Sedition: Crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction
— Brittanica Concise Dictionary
Well, finally. It’s high time somebody had the guts to say the S-word — sedition — right out loud.
When the indictments against the Hutaree were unsealed last week, the S-word was right there, front and center, in Count One. The Justice Department accused them of “seditious conspiracy,” charging that the defendants “did knowingly conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and other persons known and unknown…to levy war against the United States, and to prevent, hinder, and delay by force the execution of any United States law.”
This is very serious stuff. But the Hutaree are getting nailed for sedition only because they crossed the line with inches to spare. They’re by no means the only ones. This stuff is becoming the new norm on the conservative side.
We saw it again last Thursday, when the Guardians of the Free Republics — a Sovereign Citizen group that believes that the oath of office taken by state governors is invalid under their twisted Bizarroland interpretation of the Constitution — sent letters to most or all sitting state governors telling them to either a) take what they consider to be a legitimate oath of office; b) stand down; or c) or be removed “non-violently” within three days. The FBI, rightly, regards this as a potentially seditious threat against the governors.
These two events are a wake-up call for progressives. They’re telling us that it’s time to openly confront the fact that conservatives have spent the past 40 years systematically delegitimizing the very idea of US government. When they’re in power, they mismanage it and defund it. When they’re out of power, they refuse to participate in running the country at all. When they need to win an election, they use violent, polarizing, eliminationist language against their opponents to motivate their base. This is sedition in slow motion, a gradual corrosive undermining of the government’s authority and capability to run the country. And it’s been at the core of their politics going all the way back to Goldwater.
This long assault has gone into overdrive since Obama’s inauguration, as the rhetoric has ratcheted up from overheated to perfervid. We’ve reached the point where you can’t go a week without hearing some prominent right wing leader calling for outright sedition — an immediate and defiant populist uprising against some legitimate form of government authority.
Moderates and liberals are responding to this rising threat with feckless calls for “a return to civility,” as all that’s needed to put things right again is a stern talking-to from Miss Manners. Though that couldn’t hurt, the sad fact is that we’re well past the point where it’s just a matter of conservatives behaving like tantrum-throwing spoiled brats (though they are). When a mob is surrounding your house with torches and telling you they intend to burn it down, “civility” really isn’t the issue any more.
At that point — and we’re there — criminal intent and action become the real issues. Progressives need to realize that the right began defiantly dancing back and forth over the legal line, daring us to do something about it, quite some time ago. And it’s high time we called it out — and, where appropriate, start prosecuting it — for exactly what it is.
What is Sedition?
Before we start throwing around inflammatory terms like “sedition,” it’s essential that we understand the strict definition of the word — and use it carefully and precisely, lest it lose all meaning.
(That’s what happened with the word “fascism,” which has been distorted into meaninglessness by hyperbolic overuse on the left and willful redefinition on the right. Once a word is abused to death this way, it’s very hard to recapture it and restore its original meaning. And that’s no small thing, because losing the word makes it functionally impossible to even discuss the political idea the word represents. Worse: as Orwell told us, when we no longer have the language to describe what we’re dealing with, we also lose our ability to deal effectively with fascism at all. That’s a real danger with loaded words — so, please, let’s be extremely careful about how we brandish this one.)
Here’s the defining line we need to hold on to. People who promote subversive ideas, no matter how dangerous those ideas might seem, are completely protected under the First Amendment. Even calling for the overthrow of the government is protected (though not benign, as we’ll see later, because it creates justification, permission, and incitement to seditious acts). That’s why the conservatives have been safe — so far.
It’s only when those people start actively planning and implementing a government rebellion that it turns into criminal sedition. In this case: the weird rantings on the Hutaree website — not seditious. The group’s allegedly operational plans to assassinate a police officer, ambush the resulting funeral, and thus bring on a national militia uprising — absolutely seditious, if the charges stick.
This bright-line distinction, which has been part of American sedition law for the past 50 years, parallels closely the line drawn by terrorism analysts in sussing out which groups are benign and which ones are headed for trouble. As I’ve noted before, one of the cardinal signs these experts watch and listen for is a fundamental shift in rhetoric. In the early stages of dissent, they establish the lines of conflict by obsessively focusing on their enemies and loudly denouncing their essential evilness. You hear this kind of talk in politics all the time these days. It’s often ugly, but not inherently dangerous.
But in the latter stage, the talk turns overtly eliminationist, and the group starts expressing its clear desire and intention to eradicate specific enemies. When they shift to that second stage, it’s a sign that they have mentally committed themselves to violent action, and are more likely to be actively acquiring arms, selecting targets, and getting ready to act in the near future. When a group enters this planning stage in an attack on government offices or officials, they’ve officially crossed the line into sedition.
Sedition on The Right
Openly advocating acts of sedition has become the conservatives’ main political stock in trade over the past year. (The SPLC offers a strong summary here.) You hear it everywhere from Rush to Glenn to Michelle Malkin to Michelle Bachman. Everybody on the right is now roundly convinced that the fairly-elected President of the United States isn’t even a citizen. He’s a Muslim, and thus in treasonous league with terrorists. The main goal of his administration is to turn the country over to the One World Government. He’s a socialist. He’s a fascist. All of these are direct attacks on Obama’s fundamental legitimacy and authority to lead the country — and thus a deliberate incitement to overthrow his government.
These narratives are coupled with a rising us-versus-them blaming of progressives for all the problems of the country. These days, the screeds typically sound like free-market fundamentalists freebasing Hitler: they’re clouded over with the typical eliminationist vitriol that reduces liberals to subhuman vermin that must be violently exterminated from the body politic in order to restore the virtue of the country. (For those who enjoy that sort of thing, there are even occasional hints of anti-Semitism in the mix.) This is dangerous stuff. And in the context of the conservatives’ longstanding effort to delegitimize the government, it’s also an open invitation to sedition.
This seditious intent is expressed even more directly in the increasingly overt firearms displays at right-wing events. The media were all aghast when a small handful of people showed up packing heat at last summer’s Tea Party disruptions. Now, we’ve advanced the point where not one, but two, 100% gun-toting marches on Washington, DC are planned for this coming April 19. Their organizers are hoping the marches will draw tens of thousands of armed protestors. Get used to seeing guns in the streets wherever the law allows — because the conservatives have told their base explicitly that they need to be “exercising their rights” on this front to the fullest extent.
These escalating armed demonstrations are a clear signal that the right wing is done talking — and, worse, has already decided that democracy is futile, and taking up arms is the only appropriate response. They’re carrying weapons to scare us weak-kneed girly libs into submission, and to show us they mean business. Growing up in gun country, I was taught at my daddy’s knee that when someone says they’re going to shoot you, it’s always a good idea to take them at their word and handle yourself accordingly. Right now, I think that’s good advice for anybody in America who considers themselves a member of the reality-based community.
But it’s not just armed individuals. They’re also forming more and more armed groups, which are gearing up for a fight. For the past five years, armed Minutemen have been usurping the job of the US Border Patrol. And as of this year, according to the SPLC, over 500 armed militias are forming, many of which present themselves as alternative law-enforcement posses that are adjunct to the ones staffed by the county sheriffs.
What these folks are telling us is that they no longer recognize the government’s sole franchise on the use of force; and they’re actively organizing to seize at least some of that power for themselves.
Most alarming of all: these right-wing warriors have also advanced to actual target acquisition. This should worry us, because law enforcement and terrorism experts know that when groups like this get to where they’re settling on specific targets, they’re the final stages of gearing up for violent confrontation.
When Bernard Goldberg wrote a book listing the “100 people who are destroying America” — and includes elected officials — he was writing a target list. (And at least one guy took him up on it, in his own deranged way.)
When the “spiritual warriors” of the Transformations movement proudly announce that they’ve mapped every town in America — literally creating target maps of “demonic activity” that pinpoint government offices, non-Evangelical houses of worship, clinics, theaters, Indian mounds and sites; or even just households with Muslims, neo-pagans, Goth-baby teenagers, or Obama stickers on their cars — they’re putting us on notice that they’ve identified the specific people and places that need to be “cleansed” in order to purify their communities. According to researchers Rachel Tabachnik and Bruce Wilson, these “transformation” attempts have already become government-level issues in New Jersey, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii.
At present, they claim that they’re only mapping their neighborhoods so they can pray over us all; and their attempts to take over local government are being done by purely democratic means. But, as has often happened before (yes, the Nazis started out just this way), the day may come when they’ll decide that mere prayer and organizing is not enough. Like any street gang, they’ve taken proprietary responsibility for a piece of turf; and they believe God is holding them accountable for everything that happens there. The resulting performance pressure is a perfect setup to justify more aggressive cleansing tactics if they can’t convert the town by peaceful means.
And some of these groups have already effectively crossed the line, in spirit if not in prosecutable fact. When the Christian dominionists train up “Joel’s Army” by sending their sons to the US armed services so they can get the combat experience they’ll need to set up a worldwide theocracy, that’s evidence of an active plan to effect an armed government takeover. When senior US military officers put their commitment to Jesus ahead of their commitment to uphold the Constitution and regard the military as God’s force in the world, we should be very afraid.
For years now, we’ve dismissed all of this as crazy talk, the rantings of a loony fringe that will never get enough traction to become a material threat to our democracy. But we’re well past the point where it’s no longer quaint and funny, or an embarrassing breach of democratic etiquette that polite people should just ignore.
It’s time to confront the sobering fact that the entire right wing — including the GOP establishment, which encourages, endorses, and echoes these sentiments almost every time its officials appear in public these days — is now issuing nearly constant invitations to criminal sedition. They’re creating a climate and using language that emboldens the handful of sociopaths in our midst who are always spoiling for a fight. They’ve given their new corps of flying monkeys permission to brandish their guns in public, empowered their militias, promised them glory, and are now telling them explicitly which targets to hit.
We’d be idiots not to regard this as an overt threat. Especially when they keep telling us, very explicitly, that they mean it to be.
We need to start talking about this for what it is, and calling it out whenever it happens. Leonard Zeskind points out that the feds have never been able to make a sedition charge stick against a right-wing group (if the Hutaree are convicted, it’ll be a first); but the first step in stopping sedition is making sure everybody knows exactly what it is when they see it. And that means calling out the S-word every time we see the conservatives defiantly stretching their hands and feet out over that line to score a few cheap political points.
The challenge I once threw down on the conservatives
still stands. Do they want a civil war? Are they out to overthrow the US government?
If this is just political grandstanding to energize the base, they’re playing with fire, and they need to bring this incendiary campaign to a screeching halt. Right now. This Mickey Mouse pussyfooting around, play-acting at sedition is criminally dangerous chickenshit politics that puts the short-term needs of the Republican party ahead of the long-term viability of the American democracy they’ve sworn to uphold. In case the party leaders haven’t noticed, their base has taken them as seriously as a heart attack — and they’re genuinely making ready for armed revolt.
On the other hand, if seditious overthrow is what they intend, let them stand up, follow through, and face the charges. They’re either Americans, committed to working in good faith within the democratic process to create our common future; or else they’re seditionists in intention or fact — and thus enemies of the state, plain and simple.
For the good of the country, we cannot continue to let them have it both ways. They need to choose whose side they’re on: America’s, or their own.