The room hunt continues. Over the last few weeks I’ve been living in-between homes — sleeping in stale sheets on a mattress on the floor surrounded by boxes, using a corner payphone on a loud street to make calls and sharing a slow internet connection at a public library one hour a day, except on Sundays and Mondays when the library is closed. My mind has been unsettled too, which means that today’s Picket Line will be a meandering ramble over lots of territory.
When I was a kid, playing organized sports, I remember learning certain ways of losing. I don’t mean that I learned ways to throw a game, but that just as winning has certain protocols (to gloat or not to gloat, for instance), so does losing.
Some of these techniques I learned from other kids, but many of them I learned from parents and teachers and coaches. When they noticed the discouragement of impending loss descending on the team, they’d show us how to lose less painfully.
One technique is to change your goals, so that instead of sadly failing to win the game you’re triumphantly succeeding at playing a good game, or doing your best, or giving everybody an even chance to play. Another technique is to claim victory on some other playing field: beating the other team at playing fair-and-square, or at being good sports, or at playing the better, though losing, game (whenever remotely plausible, I learned, luck is to blame for things that go wrong, while skill and just reward are the best explanations for things that go right).
Before the game both sides were clear as to what the stakes were, how the victor would be defined, and what meaning the victory would have. The loser must unremember all of this.
Of course the winning team is not going to participate in these redefinitions. The coaches of the winning teams I was on didn’t spend a lot of time reassuring us that we were every bit as good as the team that scored fewer points but that clearly did its best, played fair, and showed true spirit in spite of its terrible luck.
I remember disliking these tricks at the time — seeing them as akin to what we called “indian giving” (perhaps in tribute to the game-redefinitions that characterized the treaty negotiations between the United States and the “fully sovereign” native Americans).
These tricks seemed like cheating. Or maybe not cheating exactly, but dishonorable in a similar way. Like the “sour grapes” technique of not losing some struggle you’d lost. Or the “best two out of three” gambit to a coin toss that doesn’t go your way.
But on the other hand, nobody likes to lose — particularly a kid — and the grown-ups probably thought they were doing us a favor by showing us the sneaky exits they’d learned about. I’ve tried many of these excuses over the years as balms to soothe the hurt of defeat, and have in my turn ridiculed the balms used by those I’ve defeated.
The earliest of these placebos come to lose their effectiveness, but often only to be redrafted in more complex forms and brought back into service, disguised with sophistication. How often do you hear a news account of a court case in which the phrase “both sides claimed the ruling as a victory” is used? You’d think cases like this could be easily settled out of court.
I was reminded of all this by a phrase I heard a few days ago — one that comes up again and again at peacenik events. The phrase is “incredibly powerful statement” and it is usually used to decorate the description of some wholly ineffective but goodhearted gesture.
(I was hoping this cancer hadn’t spread to The Picket Line, but then I found Gina Lunori’s advocacy of tax resistance from where she wrote: “Imagine the power of this statement. What if every person who felt that the government had lost their moral support also withdrew their practical support? What if only one in ten did? It would be the beginning of the end. It would be that nonviolent revolution we’re praying for.” Perhaps. But please slap me if you hear me advocate tax resistance as “an incredibly powerful statement.”)
The “peace movement” is full of these feel-good lies that transform actual defeats into moral victories. Listen to the folk songs at rallies — we’re powerful, we’re rising, the People are with us, victory is ours, we will change the world, thinking good thoughts is probably all that’s necessary, it feels good to be as righteous as we are. It reminds me of the hymns sung at feel-good liberal Christian churches — nobody really dies, there’s no good reason to question that a benevolent God exists, Jesus lives and counts you as one of his bestest friends, giving up sin is easy and painless and not really all that necessary anyway, it feels good to be as righteous as we are.
Turning to a belief system like these when the chips are down is like getting nothing but a Hallmark “get well” card from your family when you’re dying in the hospital. When I hear the chant “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated” I also hear the gentle campfire songs from my childhood: “We are one in the spirit, we are one in The Lord…” They have a similar purpose — to reinforce a myth and to exchange an unfavorable reality for a triumphant fantasy.
One reaction to this are the violent, “black bloc”-style protests (expect to see some at the upcoming party nominating conventions) — which are as much a reaction against the nonviolent protesters as they are an action directed against those outposts of capitalism, globalism and imperialism cleverly disguised as Starbucks franchises.
These protesters see nonviolent protest as a pathetic and timid pleading to an unresponsive and hostile government — symbolic rather than direct, predictable (and predictably ineffective), self-aggrandizing, hobbyish, and effectively collaborationist: Ultimately, no better than the electoral process at generating real change. And they’re not willing to go along with the well-worn techniques of losing.
Their verdict is just. But violent protest, if subjected to the same withering analysis, would probably fall harder and faster. For one thing, this government has an overwhelming advantage in any sort of violent confrontation, and this would probably be true even if the protesters used less arbitrary tactics and had the support of a large majority of the civilian population. Violent conflict with the government is a losing proposition at this stage (even when looked at simply pragmatically and strategically, not ethically). But the “black bloc” crew wants to try something that might actually work, and they probably reason that if the non-violent protest organizers and the authorities both angrily oppose their tactics it must mean that they’re on to something.
(I must say that in their favor, the violent protesters have much more provocative chants: “2 — 4 — 6 — 8 — Don’t impeach: assassinate!” has a thrill to it that “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” will never have.)
This isn’t to say that the situation is hopeless. What I mean to say is that this pathetic-nonviolent-protest vs. futile-violent-protest dichotomy is a false one. The “nonviolent protest movement” in this dichotomy is a caricature (unfortunately one that has come to life in a form that seems almost as though it were designed to fail).
The path to success lies in neither of these extremes, but in a movement that does not mistake a non-confrontational action for a non-violent one, and one that does not confuse making an “incredibly powerful statement” with making progress.
People who are committed to (or who prefer) nonviolence and who regret the rise of the “black bloc” and other violent protesters should ask how Gandhi prevented the Indian National Congress from choosing the tactics of those in India who were advocating armed insurrection. The answer: he was more hard-core than they were, and he demonstrated results.
Demonstrating results is going to be a slow-and-steady process. There are billions of us sharing this planet, so we have to keep our expectations low about the global effects of our individual actions. It takes a whole bunch of people, all working in the same direction, to extinguish a species or to build weapons of mass destruction with global reach. Similarly, no one can expect to undo this sort of nonsense alone or with a single change of heart. We each do what we can and hope that there will be enough of us doing what we can to make a difference.
But being more hard-core means first of all to care enough about the problem to do more than “root” from the sidelines. Putting a bumper-sticker on your car is something you’d do for your favorite football team. Holding a sign at a rally is like something a really enthusiastic fan might do at the stadium. If you really care enough, you’ll want to be a player on the field. If you really care enough, a “moral victory” — or any other second-best “statement” — won’t be the victory you’re fighting for.
Don’t mistake rooting for something with working for it. Don’t think that your regret and disapproval about your country’s actions is being solemnly weighed somewhere. (It isn’t, but your taxes are.) If all you want is to “make an incredibly powerful statement” — go start a blog.
If only I had recourse to that Christian thought experiment about what happens at the end of your life if you have to “meet your maker” and plead your case before an omniscient and just God.
Imagine Joe Liberal stammering as God asks how he reacted to the Reign of the Dubya Squad. Joe remembers having angrily talked politics over beers, and having pretended he really did feel as passionate about the issues as he now wishes he had — spinning mad shit about the Nuremberg Principles and the French Resistance and feeling around with his eyes closed for that line he knew he wouldn’t cross or for that ever-retreating line that if they ever cross they’ll have finally gone too far.
But then he remembers the bumperstickers on his car, and the emails he forwarded, and the time he clicked on that button on that website to add himself to that petition, and the letter he signed and sent to his Senator (he thinks he remembered to put that in the mail), and the time he shouted down that gung ho patriot in his own living room during that party. Joe remembers how he boldly helped block traffic at that rally, even for a while after the cops told him to disperse.
And with a hubris that makes a sound like falling harps he open his mouth to say all this and the Schwarzeneggar of the Skies puts up a hand to silence him and says “I didn’t ask what your opinion was; I asked if you supported the government. Nevermind…” and He pulls out a file folder.
It’s not the Book of Judgment — in my thought experiment it’s worse. It’s all of his W-2 forms. And some sort of seraphim or something is there with an adding machine summing up everything that went to Dubya over the years. And Joe’s mouth is opening and closing with a “ba-ba-ba-ba” like he’s singing do-wop with these falling harps and he reaches for the last thing he’s got, the awful, the hopeless, the White House Lawyer-Approved Eichmann Defense:
“That’s not my fault — I didn’t have any choice!”
And it’s like he’s said the magic word, but instead of Groucho’s duck, pie charts and graphs fall from the sky and he sees himself surrounded by evidence that not only could he have avoided paying federal income taxes, but more than a third of his fellow Americans did avoid it. What the hell was Joe’s excuse? He knew what the government was using that money for and he paid it anyway.
Okay, enough. I’ve given this speech before. I don’t believe that I’m going to the big traffic court in the sky when I die and probably neither do you, so why am I having this strange daydream? I think it’s because even if there’s no Judgment, I can still tell there’s right and wrong. Even if the statutes haven’t come down on stone tablets embroidered with lightning bolts and suitable for southern courthouses, I’ve still got to shrug off this inconvenience and find out what’s right and do it. The judge is me, and even so, he shows no favoritism, and the reason I can hear him is not because I’ve died and gone to an unlikely heavenly prelim, but because I’m very much alive.
After I had the terrible realization that even in the wake of such a shocking and successfully brutal terrorist attack on my country, I feared my government’s reaction to the attack more than I feared Al Qaeda.
I found myself wanting to speak out with a strong voice against the direction the country was taking and against the actions of the government, but I found myself holding back because the voice of my conscience would tell me “if you really believed what you say you believe, you wouldn’t be able to continue to fund the government the way you do.” Eventually, I came to really believe what I said I believed.
When I started this experiment in “tax avoision” I kind of gritted my teeth, bunched my brow, put my head down and started forward. But so far the path has been all downhill and the weather’s been fine. My life is fuller now than it was before, and I’m happier and more relaxed. I’ve got more free time, and I haven’t really had to sacrifice much — most of my savings have come from spending smarter and taking on less-expensive pasttimes. I’m eating as well or better than before, for instance, but I’m cooking at home rather than going out. I can drink drip coffee at home all month for the price of one of the mochas I used to grab on my way to work.
I’m living a life that’s more closely aligned with my principles — a long overdue reconciliation of my actions with my deepest intentions. And this has given me a strong and unexpected sense of relief. I tried to describe this feeling to a friend a long time ago and came up with a sort of half-assed analogy that I haven’t been able to improve: You know how when someone’s house gets robbed, the person often feels a sense of violation and loss that goes way beyond the value of whatever is missing? I bet if that person was robbed again the next week, it wouldn’t be quite so bad. And if they were robbed every week, pretty soon it wouldn’t register much besides a curiosity of “what’s missing this time?” But if the robbery stopped, and suddenly they felt that they were safe in their home, that their belongings were really theirs, maybe a sense of elation would come in that’s equal and opposite to the feeling of the original violation.
I sometimes feel embarrassed by the ease of my experiment and by its strong personal rewards. I’m not supposed to be enjoying myself! This is supposed to be sacrifice and hard work! What happened to feeling “hard-core?” Instead “tax avoision” has turned out to be satisfying and suspiciously harmonious with my laziness. Ultimately, though, I’m no glutton for punishment: I’m glad it’s been easy so far.
I am concerned sometimes that what I’m doing is more of a passive reaction rather than an assertive action. My tax resistance isn’t so much working for good as it is minimizing my collaboration with evil. But at least it doesn’t interfere with my working for good, or counteract whatever good works I might do.
I like to think The Picket Line is one of these good works — more than “a powerful statement” I hope, but an encouragement and a resource for people trying to take the small, patient steps toward a better world.