradiction that (I assume) David Clarke would declare solved.

This stock image is very literal.
Re-reading the CSPOA’s statement in this light, they seem to be upholding the value of natural liberty, and declaring the smallest discrete amount of tolerable government: a county sheriff. Convenient then, that it’s an organization of sheriffs. It’s difficult to see this as any more than an intent on government via individual fiat. No doubt that the courage and nobility of the county sheriffs will make disagreements impossible; each sheriff keeping to the constitution, ruling over their flocks with a wise and gentle hand. You’ll have to excuse my skepticism, especially considering Clarke’s malfeasance, which will be one of the primary subjects of next week’s post. We’ll just put a pin in that for now, because we’re out of time for today.

In answering our questions, I think we’ve made a bit of progress. We’ve identified a bit of what and why Clarke and the rest of the Oath Keepers believe what they believe, and explored whether individuals should have rights that supersede the federal government. But we’ve still got a way to go before making our definitive case for or against secession, and in determining the optimal rights of states. Also, left hanging is the unstated question of what all this means to us now. Until next time.


  1. Your words are definitely thought provoking!

  2. "Namely, I’m trying to make sense of the end game."

    There is no end game. External threats cause people to unite, peace causes them to break apart. Cycle continues until the heat death of the universe.