Going to a Toothless Anti-War Protest to Protest Its Toothlessness

On I mentioned that I was thinking of picketing the upcoming “Stop Funding the War in Iraq” protest rally at the San Francisco Federal Building as a way of trying to provoke some cognitive dissonance in the anti-war taxpayers who can, with a straight face, tell Nancy Pelosi that “you can’t say you oppose the war and fund it at the same time” while they continue to send money to the Imperial Treasury.

I thought that if I went through with it, I’d be in that “solitary crank” mode that I’m trying not to be typecast into. But I managed to sell the idea to the Northern California War Tax Resistance group, so we’ll be there as a team, with our banner and our leaflets, asking people to wear “I refuse to fund this war!” stickers.

After dithering indecisively about it for days, and hoping that sacrifices made on the altar of procrastination would gain me some providential last-minute creativity the way it did back in college, I settled on a sandwich board sign also. On the front:

Put your MONEY where your mouth is!

…and on the back:

War tax resisters aren’t buying it!

I reprinted Benjamin Ricketson Tucker’s defense of his brief experience with poll tax resistance. Tucker said in that defense that he thought of such tax resistance as being solely for the purpose of “propagandism” — at least until such time as “a determined body of men and women” could “effectively, though passively, resist taxation, not simply for propagandism, but to directly cripple their oppressors.”

After this, Tucker soured on using tax resistance if it would invite retaliation from the State and he restricted himself to forms of symbolic tax resistance that he felt would be more-or-less equally effective propaganda. In the following series of excerpts from Liberty ( and ), Tucker describes one such episode, and then defends it from a critic who attacks it for being too passive.

Time: , 7:30 P.M.

Place: Residence of the editor of Liberty, 10 Garfield Ave., Crescent Beach, Revere (a town in the suburbs of Boston).

Dramatis Personæ: Charles F. Fenno, so-called tax-collector of Revere, and the editor of Liberty.

In answer to a knock the editor of Liberty opens his front door, and is accosted by a man whom he never met before, but who proves to be Fenno.

Fenno. — “Does Mr. Tucker live here?”

Editor of Liberty — “That’s my name, sir.”

F. — “I came about a poll-tax.”

E. of L. — “Well?”

F. — “Well, I came to collect it.”

E. of L. — “Do I owe you anything?”

F. — “Why, yes.”

E. of L. — “Did I ever agree to pay you anything?”

F. — “Well, no; but you were living here on , and the town taxed you one dollar.”

E. of L. — “Oh! it isn’t a matter of agreement, then?”

F. — “No, it’s a matter of compulsion.”

E. of L. — “But isn’t that rather a mild word for it? I call it robbery.”

F. — “Oh, well, you know the law; it says that all persons twenty years of age and upwards who are living in a town on the first day of May—”

E. of L. — “Yes, I know what the law says, but the law is the greatest of all robbers.”

F. — “That may be. Anyhow, I want the money.”

E. of L. (taking a dollar from his pocket and handing it to Fenno) — “Very well. I know you are stronger than I am, because you have a lot of other robbers at your back, and that you will be able to take this dollar from me if I refuse to hand it to you. If I did not know that you are stronger than I am, I should throw you down the steps. But because I know that you are stronger, I hand you the dollar just as I would hand it to any other highwayman. You have no more right to take it, however, than to enter the house and take everything else you can lay your hands on, and I don’t see why you don’t do so.”

F. — “Have you your tax-bill with you?”

E. of L. — “I never take a receipt for money that is stolen from me.”

F. — “Oh, that’s it?”

E. of L. — “Yes, that’s it.”

And the door closed in Fenno’s face.

He seemed a harmless and inoffensive individual, entirely ignorant of the outrageous nature of his conduct, and he is wondering yet, I presume, if not consulting with his fellow-citizens, upon what manner of crank it is that lives at No. 10 Garfield Ave., and whether it would not be the part of wisdom to lodge him straightway in a lunatic asylum.

This was followed by:

The last issue of the Workmen’s Advocate contains the following communication:

To the Workmen’s Advocate:

Oh! what a feeling of rapture came over me as I began reading the dialogue between Tucker and Fenno in the last number of Liberty. (Ego Tucker needs no introduction; Fenno is the fiend who came to collect the poll-tax.) My thoughts went back to another age and to distant clime. I thought of John Hampden refusing to pay the ship-tax. I had often asked myself, who will be the leader in this, the struggle of the fourth estate? Where is the man who will dare resist oppression? I thought and I was answered. Here! here was the man who would risk all for Liberty! And although she slew him, still would he trust in her!

But softly; as I read further, he takes the big iron dollar from his pocket and gives it to the minion.

Oh, ignominy! Instead of refusing to pay, he indulges in a little billingsgate — a favorite pastime with him. He pays, and all is over. Our idol is but clay, and we must seek another leader. Is this what Ego Anarchists call “passive resistance”? If it is, it is certainly passive.

H.J. French

When I published the poll-tax interview, I foresaw that it would call out some such rubbish as the above from my Socialistic critics. The fact that timely retreat often saves from defeat seldom saves the retreating soldier from the abuse of the “home guard.” The “stay-at-homes” are great worshipers of glory, but are always willing to let others win it. To the man of peace the man who runs is never a hero, although the true soldier may know him for the bravest of the brave. After reading such a criticism as Mr. French’s, well may one exclaim with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: “What men call courage is the least noble thing of which they boast.” To my mind there is no such depth of poltroonery as that of the man who does not dare to run. For he has not the real courage to obey his own judgment against that “spook,” public opinion, above which his mind is not sufficiently emancipated to rise in scorn. Placed in a situation where, from the choice of one or the other horn of a dilemma, it must follow either that fools will think a man a coward or that wise men will think him a fool, I can conceive of no possible ground for hesitancy in the selection. I know my circumstances better than Mr. French can know them, and I do not permit him to be my judge. When I want glory, I know how to get it. But I am not working for glory. Like the base-ball player who sacrifices his individual record to the success of his club, I am “playing for my team” — that is, I am working for my cause. And I know that, on the whole, it was better for my cause that I should pay my tax than that I should refuse to pay it. Is this passive resistance? asks Mr. French. No; it is simply a protest for the purpose of propagandism. Passive resistants, no less than active resistants, have the right to choose when to resist.

Far be it from me to depreciate the services of the Hampdens and the martyrs reverenced by mankind. There are times when the course that such men follow is the best policy, and then their conduct is of the noblest. But there are times also when it is sheer lunacy, and then their conduct is not for sane men to admire. Did Mr. French ever hear of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava? And does he remember the comment of a military man who witnessed that memorable, that splendid, that insane exploit, fruitful in nothing save the slaughter of half a thousand men; “It is magnificent, but it is not war.” The editor of Liberty is engaged in war.

My first thought on reading this is that of course Tucker is right. All of us have to pick our battles, and if we didn’t sometimes have to retreat in the face of the State’s power, we’d have already won.

On further reflection, though, it seems to me that Tucker does a lot more than just to state this bit of wisdom. He seems to betray some defensiveness in just how bitterly he denounces his critic.

I don’t mean to read too much into this. Tucker is probably somewhat disappointed at himself for not having a better, more valiant option that fits with his game plan, or at not having a “determined body of men and women” backing him up who would make a show of rebellion on his part more than just a quixotic gesture.

In part, he seems to be writing to himself: “Remember, don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”

Thanks to “apotheon” at Reddit for sending about a zillion readers this way from there yesterday.