The Ghost of Gandhi Interviewed by a Telepathic Tapeworm

My imaginary friend Ishmael Gradsdovic is, to put it mildly, an eccentric fellow. For instance, he claims to have a tapeworm that is clairvoyant and that communicates with him telepathically. Even knowing Ishmael as well as I do, I can’t tell whether this is a colorful metaphor, an artistic conceit, a schizophrenic delusion, or the honest truth in some way I can’t even imagine.

When Ishmael read my recent Picket Line entries concerning Gandhi and his satyagraha theory, he told me that coincidentally one of the things his tapeworm does is to channel the spirit of Gandhi, and that if I liked, he would try to arrange an interview.

How could I resist? So what follows is, I should stress, an interview with the spirit of Gandhi, as channeled through a clairvoyant tapeworm that is communicating telepathically with an imaginary friend of mine. Any resemblance to the actual opinions of Mohandas K. Gandhi may have been lost in transit.

Picket Line: It is a delight, an honor and a surprise to be able to interview you Mr. Gandhi. I am conducting this interview for my weblog — a sort of newsletter — which is concerned with how individuals can best respond to war and other state injustice, in particular through tax resistance. I’m very interested in your thoughts on this subject.

Gandhi: I’m actually fairly up on current events and I know what a “weblog” is. Being a spirit isn’t as isolating as it is sometimes made out to be.

: Then you know about the situation in Iraq and the growing belligerence and imperialism of my country.

Gandhi: Of course.

: Do you think tax resistance is a useful response to this? Am I barking up the right tree?

Gandhi: Withholding payment of taxes is one of the quickest methods of overthrowing a government. But there is no movement in America that has evolved the degree of strength and discipline which are necessary for conducting a successful campaign of non-payment of taxes. Civil non-payment of taxes is the last stage in non-cooperation. I wouldn’t recommend it until a movement has put other forms of civil disobedience into practice.

: I’m considering it less as a revolutionary act by a movement and more as a way of ending personal collaboration with injustice.

Gandhi: In India, non-payment of taxes meant confiscation of property and the threat of impoverishment. And this may be why I am so cautious about advocating it. I didn’t want people to face this sort of punishment unless they were fully prepared to respond to it fearlessly and nonviolently. If you have a way to avoid paying taxes without being subject to penalty, then the worry is a different one: your protest may not involve sufficient sacrifice.

: I’m not really aiming at sacrifice so much as noncollaboration.

Gandhi: There are two ways people collaborate with an unjust state. One is to support it directly, by working for it and paying taxes to it and so forth. The other is to depend on it and therefore allow it to justify itself. If you depend on the state for protection, for justice, to educate your children, and so forth, you might as well be wearing the state’s flag on your uniform. You may need to beware of relying on the state to provide you with a relatively risk-free way to feel like you are aloof from it!

: Touché! You’re starting to sound like an anarchist!

Gandhi: Self-reliance — and by “self” I mean not just individuals but families, communities and even nations — is of vital importance. But it’s quite proper to support the government so long as its actions are bearable. It’s when they hurt you and your nation it becomes your duty to withdraw support. A civil resister like myself is, if I can be permitted a lapse of humility, a philanthropist and a friend of the state. An anarchist is the enemy of the state and is, therefore a misanthrope. I am no anarchist.

: I take it back, then.

Gandhi: The government isn’t some alien thing that can be separated from its citizens and criticized or fought against on its own. Most people do not understand the complicated machinery of the government. They do not realize that every citizen silently but nonetheless certainly sustains the government in ways of which he has no knowledge. Every citizen renders himself responsible for every act of his government. I shared with the British rulers responsibility for their sins against India in so far as I gave my cooperation however reluctantly and ever so slightly (for instance by paying taxes or using monopoly salt).

: But at some point if the government is doing evil, it’s proper to consider yourself an enemy of the government and to try to obstruct it, isn’t it?

Gandhi: I would say that it remains proper to consider yourself a friend of the government and to redouble your efforts to improve it — but this may take the form of refusing obedience to law and renouncing the benefits of the schools and courts and so on. You’re not being a friend to an alcoholic when you buy him a drink, and you’re not being a friend to the government when you cooperate in its corruption and devolution into injustice.

: If my friend the alcoholic gets drunk and takes up a gun and starts waving it around, or dashes out to the car with keys in hand, or starts beating her children — maybe the best thing for me to do in order to reduce the suffering she might cause is to restrain her by force and to lock her in a closet until she sobers up. Is this utilitarian calculation, which seems to violate ahimsa, an incorrect one? Why wouldn’t this sort of logic also apply to acting against the evils of armies or governments?

Gandhi: Your reasoning is plausible. It has deluded many, and I once found arguments like this compelling. I think I know better now. If your goal is to take control of a violent apparatus like the state because you think you can use it more wisely, then a violent technique might be appropriate, but your success will be to have risen by violence to being a powerful violent man. Your belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. In the case of your alcoholic friend, I think I can imagine cases like the one you describe in which you could use force not against but wholly in the benefit of your friend — although it might not seem like it to her at the time. Similarly, it is not forbidden to grab a child to prevent him from rushing out into traffic — this is physical force but not himsa. Do not confuse this with fighting a government or army with violence. You do not shoot a man with love for him in your heart.

: I can imagine myself engaging in coercive or violent actions like blockades, sabotage, or even killing in order to stop terrible injustice and suffering, such as has been committed so frequently by states in recent history. In fact, in these cases I imagine, I think I would feel cowardly and ineffective if I had to wait and raise an army of satyagrahis to patiently convert the enemy.

Gandhi: This is the “what about Hitler” argument against reliance on non-violent resistance. Violent replies to Hitler’s violent aggression failed, and failed again, and failed again, and then finally were triumphant (but it could just as plausibly have gone the other way). Non-violent replies were rarely tried, and never in any sustained and disciplined way. It is irresponsible to draw the conclusion from this that the only sensible response to Hitler is a violent one. I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence. Fortunately, these are not the only choices.

: What response would you suggest to a Hitler? What if Imperial Japan had invaded India during World War Ⅱ?

Gandhi: I have not developed a detailed plan that is as well thought-out as a situation as serious as this would demand, but I think that to speak generally: If the whole of India responded with unadulterated nonviolent non-cooperation to such an invasion, I am confident that without shedding a single drop of blood the whole Japanese force would be defeated. India would have to determine not to give quarter on any point whatsoever and to be ready to risk the loss of several million lives. But I would consider that cost very cheap and victory won at that cost glorious. That India might not be ready to pay that price may be true, but some such price must be paid by any country that wants to retain its independence in such circumstances and India would risk no more this way than it would risk by offering armed resistance.

: What would you say to those who believe that the Dubya Squad have crossed the line and the time for resistance has come?

Gandhi: It is the duty of those who have realized the evil nature of the system, however attractive some of its features may seem to be when torn from their context, to destroy it without delay. It is their clear duty to run any risk to achieve that end. The best, most effective way to do this is through satyagraha. You assist an administration most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil administration never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good man will therefore resist an evil system or administration with his whole soul. Disobedience of the laws of an evil state is therefore a duty. Violent disobedience deals with men who can be replaced. It leaves the evil itself untouched and often accentuates it. Nonviolent, civil disobedience is the only and the most successful remedy and is obligatory upon him who would dissociate himself from evil.

This sort of disobedience is not the path you’re following with your tax resistance, if I understand it properly. There are two varieties of civil disobedience: Aggressive and defensive. Aggressive civil disobedience targets the laws of the state in order to revolt against the state; although under ordinary circumstances those laws are not themselves offensive, the state that benefits from them is. Defensive civil disobedience, on the other hand, is disobedience of such laws as are in themselves bad and obedience to which would be inconsistent with one’s self-respect or human dignity. Usually, tax resistance is of the aggressive sort — done by people who aren’t on principle opposed to taxes, but who want to defund the government they are opposed to. Your tax resistance seems to be defensive in that you consider it to be inconsistent with your moral beliefs to pay taxes because of the use the tax money is put to. It’s an interesting border case.

If you decide to go from defensive to aggressive civil disobedience, I would urge you to do so as a satyagrahi.

: But how? If you want to become a soldier, you enlist. If you want to become a satyagrahi… what, exactly? I know it is “devotion to Truth” but that’s a little light on specifics. Can you give me some idea of what is involved?

Gandhi: To become a satyagrahi is easy enough but it is also extremely difficult. I knew a fourteen-year-old boy who became a satyagrahi, I’ve known sick people who have done it, but I have also known physically strong and otherwise well people who have been unable to. After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness.

: Chastity, eh?

Gandhi: Fearlessness, truth, and poverty didn’t faze you, but I say “chastity” and all of a sudden your eyebrow goes up. Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines. A man who is unchaste loses stamina and becomes emasculated and cowardly. If his mind is given over to animal passions, he is not capable of any great effort.

: So you recommend avoiding sex, even for married couples?

Gandhi: When a husband and wife gratify the passions, it is no less an animal indulgence on that account. Such an indulgence, except for perpetuating the race, is strictly prohibited. But a satyagrahi has to avoid even that very limited indulgence because he can have no desire for progeny. If a married couple can think of themselves as brother and sister, they are freed for universal service. If you can’t noncooperate with your own lust, how can you be a successful satyagrahi?

: That is strict discipline. It seems, well, puritanical almost to the point of anorexia in its demands of self-control and renunciation. If you expect everybody to become a saint before they can become a satyagrahi then I expect that the nonviolent army of satyagrahis will be a long time coming.

Gandhi: First: I do not regard the force of numbers as necessary in a just cause. In such a cause every man can have his remedy. Second: I have found that the degree of success in a satyagraha campaign is in proportion to the purity of the satyagraha practiced by the participants — not to their numbers — and this inspires me to ask for the strictest discipline, even though it may sound “anorexic” to you. People who aren’t ready to adopt satyagraha can work for justice in other ways, but being part of a civil resistance movement using satyagraha requires a single-minded dedication and devotion that is stricter than but in some ways comparable to military training.

: It seems like satyagraha is a fairly brittle technique. To be effective it has to be practiced with a daunting purity both of action and of motive. It doesn’t take much violent thought or deed, either by an erstwhile practitioner of satyagraha or by an agent provocateur to make it ineffective.

Gandhi: I think we did pretty good work in South Africa and India using satyagraha — and none of us, me included, were saints. As I said, the more pure the satyagraha, the better the results, which is like saying “the drier the powder, the more effective the shooting” but when the time comes to fight, you use the powder you’ve got, as dry as you’ve managed to keep it. Sometimes I called for mass nonviolent action among undisciplined volunteers in order to provide a safety valve to release tensions that would otherwise have led to violent uprisings. I also sometimes regretted calling for actions before the required discipline was in place. All in all I would prefer an utter failure achieved with non-violence unimpaired than to depart from non-violence even slightly in order to achieve a doubtful success. Satyagraha is a new science, it is not perfectly understood, and there are risks involved in using it. When the world becomes more familiar with its use and when it has had a series of successful demonstrations, there will be less risk in civil disobedience than in aviation.

: Thank you.