Jump to Proposal 2 — Building a Movement, Preparation
Jump to Proposal 3 — Endorse “Move to Amend”
(Published in Oct./Nov. 2011 NWTRCC newsletter)
A friend of mine named Askold Melnyczuk, a novelist and editor who published an essay I wrote about war tax resistance (WTR), likes to call me “the most dangerous man in Massachusetts.” Which is preposterous as regards me personally. But Askold isn’t talking about me personally; he’s talking about the potential power of war tax resistance, about the danger it might pose to a government depending on taxes to fight wars. And he’s right.
In practice, of course, war tax resistance is not posing such a danger. The American government is conducting three wars, the military budget is incomprehensibly vast and growing, the war system is deeply rooted. How might the gap between potential and accomplishment be bridged?
What follows is a set of ideas about that, but first a personal note. The mode of war tax resistance I’ll be arguing for is similar to the one I do. That’s not because I think my life as a resister is more admirable than the lives of other resisters – quite the contrary, in fact. Mine is protected and luxurious. What’s at issue, though, isn’t the moral value of one political life rather than another; what’s at issue is power, what power a conceivable war tax resistance movement could exert. If there’s a movement we could create that would have greater power than the one I’ve imagined here, then I hope someone will figure out its nature and let us know what it is. I’ll sign up yesterday.
What sort of movement, then, would exert the maximum friction, to use a favorite word of Thoreau’s, against the war machine? First, it would have to be illegal. Second, it would have to be public, which implies that individual resisters would have to accept being penalized for their actions rather than seeking to avoid being penalized. (Levies would have to be badges of honor, like wounds in battle.) Third, it would have to make a clearly stated demand on the American government.
It would have to be illegal because if it’s not illegal it’s ignorable. The illegality – the civil disobedience, to give it its juster and nobler name – is what creates the friction. Which leads me to this reflection: People who do war tax resistance by living below the taxable level are doing something that’s probably in the long run necessary for the survival of the human race on the planet Earth. They are, in Muriel Rukeyser’s words, “Brave, setting up signals across vast distances, / considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.” But they are not exerting friction against the machine. They’re not feeding it; but the machine’s work is not impeded by them.
It would have to be public because only in being public can it command publicity – which was in George Orwell’s view the sine qua non for any successful nonviolent movement. Again an uncomfortable reflection: those who do war tax resistance by refusing to pay what they “owe,” then by seeking not to be found and penalized, are people of conscience; they are doing everything in their power to keep their money from being used for the crime of war, they make enormous self-sacrifices. But they cannot, in the nature of what they do, fully speak truth to power; they cannot be fully public.
Finally it would have to be making a clearly defined demand on the government. This for Thoreau’s reason but without his sexism: “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” In the absence of such a demand – quit India, integrate the lunch counters, give us our sons and husbands back – no movement can engage in dialogue with its opponent. The government has a goal: to collect the taxes to fund the wars. The movement – and “movement” is the right word for what I’m trying to imagine here, something less comfortable but more disciplined than a community – needs to have a goal of its own. Without such a goal, we cannot enter into dialogue; for that matter, without such a goal, how would we know if one day we won? (Here, tentatively, is my proposal for such a goal: a 75% reduction in the U.S. military budget and a restriction of American military actions to self-defense in the strictest sense.)
There are, by the usual estimates, 10,000 war tax resisters in the U.S. What if next year all of us who could make this choice (some of us cannot) chose to make a taxable income, filed a tax return, proclaimed to the IRS and to the public generally why we were refusing to pay part or all of what we owed, proudly publicized every governmental act taken against us?
I think of war the way the War Resisters League does, as a crime against humanity. That crime is getting worse. It’s only because that’s the case that I make these admittedly controversial statements; I want the waging of wars to be slowed. I think we could do more to make that happen. I think we could be more dangerous.
Lawrence Rosenwald is the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English at Wellesley College; he has published essays on war tax resistance, pacifism, and Thoreau, and has been a war tax resister since 1987 and an active member of New England War Tax Resistance since the early 1990s.
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy —
Two and a half years ago, I made a quick trip to the Pine Bluff Arsenal in southeastern Arkansas to see where the white phosphorous used in the Israel war on Gaza (Dec. 2008–Jan. 2009) was manufactured. Tucked among rolling farmlands, the arsenal was built in 1941 and quickly became one of the region’s biggest employers. According to one local woman, teachers literally “walked out of their classrooms to go make bombs because the pay was so good.”
My Pine Bluff visit came to mind while reading “WTR Manifesto,” a proposal that throws a monkey wrench into the economics of our war-making. Having ten thousand Americans publicly declare they will withhold a portion of their federal taxes until there is a 75% reduction in the U.S. military budget, and a restriction of military actions to self defense in the strictest sense is gutsy, concrete, and perhaps even doable. While I can imagine a lot of heated debate, some of it excruciatingly convoluted, on what qualifies as “self-defense” (for some Americans it includes pre-emptive strikes against suspected or “potential” terrorists), I see the value of having a goal for a movement of war tax resistance. There is an implied optimism and courtesy in telling the government exactly what you want, and, as Larry notes, goals provide focus to the movement.
Of course, publicly declaring one’s violation of the tax codes escalates the risk of prosecution. The “war wounds” Larry mentions could be much more serious than levies. I foresee the government making examples of some individuals to intimidate others. But risk-taking can build community and more importantly, provides a teachable moment. And this is what I like best about Larry’s proposal. A movement of people publicly engaged in war tax resistance, and paying the consequences for it, would remind Americans that war is not just an inevitable decision in Washington but a product of our making. Knowing this provides the power for taking that product apart.
I don’t think the movement Larry envisions need exclude those, like me, who live in community and earn under the taxable income. Why not add their voices to a public declaration? Although they do not face the same risks as those who earn a taxable income, there is strength in numbers. The more people spotlighting ways in which Americans can withhold their money from war, the better.
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the SS Francis and Therese Catholic Worker, a lay community in Worcester, Massachusetts, that works for peace and justice and offers hospitality to homeless men and women.
Karl Meyer —
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
–Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Larry Rosenwald’s proposal sounds reasonable, but I do not see the tide in flood to float even a small number of his ten thousand boats.
In 51 years of unbroken tax refusal I have twice launched my boat into the crest of public tides of protest and resistance, fulfilling the three criteria of Larry’s plan. In August 1966 I wrote the first call to telephone excise tax refusal, sparking a response by several hundred thousand refusers (according to later IRS estimates). In 1968 and 1969 I wrote about how to use the W-4 Form to prevent wage withholding, opening a door for tens of thousands of resisters in the following years. Our demand was simple and clear: “Bring the troops home now! End the war in Vietnam!” With the draft resisters, we played a significant role in ending that war. And several dozen resisters went to jail, in my case to serve nine months of a two-year prison sentence.
Again, in the early 1980s, Vietnam era protesters rose up to resist Reagan’s military spending escalations and neo-imperial aggressions in Central America. resisters had active parts in the Nuclear Freeze and Pledge of Resistance movements; Congress even banned U.S. aid to the “contra” mercenaries attacking Nicaragua. In 1984 I filed 365 daily income tax protest returns to defy a new $500 civil penalty for “frivolous” protest claims. This action got nationwide publicity, in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other mass media, and it provoked IRS penalty assessments totaling $140,000, but it failed to spark the mass protest movement I hoped for. (The IRS collected only $1,000 by seizure and sale of my station wagon.)
In the years since, I have not seen outrage rise high enough to transcend peoples’ fears. When I mention war tax refusal in what passes for a peace movement in Nashville, people look down at the table and hardly respond at all. I’ve learned that we cannot summon the tides of public courage at will. I hope that Larry sees a rising that I cannot yet see.
In the long periods between, we mend our boats, practice right livelihood ourselves, and gather the crews of young radicals who will lead the way when the times mature. We do these things faithfully at Nashville Greenlands, as at many other communities of the Catholic Worker movement.
T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, speaking of New England fishermen, says, “We have to think of them as forever bailing, / Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers….. Not as making a trip that will be unpayable / For a haul that will not bear examination.” If I live to see the tide of resistance come around again, I would launch my boat again, whatever the risk.
Karl Meyer helped create the Nashville Green-lands community in Nashville, Tennessee. His story is included in the book War Tax Resistance.
Bill Glassmire —
Larry Rosenwald proposes that the WTR community engage in illegal and widely publicized tax resistance to make a specific demand of the U.S. government. The proposal comes at a time of opportunity, because all around the country there is a lot of dissatisfaction with our political system. Thank you, Larry, for articulating a possible response.
I can see two ways forward. First is how I understand Larry’s suggestion: individuals in the tax resistance community start right away to implement the proposal however works best for him/her, making public both acts of refusal and responses from the IRS and government. Although likely I would participate, I think this course unlikely to work; in the next paragraph I explain why. Second, the WTR community could spend some time and effort refining the proposal, trying to figure out how to make it work effectively. That effort I think worthwhile, maybe even worthwhile if no action comes of it.
I have been a tax resister for about 20 years. There are tax resisters among my neighbors and friends, but there is no local WTR organization to be part of. For me, what WTR means is that I do not willingly pay my tax liability; in recent years I have also been writing to my congresspeople to tell them that I am not paying. I have not gotten any response. Most often, after a couple of years and several threatening letters, the IRS collects the unpaid tax by a levy on a bank account. From my experience, I cannot see how individual tax resisters would effectively carry out the proposal. The taxes which I resist, and the letters and the levy with which the IRS responds, are pinpricks. Specifically, I think that the U.S. ruling class, including the national government and the wealthy institutions which support it, could easily ignore whatever publicity I produced about my resisted taxes and the collection procedure.
So, I would be interested in changing and expanding the proposal to ask, how could NWTRCC (and allies) build a community of resistance? Here are a couple of questions to discuss (I am sure that there are others). What would be our goal, both in one year and after three or five or ten years? To take advantage of the public dissatisfaction with our political system, is there any way that the project could address some few of the problems the country faces? How could we effectively publicize the resistance?
What do you think? Should we launch into very public resistance? Or should we try to plan a longterm strategy? Or both? If you like the plan of planning, would you be willing to take part? Let us know at the NWTRCC office.
Thanks for starting this discussion, Larry. And thanks to each of you for your witness.
Bill Glassmire lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his wife Leslie and two dogs. A tax resister for about twenty years, he is honored to be part of a community including Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Bromley, Wally Nelson, and the readers of More than a Paycheck.
From Bill Glassmire, Corvallis, Ore.
This is a proposal for a long-term project to build a movement for large-scale war tax resistance (WTR). Building a large-scale movement is not a new idea. WTR has been around for at least fifty years, and there have been a number of attempts to implement large-scale WTR, including a Code Pink effort (in 2008?) to recruit 100,000 people to withhold taxes for the war against Iraq and the War Tax Boycott. Neither of those attempts attracted more than a couple of thousand participants. So, developing a large-scale WTR movement would be a major commitment. An obvious question is, are there more effective ways to do our work toward building peace and justice?
I think that the first stage in building a WTR movement would be to plan an organized discussion of possibilities and tasks. That may not be right; maybe we do not need to have such a discussion. NWTRCC is currently considering a proposal that a movement could be “jump-started” by making very public both: all the communications between the existing WTR community and the IRS; and, the penalties which the IRS imposes on existing WTR folks.
Here is what a planning process for building a movement might look like.
From Pam Allee, Ore. Community of War Tax Resisters
Move to Amend (MTA) is a grassroots movement to overturn the “Supreme” Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision that bestowed personhood on corporations, entitling them to human and civil rights and the protections thereof.
The decision — called the worst since Dred Scott — allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to any campaign, as well as found and fund astroturf groups and PACs at will. In effect, money is now speech, and those with the most money have the largest megaphone.
The “amend” in “Move to Amend” refers to the U.S. Constitution. Big job, yes? So in this basic organizational phase, the wording of the amendment is not formulated yet. However, signatures of support from both individuals and organizations are being collected via the national website (movetoamend.org), and (more importantly) local activist groups are forming. I counted 32 groups in fourteen states on September 25th, and the website lists 133,267 individual endorsers on this date. I am a member of the Portland (Oregon) MTA group.
As with NWTRCC, the website is rich with information and resources. I hope that regardless of the outcome of this proposal people will take a look at the website.
Because human beings have values which often do not regard money as the highest good. For those of us whose activism has ever included working in a legislative context, corporate power makes for an very uneven field; we work much too hard for meager crumbs while the powerful monied class sneers or overlooks us completely. MTA is no silver bullet by itself. But I am convinced that this movement is the first and necessary step to achieving democracy.
Thank you, Pamela Allee
— end of proposals —