How to Bring Young People into War Tax Resistance

The war tax resistance movement is a little self-conscious about being a bit long in the tooth. How to encourage more young people to become war tax resisters and to participate in the war tax resistance movement is a regular topic of discussion at NWTRCC meetings, for instance.

It isn’t as though there weren’t any young war tax resisters, or that the ones that exist aren’t active — indeed there are two young activists on NWTRCC’s Administrative Committee. But there’s no denying that grey hair is overrepresented.

Part of this may come from the fact that a lot of young people don’t have much experience with paying federal taxes, and so the gravity of the situation hasn’t hit them yet. And part of this may be that for a young person applying for student loans and trying to break into the job market, tax resistance seems to interfere with other important goals. Part of it also may be that the war tax resistance movement has developed a culture that carries along with it traditions and cultural assumptions that are more comfortable to an older generation of activists (for instance, the folk songs we sing).

A few years back, Dan Berger and Andy Cornell, two young activists, toured the eastern United States to promote their books and to put their fingers on the pulse of radical activism in the country. Along the way, they stayed the night at the home of a war tax resister. Here was their impression:

Intergenerational movements are not simply about people of various ages being in the same room. Instead, it is about building respectful relationships of mutual learning and teaching based on a long-haul approach to movement building. In raising this issue, we saw three typical responses that are generally unhelpful to building intergenerational groups and movements:

The Nike Approach (Just Do It!)
the older activists who tell young people to just go out there and change the world already and to stop looking for validation from older people. But young folks aren’t looking for a go-ahead; we are out there, doing our best. Validation and encouragement from people we respect can bolster our resolve, but what we’re really looking for is mentorship, multigenerational commitment, and solidarity. We’re willing to put ourselves out there, even to make mistakes. But it would be helpful if we didn’t have to make the same mistakes older people have already made. And young folks need to see that older activists maintain their political commitments in both word and deed.
The Retired Approach (We Had Our Turn, Now You Try)
several older activists echoed the sentiment that they did their best and now it was up to us. Some with this position argue that they and their generation need to get entirely out of the way of the young folks, which functionally removes older people from the equation. This abandonment masquerading as support is equally unhelpful in actually learning from the past and moving forward together because it serves to enforce a generational separation.
The Obstructionist Approach (Only If You Accept My Politics and Unquestioned Leadership)
people with this position demand adherence to the politics and vision of the older generation as the prerequisite for any working relationship. They make The Retired Approach more appealing and are a reminder that, frankly, some people do need to get out of the way. This is where older allies committed to collaboration could be potentially helpful, proving that political divides are not inherently generational gaps.

A lack of intergenerational relationships and groups is apparent nationally and locally. In one town we visited, for instance, the “peace community” seemed to lack any relationship to anyone under 50 or to impoverished communities of color that are most directly affected by the war machine. Another town saw a largely generational split over confrontational anti-war activism, where older people generally refused to support any confrontational tactics and anyone using them. Yet when the younger folks went out by themselves to picket the recruiting station, they were able to successfully shut it down on two separate occasions. Intergenerational movement building could be useful not only in expanding the base of people willing to engage in such confrontational tactics (and thereby hopefully contributing to hastening the war’s end) but also in trying to push other older people to work with and support youth leadership.

Young people, for our part, make it difficult for movement veterans to find us and assess our work when we organize only as temporary affinity groups that usually lack office space and sometimes even contact information. Expressing interest in building such ties is also important. When one of us off-handedly commented to an SDS veteran and radical historian that many younger activists would appreciate being asked by organizers of his generation to have coffee or lunch and talk shop, he seemed genuinely surprised. “Really? You think folks would want to get together with people like me?” We assured him that we at least appreciated it — especially when the older folks picked up the tab.

What young people don’t want to deal with is patronization or abandonment, people who focus on their glory days or on lecturing “the youngens.” What young folks do want are older activists who remain steadfast in their resolve and organizing, who seek to draw out the lessons from their years in the struggle (and are clear about where they differ with others of their age cohort without being sectarian), who look to younger activists for inspiration and guidance while providing the same, and who are focused on movement building. Building on the more multigenerational roots of Southern organizing, two older organizers in Greensboro beautifully summed this up at an event in saying, “We aren’t done, we’re not leaving, and we’re in this together.”

If, as we argued throughout the tour, militancy is not to be conflated with violence or property destruction, but is instead understood as a stance of political integrity and commitment in spite of serious consequences, activists young and old might also more seriously consider the challenge directed at the two of us by a long-time radical pacifist anarchist who housed us for a night: the challenge of becoming “war tax” resistors. While the unpublicized, moralistic actions of scattered, aging individuals that seem to have characterized the war tax resistance movement for many decades haven’t proven particularly appealing to many younger radicals, it seems that a coordinated, media-savvy campaign of joint declarations of tax resistance by a significant group of the younger-generation activists, expressing an explicit anti-imperialist politics, has enough potential to ignite debate as to at least be given a thoughtful appraisal. “After all,” expressed our new friend, “the only thing the government wants is your money. They sure don’t care if you vote, or if you approve of what they’re doing.”

In the fifth section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops a new categorization scheme to organize the sorts of pleasures that can prompt a lack of self control, including, this time, certain pathological cases.

First, there are those things that are pleasant by nature. Some of these are pleasant without qualification and to any creature capable of feeling them. These correspond to the natural pleasures mentioned in the previous section: things like the discomfort of hunger, and the pleasure of eating; the pleasure of sex; the bodily sensations that lead animals to avoid extremes of temperature and seek out a comfort zone; things of that sort.

Others of these natural pleasures are only pleasant to certain sorts of creatures: there are specifically-human pleasures and pains that other animals do not take part in, and further there are pleasures and pains that only certain sorts of people participate in (not everybody takes pleasure in making art, for instance, or is pained by poorly-made coffee)

The other category of pleasures contains those that are not naturally pleasant but that are pleasant to some people because of some pathology:

  • some physical malady like madness or disease
  • a habit acquired in childhood as a result of trauma or abuse
  • psychopathology, or “brutishness”

In these categories are people who commit savage and difficult-to-understand crimes (your Jeffrey Dahmers and the like), pedophiles, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, pica, or phobias, and things of that sort. Aristotle says that these things are not really varieties of incontinence but are something else. Those whose lack of self control has natural causes like disease or injury “no one would call incontinent,” while those whose lack of self control comes from “a morbid condition as a result of habit” or from brutishness is exhibiting something “beyond the limits of vice.”

The varieties of pleasure that can lead to lack of self-control, from R.W. Browne’s The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle ().

The varieties of pleasure that can lead to lack of self-control, from John S. Brewer’s The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, with English Notes ().

Such lack of self control, whether “morbid” or “brutish,” may come and go, may sometimes be mastered and may other times get the upper hand. Such wickedness is super-human, not a merely human weakness, and lack of self control in such areas also goes beyond normal human bounds.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics