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.