EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay was originally written in August 2015.
The fact that my online date looked like a cross between Italian mafia and a 1970s porn star caught me off guard. His profile photo was pretty nondescript. I knew he had long hair, but in person he had a whole look going when his tall, lanky frame walked into the coffee shop. His hair was dark, wavy, slightly greasy and hung below his shoulders. His face looked older than his claim of 51 years, graced by a dark mustache and goatee. He wore a crimson shirt with pointed collars; the top three buttons were undone. Over the shirt, he donned a dark green, almost black, jacket that looked like a find from a vintage thrift shop. Paired with black dress slacks, it made a striking impact. I began to wonder whether I was on a date or about to be sold a used Caddy. I prepared myself for an entertaining cup of coffee.
Our conversation almost immediately revealed that this man thinks he lives “outside the system.” He thinks there is a difference between the United States and America. He thinks the United States is a “club” and that “America” is the physical land. He doesn’t want to belong to the “club” that is the United States, but he wants to live in America.
He made it sound like the Constitution doesn’t apply to him because he’s an American national (aka “sovereign citizen”). The Southern Poverty Law Center has a lot to say about the sovereign citizen movement, and it all sounds pretty incredible.
He truly made it sound like he was above the law, like a foreign diplomat, even though he was born in this country. If he was to be confronted by police and they ran his name, he claims they would be given a message of “Don’t arrest. Don’t detain.” He also claims not to have a social security number. (Therefore, as I pointed out to him, he could not have a valid driver’s license. And yet he drives.)
Listen, I’m pretty smart. I understand that money, ownership and credit are all shared illusions that we’ve chosen, as members of first world countries, to believe in. But my coffee date thinks because all his assets are in an irrevocable trust (a trust that pays taxes), that he is not himself paying taxes and does not own anything. But those are just words. That’s an illusion he’s created for himself. If those are his assets and taxes are paid on them, then he pays taxes. I tried to point this out to him, but he had a script and he continually repeated the words of the script back to me. He has carefully trained himself to believe a certain definition of certain words, and it was fascinating to watch his mind work in a way that reinforces those beliefs.
As to why he’s doing all of this, he explained that he’s living conscientiously. He doesn’t believe in the war machine and doesn’t want his tax money going toward things to which he objects. (Although, as we’ve established, he still does pay taxes indirectly through the trust.) I said, “Why don’t you just move to another country if you don’t like the ethical issues of the tax system here?” He sounded taken aback. His family is here, and he loves it here. He just wants to live in America and not belong to the United States club. I said, “But you said America is the clubhouse. Usually when you don’t belong to a club, you don’t get to hang out at the clubhouse.”
I couldn’t tell whether he was offended or angry by my barrage of logical reasoning, but he again repeated his script. What I decided was that he loves America because of the opportunities to thwart the system here.
And here’s where it gets even more interesting. He lives in a 9,000 square foot mansion on the beach. The mansion is in foreclosure, but he has a rental contract under which he pays $200 per month to the owner, who abandoned the property. When the owner left, she stripped the house of every accoutrement imaginable. My coffee date replaced those items (toilets, cabinets, light fixtures, etc) from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. I couldn’t help but picture how comical it must look for this stately manor to be outfitted with second-hand cabinetry and fixtures throughout.
My coffee date was well versed on all the laws that can help him take advantage of things. He was trying to prolong the foreclosure on this mansion so he could live there longer, and he knows what to tell the bankers when they show up at the door. He’s really working the system, and I appreciate that he’s only doing what the 1% do on a regular basis with their cadre of attorneys to hide their money and maximize profit. Why shouldn’t “ordinary” citizens get those benefits as well? Why shouldn’t I become a sovereign citizen?
The problem is that when enough people are exploiting all the loopholes in the system, those who cannot do that or don’t know how are the ones being left behind. Maybe instead of everyone taking advantage, we could all work in harmony to demand and support a system of government that not only can’t be exploited but that doesn’t need to be.
As you can imagine, this was one incredibly thought-provoking cup of coffee.
And no, there was no second date.