lonesomedove_largeby William Norman Grigg

Those who are mystified by the political concept called “interposition” can find a very compelling tutorial in a vignette from Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove.

Led by former Texas Rangers Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call, the men of the Hat Creek Cattle Company left their village of Lonesome Dove, Texas to drive a herd of cattle to Montana. During a brief stop to replenish supplies and give their horses a rest, the cowboys encounter a small party of soldiers. Their commander, one Captain Weaver, approaches a Hat Creek Co. employee named Dish Boggett and explains that he seeks to “requisition” Boggett’s horse, along with any others the soldiers find suitable.

After Boggett replies that his horse isn’t for sale, Weaver tries to intimidate the man and his friends by saying that defying the U.S. Army is “treason” and that they could be hung. Once again, Weaver demands the animal, and once again Boggett refuses to sell it.

At this point, Weaver lets Dixon, his Army Scout, off the leash. The malodorous wretch beats Boggett to the ground and moves to steal his horse. This prompts young Newt – a teenager who more than carried his weight in the company – to intervene, grabbing the reins of Boggett’s horse and reminding the scout that the animal, an item of private property, was not for sale and not the government’s to take by force.

Newt’s act is a form of peaceful interposition in defense of his friend’s property rights. His reward is to be assaulted by the infuriated scout, who repeatedly lashes the young man with a quirt. From across the plaza, Woodrow Call – who had been shopping at a dry goods store – spies the assault on Newt, his only son (a fact not known to the young man).

After quickly saddling up and dashing on horseback the length of the town, Newt’s infuriated father knocks Dixon from his horse. Woodrow dismounts, kicks Dixon in the teeth – and then he gets rude.

A blacksmith’s shop nearby yields a branding iron that Woodrow wields as a club. His anger not abated, Woodrow then grabs the scout by collar and belt and hurls him, face-first, into an anvil. A pair of tongs then finds its way into Woodrow’s hands. He is approaching the battered and bloodied bully with lethal intent when he is lassoed by his best friend, Augustus, who drags Woodrow away to let his fury dissipate.

“I hate rude behavior in a man,” Woodrow politely explains to a group of stunned settlers who had witnessed the incident. “I won’t tolerate it.”

In addition to being the most beautiful scene in American literature, this episode illustrates several applications of the principle of interposition – the lawful, necessary intervention by one person in defense of the rights of another.

Newt interposed to protect his friend’s horse; Woodrow intervened with righteous violence to protect Newt from the Army scout’s criminal assault.

It could also be said that Augustus interposed on behalf of the scout by preventing his friend Woodrow from exceeding his moral authority: Yes, Dixon deserved a stout beating, but killing him outright would have been disproportionate.

By threatening the use of lethal violence against those who refused to surrender their property, the fictional Captain Weaver made explicit the implicit threat made every day by his analogues in real life. In terms of both morality and the law, Boggett’s refusal to sell or surrender his horse ended the matter. The violence that ensued was an entirely credible dramatization of what happens when agents of the state’s killing apparatus refuse to take “no” as the final answer to a demand for the legal property of a law-abiding man.

By using the term “law” we are not referring to the positivist enactments through which governments plunder the productive on behalf of the parasitical, and inflict criminal violence on anyone who objects; rather, we are referring to what Frédéric Bastiat described as “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”

While providing for that common defense is supposedly the purpose of government, it is government that most consistently threatens individual rights and property. Interposition could be considered a form of “citizen’s arrest” – that is, an action taken to arrest criminal aggression by government. The most basic form of interposition is defensive physical action, whether through peaceful non-cooperation or lawful exercise of defensive violence.

In political terms, interposition is an organized effort to accomplish the same end by way of deputized representatives. In the U.S. constitutional system, interposition can take the form of nullification of unconstitutional federal acts by a state government, or of the application of an unjust “law” by a jury (as in “jury nullification”).

Critics of the concept treat it as either an invention of fringe-dwelling conspiracists or the disreputable refuge of race-fixated segregationists. Typical of such people is self-styled “expert” on extremism David Neiwert (the author of a deeply silly and incurably dishonest book on “hate politics”), who – exhibiting his proprietary blend of ignorance and mendacity – refers to interposition and nullification as concepts supposedly created by the “militia movement” in the 1990s.

The truth, which is readily available to anyone with a library card (or access to Google) and a mind not shackled by statist prejudices, is that those concepts were first propounded centuries ago in England, and that they are part of the warp and weave of the U.S. constitutional system. The Magna Carta is the product of interposition. The pseudonymously published 17th Century Puritan tract Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (elements of which clearly anticipate the Declaration of Independence), describes interposition by legislative bodies as a critical means of restraining a lawless king’s corrupt ambitions.

The most systematic and compelling exposition of interposition and nullification was provided by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – neither of whom was among the living during the much-hyped “militia” scare of the mid-1990s – in their 1798 Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were enacted by the legislatures of those states in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The December 1798 Virginia Resolution condemned the Alien and Sedition Acts as an exercise of a power “no where delegated to the federal government” and subversive of “the general principles of free government,” including “the Liberty of Conscience and of the Press.” In the face of such usurpation, the states that created the federal government as their agent “have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil [represented by those Acts], and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.”>

Kentucky’s Resolution, which had been passed earlier, addressed the same concerns described in Virginia’s measure and focused particularly on the Alien Act, which provided for the deportation of non-citizens arbitrarily deemed to be threats to the “peace and safety of the United States.” The Kentucky measure declared that “alien friends are under the jurisdiction and protection of the laws of the State wherein they are [and] that no power over them has been delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to the individual States, distinct from the power over citizens.”

In 1814, shortly before the end of a disastrous war with Great Britain,delegates from New England States met in Hartford, Connecticut. Using the same constitutional reasoning Madison himself had invoked in 1798, the Hartford delegates discussed the possibility of seceding from the Union as a way of interposing on behalf of constituents whose livelihoods and liberties were imperiled by “Mr. Madison’s war.”

Among the possible actions contemplated by the delegates was enactment of state measures nullifying federal laws “which shall contain [any] provision subjecting the militia or other citizens to forcible drafts, conscriptions, or impressments….”

From this we see that the concepts of nullification and interposition were not created by southern politicians seeking to preserve Jim Crow, as we’re told by Neiwert and other self-ordained pontiffs of “progressivism.” In fact, they were most forcefully articulated in opposition to war and conscription, and in defense of civil liberties and the rights of unpopular minorities.

Either out of deliberate deceit, incurable ignorance, or some alloy of the same, Neiwert acts as if this history is of no relevance to the current controversy over nullification.

In fact, when former federal judge Andrew Napolitano observed that state legislatures have the authority to enact health freedom measures intended to nullify Obama’s proposed “health care” legislation, Neiwert’s reflexive response was to traduce the judge as a proto-Klansman, rather than to engage his argument in the fashion of a practicing adult. (In a moderated debate with Judge Napolitano, Neiwert would be whipped more thoroughly than a pint of heavy cream in a French pastry shop.)

If so much as a particle of honesty resided within Neiwert he would acknowledge that many of George W. Bush’s left-leaning critics, to their credit, re-discovered the merits of the “states’ rights” perspective during his reign. Some of them eagerly practiced nullification and interposition à la carte, >particularly with respect to the so-called USA PATRIOT act.

In early 2002, the municipal government of Ann Arbor claimed the honor of being the first to enact a resolution urging outright nullification of key sections of that odious act; by 2005, hundreds of other municipal, county, and state governments had passed similar resolutions of their own.

Somehow those entirely commendable acts of nullification and interposition were spared the indignant condemnation of Neiwert and other anti-“hate” activists, who now insist that invocation of those principles is a rhetorical“dog whistle” – a type of political code used by cunning racists seeking a PR-friendly way to rile up their vast and stealthy constituency.

Likewise, during the late, unlamented Bush era, some 30 major U.S. cities enacted “sanctuary city” measures forbidding local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Unlike opposition to the PATRIOT (sic) act during the Bush era, and to much of the Obama administration’s agenda today, the “Sanctuary City” movement was obviously and undeniably rooted in racial politics, as practiced by foundation-funded (and often federally supported) ethnic lobbies such as MALDEF and La Raza. Yet those racially tinged acts of nullification and interposition – a form of city-by-city secession from a national immigration policy – escaped censure by Neiwert and other self-appointed titans of tolerance.

The desire for power frequently begets petty hypocrisy, which is among the world’s most tragically abundant resources. Just as many of yesterday’s leftist dissidents now treat political nonconformity as a species of treason, many of those who denounce the current president as a domestic enemy would have considered such rhetoric a Gitmo-worthy offense just a few years ago.

Many of yesterday’s most strident “peace” activists are either deferentially silent, or dutifully supportive, as their president slays thousands of innocent foreigners via remote control. Likewise, many (by no means all) of those who condemn Obama’s orgy of federal spending are recent converts to the church of public austerity, having endured eight years under the reign of the equally profligate Bush without audible complaint.

The problem here, of course, is that both sides in this manufactured conflict are manipulated by power-obsessed people into defining the enemy in “horizontal” rather than “vertical” terms; that is, the real threat consists of “those people” over there, rather than those who presume to exercise power over all of us. Rather than seeking an end to the Leviathan State, each side seeks to control its coercive appendages while protecting its own interests in the cynical and entirely misplaced confidence that the powers they surrender to the state today won’t be pitilessly deployed against them tomorrow.

There are at least a few campaigns that offer some modest cause for optimism:>

That’s interposition in its most elemental form. In what sense is this difficult to understand?

  • South Carolina state representative Mike Pitts, who obviously has absorbed some of the lessons taught by the Ron Paul “End the Fed” movement, has proposed legislation to forbid the use of the Regime’s fraudulent script (Federal Reserve Notes, commonly called “dollars”) as legal tender in the Palmetto State. Although it is entirely symbolic at present, that measure may acquire substance as the collapse of the Regime’s fiat currency accelerates.
  • The Second Vermont Republic has not confined itself to symbolic repudiation of the Regime’s currency. That movement, which promotes peaceful withdrawal from Washington’s empire, has minted a silver token with a face value of $25. Last month, the movement announced that it would field nine candidates for state-wide office, including gubernatorial candidate Dennis Steele.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Steele reduces his political program to the essentials: The bastards who are running things are not getting his sons.

“I see my kids going off to fight in wars for empire 10, 15, 20 years from now,” Steele told Time magazine. Think of Captain Woodrow Call racing to rescue his son Newt, and you’ve got a good picture of Steele’s motivations.

That’s interposition in its most elemental form. In what sense is this difficult to understand?

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

Copyright © 2010 William Norman Grigg

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