Is the U.S. War Tax Resistance Movement Stagnating? What Can Be Done?

, Larry Rosenwald sent some constructive criticism for the war tax resistance movement to a public mailing list for war tax resisters:

[I]n my unsystematic, affectionate observation of our community, our movement, our campaign, whatever the right word is for it, I don’t see much that suggests we’re being successful in our outreach, or that suggests we’re growing and flourishing as a movement. This isn’t to put down anyone’s commitment, my own included, or the solid moral reasoning it’s based on, but I’m guessing that what I wonder is, what would it be like to sit down at a gathering and raise a couple of new questions, which at least have the benefit of being new, however crackpottish they may seem? Here are the ones on my list: 1) Why are we so disproportionately white (at least, at all the meetings I’ve ever attended)? 2) Why have we failed to become a larger and more powerful movement? and 3) in response to a visionary comment made at one gathering by Bob Bady (and this one I heard myself!), namely, “if we built a better movement, people would come to it,” what would we need to do to build a seriously better movement than the one we have now?

Rosenwald was responding to the preliminary minutes from the NWTRCC meeting in Nashville and reacting to a comment he heard from a participant at a regional gathering: “we always talk about two things: outreach to non-WTRs and sustaining ourselves as a movement. When are we going to start talking about something new?”

I think Rosenwald is on to something. The war tax resistance movement seems to be spinning its wheels and it’s time to reexamine what we’re doing.

To his first question, I have an observation or two. I don’t know much about the demographics of the war tax resistance movement, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it is “disproportionally white” as he says. I think this is probably because today’s war tax resistance movement in the U.S. descends from mostly-white religious movements like the Quakers and Catholic Workers with a more-recent infusion from the mostly-white anti-Vietnam-war movement.

Over time, certain aspects of white American (counter-)culture have permeated the movement — not because the people in the movement were deliberately trying to make it a white one, but because with few exceptions, they felt that such things were comfortable and unexceptional. , when I went to the national NWTRCC meeting in Santa Rosa, I noted:

Almost everyone is from the white granola left. Which is to say, this is the kind of group where standing in a circle, holding hands, and singing something by Peter, Paul, and Mary is an earnest and unironic display, and where to divide up into four smaller groups the immediate suggestion is “fire signs in this corner, earth signs over there, etc.

Because these sorts of things are par-for-the-course in the “white granola left,” it is easy for people who are part of that subculture not to realize that they may be somewhat off-putting to people who are not.

The war tax resistance movement often behaves as though we were trying to broadcast that we are very welcoming to white, mild-mannered, organic vegetarian, Dalai Lama supporting, folk-music-loving, gun-control advocates who voted for Kucinich. That message comes through loud and clear. Not that we should be broadcasting that mild-mannered et ceteras aren’t welcome, but if that welcome message is the loudest message we’re putting out, that’s the subculture we’ll be drawing our members from.

As for how to make this movement larger, more powerful, better, and more effective… I’ve got an even crazier idea.

People in the war tax resistance movement have two modes of trying to make change and influence people: On the one hand, we try to influence the government not to be such a pack of scoundrels. On the other hand, we try to convince people who also dislike the government’s scoundrelism to adopt tax resistance as a way of protesting it or of ending complicity with it.

When trying to convince the government, we use the whole assortment of sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns, protest marches, blockades, angry denunciations of all varieties, lawsuits, petitions and the like. When trying to convince the taxpayers, though, suddenly we get very timid.

To the IRS, the tax resister will say “I cannot pay, and I won’t pay, because if I did, I would be complicit in the murder and thievery that this government engages in.” But to the taxpayer who is complicit in the murder and thievery, the tax resister will say, “y’know, if you’re interested, you can make a powerful statement by redirecting the thirty-four cents in phone tax you pay every month, but if it’s too much bother, I understand.”

It is a shame that we divide our energy in this way. The government will ignore us no matter how obnoxious we are (because we’re a fairly small, powerless movement and because they don’t care what we think), and we pretty much invite everybody else to ignore us by the timidity of our message.

My suggestion is to turn this around. Let’s take ourselves seriously and act as though we believe what I think we believe: that the government is only the monster that we allow it to be by feeding it, that there’s no anti-war bumper sticker clever enough to make you actually anti-war if you’re still supporting the war with your money, that paying taxes to the U.S. government is not a neutral act but a pro-war, pro-militarism, pro-government act.

Where I live, 63.3% of the voters passed a powerless city ballot initiative “opposing” the Iraq war, but 84% of them sent in money to pay for the war, and the average one paid more than twice as much as the average American.

Let’s turn around and protest the taxpaying peace movement with the same energy we have been using to protest the government in vain. I’d like to see us picket the taxpayers Michael Moore and Ward Churchill. I’d like us to remind the folks applauding Iraq war refuseniks that conscientious objection is for everyone, not just for those in uniform. I’d like to see us start a letter-writing campaign to MoveOn or a sit-in at the next United For Peace and Justice meeting, asking them to join the opposition. I want to see us blockading the next protest march, holding a banner reading “When you’re serious, get back to us!” Let’s make it crystal clear to the people who just might care that the best way to start opposing the war is to cut off your support for it.

I’m being a little provocative here for effect. Some of the ideas I mention might be counter-productive and following their example might turn us into the annoying nags of the peace movement rather than expanding our influence. There’s a good way and a bad way to go about this. But I think that our current strategy of not standing up and challenging the paper-thin opposition of the taxpaying peace movement is no strategy at all.

More of what U.S. taxpayers are buying (from the World Policy Institute):

In , more than half of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms transfers in the developing world (13 of 25) were defined as undemocratic by the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report: in the sense that “citizens do not have the right to change their own government.” These 13 nations received over $2.7 billion in U.S. arms transfers in , with the top recipients including Saudi Arabia ($1.1 billion), Egypt ($1.0 billion), Kuwait ($153 million), the United Arab Emirates ($110 million) and Uzbekistan ($33 million).

When countries designated by the State Department’s Human Rights Report to have poor human rights records or serious patterns of abuse are factored in, 20 of the top 25 U.S. arms clients in the developing world in  — a full 80% — were either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses.