Hi and welcome back! Well, I suppose it was inevitable that wackadoodles in New Zealand would eventually happen upon the sovereign citizens movement. Indeed, this story might just be yet another so-called gift we can thank COVID-19 for. Today, Lord Snow Presides over yet another woo conspiracy theory that just won’t go away — and how it might anyway.
Sovereign Citizens: No Longer Particularly Weird.
I spotted today’s story on the latest News of the Weird. But really, sovereign citizens aren’t especially weird anymore.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes sovereign citizens ideology as a bizarre belief system “rooted in racism and anti-Semitism.” They simply don’t like following laws, so they have drawn upon a novel (and utterly bonkernuts) conspiracy theory that they think lets them off the hook when they disobey them. Among other facets of this conspiracy theory, sovereign citizens think they are their own rulers, hence the name of the movement. Thus, they do not need to pay taxes or obey any laws they don’t happen to like.
When legal authorities try to rein them in, sovereign citizens unleash an absolute Gish Gallop torrent of blahblah aimed at confusing-and-losing those authorities. Though their antics may seem silly and childish — and they definitely are — sovereign citizens tend to be utterly incapable of managing their own frustration and anger. Indeed, vulnerable people get drawn to this ideology precisely because they can’t muddle through the real world. The real world is scary to them, populated as it is by people who know stuff they don’t know and have access to resources they can’t even imagine. Magical thinking makes them feel powerful and capable in standing against that world.
When provoked, then, they can lash out with deadly force. And they clog up the legal system with all that blahblah they produce to escape the consequences of their behavior. Between these two tendencies, watchdog groups like the SPLC like to keep an eye on them.
(Incidentally, it’s likely this movement’s ideas fueled the latest QAnon drivel about Donald Trump totally getting sworn in on March 4. Here’s the SPLC writeup about sovereign citizens’ beliefs. Just try to tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like this recent conspiracy theory.)
Exporting Sovereign Citizens. (Sorry, World.)
We can trace sovereign citizens ideology back to about the 1970s, when it sprouted to life as part of an overall package of racist, anti-Semitic beliefs pushed by a right-wing Christian nutjob. The nutjob in question, William P. Gale, taught his followers that the government was doing nefarious things behind the scenes (maybe), that our original government had somehow been replaced by an imposter government (no), and that only a complicated, magical series of gestures and words could save those in the know from being exploited by those imposters (lolwut). It was the world’s worst version of Two Truths and a Lie.
Gale’s ideas caught on like gangbusters among the usual sorts of people.
Since then, a number of offshoot groups have adopted sovereign citizens ideas. I suppose it was completely inevitable that some of those ideas would take root in other countries. One can find sovereign citizens in a bunch of other countries: Canada, the United Kingdom (UK), all over Australia (one of whom took her wacky over to Singapore, where she promptly got in trouble), Austria, Germany, and — most importantly for today’s post — New Zealand.
That Singapore link (relink) tells us that some experts think that the coronavirus pandemic might have given legs to sovereign citizens conspiracy theories. After all, it’s a time of heightened fear, reliance on the government for help and medical care, and slews of new rules that people must obey. Wingnuts don’t like any of that.
“She’s Not a
Jane Louise Kellahan is an artist from New Zealand. She’s been pretty wackadoodle for years.
In 2018, she shows up in a puff piece on a news site as an artist who had gone from “a life of privilege” to squatting in a campground for the homeless so her son could have access to the area. Her stated reason: “to live in the most beautiful place in the world but not pay a cent.” (When winter came, friends let her and her son live in their home.) There’s not a single indication in that post that she had any kind of trouble with identifying as her own printed name. Nor did she seem to possess any understanding of social contract. But whatever.
When she faced a trial for assault, Kellahan likely realized that this wackadoodle ideology could help her out. Yes, she tried that sovereign citizens nonsense on a judge.
First, she tried to tell the judge that she didn’t recognize her spoken name. (She’d had no trouble at all with it on the puff piece, apparently.)
On Tuesday, for the second day in a row, Kellahan refused to go to the dock when called, telling Judge Walker: “That sounds like my name, Your Honour, but I want to see it in writing”.Judge Walker told her that despite her denials of being the person named on the charge sheet, “it’s clear that that’s you”.
It made me wonder how judges and lawyers deal with these wingnuts.
How Judge Russell Walker Dealt With It.
In this case, Kellehan’s judge’s reply was quite straightforward:
Kellahan, who is charged with assault in Wanaka on January 3, then repeated she would not stand in the dock.
“I’m not a vessel.
“I’m a living being on the land.”
Judge Walker: “You are a living being, which means you are a person.”
Behold his fields! Then, he just entered a plea of not guilty for Kellehan. Her final word seems to have been a request that he call her “Jane Louise.” Her trial’s set for April 28.
[T]here is no requirement that the judge (or anyone else) engage in lengthy discussions with the defendant to try to convince him that jurisdiction exists.
They suggest briefly ruling that the sovereign citizen’s attempt to fluster them failed, noting the laws involved. “Then move on. And keep moving.“
Another attorney, Teresa L. Todd, offers a long list of advice that boils down to the same things. She advises,
I truly believe than an SC case will only be bizarrely, excruciatingly difficult the first time. The rest will just be variations on a theme[.]
It reminded me of something.
They Can Catch Up or They Can Be Left Behind Us.
In a lot of ways, the Christian Right operates according to the same wackadoodle conspiracy theories that sovereign citizens do. There’s just a lot more of them, and they’re a little less likely to act out in frustration (though as the January 6 insurrection attempt shows us, that’s not always a given). Their view of reality differs from other people’s in almost every single respect. Really, their Dear Leaders train them from infancy to perceive everything about our world in ways that only reinforce their beliefs. Thus, their ability to warp everything that happens into an ideology affirmation tends to stun and baffle outsiders.
However, Americans grow more and more comfortable with associating right-wing Christians with literally every bad thing happening in our country, and with linking right-wing Christian ideology with all manner of social ills — just like the legal system getting more and more used to defusing sovereign citizens’ antics.
Also similarly, those Christians themselves face the same choice that sovereign citizens do:
They can get with the program, or they can get left behind in the dust.
Moving forward, people won’t be quite as willing to put up with their antics as they used to be. We’re starting to recognize who and what they really are. And we won’t forget what we’ve learned.
These Christians are exceedingly unlikely to face any real repercussions for their behavior in the past few months. However, in the long term they may find their sales numbers dropping even faster.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over sovereign citizens, a political movement that draws easy comparisons to right-wing Christians — and how knowledge and familiarity can defang both groups.
NEXT UP: One more thing about that “million souls” crack — see you tomorrow!
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About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)
Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. We especially welcome pet pictures!
Last thoughts: That party icebreakers link reminded me of an icebreaker activity my last call center did. Our future manager had us put our phones in a basket, then called each phone. We had to guess whose phone it was based on ringtone. Mine was set to an anime theme song. I can’t even remember what anime it was anymore. I would have been in my late 30s at the time, didn’t talk about anime or own anime swag, and barely really watched even the anime that featured the song. Really, I’d just liked the music. But there was no question in the group at all: that was my phone for sure! I still don’t know how they pegged it that quickly or with that degree of certainty. All I can figure is that they’d known me for a while by then and knew my first G1 had had an Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld skin (the same one from that link in fact). But now you know.