Commentary – The enduring urge to separate

Joe McWilliams

An email from an odd and unexpected source showed up the other day. It was from somebody calling him or herself ‘Neo’, asking me if I wanted to be ‘part of the herd’ or join up with the ‘American Free Sovereigns’ something or other. Just click here.

The ‘Neo’ name is probably a nod to the Keanu Reeves role in ‘The Matrix’ movies, where he is an underdog hero fighting against an oppressive, all-powerful state. So some of these sovereignty folks like to style themselves.

And there is something attractive about the notion of being ‘free’ from state control. For most of us, government is a necessary evil – an annoyance that is generally accepted to be better than any alternative. One of the alternatives being some sort of anarchy where it’s every lunatic for himself, and the guy with the most guns wins.

Okay, that’s an extreme example.

There are many possibilities and degrees of exerting one’s independence from ‘the system,’ and probably a lot of it is healthy enough, or at least harmless. It may take the form of setting yourself up in the woods in a cabin and reducing reliance on modern ‘things.’ Getting off the grid altogether might be possible, but sooner or later somebody from the government is going to want to know who you are, where you are and whether you owe any taxes.

One of the prime assertions of many sovereigntists is that government taxes are illegitimate, and refusing to pay them is one’s sovereign right; even responsibility. So if you don’t ‘render unto Caesar’ that which is Caesar’s, you can expect a visit from a government agent. And if you are prepared to repel him with guns, it isn’t going to end well.

There are other notions of separation from society. Utopian religious communities, for example.

As it happens, I was acquainted with one of these in the B.C. Peace Country where I grew up. A group that called itself the ‘Overcomers’ had purchased land in various semi-remote locations in those parts in the 1970s and people from eastern Canada and the U.S. had gradually settled on them. These were not farmers; they were all from a seemingly Christian sect that believed the end of the world as we knew it was imminent. Things were going to collapse, and only those who were utterly independent of the system would survive. They planned to be among that number, and as such, had schemes for farming without relying on equipment or fuel or anything else that had to be bought in town.

It sounded interesting and had a certain appeal to my teen-aged imagination. But by the time I became acquainted with the group, harsh reality had already begun to set in. The world hadn’t ended, and they found a bit of ready cash really came in handy. So they sent out some of their young men to work in a tree-planting operation. That’s where I met them, and how some of us ‘outsiders’ came to be invited to their community for a tour.

Not long after, I heard some of them had moved to town and started up a business. More of them started doing that, and going out to work. Forty years later, the world hasn’t ended, and as far as I know, those survivalist communes have withered away altogether.

That’s just one example. The names and tactics change, but the urge to separate and ‘purify’ never seems to go away. It’s exactly what the Puritans of the 17th Century were up to when they went off to set up shop in the New World.

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