I wrote about the interesting case of Jeff Knaebel, who left his prosperous conventional American Dream life years ago to live in a hut in India. He was unwilling to pay taxes that would make him complicit in the nightmare behind that Dream, and he took this stand to a level that seems extreme even here on The Picket Line where thoughts like this are eagerly entertained.

The transcript of another of Knaebel’s speeches has been published on-line . Some excerpts:

If I had not abandoned everything I had built up, leaving my country in order to escape slavery, if I were still a hard-working American taxpayer, I would have on my hands the blood of innocent Iraqi children, infants murdered in cold calculation as part of the price of oil and corporate dividends for the likes of Halliburton, Bechtel and Carlyle.…

Sadly, because of mental conditioning, ignorance and the power of media deception, I did not wake up in time to avoid the shame of knowing that some of my earlier tax dollars financed the murder of women and children in places like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Vietnam and Cambodia, among the many others where the American Empire has laid waste to land and life. Thus, because of my own moral complacency in the drive to be successful in my former country, I cannot escape the shame nor the karma of having been a financial accomplice to murder through my failure to resist taxation.

I describe myself as a slave of the State, which remains true despite self-imposed exile.…

It is warmonger slavery because the product of my labor is coercively removed from me by taxation and placed in the hands of a group of politicians who have anointed themselves with the power to decide who shall live and who shall die. No child on this earth is exempt from nuclear destruction, and where economies are subject to direct intervention by the State, the decision of whether a hungry child may receive wheat, or rice, or milk, or nothing at all is in the hands of a remote bureaucrat or politician who typically acts in his own self-interest, either as a rent-seeking bribe-taker or in order to gain an institutional favor.

The complaints are familiar to me; I’m more interested in his prescription:

How is it that we do not call the State by its true name of organized violence and perpetrator of mass murder? Is it because we live in a sea of lies, deceit, manipulation, secrecy and hidden agendas, such that even language is corrupted so far beyond recognition that we are expected to believe heads of State who tell us brazenly that war is peace, that murder is liberation? Or is it that we live in a mental condition of denial, benumbed by TV and media as by an injection of moral anesthetic?…

I suggest that peace-loving people withdraw as much as possible from interaction with and dependence upon the State. Begin building an independent nonviolent culture of self-reliance as taught by Gandhiji. This is now coming to life here and there among India’s villages. Let the State die peacefully of its own internal rot and corruption. Let us build our own wholesome lives. The foundation of morality is respect for all living beings. Let us free ourselves simply by refusing to cooperate with what we know is wrong.…

[O]ne potentially powerful way to begin is to be totally, transparently honest in word and deed with all others at all times. Shine the light of Truth as exemplified by Gandhiji’s Satyagraha (strong adherence to truth). Honesty means in part to call things by their true name directly, straight away.

Through this honest reporting, we might see what we are really doing, rather than being helplessly immobilized by the sheer horror of it all, or simply unable to find the pole star of truth to guide us on the sea of lies.

Immediately on reading this I remembered that back when I was reading Tolstoy’s essays on nonviolent direct action he had said something very similar — that the first and most important thing to do was to renounce falsehood and be determined to speak only the truth. (The letter in which he most forcefully makes this point is, alas, only available on-line in Russian.) Alexander Solzhenitsyn carries the torch in his essay, Not To Live By Falsehood, which I reproduce below.

Contrast that with the feeling of so much of the Democratic party, and of so many other people who consider themselves part of the opposition. They believe the problem is that they are failing to “frame” their issues well, where “frame” is a nice word for “spin.” They have seen how successfully the powerful have manipulated and petrified people through dishonesty, and they think the problem is that they aren’t as good at it. Honesty may be the best policy, they say, for losers.

I myself have long been an admirer of the Sniggler — who deceives people into seeing the truth, makes counterfeits of fakes, turns artifice back upon itself, and impersonates the voice of authority in order to undermine it.

Fight tyranny instead by renouncing falsehood and speaking only truth? That sounds suspiciously like the bliss bunny prescriptions to visualize whirled peas, and other romantic folderol set to the tune of one noble man standing firmly with his face to the worldly winds and stopping an empire by dazzling it with the overwhelming majesty of his integrity.

But perhaps honesty is a step that, while not sufficient, is necessary. If you’re fighting for power, dishonesty has its place. If you’re fighting against power and not to seize it for yourself, the means contain the ends and honesty may indeed be the best policy — or, at the least, one that has its place. The moral high ground is undefended and almost abandoned. Could it really be that it has no strategic advantage at all?

It is difficult to speak the truth — not just because there are many incentives to deceive, and not just because deceitful habits of language are broadcast on every channel, but because the truth is hard to get at, particularly through speech. “I have decided to henceforth say nothing that is not true,” says the student. “I’ll miss your voice,” says the Zen master.

But I may be setting the bar too high, and now it is set so low. Consider that in many quarters it is still an open question whether or not the Dubya Squad tried to deceive people into believing, for instance, that Iraq was an imminent weapons-of-mass-destruction threat. After all, Dubya never actually said the threat was “imminent” did he?

When we set the bar for honesty that low, when deceit is almost a sporting event in television entertainment, when it is a honored and appreciated part of statesmanship, and when people seek out their sources of education and information by how well they flatter and reinforce their own favorite lies — perhaps there’s really nowhere to go but up and so not much to lose by leading the way.

Not To Live By Falsehood
 — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, c.

There was a time when we didn’t even dare to whisper. Now we write and read Samizdat, and at gatherings complain to each other: What tricks they resort to … where are they leading us? All this boasting and bragging about cosmic flights, when homes are destitute and impoverished; the support of boisterous regimes in far away places; provoking civil wars, and senselessly bringing up Mao Tse-tung, preparing us to be sent against him. And the people would doubtless go — how could one escape? Meanwhile they bring to trial whomever they wish, and the sane are forced into mental hospitals. All this is done by them … and we … we are powerless. …

Affairs have almost reached the bottom. Threat of spiritual perdition (ruin) hangs over our heads, while the physical consequences could flare up and burn us and our children. But we, as before, cravenly smile, mumble and lisp: How can we prevent it? We have no power.

We are so hopelessly dehumanized that to keep our place at today’s modest trough we are willing to give up all principles, even our soul, wasting all the travails of our forefathers, ignoring the possibilities for our posterity. Gone is firmness, pride, and warmth of heart. We are hardly frightened by all-encompassing atomic death, supposing, if a third world war comes, that we can hide in some crevice. All that we fear is to act courageously! The fate we dread most is to be separated from the herd, to have to make a step alone, suddenly to be ostracized … isolated.

We are indoctrinated by political propaganda, dinning into us that this way it is easier to live. No one, they say, can escape social conditions: existence determines consciousness, so what can you do? Nothing.

Yet we could do everything! We lie to ourselves to calm our conscience. No one else is to be blamed. Only ourselves. Only we!

It might be objected: What alternatives are there? Our mouths are riveted shut; no one hears us, no one asks anything. How can we make people hear? Change their minds? It is impossible.

Why didn’t we elect other leaders? There are no elections in our country. In the West people know about strikes, protests, demonstrations — but we are so intimidated that such action horrifies us: Who, all of a sudden, could refuse to work, or dare to make open protest on the street? These and other fatal methods were tried in the last century — look at the bitter history of Russia!

Indeed, these things are not for us; in truth, we must not attempt them. Now, when we have hewn our way to the end, when all the seed that was sown has sprouted, we see how lost, how dazed and presumptuous were those who thought that by terror, bloody uprisings and civil war they could make our country just and happy. No, we turn away from those fathers of “enlightenment!” We know, now, that heinous means breed heinous results. Our hands must be clean!

The circle is closed! There is no escape. Left for us is passive waiting, as if, suddenly, something might happen by itself!

Never will these bonds loosen by themselves. Never, while all of us continue every day to affirm them, praise and strengthen them. The knot which ties them remains secure unless we attack its most sensitive point, which is Falsehood.

When violence invades the peaceful life of the people, it proclaims: “I am Violence! Disperse, give way — or I’ll crush you!” But violence soon succumbs to time. After a few years it’s not so sure of itself, and to gain respectability, to be thought decent, violence always calls on falsehood for an ally. Violence cannot hide its ugliness except in falsehood, and falsehood can be upheld only by violence. Moreover, in order to survive, violence must be selective. Not every day, and not on every shoulder, does violence put its heavy paw. It works best by threat, demanding that we be obedient to falsehood, participate daily in falsehood — this is the allegiance it demands. Yet here, though neglected by us, is the simplest, most available key to our freedom: personal nonparticipation in falsehood! While falsehood may cover everything and own everything, the single individual still can stand alone. He can say: Falsehood may rule, but not through me!

And this is a break in the circle of our inactivity. Because, when people turn away from falsehood it simply ceases to be. As an infection, falsehood can exist only in people.

We are not called — indeed, we may lack the strength — to go out in public squares and proclaim the truth, express openly our thoughts. But a way is still open to us, even in our ingrown condition of cowardice — a way easier than Gandhi’s civil disobedience.

It is not to uphold falsehood consciously in anything. Where one sees the beginning of falsehood — each in his own way — he will not cross the line into its gangrenous territory. Having made this resolve, we would perhaps be astounded to see how suddenly falsehood dies, so that what lies behind stands naked before the world.

Let each one choose: Will he continue to be a servant of falsehood (not from any inclination to falsehood, but only for feeding his family, for bringing up his children, in the spirit of falsehood), or has the time come for him to change, to become worthy of the respect of his children and his contemporaries? If the time has come, from that day on:

  • he will not write, sign, or publish any phrase, which, as he understands it, distorts truth. He will not express such a phrase either in private conversation, or publicly, or by order, or in the role of agitator, teacher, tutor, or in a theatrical role.
  • he will not, either in painting, sculpture, photography, technically, or musically, portray or express one false thought, one distortion of truth as he understands it.
  • he will not cite, either orally or in writing, one “leading” idea so as to curry favor, so as to be safe, so as to be successful in his field of work, unless he completely agrees with the thought he cites, and it exactly fits the case.
  • he will not be coerced to attend a demonstration or a meeting if this is against his desire and will. He will not carry in his hands a banner with a slogan the meaning of which he doesn’t completely share; he will not lift his voter’s hand to endorse a motion with which in all honesty he is not in accord; he will not cast his ballot, either publicly or secretly, for a person he deems to be unworthy of trust.
  • he will not let himself be forced to attend a meeting which will permit only a deliberately biased discussion of a question; he will immediately leave a session, meeting, lecture, play or a film showing, as soon as he hears the speaker repeat falsehood, ideological nonsense, or brazen propaganda.
  • he will not subscribe, buy, or accept newspapers or journals carrying distorted information, in which meaningful facts are withheld.

We have enumerated only a few of the possible and necessary ways of avoiding falsehood. He who begins to purify himself will soon be able to identify other means. At first, to be sure, the changed practice will be uneven. One may lose his job. The young person who wants to be honest will find his life complicated at the beginning. Even lessons in school are crammed with falsehood, and he will have to choose. Indeed, for young or old, there is no escape from decision — there is not a day for any one of us, even in the most safely remote technical sciences, when we can avoid the choice of either truth or falsehood; of either spiritual autonomy or spiritual servitude. The one who lacks courage even to defend his soul — let him not be proud of his enlightened views, or that he is an “academician,” a people’s artist, a much admired “activist,” or a dauntless general. Let him say to himself, instead: I am a nonentity, a coward, who puts personal security before truth.

Even this path of personal integrity — the most moderate means of resistance — will be for us, who are so timorous, so conditioned, not easy. Yet it is far easier than self-immolation or hunger strikes: the flames will not encompass the body, the eyes will not burst from the heat, and black bread with clean water may still be found for one’s family.

A great people of Europe — the people of Czechoslovakia — deceived and betrayed by us: Have they not shown how the uncovered breast may stand up even against tanks, when in the breast beats a deserving heart! It may not be an easy choice for the body — but it is the only one for the soul. Not an easy path — yet there are people amongst us, even tens of them, who have through many years endured while following this path — while living by truth.

One may not be the first to step on this path, but one can join! Each one who joins makes the path easier, and much shorter for all the rest. When there are thousands who take this way, it will be impossible to overcome each one. And were there tens of thousands — then, we would not recognize our country, so great would be the change!

But if we lack courage, then let us at least stop complaining that we cannot breathe. For it is we, ourselves, who refuse to breathe! So in that case we may kneel even lower and wait until our brothers in the department of biology arrange to bring closer the day when all our thoughts are read and inspected, and our genes have proper supervision.

It was to such that Pushkin cried—

What need have herds for the gift of freedom?…
Their heritage — passed on from generation to generation —
Is the yoke with rattles and the whip.

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