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
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:
…and on the back:
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.”
L. — “Well?”
F. — “Well, I came to collect it.”
L. — “Do I owe you
F. — “Why, yes.”
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.”
L. — “Oh! it isn’t a matter of
F. — “No, it’s a matter of compulsion.”
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—”
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.”
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?”
L. — “I never take a receipt for money
that is stolen from me.”
F. — “Oh, that’s it?”
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
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
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
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
for sending about a zillion readers this way from there yesterday.