Legal Aesthetics Among American Sovereign Citizens

By Joseph Moore

Emergent Conversation 17

This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Aesthetics and Politics of Far Right Movements

While on trial for her role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol, Pauline Bauer advanced some unorthodox legal arguments in her defense. In a motion filed pro se (“on one’s own behalf”) to dismiss her charges, Ms. Bauer identifies herself as “Pauline from the House of Bauer… a Free living [sic] Soul” (Bauer 2021). She goes on to cite a dizzying array of sources—American court cases, the Bible, Latin legal maxims, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which she asserts evince the illegitimacy of the current American government and support her own legal inviolability as a “Free living Soul.” The judge in her case, U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, dismissed Bauer’s arguments and ordered her to return to jail for pretrial detention (Elfer 2021).

As some media coverage of the case has pointed out, these sorts of legal arguments, which reject the authority of the state and affirm that individuals should be unencumbered by its law, are characteristic of those adhering to the sovereign citizen movement. Many of the stories written about Bauer have focused on the “bizarre” style of sovereign legal argumentation presented in her filings and in-court testimony (Snodgrass 2021; Weill 2021). However, what this media coverage has failed to grasp are the ways in which sovereign citizens’ styles of legal argumentation are more than strange or defective versions of orthodox legal forms; rather, sovereign citizens’ rejection of orthodox legal styles is key to their politics, which aims to transform the relationship between citizens, the state, and the law through aesthetic and ritual practices that directly challenge existing rituals and aesthetics of the state.

Sovereign citizens (henceforth “sovereigns”) are a group of predominantly right-wing American conspiracy theorists with unorthodox legal beliefs that reject the legitimacy of the American government. While the lack of any clear organizational structure makes it difficult to study the roots of the movement, sociologist Edwin Hodge (2019) links the emergence of the sovereign citizen movement to far-right Christian militia movements like the Posse Comitatus and American Midwestern movements of tax protestors that sprung up in the 1970s and 1980s. With respect to the current scale of the sovereign citizen movement, one of the leading experts on right-wing extremism in the U.S., J.J. MacNab (2010) estimates that membership numbers could have grown to as many as 300,000 people in the last decade.

While the sovereign citizen movement is largely based in the United States, analogous movements have surfaced in other countries. In the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia, some citizens claim they are not bound by the law as so-called “freemen on the land” (English 2020). In Germany, adherents to the far-right Reichsbürger movement reject the legitimacy of the contemporary German state, arguing that the former German Reich continues to exist as the only legally constituted German polity (Dick 2018). In Russia, members of the so-called “Union of Slavic Forces of Russia” similarly refuse to accept the legitimacy of the modern Russian state and instead declare themselves to be only beholden to the law of the former Soviet Union (Luxmoore 2019).

While sovereigns vary in their beliefs, adherents to the movement all strive to see themselves liberated from government control and tend to promote certain behaviors to achieve that end. For example, most sovereigns believe it is important to observe a distinction between their physical, “flesh and blood person” and their legal person, normally referred to as a “strawman” (Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d).

One writing practice which sovereigns believe maintains the distinction between a real person and a strawman is capitalization, e.g, John Doe is a real person whilst JOHN DOE (as the name might appear on a birth certificate) is a strawman. Sovereigns assert that the government is only able to force compliance with the law because it has tricked   into ignoring the distinction between their flesh and blood person and their strawman (Southern Poverty Law Center 2010). For instance, if John Doe receives a court order addressed to JOHN DOE, sovereigns believe that the flesh and blood John can ignore the court order addressed to his strawman. The exception to this rule is if John assents to a “contract” with the federal government (Kalinowski 2019, 159). Sovereigns therefore avoid statements or expressions they think would entail entering into a contract with the government. For instance, sovereigns sometimes substitute the phrase “I understand” with “I comprehend” when dealing with police, believing that saying the word “understand” acknowledges that one “stand[s] under the jurisdiction” of the police and thus grants them authority (Segall 2018).

Particularly in their dealings with the state, whose influence is always potentially nefarious, sovereigns pay meticulous attention to details that many would consider unimportant. For example, sovereigns often claim that courts with gold-fringed American flags lack jurisdiction, as the gold fringe supposedly indicates a maritime court (United States v. Greenstreet 1996; McCann v. Greenway 1997). Another common belief is that writing in black ink is for corporations, while “flesh and blood” people should compose legal documents in red ink (Williams 2016). In short, as a function of their rejection of state authority, sovereigns also reject many of the orthodox aesthetic and ritual practices that attend said authority—flags, capitalization, set phrases. This rejection of orthodox state rituals and aesthetics, moreover, is not merely “symbolic” or “representative” of more tangible forms of political action but is itself a central means by which sovereigns believe themselves to be enacting a politics of resistance to state authority.

Significantly, the kinds of stylistic touches that sovereigns imagine bear legal weight often come from culturally resonant sources, such as the American Founding Documents. For instance, sovereigns often leave the word “united” in “United States of America” uncapitalized, imitating the Declaration of Independence in which the adjective “united” was written in lowercase letters (Galofaro 2012; Kalinowski 2019, p. 23). Partially on this basis, one group of sovereigns in Wyoming attempted to declare their own so-called “Republic for the united States of America” (Morton 2011).

This transformation of aesthetic details into points of law reflects the way in which sovereigns experience law as ritual. Contemporary cognitive theories of ritual generally identify so-called causal opacity, the inability to perceive the causal mechanism which produces a given result, as a defining feature of ritual (Whitehouse and Lanman 2014; Kapitány and Nielsen 2019). Furthermore, research in this area demonstrates that the threat of social ostracism cues children to model “conventional” or “ritual” tasks “more faithfully” (Watson-Jones et al. 2014). These data indicate that interpreting an action as causally opaque is closely related to the social solidarity produced by ritual; when human beings want to affiliate with one another through mimicry, instrumental reason takes a backseat to the faithful imitation of (generally) causally opaque actions.

A reasonable corollary to this point, although to my knowledge one not yet examined in the experimental literature, is that a desire to disaffiliate could cue an opposite response. Actors wishing to disassociate from those they imitate might focus exclusively on the instrumental rationale underlying a behavior and disregard, avoid or disparage any conventional ritual elements of the imitated behavior.

The sovereigns’ desire to see clear instrumental (and often nefarious) meaning in ritual details, like a flag in a courtroom, is an example of this kind of disaffiliative interpretation of ritual. Sovereigns, as legal scholar Donald Netolitzky argues, experience law as ritual (Netolitzky 2018, 1076, 1085, 1086). However, for sovereigns, the law is a ritual system controlled by evil forces, with whom one is forced to deal, and thus mimic, but with whom one must not commingle—given that something as simple as writing one’s name in capital letters could ensnare oneself in a contract with the federal government (Kalinowski 2019, 159).

Sovereign insistence that details like capitalization, the color of ink and flags are legally consequential and not merely stylistic, reflects an underlying desire to disaffiliate from orthodox law through the rejection of its rituals and the creation of alternative ritual practices. In the extreme, this rejection of convention results in practices like attempts among sovereigns to use an unconventional “truth language” in their legal disputes that, while purporting to be a totally objective and “mathematical” means of communication, is often “virtually unparsable” in practice (Hodge 2019; Wynn Miller 2013; Anti-Defamation League 2016).

This escalation in the complexity of ritual action, accompanied by a strong desire to disaffiliate from the broader society, affirms what Don Handleman (2003) identifies as a common dynamic in ritual phenomena: the more internally complex the ritual the more it tends to assert its “autonomy from its sociocultural surround” (12). Therefore, it is no surprise that sovereigns, for whom autonomy from broader society is a core value, have tended towards highly intricate ritual practices like the “truth language” discussed above as a means of asserting their independence from the authority of orthodox law.

To summarize, sovereign ritual behavior is characterized on the one hand by a kind of guarded mimesis, which is to say, a suspicious and instrumental appropriation of elements of orthodox law, and on the other hand by a tendency towards increasing internal complexity as a means of asserting autonomy from the broader society. These ritual behaviors, however, depend upon an indistinction between the legal and the aesthetic. It is only possible to use the gold fringe on a courtroom flag as evidence against the authority of the court itself if one does not acknowledge conventional divisions between law and aesthetics. Similarly, inventions like “truth language” blur most typical distinctions between style and law.

Studying the aesthetics of far-right movements like the sovereign citizens provides a crucial window onto the ways in which they behave and make meaning in the world. It helps us understand, for instance, how some right-wing protestors at the United States Capitol found no apparent contradiction between waving American flags and storming the halls of Congress. For sovereigns, nationalistic sentiment and violent rejection of state authority are perfectly reconcilable because of the way in which their legal-aesthetic practices construe the relationship between aesthetics and authority; state aesthetics, far from being an inert representation of the power of government, have their own legal force, nefarious in the hands of the state but nevertheless open to contestation and useful reappropriation by those seeking to revindicate  what they believe to be their unceded sovereignty. The aesthetic, far from being a neutral ground upon which political action is symbolized or represented, becomes itself a key battlefield on which sovereigns struggle politically against the state.

Joseph Moore is a recent graduate from the University of Oxford, where he received his Master of Philosophy in Social Anthropology. His current research is focused on bringing a comparative anthropological perspective to academic thinking about the rule of law. 

Works Cited

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