“Declaration of Peace” Suffers from Vague Generalities

To: The Declaration of Peace campaign

I was very encouraged to hear about the “Declaration of Peace” project, and its call for people who are opposed to the Iraq War to commit to nonviolent civil disobedience.

The Declaration calls upon its signers “to take bold, powerful and peaceful steps… tangible, nonviolent action to end this war and to declare a new era of peace and justice.” This is a great idea.

However, I am worried that this, by itself, is too vague — I’m afraid that it sounds a bit like an empty threat.

I think in a case like this we need to call for bold, powerful, peaceful and specific, practical action, and furthermore we should lead by example by starting such action ourselves as soon as possible.

When I think of successful declarations of this sort — that is, those declarations that were actually followed up by determined, large-scale, nonviolent action that was effective at challenging the powers-that-be — two examples come to mind right away: the pledges that accompanied Gandhi’s successful campaigns in Champaran, Kheda, and Bardoli; and the declaration that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Here is an excerpt from the former:

After having fully understood and considered the conditions essential for the starting of mass civil disobedience, this Conference of the inhabitants of the Bardoli Taluka resolves that this Taluka is fit for mass civil disobedience…

…this Taluka will immediately commence mass civil disobedience under the advice and guidance of Mr. Gandhi and the President of the Conference.

This Conference recommends that those tax-payers of the Taluka who are ready and willing to abide by the conditions laid down by the Congress for mass civil disobedience, will refrain, till further instruction, from paying land revenue and other taxes due to the Government.

And here is an excerpt from the latter:

[B]e it therefore resolved as follows:

  1. That the citizens of Montgomery are requesting that every citizen in Montgomery, regardless of race, color or creed, to refrain from riding buses owned and operated in the city of Montgomery by the Montgomery Lines, Incorporated, until some arrangement has been worked out between said citizens and the Montgomery City Lines, Incorporated.…
  2. That every person owning or who has access to an automobile will use their automobiles in assisting other persons to get to work without charge.
  3. That the… employers of persons whose employees live a great distance from them, as much as possible, afford transportation for your own employees.

I include these excerpts to show how specific these declarations were and the extent to which they were concrete pledges of action on the part of the people involved.

If Gandhi had merely called for unspecified “bold, powerful and peaceful steps” or if Dr. King had called on the citizens of Montgomery to please go off on their own and engage in a “tangible, nonviolent action” of their choosing I don’t think their campaigns would have been as successful.

As to what this specific action should be in our case, there are probably many candidates worth considering. For my part, I believe that a tax resistance campaign has much to recommend it.

For one thing, tax resistance is something that everyone can participate in, with various levels of risk and commitment. You can be a tax resister without risking arrest or government harassment (through various legal means of tax avoidance), or you can be very confrontational about it and court government retaliation. A person who signs on to a declaration of tax resistance may start meekly and then increase the strength of his or her protest as encouragement and enthusiasm builds or as more people join the campaign.

For another, it seems to me that the bare minimum that we should expect of people who oppose the war is that they stop supporting it! If you pay taxes to the U.S. government, you are giving practical support to the war makers, and all your marching and chanting won’t undo that. (As Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, famously put it “let them march all they want, so long as they continue to pay their taxes.”) [This quote has proven difficult to verify and may be apocryphal―♇]

For another, tax resistance is a form of direct action that takes place on an ongoing basis — it is not a single sit-in and arrest, but a number of deliberate choices that transform your life from one that supports the war machine to one that does not. It is a way of voting with your life and making your actions agree with your attitudes.

For another, tax resistance is eminently practical! It is not an action that aims first and foremost at influencing public opinion, persuading politicians, or attracting media coverage. On the contrary, its first goal is to withdraw actual, practical support from the war-makers.

I was at a demonstration in Oakland recently in support of conscientious objectors who had refused to fight in Iraq and elsewhere. I was reminded of what Thoreau had to say on this point:

I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war…

Conscientious objection is a choice for the taxpayer just as it is for the draftee or the soldier, and it is time that we exercise that choice.