“So, What Is It About ‘No’ That You Don’t Understand…?”

By Peter Ragnar

[from Issue 125, 2nd Quarter, 2005]

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. Nor did I clearly understand the premise behind my behavior. Nevertheless my heart was ablaze and my bones were on fire. Even the icy wind was unnoticed as I entered the Federal courthouse that February morning in the early 1960s. I had no lawyer. I had been fighting for six long years and this was the final showdown. Would I be sent to prison for the next five years of my young life?

As the Federal judge spoke, I stood quietly in luminous rays of sunlight flowing through the windows. Looking upwards towards the bench of justice, I gazed at the motes of dust floating on the shafts of light. While at times you can be made to feel as insignificant as a microscopic dust mote, you are still empowered; you can say ‘No,’ even if that’s all you can do. Sensing he didn’t seem to have my full attention, the judge attempted to sound as if he were giving a pronouncement of one of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not resist induction into the United States military!”

Well, at least that’s the impression he was trying to convey. What he did say was, “I’ve sent many a person like you to prison, and you wouldn’t be the last! Do you have anything to say for yourself?” I offered my hands as if bound by the court. “You may be able to bind me, you may be able to confine me, you may be able to burn me with fire, you may be able to drown me in water or blood. You may be able to hack me to pieces and feed me to the lions, but coercion can never buy my compliance! Just what part of’No’ do you have a difficulty understanding?”

Oddly, the courtroom audience cheered. The judge slammed the gavel repeatedly like a nasty child throwing a temper tantrum. “One more outburst like that and I’ll clear this courtroom!” Looking now even less friendly he glared at me and stated, “I’m not on trial here, you are!” Figuring I was already going to prison and that my last words would earn me an additional contempt charge, I knew I must speak out. The words came out of my mouth like football players from a locker room at the Superbowl. “No! Your Honor, you are on trial in a higher court. Your integrity is on trial! Your honesty is on trial! Your fairness is on trial! You as a human being will be judged this day no matter what happens to me. I am unrepentant in resisting the draft. Now you must be unbiased when you judge my honesty.”

The judge called for a short recess. When he returned, his countenance appeared changed. This time he spoke softly. “I can’t agree with your position. However, I do agree that you deserve a re-classification as a conscientious objector. You are free to go.”

As I said to start with, I didn’t clearly see the premise. The underlying foundation is that every act, every decision is voluntary. No one can force another person into slavery or servitude unless that person chooses to be a slave or servant. Likewise freedom is voluntary as well. No one can force you to change your mind or relinquish a position unless you volunteer to do so. Neither steel bars nor iron chains can imprison your mind. Only you can do that by failing to reason and by failing to listen to the dictates of your own heart and conscience.

So am I a voluntaryist? I wasn’t then, but I am now because I realize that my presence in court many decades ago was voluntary. Even had I been been ordered to report for induction, I would have refused rather than endure the pain of violating my own conscience. I became a voluntaryist the day I fully realized no one could force me to do anything I did not want to do. I became a voluntaryist the day I fully realized I am responsible for the consequences of any decision I make. I became a voluntaryist the day I realized I was self-owned: that I own myself; that I own my mind; that I own my life.

When Alexander the Great was about to cross the Ganges River in India, he met an old sage. As Alexander questioned the sage about what he was to expect when he crossed the river with his army, the sage’s answer shocked him. It is said the old man looked Alexander straight in the eye and replied, “You’ll never be able to conquer them.” “What! I’m Alexander the Great! I’ve got the power of the world’s greatest army behind me. Do you realize this very moment I have the power to cut your head off? Then what would you do?” Unflinchingly the old man said, “Well, then I suppose we would both watch it fall, wouldn’t we?” Alexander, changing his tone, asked “So why is it you believe those people can’t be conquered?” The wise man, looking Alexander through, retorted, “Because they don’t love money and they don’t fear death!” It is said that at that point Alexander the Great turned his armies around. Of course, I might have added, “And what is it about ‘No’ that you don’t understand?”

Physical freedom can be curtailed by force but coercion can never buy willing acquiescence. No victory requires the use of power and force. The only victories ever won are in the hearts and minds of individuals. All power, contrary to common consensus, lies in the individual’s voluntary ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ You can chop people’s fingers off so they cannot write. Then you will have to cut their tongues out of their mouths so they cannot speak. But ultimately you will have to cauterize their brains so they cannot think. At that point you will have to find and extinguish their spirit so they cannot exist. And what will you have won?

Pyrrhic victories are never victories at all. What cost is to be paid to silence another? It was while reading Carl Watner’s collection of essays, I MUST SPEAK OUT, that I became duly impressed with the profound concept of voluntary behavior. I might be killed but I can never be forced against my will. It is only fools and politicians who attempt to live their lives by controlling others. Everything we do is voluntary no matter what the cost. The only question remaining is, where to draw the line in the sand? And only reason and conscience can dictate that.

How far can one be pushed, how many cherished beliefs trampled upon, how many values assaulted, before the steel in one’s spine stiffens? I don’t know. Everyone is different. One day, that skinny-armed boy becomes a man with bulging biceps due to the resistance he finds in the gym. One day also comes when that young man forges and builds his philosophical edifice as his ideas, beliefs and values are tested. Testing and resistance are food for developing noble characters and the stalwart qualities that we admire in heroic men and women. Like iron filings are attracted to a magnet, men and women of purpose are drawn to high ideals. So, most naturally I was drawn to the work of Carl Watner. It is often a matter of integrity to speak out, which I did in that courtroom four decades ago. You probably now understand that as a voluntaryist, I, too, must speak out, as will some day millions of others.
“This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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