On Being a Very Public War Tax Resister

Remarks at the Voluntown Gathering (11/12/99)
by Larry Rosenwald

It’s conventional to begin a talk like this by saying you’re honored to have been asked to give it. Well, I am honored to have been asked to give this talk, genuinely and not just conventionally. I’ve sometimes felt uneasy about my relation to the tax resistance community, in ways that I’ll discuss towards the end of my talk; and it touches me very deeply to have been asked to address it. I hope that what I have to say will prove useful, and that my comments on my own situation will turn out have a representative meaning as well as an autobiographical one.

To talk about being a very public war tax resister means, among other things, figuring out exactly what “public” means. In my case, one thing it means is that I’m a person who by temperament would rather make things public than not. I hold as an ideal a harmony between my public and private selves. I often agree with W. H. Auden’s remark, that “private faces/ are nicer and wiser/ in public places/ than public faces/ in private places.” And my war tax resistance is something I take a special pleasure in making public, since it’s one of the things I like best about myself.

But if the “public” in “public war tax resistance” is partly a matter of temperament, it’s still more a matter of my relations to the particular communities where I live and work. That’s what I’ll mostly be talking about; so I’ll start by setting out the concrete facts about how my tax resistance functions, and about the relations it thereby establishes.

My wife, Cynthia Schwan, and I resist taxes together, and have been doing so since 1986. I teach English at Wellesley College; my income there is pre-taxed, though I make some un-pre-taxed income as a translator. She is a pianist and teacher of piano, and none of her income is pre-taxed, nor is she willing to pay tax quarterly. Each April, we file jointly. We fill out the forms accurately, and we always end up “owing” something to the government, more and more as both our incomes increase. We take the total of what we “owe,” subtract from it the current military percentage of the federal budget as determined by the WRL, send the subtracted amount either to an alternative fund or to progressive organizations, and send the remainder to the IRS, with a letter explaining what we’re doing. And then, usually, the IRS comes and levies the money, either at our bank or at Wellesley College.

One way in which we’re public, then, is in our relation to the IRS. That’s not been a very productive relation, frankly. The IRS has dealt with us exclusively through its automated collection service, and we’ve never had the chance to deal directly with an IRS agent.

We’re also public in relation to our bank, and that relation is a somewhat happier one. It’s a single, local bank with no branches, where we know and chat with the tellers, and where we ourselves are known and liked. When we’re levied there, we write the bank a letter explaining why the levy is taking place. The letter also tentatively asks the bank officers whether they feel right about executing the levy; but we’ve never pressed that question in face-to-face conversation. (I’ll come back to this matter later.) We know that our letters are read – one year, when Cynthia took the letter in later than usual, the bank vice-president said to her, “I’ve been expecting you.” What we don’t know is how they’re read.

I’m also public in my tax resistance at Wellesley College. (I’m shifting into the first-person singular here because most of the rest of what I’ve got to say comes out of my individual experience, rather than out of the experience that Cynthia and I have shared.) It’s this community that I’m mostly thinking of when I call myself a public war tax resister, and it’s on what’s happened in this community that most of the rest of my talk will focus. Again, the nuts and bolts first. I’ve been levied at the college three times: in 1990, 1993, and 1998. On all three occasions, I’ve done what I could to tell the college community what was going on. In 1990 and 1993, that meant letters to the college newspaper. In 1998, it meant both letters and postings on the college’s electronic bulletins. My initial letters have set out the fact of the levy, my reasons for doing war tax resistance, and (very tentatively) the college’s complicity in the levy. Sometimes colleagues and students have written letters or postings in response, and I’ve tried to answer them. (In between levies, I’ve also needed to write on several occasions to the Dean of the College, to explain, when I’m about to go on leave and need to apply for outside funding, why my tax resistance makes it impossible for me to apply for funding to the NEH.)

So what happens in response to these letters? What works, what sort of works, what doesn’t work?

What doesn’t work, or hasn’t worked so far at any rate, is how I’ve dealt with the people at the College who are charged with actually carrying out the levy, i.e., the staff of the controller’s office. Thoreau sets a formidable standard here:

My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with, —for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel, —and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to this neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action? …If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.

I’m haunted by this passage, with its suggestion that the revolution is only two gestures away; and I’m impressed and intimidated by Thoreau’s nerve and neighborliness. My own dealings with the people who execute the IRS levies have been amiable but not confrontatory nor, so far as I know, productive. I’ve written letters to those people, asking whether they’re comfortable with that job, and never gotten a response. I’ve tried to raise the question in conversation with them sometimes, but so tentatively and shamefacedly that probably they didn’t know I was raising it at all.

I’m not sure why. Partly it’s personal shyness. Partly, though, it’s that I’m uneasy about proposing to people that they take a risk, for me, that I’m not taking myself. I have a tenured job, and doing tax resistance doesn’t threaten it. The people in the controller’s office would run greater risks by refusing to execute the levy than I do by refusing to pay the tax. (I think this same notion inhibits my dealings with the people at our bank; our tax resistance doesn’t threaten our livelihood, but their refusal to execute the levy might threaten theirs.) More generally, I think of myself as being, within this institution of Wellesley College at any rate, in a position of power. I write evaluations of administrative assistants; they do not write evaluations of me. I can’t get fired; they can.

A further problem is that I’m making ethical demands on people I don’t know personally. Thoreau at least knew his tax collector, a man named Sam Staples. I don’t know the people in the controller’s office – maybe that’s the chief problem, actually – and though I meet them when they execute the levy, between one levy and the next the responsibility for executing the levy is likely to have shifted from one person to another. There’s no context of human relationship for our ethical conversation.

So I think it’s right, or at any rate inevitable, that the sharpest criticisms my colleagues have made of me have focused on this matter. I don’t altogether agree with these criticisms; and I want to keep insisting on the fact that everyone who executes a levy has a choice, from the staff of the controller’s office on up. But there’s something wrong about the way I’ve handled this so far, something false and inauthentic.

I was happier in this regard with something that happened during my last levy, in 1998: Diana Chapman Walsh, the President of Wellesley College, wrote me to say that she’d read my newspaper letter about what had happened, and that she’d be willing to inquire of the college’s attorneys what the consequences might be of the college’s refusing to execute the IRS levy. I hadn’t asked her to do this, felt stupid and somehow wrong-hearted not to have done so, and was grateful for her offer. As it turned out, she was told by the attorneys that refusing to execute the levy would jeopardize the college’s tax-exempt status; and she was not, she told me, willing to run this risk. But I was still grateful. (After the fact, I heard from some tax resistance colleagues that maybe the attorneys were wrong; I’ll come back later in my talk to the fact that I didn’t have this information myself, and didn’t think to ask for a second opinion, so to speak, from the tax resistance community.)

I was happier about this for two reasons. First, I didn’t feel the same unease about the power relations. If it’s the President who’s making the request of the attorneys, or even the President whom I’m asking to make that request, I’m not asking someone to jeopardize her job, to take a risk that I myself am not taking. And, unlike the people in the controller’s office, the President is someone I have a relationship with; so my asking her to consider this matter, for herself or for the College, hasn’t sprung up from nowhere, but is part of an ongoing human conversation. I’ll certainly ask this of the President the next time I’m levied at the College, and hope to ask it on the basis of a sounder knowledge of what risks the College might run if it refused to carry out the levy.

So the moral of this part of the story, I guess – leaving my dealings with the President aside – is that in figuring out how to talk with the people in the controller’s office, I need to be aware of the power relations between us, and need to try to situate those power relations in the context of human relations. I don’t think it’s easy to do that, but it seems like the right goal.

Let me now turn to an aspect of my public tax resistance that’s worked better, namely, the effect it’s had on my colleagues and students, and in particular the conversations with colleagues and students that it’s led to. By and large, my colleagues and students respect me for what I’m doing. For some of them, in fact, my doing tax resistance gives me a kind of moral prestige. I’ve had several colleagues spontaneously offer me money. I had a colleague in the Religion department thank me for my witness. I had another colleague volunteer to ask the previous President, in a public meeting, what the College’s stand was on my tax resistance; and the President answered that though the College would continue to carry out the IRS levies, it would in other respects respect to right to act in accord with my conscience. My not being able to apply to the NEH hasn’t jeopardized my sabbaticals. I’ve been very well treated by the College generally, and it’s in fact College money that sent me to the International War Tax Resistance Conference in Spain in 1994, and will pay for the car I rented to attend this present conference. Doing public war tax resistance has made me, in this community, a public person of conscience. And I think that the conversations arising from the levies have often been thoughtful conversations, partly because my own personal identification with the issues being discussed has helped keep the conversations concrete.

The last time I was levied, though, in the fall of 1998, I encountered a new problem, one I didn’t deal with very well, and I’d like to talk about it a bit, because it raised for me the question of a public tax resister’s obligation to educate. Doing public war tax resistance puts us before a public, which then wants to test its ideas against ours; we’re invited, therefore, to become teachers, and we have to figure out how to teach.

What happened was this. A colleague and friend of mine, a sociologist named Tom Cushman who’s the founder and editor of a journal called the Human Rights Review, wrote a thoughtful critique of my position. What he was criticizing was not my tax resistance proper, my act of civil disobedience, but rather my political philosophy, my pacifism, specifically in relation to what he called pacifist support of the western decision to maintain the arms embargo in Bosnia at a time when Serbs had weapons and Bosnians didn’t. And a couple of students wrote to raise the larger question of what a pacifist response might be to threatened genocide, in general and in specific relation to Nazi Germany.

I answered Tom’s critique as best I could, but I didn’t feel I answered it very well. I didn’t do a much better job of answering the students’ questions. And I’ve been trying ever since to understand why not.

When I started to do war tax resistance, in the mid-80s, what felt complicated was the central act of civil disobedience. What didn’t feel complicated was the political analysis underlying that act. Reagan was President, American military power was being used in ways that just about everyone I knew condemned, and the only real question was, would I pay taxes to support that wicked power or not? But now the situation has changed, I think. Some smart and decent people who opposed the use of American military power in Honduras and Grenada and Panama demanded the use of that power in Bosnia, and approved of it in Kosovo. Those more recent uses may have been wrong. I believe that they were wrong. But they’re not the same as the uses of power that I had in mind when I became a tax resister; if they’re wrong, they’re wrong for different reasons, and they need to be addressed with different arguments. And what I realized, in trying to deal with my colleagues and students, was that I had no different arguments to offer; all I had available was the arguments I’d worked out, or heard other people work out, in the 1980s.

Now one reason I couldn’t offer my colleagues and students better arguments was my too great reliance on an abstractly theoretical pacifism. But I don’t think that’s the only reason. Another reason was that it was also hard for me to find apt arguments formulated by people on the nonviolent left. And since I think being a public tax resister of my sort requires having such arguments available, and since I think it’s good for the war tax resistance community to include public tax resisters of my sort, I’d like to dwell on this matter for a minute. I didn’t make a very wide search to find arguments about Bosnia; I read what I normally read, including NVA and Z and the Catholic Worker and the war tax resistance electronic distribution list. So maybe there were better arguments to be had. In what I read, though, I didn’t find very much that I thought was useful. And why it wasn’t useful, for the most part, was because it wasn’t willing to start where most of the questions that were being addressed to me wanted to start, namely, with the suffering of innocent people, and with the question of what one should do to stop that suffering. The analyses I read focused on American iniquities and hypocrisies, on the megalomaniacally bloated American military budget, on the insidious and widespread effects of the American militarist mentality. I agree with these analyses. But they don’t help you – or at least, they didn’t help me – if someone’s asking you, what would you have done if you’d been voting on sustaining the arms embargo to Bosnia, or, What would you have done to keep Jews from being murdered in the death camps? And they won’t help me next time round – I’m guessing I’ll be levied before the end of the year – when I write my usual letters to the college community, and someone, probably Tom Cushman again, asks me what I would have done to stop the atrocities being carried out in Kosovo?

I raised this matter at a meeting recently, a meeting convened to support and advise me after my last levy. I was probably in a grumpy mood, since only two people besides myself showed up, one of them the person graciously hosting the meeting, and probably my grumpiness sharpened my response to the conversation. In any case, one thing I was told was that my colleagues and students were asking the wrong questions, and that it was my job to get them to ask the right ones.

I’ve thought a lot about that argument. It’s probably correct; or at any rate it’s surely correct to say that the questions my colleagues and students were asking weren’t the only questions one should ask. But again, it’s not a response I can use – because for me, one consequence of being a public tax resister is that I need to be able to respond to the questions that people actually ask me. I need to meet them where they are, not insist they meet me where I am. If I can’t give a direct answer to the question, What do you propose to do about the atrocities being committed in Kosovo? then I can’t do a good job of being a public tax resister, i.e., an educator.

I’ll turn now to the last matter I want to discuss, namely the relation between me as a public tax resister and the tax resistance community generally. I’m a little uneasy about discussing this. But the theme of this year’s gathering is “Strengthening Our Movement.” And for me, that means thinking about the ways in which our movement needs strengthening, i.e., is weak. I agree with the thoughtful, critical reflections Karen Marysdaughter made on our movement in her valedictory essays as NWTRCC’s staffperson. My own, admittedly partial and haphazard experiences have confirmed Karen’s assessment. I sit on the Grants and Loans Committee of New England War Tax Resistance, and several times in the recent past we’ve had to cancel meetings because we’ve received no applications. NEWTR’s annual meetings, when they happen, seem more like family reunions of familiar faces than the occasions for a flourishing movement to reflect and strategize. So it’s a good time, in my judgment, to be talking about strengthening our movement, and I offer the following reflections in hope they’ll be useful for that.

At the time of my last levy, I could have been in closer touch with the tax resistance community. I could have been asking for advice about how to formulate arguments about pacifism, and about how to talk with the people in the controller’s office, and about whether Wellesley’s refusal to execute theIRS levy would in fact jeopardize its tax-exempt status. So why wasn’t I doing these things?

Partly because my own temperament got in the way. I’m shy, I was raised to be stoic, I like to believe I can handle things on my own, especially arguments. Moreover, I didn’t – and don’t – think that anything very drastic was being done to me, certainly not in comparison with the things that have been done to other war tax resisters. My house wasn’t being seized or threatened with seizure, the sums of money being levied weren’t such as to threaten our ability to pay our bills or our children’s college tuition, our comfortable and sheltered life seemed likely to remain comfortable and sheltered.

Beyond that, though, I think I didn’t reach out to the local tax resistance community, even to people I’m friends with, because I’m uneasy, and have a history of being uneasy, about the relation between the kind of public tax resistance I do and the tax resistance community’s implicit ideals.

The kind of public tax resistance I do is related to the kind of life I lead, which is for the most part a comfortable and middle-class one, and is partly centered around very specialized, very intense individual accomplishment. Some of the frequently stated ideas in the tax resistance community are at odds with that kind of life, are in fact a critique of that kind of life. To some extent, then, the kind of tax resistance I do is going to be judged, in relation to those ideas, as bland or flawed. And I have some experience of being judged in that way. (I should make clear that I’m not sure I really dissent from this judgment; I’m just trying to set down, as honestly as possible, what it feels like to be the object of it, and what consequences that has for our movement.) There was – I’m no doubt brooding too much over this – that meeting called to support me that only two people came to. Again, three years ago, when I filled out the WTR living will for a meeting of the NEWTR support group, I was struck with how many of the questions seemed designed to stress the limited character of my tax resistance – in my willingness to show the IRS our records (on the unlikely chance that an agent ever asked for them), to provide the IRS with information, to speak to an IRSagent, and in my quite pronounced unwillingness to consider quitting my job or changing my work situation in order to avoid collection. Around the same time, someone on the tax resistance e-mail distribution list wrote that “maybe folks who want to live a wealthy life, living in Chevy Chase, MD, the Hamptons, etc., etc., consuming everything they have pitched to them via the media…well, maybe they should pay their full share for the military, since it is that big-gun-wielding big brother that allows Amerikans to live high on the hog while most of our world neighbors scrape to get by, malnourished, uneducated, dirt poor.” And I thought, well, I’m not consuming everything I have pitched to me via the media, I don’t own a house, I have one car and it’s not new, my rent is subsidized by the college; but I’m certainly living a life that many people would call wealthy, in a town that many people would also call wealthy; does that mean that I shouldn’t be doing war tax resistance?

So it’s not so surprising that when we’ve been levied, our support has come more from outside the tax resistance community than from within it. In most of my communities, I’m marked as a person of conscience, and people admire that, and that’s gratifying and strengthening. In the tax resistance community, I feel, perhaps wrongly, as if I’m marked as being only occasionally a person of conscience, taking only moderate risks, incurring only moderate penalties. Particular people are pronounced exceptions to this, and I cherish them a lot. But that’s the pattern; and that’s why I tend to seek support outside the tax resistance community, even though I know that I thereby weaken my own resistance.

So where does all this lead? Not, I think, to a plea for everyone in the tax resistance community to be nice to me, or to an exhortation for us to attend to our similarities rather than to our differences; I have too much respect for our philosophical disagreements to wish them away. Not to an argument that all modes of tax resistance are equal in value; clearly the movement’s center is rightly with the people whose lives are systematically lives of conscience, who take extreme risks and incur extreme penalties.

Maybe, though, where all this leads is to a sense of how each mode of tax resistance needs the other, how each mode is incomplete in itself. I’ve said a fair amount about the limitations of my own mode of tax resistance. Let me suggest, briefly, some of the limitations in other modes, two in particular. One involves living below the taxable level; it’s movingly described in the recent NWTRCC fundraising letter from Mary Loehr. People who do that kind of tax resistance can certainly be public, but there’s some sense in which what they’re resisting isn’t exactly war taxes, but rather the overall economic system of this country, or in which what they’re doing in regard to that system isn’t exactly resistance but rather self-emancipation. I remember a wonderful talk Bob Bady gave at a gathering on behalf of Arthur Harvey and Elizabeth Gravalos, in which he evoked the great words of Thoreau’s essay: “if [the injustice] requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” People who live below the taxable level are not breaking the law, and their lives are not, in Thoreau’s sense, a counter friction to stop the machine; rather they’ve found a way to get outside the machine altogether. They can be entirely public in what they do with their money; but in a sense, what they’re being public about is not tax resistance, not in my sense, but a more radical way of dealing with money in this economy.

The other kind of tax resistance I’m thinking of involves fairly elaborate strategies for keeping the refused taxes out of the hands of the government. It’s practiced, in my experience, by people who are, reasonably enough, so revolted by the thought of having their money used for the government’s bad purposes that they’ll do practically anything to keep it out of the government’s hands. This sometimes involves a lot of moving of money from one bank account to another, or not filing tax returns, or filling out W-R forms to minimize tax deductions, or complicated choices about what kinds of jobs one can hold, and for how long. And people who choose to do this kind of war tax resistance, the ones I know at any rate, cannot be public about what they’re doing, because that would jeopardize their main goal, which is to make sure that the government doesn’t get the money.

So maybe none of us can do everything that war tax resistance might lead us to want to do. Maybe we can’t hold on to the money, maybe we can’t get people to listen to us, maybe we can’t express our deep resistance to the economic priorities of our country, maybe we can’t get the people who set those priorities to notice that we’re resisting them. We can only do those things together, piece by piece and resister by resister. We shouldn’t ignore our differences; they matter too much. But we can make a better use of them. Right now, for me at any rate, something about the way the center of the movement is related to its margins is keeping me at the margins from reaching out to the people at the center, and thus making it harder for me to do the best possible job of the war tax resistance I actually do. And I’d like to do something to change that.

I began by thanking you, genuinely and not just conventionally, for having invited me to speak. Let me conclude, again genuinely and not just conventionally, for having listened to what I’ve had to say.