October 7, 2005, at the War Tax Resistance Strategy Conference
St. Vincent Ferrer Church, Brooklyn, New York
The setting: The Stop War Taxing Choir entered the room singing their “Thank You” song. After that some war tax resisters in the room told in words, pictures, or song a story of their refusal to pay for war.
We thank the people in the [war tax resistance] stories who found a way to connect how they gather their energy as reflected in legal currency, how they gather their time, their energy, their skills in legal currency — and at the moment legal currency is sitting on the table, at the moment it is isolated between you and across the room the federal government — then you make a moral decision. You go to that legal currency, legal tender, and you say: This portion of it, or all of it, or $100 of it, or $1 for every American solider killed in the last 2 years, or 50 cents for every body killed. You creatively approach this collection of your own gathered value, and you translate it into a kind of story which each of us in this room has.
As we were singing the Thank You song, I started thinking about Phillip Berrigan and Father Daniel Berrigan. I thought of Frederick Douglas and Emma Goldman. I thought of people who have that skill to talk to all of us about that moment when we can make a decision. The money’s on the table, and the army’s in our front yard waiting for the money, but for a moment it’s not theirs.
I was thinking about the people down through time who had not just courage, but an almost hallucinating ability to stand on their feet and say what other people really thought was strange. When Tom Paine wrote Common Sense, it wasn’t common sense to a lot of his readers. I believe here we are talking about common sense. We’re talking about that moment when our skills and energy, our time, is on the table. It’s out from us, but it’s not yet paid to the federal government. It’s common sense to regard what that [money] will do. If there is army in your front yard, and there are children you know who will be killed by those weapons, it’s common sense not to aid and abet the death of those children.
How can it be that this is considered wacky? How can it be that this is considered even dangerous for Americans to make this moral judgment about the gathering of what they had done last year, the last calendar year that comes up on April 15.
It’s a certain amount of money, a riddle that we have to address even if it embarrasses us, even if it makes us tired to think about it.
I would just like to ask one thing, and that’s how a person comes up to a tax resister and says, “that’s old fashioned.” That’s old fashioned! That’s Vietnam. I’m sorry, that might have worked back in the “Joan Baez” days.
This organization, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, was founded in 1982. Since 1982 and 2005 the whole world has changed in a way that a person who accuses withholding money for the Pentagon really does have, in a way, a very good point. It’s a point we have to address right up front.
The fact is that the neo-liberal Clinton-Bush agenda is taxing us in ways that we never thought possible back then, back in the Vietnam days certainly. Since 1982 the amount of advertising suffered by the average citizen walking one city block in New York has gone up about 7,000%. Since 1982 the whole world of corporatizing the schools — to the point now when a child who is just saying his or her first specific words is asking after Joe Camel — is the world that we are in now. It is a world in which we are taxed for our thoughts, for our dreams, we don’t quite have the simple money on the table in front of us like we used to. Now the IRS — the taxation — is coming in through our eyes, in through our ears, in through our genitals, in through our pores. We are walking around carrying the federal government inside of us. The nightmare is inside of us right now. We get the feeling that the Pentagon is taking their share before we get to that table.
Shopping. Shopping itself is supporting the Pentagon at this time. The #1 donor to the Republican party in the last election cycle was Walmart. The Bush people want to destroy the part of the federal government that nurtures, that helps, that saves. FEMA, the levees — they want to destroy. They are constantly demonizing that part of the government.
But the part of the government that is the Pentagon — send them after bird flu?! How do you like that — attack bird flu with a machine gun! But it’s not just the Pentagon. Who else got praised for their work in New Orleans? Another part of the Pentagon — Walmart got praised. That part of the U.S. government got praised. Their money goes to the Pentagon, comes from the Pentagon. Who is poised to go into New Orleans, just the same as Iraq — Halliburton — no-bid friends of Bush!
We have a problem in this country! Corporate greed is getting to our heads before we can think to say the words “corporate greed.” They’ve been giving psych graduates six-figure salaries the first year out of school for the last 25 years. They tell those psych graduates, teach our marketing departments about desire. Call up the arc of the arm coming up to the product. What color excites? What are the neurological switches inside their brains? How can corporations replace sex? How can corporations replace religion? How can corporation be religion? How can corporations be the United States military? How can corporations buy the presidency of the United States? That is what we face.
I’d like to leave you with this thought. We may be in this era where our most intimate thoughts are privatized. But let’s go back to that accusation — many people in the progressive movement are going to say this to you, I’m sure you’ve heard it: that denying taxes to the government is not going to do a thing. It’s not a tactic that works. It’s from another era.
In this time when we no longer have a border across which we can walk. We no longer have a Winter Palace. We no longer have a Berlin Wall. We no longer have a counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro. We don’t have borders anymore because they’re too smart for that. They’ve got pixels in our heads. It’s all amorphous. You can’t make a border. You can’t make progress anymore because you don’t know where to start. You don’t have a way to measure it. They’re inside, anticipating our desire, anticipating every symbol of every progressive movement, which is now an advertising campaign. It reminds me of [our protests at] Starbucks. They turn up the music. We’re in there pleading with people about sweatshops, about children in Guatemala out in the pesticide drenched coffee groves, and they’re turning up Bob Dylan music to drown us out!
I’m going to suggest to you that sometimes the most effective thing is hidden in plain sight. The complaint is among activists that we don’t have a border, we don’t have a way of moving, a line to cross anymore, that they’re inside of us.
However, go all the way back to the idea that there is a sawbuck on the table, that you can make a decision about that money, and give it to someone who saves lives as opposed to somebody who takes lives. That may be that architecture that has collapsed.
That may be that line that gives us a three dimensional perspective on our lives. That may be a way to measure the impact of our activism. That “old fashioned” thing. So accused and marginalized.
What you may have clung to over the last 20–25–35 years, that concept that you have clung to, is striking me as the hippest, the most avant garde, the thing that anticipates post-structuralism, it’s the structural fakir — of your money on the table.
It can go to the imagery that is now ad nauseum, the nightmare, every morning with deaths.
We’re walking thru nightmares every day.
We know what we are financing as never before. Something about those hurricanes. There’s a tipping point right now going on.
I think now we are ready to see that money on the table. Over there they want to kill with it. Over there they want to save with it.
I’m going to take it for the people, and we can work together to save lives.
(This text was modestly edited for readability.)