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reflections on the current MTAP  Lawrence A. Rosenwald
 Feb 11, 2008 12:49 PST 

Dear All,

I'm guessing many of you will have seen the (excellent!) recent issue of
_More Than a Paycheck_ (MTAP); it led me to two reflections on matters
I've been thinking about a lot, at one time or another, so I thought I'd
set down the reflections in relation to the issue of the magazine.

1) The first reflection is in response to the sections called "Faster
Response by IRS" and "Responding to Salary Levies." (I agree, by the way,
that the IRS response is getting faster; we've just been levied for taxes
refused last April.) The first section offers the following advice:
"Non-interest-bearing accounts are harder for the IRS to find, but 'cash
transactions rule' says a comment on the war tax resistance listserve on
this topic. Consider living without a bank account if you want to avoid
such seizures - and nasty bank fees." The second lists some possible
responses to salary levies: allowing levies to happen, quitting the job,
reducing pay to minimum level allowed by IRS.
Nowhere is there much sense that someone might not want, and not want *on
principle*, to "avoid such seizures." Nowhere is there any sense that one
might use a salary levy to talk with the people one's working for and
I'm someone who's repeatedly done the latter - something made possible by
the circumstances of my job, i.e., that I'm a tenured professor at a
liberal arts college, and I recognize the unusualness of those
circumstances. But can I really be the only person who when levied at the
workplace wants to take the occasion to talk with co-workers?
More generally, and I apologize for the abstractness of this: is war tax
resistance a mode of civil disobedience? If so, is being levied like
being arrested? If so, should we be striving not to be levied, or rather
thinking of levies as the moments at which our disobedience is made
visible and maybe, by being made visible, made effective?
To be clear: I hate being levied, it makes me feel isolated and
powerless and stupid. But I do think of it also as the moment when some
different kind of action or conversation becomes possible.

2) The second reflectioni concerns the excellent story about the New
England WTR gathering, written by Daniel Sicken, plus the supplemental
piece about the gathering on pp. 7-8. The theme of the gathering was
"Embracing Simplicity." I wasn't able to attend the gathering, for
personal reasons, but I read the brochure attentively, and it made me
quite uneasy; accordingly, I wrote a long letter to those attending the
gathering, which I know was distributed there. It's not quite a critique
of the notion of "embracing simplicity," but it expresses my uneasiness at
that notion, and I thought it might be worth sending to the list; it's
below. I'm sending it in the knowledge that a good many readers here will
disagree with it, and that's fine - but I would like to see more
discussion of this question than I've seen as of yet, more consideration
of simplicity, complexity, how to imagine and live a right relation
between them.

Here's the letter I sent, lightly edited:

Dear friends,
First:   "friends" is the right word, I feel closely bound and warmly
affectionate towards you, I wish I could be at the gathering. But I
can't, mostly because my wife Cynthia's mom is sick, lives west of
Chicago, Cynthia's visiting her the week before the gathering, I need to
be home that weekend.
Second, and in that context: reading the brochure for the gathering,
"Taking Control of Change: Embracing Simplicity" made me feel as if I
were being read out of the wtr community. I quote the pertinent
"Most war tax resisters try to live simplified lives by consuming and
owning less and living well on a reduced income. This generally makes our
war tax resistance easier and more sustainable for the long haul. By
extension, these ethics will take on increased importance as we experience
the change in our lives brought on by global warming, population growth,
and scarcity of natural resources.
"At this year's Gathering, we will explore the theme, 'Taking Control of
Change: Embracing Simplicity.' Are we victims of change, or do we
respond positively to it? Do we see ourselves as 'consumers,' or do we
want to reduce our ecological footprint as much as possible? During our
Friday evening panel discussion . .. we will hear stories of people who
are striving to live the theme. On Saturday, there will be small-group
discussions on simplicity in many areas, e.g., transportation, food,
housing, etc. Participants can choose their topics of interest."
I agree that these ethical questions will become more important in times
to come. I agree that "most war tax resisters try to live simplified
lives." But I know what "simplified" means in these contexts, and I'm
highly aware of being a war tax resister who doesn't try to live such a
life, at least in some senses of "simplified," and I'm wondering, Where
exactly in this paragraph is there room for me, a war tax resister since
1987, "sustainable for the long haul," and with every expectation of
continuing to do war tax resistance as long as I live? "Simplicity" isn't,
as I understand the brochure, being presented as something to deliberate
over; it's presented as something to "embrace." The alternative to
"reducing [one's] ecological footprint" is being a consumer, and who'd
want to be that? No sense is given of there being anything in dispute
between "most" war tax resisters and the remaining war tax resisters. So
I'm going to set out my thoughts on these matters, for whatever they're
worth, in lieu of being there, to provide myself with some room.   
I should note at the outset that part of my response, maybe a big part of
my response, results from guilt. I like the life I lead, I don't like
being told, however gently and persuasively, that it's contributing to the
war system, that it needs to be changed, that it's piggish and selfish.
But because I think maybe it is all of those things, I get my back up when
I'm made to think about these questions - in relation, say, to having just
bought a 2007 Honda Accord, or to the considerable quantity of
international travel I've done, or to how much money I spend on food and
So some of this is just my pushing back against critiques that make me
feel bad, but that probably should make me feel bad, and maybe the fact of
that guilt undercuts the arguments I'm going to make and the questions I'm
going to raise, though maybe it doesn't.
First question: how closely linked is simplicity to pacifism, to the
rejection of violence, to the specific character of war tax resistance? I
ask because I came to war tax resistance as a pacifist, not as someone
making a principled rejection of our way of living across the board. I
know that my extravagances, indulgences, whatever one might call them, the
Honda and the meals and the time and money I spend in coffee houses, are
inextricably bound up with the global economy we're part of. It's less
clear to me whether they're inextricably bound up with war.   Do we have
to kill people to have good coffee? Does a global economy, or at any rate
an economy in which coffee that isn't raised in the US is drunk in the US,
is sometimes brewed by making use of products not made in the US,
inevitably lead to war? I'm not convinced that it does.
Second question: suppose, hypothetically and (as of the moment) quite
improbably, that sustainable sources of energy could produce as much and
more energy than oil and coal do. Would embracers of simplicity still
embrace it? To what extent is simplicity being embraced as an intrinsic
good, as opposed to a means of averting disaster?
Third question, for me the most important one: how much simplicity is
enough? I've felt sometimes at gatherings where this matter has been
discussed (here and abroad) that the implicit rule is: the simpler the
better. But is that the case? If less driving or flying is good, does it
follow that no driving or flying is better? Or is there some sort of
golden mean here, an ideal of simplicity that's not at the extreme end and
in fact might be more admirable than what's at the extreme?
Here's why that question matters for me. It's not just that I lead a life
that's not sufficiently "simplified," even by my own standards. It's also
that I lead a life in which I cherish complexity. I'm a professor of
English, I admire complexity in literature, I try to teach my students to
understand and savor that complexity, to achieve that complexity in their
own writing, both creative and expository.   
Often, when I've heard people talking at wtr gatherings and elsewhere
about simplifying their lives, they're talking about renouncing things
that I'm not inclined to make a case for: SUVs, ipods and other
electronic gadgetry, mcmansions etc. Easy to reject them, to simplify
them away. Harder if what's complex is genuinely attractive, productive,
essential. I remember at the international wtr conference in Washington a
few years ago hearing a presentation on simplicity by Arya Bhardwaj. I
asked him whether he thought people needed to renounce Steinway pianos -
we own one, my wife Cynthia's a professional pianist, it's a wonderful
instrument, she's a wonderful performer on it. (He didn't really answer
the question, though to be fair I should say that I'm not sure he
understood it.) Here are some other complex things I treasure: good
coffee, good tea, good wine, the films of Marcel Ophuls, the performances
of Glenn Gould (and the technology that lets me hear and see them), the
Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, conservatories
of music and theater, university libraries, universities themselves, the
Taj Mahal (and, by implication, the international travel that for most
people is necessary to be in its presence), the Jewish liturgy for the
High Holidays, flying to the moon, Thoreau's Walden, the Boston Symphony
Orchestra, the Boston Red Sox.
I'm not making this list to deny the importance of simplicity as a goal,
an ideal, a practice, but rather to suggest the equal importance of
complexity as a goal, an ideal, a practice, and to suggest, to say, to
proclaim, that for me at any rate, being a war tax resister is related not
only to the ideal of simplicity, but also to the other ideal of
complexity, and maybe most poignantly to the search for some way of
putting those two ideals in relation. Simplicity is one value, complexity
another, the life I want to lead is one that finds a synthesis between

All good wishes, in peace, in resistance,

Larry Rosenwald
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