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A Layman’s Guide to Spotting Sedition, Treason, and Lunacy in General

The words people speak have consequences—but maybe not what you think.

A supporter of President Donald Trump howls inside the Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol during a deadly invasion and takeover on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A supporter of President Donald Trump howls inside the Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol during a deadly invasion and takeover on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Now that America and the world have seen what the phrase "concerned citizens" means in the context of political action, it may be necessary to learn how to decode other politically charged phrases in these fraught and fateful times. You have probably heard the following statements on more than one occasion:

"I'm a patriot!" Or "I bleed red, white and blue!" Any time someone insists on his patriotism as if he had a copyright on the concept, here's a little test you can try: pour two or three beers into them, and don't be surprised if, rather than singing The Star-Spangled Banner, they start crooning The Horst Wessel Song. Any more pilsner and they'll be complaining that the problem with Hitler was that he "didn't finish the job."

When a person proclaims his undying reverence for the Constitution in a manner that mimics fetishistic idolatry, the odds are good that he never actually read the document and has gotten his textual interpretation from Glenn Beck.

"I'm a constitutional conservative." Or "I'm a strict constructionist." When a person proclaims his undying reverence for the Constitution in a manner that mimics fetishistic idolatry, the odds are good that he never actually read the document and has gotten his textual interpretation from Glenn Beck. This means that in his mind, the Constitution resembles a permission slip for anarchy when it applies to "good" people like himself, and the Nuremberg laws when it applies to the "bad" people he hates.

One might think this mental syndrome is exclusively a habit among those who reside in trailers, but a surprising number of people who wear expensive suits fall prey to it, too. The entire membership of The Federalist Society, our ex-attorney general, and the esteemed legal scholar Alan ("Your Honor, I swear she was 18!") Dershowitz are just a few examples.

"Law and order!" Are you sure that's what you want? It certainly isn't what 45 percent of Republicans want: when polled about the seditious insurrection that destroyed lives and property at our seat of government, they approved of it.

"I'm just asking questions!" No, this is not an internet inside joke; people really say this. I actually saw this phrase in an email that prefaced the "question" of whether sincere patriots should complete the action the British performed in 1814 and burn down Washington, D.C. The phrase frequently accompanies mock-serious inquiries as to whether Auschwitz was actually just a transit camp, Obama was born in Kenya, or the Capitol insurrectionists were actually antifa infiltrators trying to discredit "concerned citizens."

The ingenious utility of this phrase is that it cloaks in deniability the asker's adherence to a lunatic claim, while simultaneously trying to shift the burden of proof onto the listener to prove a negative. How many people know the dimensions of the crematoria at Auschwitz offhand? Have you personally seen the original of Obama's birth certificate? Have you examined the photos of every single rioter at the Capitol and compared them with a data base?

"I did my own research." Research for these amateur sleuths means poring through Newsmax, YouTube videos, and the darkest recesses of 8chan for the most psychotic content on offer. These sources empirically prove, at least in the mind of the "researcher," that everything we know about reality is a monstrous lie. Thanks to these truthtellers, we're supposed to believe that America is actually run by a huge pedophile ring (while genuine pedophiles like Dennis Hastert and credibly accused ones like the aforementioned crazy lawyer go unremarked), that the moon landings were faked but alien abductions are real, that the Holocaust we all learned about is a fraud but the "real" holocaust was American GIs killing German POWs in death camps (a fabrication by a pseudo-historian).

"Freedom of Speech!" Either the person slinging this phrase got kicked off Twitter, or one of the political witch doctors that he worships was similarly banned. Despite their self-described deep understanding of the Constitution, they somehow think the First Amendment obliges private individuals owning digital platforms to broadcast an incitement to murder.

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This is akin to those who believe that retail establishments have no right to refuse admittance to people who do not wear masks amid the most lethal pandemic in a century. It's free expression, you see. What they really are saying is that they can be the most vile, obnoxious pests imaginable, and other citizens are obliged to facilitate them and utter no word of reproach.

"We must preserve our heritage." This is often uttered by people who would have no problem with strip-mining Yosemite or putting a Walmart on an Indian burial site. There's only one kind of heritage they're interested in, and that's making sure we preserve what Trump called those "beautiful monuments"—monuments to seditious insurrectionists and traitors. The events of the last week have definitely driven home what these people really want. They would erect statues to John Wilkes Booth, Quantrill's Raiders, and the commandant of Andersonville if they got their way.

"I don't have a racist bone in my body!" Quite possibly true, but have you had a CT scan of your amygdala, the "lizard brain" that gives rise to your worst impulses? A popular substitute for this incantation is the phrase, "I'm not a racist, but . . ." This is most often a preamble to some rant that could have been torn from the pages of The Turner Diaries.

"He's not a racist; he hates everybody!" Wow, what an endorsement of someone's character! The charming soul in question hates the entire human race with equal venom; let's all hear it for non-discriminatory misanthropy! Peel the onion, though, and you'll find that the guy might hate some groups just a little more than others, just maybe. The fact that it's the best rebuttal to a charge of racism that anyone could come up with is telling.

"Feminists. Liberals. Antifa. Washington. Democrats. Christians. Faith. Conservatives. Activists. Woke." These words, and many others, are definitive proof that Platonism is a huge philosophical mistake. Contrary to Plato, there is no such thing as concepts, floating in the ether, changeless and immortal. They're just labels, like the prices at Amazon that change according to some mysterious algorithm. When these words are spoken by the people who use the phrases I defined above, they have no ascertainable meaning whatever, other than as voodoo-like invocations to prevent thinking.

"Woke" is a perfect example. Regardless of its origin, these days one practically never hears it in its original context in popular media. Instead, it overwhelmingly has become a meme of the Right, spoken with air quotes to trigger kneejerk responses in their base while simultaneously insinuating black speech patterns to rub it in. It is also often used by shallow pseudo-intellectuals like Bill Maher to display their commitment to the tired cliché that "both sides are equally to blame; doesn't that make me clever?"

I am sure the reader can think of many more words and phrases that are intended to shut down thought and bludgeon the listener into agreeing with whatever the ideologue is saying. Sometimes, though, they become so blatantly clichéd that their use has virtually ended.

Remember the rote benediction, "thoughts and prayers?" After dozens of bloody atrocities, its automaton-like use by people who wouldn't lift a finger to stop the next massacre caused such sarcastic ridicule that its use has practically ceased.

So it is possible, by flagging and relentlessly ridiculing the perpetrators, to arrest and reverse this decay of American political discourse into Orwellian doublespeak. It may be an overly optimistic hope, but perhaps then we can get a majority of American adults to talk like adults.

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted(2013).

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