SARA Smile

« February 2010 »

NOTE: This column was based on a story, originally from Raw Story, that ended up being wrong in at least one key detail - the law isn't new, but stems from the 50's. Full correction and info can be found here.


As we all know, Tennessee is the dumbest state in the Union. Until recently, I'd assumed Oklahoma was second, but I may have to give that honor to South Carolina. From the Mark Sanford mess to their lieutenant governor's recent explanation that when he said poor people were like stray animals, what he really meant is that they'd keep breeding as long as you kept feeding them, South Carolina is an up and comer in the field of deeply dysfunctional states.

And the Subversive Activities Registration Act is going to go a long way toward cementing that status. Equal parts ridiculous and creepy, the SARA requires... well, let's just let SARA speak for herself, shall we? ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"Every subversive organization and organization subject to foreign control shall register with the Secretary of State on forms prescribed by him within thirty days after coming into existence in this State... Every member of a subversive organization, or an organization subject to foreign control, every foreign agent and every person who advocates, teaches, advises or practices the duty, necessity or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States, of this State or of any political subdivision thereof by force or violence or other unlawful means, who resides, transacts any business or attempts to influence political action in this State, shall register with the Secretary of State on the forms and at the times prescribed by him."

Oh. OK. Let's start with the ridiculous. Everyone who wants to overthrow the government needs to file a form with the South Carolina secretary of state, formalizing their intent. Also, any spies need to stop by as well. Also, if you have more meager plans to subvert or overthrow a South Carolina county, or perhaps a hamlet, you'd better file your paperwork on time. I mean, why wouldn't you? The paperwork is simple, just a single page. And all it asks you to do is answer a simple question:

"Do you or your organization directly or indirectly advocate, advise, teach or practice the duty or necessity of controlling, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States, the state of South Carolina or any political division thereof? If yes, please outline the fundamental beliefs. If applicable, attach a copy of the bylaws or minutes of meetings from the last year."

And you have to list your members. And if you have more than six members, you have to attach a separate sheet of paper. This is so ludicrous and auto-mocking, right up front, that I have a hard time believing that even the South Carolina legislature expects subversive groups to pay the $5 filing fee and submit their fundamental beliefs, their bylaws, and their membership lists. Which means they've got another agenda. Which is where it gets creepy.

"Any organization or person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by a fine of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or by both fine and imprisonment."

In other words, it's Al Capone meets Big Brother. If you can't get them for the crime, get them for not paying their taxes. Or, in this case, not filling out the proper paperwork. Twenty five grand and up to ten years for not registering as a subversive organization? That is some seriously creepy shit, and I don't care how many clauses you put in saying that you don't mean to violate the First Amendment, that doesn't make it so. Sure, if you play the right Mad Libs with the terminology, you can come up with some pretty bad-sounding shit. Someone who practices the necessity of overthrowing the government is probably a dangerous person who needs to be dealt with. Someone, however, who advises the propriety of conducting the government? Guess this means neither of South Carolina's senators can filibuster unless they pay their five bucks.

I'd love to see this law bite its enacters on the ass. I mean, who's been advocating secession and armed revolution for the past year? The teabaggers, the birthers, the gun-toting right-wing paranoids. Unfortunately, it sounds like they've been granted a deliberate exception:

The terms of this chapter do not apply to any labor union or religious, fraternal or patriotic organization, society or association, or their members, whose objectives and aims do not contemplate the overthrow of the government of the United States, of this State or of any political subdivision thereof by force or violence or other unlawful means.

You know what I see there? I see the term "patriotic organization" explicitly defined as a group who doesn't do any of the things that South Carolina considers "subversive". It's the same circular logic we saw when Mark Sanford defined not resigning as the brave and ethical choice, so that he could then be brave and ethical AND do what he wanted, which was stay in the Governor's Mansion, where his loyal staff would ensure that his clothes didn't end up on the lawn. Who defines a "patriotic organization"? I'm guessing the people who name their groups things like "Tea Party Patriots".

I just hope the ACLU is standing by to challenge the first attempt to enforce this bullshit, because we may be laughing now, but the first poor schlub facing ten years in the slammer for "advising" something someone doesn't like probably won't think it's funny.