U.S. War Tax Resisters Meet in Cleveland

was .

NWTRCC regulars were joined by curious locals like Tom Quinn of EcoWatch and Michael Patterson from Dennis Kucinich’s office (our meeting place is in Kucinich’s House district and he was curious enough to send an aide to take notes).

A few things jumped out at me during the opening introductory go-’round:

  • Jim Stockwell of North Carolina mentioned that after some initial mutual suspicion there was surprising synergy between the traditional Tax Day protest his war tax resistance group held and the Tea Party protests going on at .
  • Many of the local groups reported diminishing numbers and less-frequent activity in the past months, mirroring a general doldrums in the peace movement.
  • Bill Ramsey noted that it has become harder to set up alternative funds in the post-9/11 financial paperwork era.
  • Ramsey also reported on an interesting and creative tax day protest in his neck of the woods. A group grabbed hundreds of 1040 forms from public places where such things are found (libraries, post offices, and the like), then printed ghostly images of coffins and of children wounded in war over the forms, and then replaced them where they had originally found them.
  • Ginny Sсhnеider noted that in New Hampshire, the notoriety of the Ed and Elaine Brown tax protester stand-off fiasco has made it difficult for her to do outreach in the progressive community. People hear “tax resistance” and immediately their minds conjure up images of nuts holing up with their arsenals and their conspiracy theories until the government locks them up for life.

We watched a near-final cut of a film NWTRCC is producing about war tax resistance and resisters: Death and Taxes. It met with great acclaim (and plenty of suggestions for last-minute edits). Last I heard, it’s due for release .

Attendees watch a cut of Death and Taxes, an introductory war tax resistance film due to be released next month

Later, Phil Althouse, an election observer in El Salvador, updated us on conditions there, and Mike Ferner of Veterans for Peace talked about how to move from activism to organizing and build bonds between disparate parts of the broader anti-war coalition.

Mike Ferner and Phil Althouse

Mike Ferner and Phil Althouse address the gathering

While coalition building always sounds great in the abstract, when it comes down to actually doing it, it runs into the practical difficulty of finding a common ground and deciding where to compromise and where no compromise is possible. Ferner thought that organizing around the larger vision of real democracy was the way to go. Other folks were skeptical. It can be difficult to find anything approaching an ideological common ground even in a small group like NWTRCC with an inherently common, specialized and political interest.

In members of NWTRCC there’s often a tension between avowed nonviolent principles and promotion of progressive projects (like universal health care and publicly-financed elections for instance) that fundamentally rely on a coercive, violent state to carry them out. The avowedly nonviolent progressives either don’t see the violent ramifications inherent in such projects or I have failed to understand the ingenious way they have squared this circle. I usually avoid the temptation to press the point, but sometimes give in.

Anyway, after this we split up into two groups: a War Tax Resistance 101 discussion group that I moderated, and a larger group that discussed issues of interest to more experienced resisters. There were other groups that met over the course of the afternoon as well, but by then I found it hard to be in even one place at once.

In the evening we heard more in-depth stories of the tax resistance from our hosts, Maria Smith and Charlie Hurst, and from Juanita Nelson and Erica Weiland. Juanita Nelson told the story of her arrest-in-a-Sears-bathrobe that she also tells in A Matter of Freedom. Erica described her transformation from a young Dean Democrat to a tax resisting anarchist (a salvation narrative in which, to my delight, The Picket Line plays a role).

Juanita Nelson tells her story

In the opening section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle interrogated the folk psychology of his day to ask what it had to say about self-control and its lack, and he came up with a list of things that are popularly believed about self-control and some other things on which there doesn’t appear to be any consensus.

In the second section, Aristotle continues this inquiry, in the hopes that he can come up with a coherent concept of self-control that more-or-less agrees with the popular use of the term.

How is it that someone can know the difference between right and wrong in some circumstance, and yet choose the wrong over the right?

Socrates thought this was inherently contradictory: people only make choices by choosing what they believe to be right, so that whenever they choose something wrong they do so because they were factually mistaken about it and incorrectly believed it to be right.

Aristotle says flatly that “this view plainly contradicts the observed facts.” He wants a better explanation. How is it that someone comes to know what the right course of action is and then does something else instead? Does that person change his or her mind? Does some other part of the soul take over the reins from reason and override reason’s choices? Does the knowledge of right and wrong evaporate on contact with certain sensations or temptations? Is the supposed knowledge of right-and-wrong that the incontinent person displays at first actually only an unexamined opinion that doesn’t survive contact with real life?

Some people think that it is some form of prudence or practical wisdom that makes people change their minds at the last minute and choose vice over virtue — sort of a “that virtue looked pretty good until I saw it up close and then I realized I liked the vice better” or da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo (Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not right away). Aristotle thinks this is silly. Prudence and incontinence are contradictory, and willingly choosing vice over virtue is never an example of practical wisdom.

Self-control is all about resisting temptation. So to some extent it’s, ironically, in opposition to Temperance. If you’re Temperate, you don’t really have strong temptations to vice — your appetites are good ones, your desires are virtuous ones. For this reason, if you’re Temperate you don’t have strong temptations that need to be resisted, and so you won’t exhibit self-control, or if you do, it will be a perverse sort of self-control that inhibits you from doing things that are good.

Self-control can be mere stubbornness, if the point-of-view you’re valiantly sticking to is a stupid or vicious one. And, on the other side of the coin, it can be praiseworthy to vacillate or change your mind if there is reasonable doubt as to whether your original game plan is virtuous or not.

Sophists have used this to formulate an uncomfortable paradox in which they ask their listeners to agree that someone who is both perfectly foolish and perfectly incontinent is thereby virtuous, since he or she will stupidly decide to do something vicious and then incontinently fail to follow through, doing something virtuous instead.

Someone who deliberately does something vicious is, to some extent, more amenable to change than someone who incontinently flips to viciousness at the last minute in the face of temptation. It’s possible to persuade the former of his or her error, but for the latter no amount of persuasion is going to do the trick.

Finally, as was mentioned in the previous section, some people are said to have or lack self-control about some thing in particular (say, money, regard, power); but there’s also a sense in which we can say some people just plain lack self-control, even though they may not lack self-control in some of these particular areas. What do we mean by this?

This all presents quite a tangle, which Aristotle will attempt to untangle in the coming sections.

I’m curious as to how “hypocrisy” fits in this model. It seems to share some characteristics with incontinence, though maybe mostly with the weak version in which the original, virtuous point of view was more “opinion” than “knowledge.”

Hypocrisy is big in modern popular ethical thought — there’s no gotcha that’s a better gotcha than some “family values” Republican getting caught with his pants down, for instance, and political bloggers are always trying to catch each other making absolute pronouncements on opposite sides of the same issue for partisan reasons. People don’t seem to beware hypocrisy, exactly, as though they thought of it as inherently harmful, but they’re reluctant to be caught in it because it is embarrassing. (This is almost no more than a sport — like photographing celebrities without their make-up on for the tabloids.)

But since Aristotle thinks that politics is an important thing for thoughtful people to engage in, and that the purpose of politics is, in part anyway, to legislate and guide citizens in ethical behavior, it seems that there is a public counterpart to the private weakness that is incontinence, and that would be hypocrisy.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics