On Monday, January 24, libertarian activist Pete Eyre was arrested at the courthouse in Keene, NH. His offense? Questioning a court officer’s order to remove his hat. Eyre refused to cooperate with the process of arrest — not moving a muscle to assist or impede his removal from the courtroom — and was dragged out of the building across icy ground to a police car. Eyre continued to refuse to participate in formal court procedures, and remained in prison. Adam Mueller was arrested as he coarsely expressed indignation at Eyre’s treatment on his way out of the courtroom.
Why such a big fuss over a hat? Because it’s not really about the hat.
The symbolic significance of headgear, identifying social rank and personal affiliations, goes back centuries. Doffing one’s hat is a recognized sign of respect. Silently wearing a hat then, could be a non-disruptive expression of disdain for the ritual being presented — or a simple declaration that a warm head is more important than the judge’s feelings. Maybe the court officer was offended by the words “Don’t Tread on Me” printed on Eyre’s hat.
Whatever the officer thought of Eyre’s hat, his order to remove it in a cold courtroom was a deliberate display of power. He wanted to send a message that the courtroom is his turf. The pettiest rules of decorum serve to designate privilege and rank. This is why a police officer wearing a hat in the courtroom shortly after Eyre’s arrest was not accosted. This is also why the judge sits in a high chair and wears a special costume — and why people in the courtroom are expected to stand up when His Majesty enters.
But why should people respect the court system or eagerly submit to its representatives? A court is little more than a money-seizing monopoly presided over by a politician in a fancy dress. Agents of any court deserve respect only when they respect individual liberty, something they seldom do unless it happens to be convenient for the power structure they are tasked to uphold.
The pettiest tyranny enables and emboldens the deadliest tyranny. Every day, individuals who are harming nobody are assaulted by heavily-armed agents of the state and hauled away to confinement centers of violent domination. For any violence that victims suffer along the way, the default is to blame them, not their badge-bearing assailants.
The court, an obscene theater of power relations that intentionally uses language incomprehensible to the average person, is an integral part of the system that supports war crimes and corporate looting. Government’s pretensions of rank and legitimacy support power relations that encourage some people to victimize others, and respecting court rituals supports the system’s pretensions.
I tend to observe formalities of dress and hat-wearing, but this doesn’t make me a better person than those who do not observe them. It just means that I take a different approach to social situations and use different standards to feel I’ve upheld my personal dignity. The way in which a person asserts himself in the presence of would-be authorities is an important personal decision that no individual should make for another.
In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote, “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Today, Americans are accosted by ruffians brandishing a variety of costumes. Honesty will do the world more good than all the decorum that covers decadence and tyranny.