Yesterday, Jeff Sessions sparked yet another debate in America about what words mean during his remarks to the National Sheriffs Association winter meeting in Washington.
“I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process. The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.”
First off, the way in which Jeff Sessions used the term “Anglo-American” is the correct usage of it. The term literally dates back a thousand years to the invention of common law—predating the American experiment which has proven itself to be a white nationalist one. President Barack Obama used the term all.the.time. Here’s Senator Obama in 2006:
“The world is watching what we do today in America. They will know what we do here today, and they will treat all of us accordingly in the future—our soldiers, our diplomats, our journalists, anybody who travels beyond these borders. I hope we remember this as we go forward. I sincerely hope we can protect what has been called the ‘great writ’—a writ that has been in place in the Anglo-American legal system for over 700 years.”
Here’s candidate Obama in 2008, speaking about habeas corpus:
“the foundation of Anglo-American law…If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ And say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.’”
And here’s President Obama in 2009 talking about closing Guantanamo Bay:
[A process] “that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo-American legal system, but doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”
If the way that Jeff Sessions used Anglo-American is white supremacist, then the way Barack Obama used it is white supremacist too. There’s no escaping this reality.
Except for the reality we actually inhabit. It would be nice if words meant what they meant, but that’s simply not the case in 2018 America. A lot of people didn’t know the genesis of that term, and so you can’t expect that just because some with law degrees understand it, that everyone else will too. Its implied meaning is far more obvious than its actual definition. On top of that, there is a constituency which Jeff Sessions has spoken to throughout his entire life who definitely cheered when they heard this phrase, because it rhetorically matches up with the rest of the dog whistles blown in their direction. Not to mention, it sure looks like Sessions improvised this line given that his prepared remarks only say “the sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”
This administration is committed to the cause of white supremacy, and its approval ratings peak in the mid to high 40s. It needs all the help it can get, and Donald Trump and his band of miscreants do all they can to remind the “forgotten” Americans what they’re really trying to accomplish. Policy-wise, it’s crazy to think that Sessions using this term is dramatically different from Obama using this term—except that when you look at their actual policies, the interpretation of that term most certainly differs in its impact. As much as we want to, we cannot separate the messenger from the message.
I understand those who are upset at words seemingly not meaning anything anymore, but when an administration twists words however they please, they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when it benefits them—especially when it’s coming from a man who said that his biggest problem with the KKK was that it smoked weed. It’s possible for this both to be a correct usage of the term by Sessions and a white nationalist dog whistle to his racist cheerleaders.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, I’ll leave you with some thoughts from someone much more credible than me on this subject: historian Kevin Kruse.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.