Confronting Juan Carlos Rois’s “War Tax Resistance as a Human Right”

Translating Juan Carlos Rois’s “War Tax Resistance as a Human Right” was challenging for many reasons, not least of which was my poor command of Spanish.

A second challenge was that, as a technical writer/editor, I kept wanting to trim Rois’s tangled branches of clauses and unnecessary verbal throat-clearing down to simple declarative sentences. Memo to radical theoreticians and would-be manifesto drafters: The Revolution Will Not Be a Complex Compound Sentence in the Passive Voice! Furthermore, any sentence that embeds half a dozen commas ought to be transformed into a bulleted list, a set of distinct sentences, or one sentence configured properly instead of sliced up and jumbled about like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And please drop the “royal we” and the general condescending looking-down-the-nose tone. Who teaches people to write this way, and why? It’s arrogant and off-putting without any offsetting advantages that I can see. Maybe some people are effectively intimidated by the tone of superiority.


But now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’d really like to take a look at the substance of the paper.

When was the last time conscientious tax resistance got this much critical attention in English? There were a couple of good examples about a century ago when tax resistance to government-funded sectarian education was a big deal in Britain, but I can’t think of much since. I look forward to a time when the modern war tax resistance movement earns serious criticism of this sort.

I think that Rois’s core criticisms of efforts to legalize a form of conscientious objection to military taxation (or even to enshrine it as an internationally-recognized human right) are mostly spot-on. I resist paying taxes to the U.S. government not because I think that conscientious people like me ought to be excused from paying such taxes, but because I think such taxes ought not to be paid, such a government ought not to be supported!

Rois’s approach suggests a solution to what has proven to be a vexing problem to liberal war tax resisters: how to justify their acts of conscientious objection to military taxation without inadvertently also providing a justification to nasty conservative people who don’t want to pay taxes for things they don’t like.

Rois says that it is incorrect to say that war tax resistance is valid because it is a form of “conscientious objection” but that instead you should say that it is valid because it is designed to confront and defeat militarism and militarism itself is unjustified and ruinous.

So instead of generalizing to “if you feel that some government spending violates your conscience, you should not have to pay for it” (which may let undesirables in the door), Rois’s principle generalizes to “if government spending is unjustified and ruinous you ought not to pay for it.” (Of course this leaves open the question of which government spending is unjustified and how pernicious it has to be before you ought not to pay for it: a question these same undesirables are likely to answer in their favor.)

I noticed also how Rois wanted to flip the talk of war tax resistance as a “right” into talk of it as a “duty.” This reminded me a bit of Thoreau’s conclusions on the subject. Thoreau was not a do-gooder, and he wasn’t intending to address people of exceptionally refined ethical sensitivity. He wrote: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him;

but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”

Thoreau’s essay reads well as a defense of individual conscientious objection, but he does not defend this as the prerogative of a finely-tuned conscience but announces it as the unpleasant duty of everyone. To Rois, it is evident that people have a right not to be threatened by war and parasitized by militarism, that governments cannot be trusted to advance or defend this right as they are the very instruments of war and militarism, and that therefore the obligation of enforcing this right lies with the rest of us as an unpleasant duty that may at times take the form of conscientious objection.

So there was much that I liked in Rois’s essay. But there was also a lot that I didn’t much care for, and not just the stylistic clunkiness I mentioned above. One thing that grated on my nerves was Rois’s dismissal of individual human rights (indeed of “the individual” itself) and of conscience as ethnocentric, fictional inventions that really only have a home within the narrow bounds of the Western world.

Rois would replace concerns for the individual and personal conscience with those for communities, peoples, future generations, and the security of life on the planet.

The irony is that this laundry list, and Rois’s multicultural pretensions in general, themselves strike me as the sort of thing that — like bell-bottom trousers, bushy sideburns, wood paneling, and shag carpet in an old snapshot — reveal his supposedly ecumenical point of view to be much more culturally- and temporally-typecast than anything that can be pinned merely on “the Western tradition.”

Rois surveys the views of “the Arab world, the peoples of Latin America, or in India… all of the so-called ‘third world’ but also… perhaps those Gypsies not yet poisoned by propaganda and television” and finds that they all seem to share not the concern with individual human rights of the “Western” tradition (indeed, they seem hardly to think of themselves as “individuals” at all), but with the latest fashionable intellectual trends of the po-mo professoriat.

This variety of multiculturalism mostly reminds me of writing I found sophomoric, pretentious, and deadening when I read it back in college. It has a superficial logic to it, but rarely amounts to anything concrete; as such, it is hard either to criticize or to learn from. More often, it just promotes a sort of dangerous skittishness about making moral judgments (after all, who am I to say that such-and-such is wrong, as though my Western worldview had some sort of universal validity).

In particular, the idea that “the individual” is a modern Western invention strikes me as merely curious at best, but not the sort of thing that bears much weight. It is not very useful to the extent that it’s true, and not at all true to the extent that people seem to want to make use of it. As a sophomoric argument it can support a form of depersonalization that makes the abuse of people easier: Why should I care about Guantanamo Joe’s individual rights if I’m not even sure if Guantanamo Joe’s culture brought him up to think of himself as an “individual” in the first place? Perhaps it would be totally alien to Joe’s cultural values to try to defend his human rights. Better to let him take care of it himself in some culturally-appropriate fashion.

Most upsetting to me was Rois’s scare-quoting and otherwise depreciating individual conscience. When he speaks of war tax resisters being motivated by “a moral rigor today outdated and happily locked away in the trunk of mementos” and warns us against hoping to effect “social transformation by claiming or supporting a supposed imperative of exemplary individual conscience” he is taking aim at one of the main themes at The Picket Line (and I can’t help imagining him dressed in red, stroking his goatee with one hand and fingering his pitchfork with the other).

I don’t know that I have a good answer to this, though. Rois believes that individual conscientious direct action is scattershot and self-indulgent, and that it will take concerted political effort on the part of whole communities to make a difference. I can’t see where this concerted effort is supposed to come from if not from individuals driven by strong conscientious imperatives (“a moral rigor,” if you will). But it’s possible that we’re both wrong: that individual conscience is as impotent as it often appears to be when it comes to changing the course of human events, and that this also dooms the prospects for useful collective action.

Rois seems to think that we can make a more-universal appeal to a global audience by not couching our appeal in terms of “values” or “ethics” but in good, hard, objective data about the effects of militarism (and demilitarization) on our social, economic, and cultural lives. Perhaps these things will then speak for themselves, but it seems that they, too, implicitly must be appeals to “values” for them to have any hope of universal traction.

Well, I didn’t mean to go on at such length. Read the essay yourself it you dare. You might find it thought-provoking.