To Dirk Spruyt, a Chapel Hill physician, there’s no medical danger greater than the threat of nuclear war. Thus, he reasons, it makes no sense to give the government money to support the arms race. He’s a tax resister.
When his public health position was phased out by the state two years ago he decided to give all his time to the cause of disarmament. He became active in local groups — Physicians for Social Responsibility, The Fellowship to Reverse the Arms Race, and The Peace and Social Concerns Committee of the Friends Meeting. The latter was a strong source of support as he took on the role of tax resister.
Last October, Dirk returned to work, taking a half-time position with a large, Texas-based computer company with business in North Carolina. His responsibilities included monitoring the quality of care in nursing homes. He continued his political work actively and publicly, manning a sidewalk table in front of the local post office set up to distribute literature about the arms race and tax resistance. Following the publication of an interview in a local newspaper, there were warnings from his company that his personal beliefs might cost him his job. Shortly after, his position was “closed out.” Dirk, who is married and the father of four children, is considering a legal appeal. Unemployed once again, all his time is given to peace work.
— Alice Amber Carlton and Julia McMullan
SUN: How did you decide to withhold the part of your taxes that goes for war preparation?
SPRUYT: I have been concerned about the larger community in which I live for a long time, concerned about our development of nuclear weapons, their stockpiling, and the threat to use them. The arms race is a threat to hundreds of years of evolution. I wanted to bring into harmony my personal philosophy and my professional responsibility. Tax resistance was one thing that people were talking about, particularly people in Friends circles. I learned it was possible to start with a small step involving less risk — for example, withholding the telephone excise tax. Having done that, June and I found it easier to take the bigger step of refusing 37 percent of our 1981 tax return. Of course coming in contact with other people who were withholding taxes was an important source of support. The 37 percent in 1981 went to 42 percent in 1982. On the 1981 return we asked for money back because I was working and had taxes withheld. In 1982 I was not working except for three months so I moved from the position of asking for money back to owing money I refused to pay. When we filed our 1981 return, we wrote a letter saying that we had a conscientious objection to the paying of money for the purpose of killing people and asked that portion to be refunded. The IRS audited us.
SUN: Is an audit customary?
SPRUYT: Yes. I think it is always better to do things like this with the expectation that others will question the legitimacy of my actions. I do my return in a way that prepares me to be audited. I was audited by a person who was civil, sympathetic, and even supportive. She gave me all the information she could to help me with a further appeal. I was surprised and grateful for her reasonableness. She said there was the possibility of an informal audit with her superior. She said that he couldn’t do any more for me but talking with him would be my prerogative. The tax collection system tends to be very impersonal; I wanted to take every opportunity to break that down so I asked to talk with him. He was an ex-army person and we got into a long discussion about the value of nuclear arms, defense, freedom, and security. I didn’t feel there was much real communication except a recognition that we were in different positions for different reasons. But I wasn’t sorry that I had taken the time. Perhaps if more people in my position came in and talked to him, over a period of time he would himself question the rationale of his own position and come to see more clearly what I was trying to say and do. That has been the only personal contact I have had with the IRS. I have had some correspondence. Last year we wrote more than just a statement; we wrote a personal letter that resulted in our being assessed a frivolous fine of $500. I wrote back saying I was contesting their refusal to refund the 37 percent from the 1981 return and until that was resolved we felt it premature to judge the appropriateness of the 1982 statement.
SUN: What has this experience been like for you so far? Has it been traumatic?
SPRUYT: It has been more consuming than I had anticipated. Finding the large amount of time necessary to do these things right, to think through the issue, to figure out who you’re going to approach, what approach is going to be effective, to compose a good statement, is demanding. I try to understand the psychology, to reach a person, to make my communication clear and accepted, to have the right kind of factual information — all in a credible way.
SUN: How have you tried to reach someone?
SPRUYT: One of the first things I had to do was get over my bashfulness and feeling of guilt in doing something that is illegal. Being willing to talk about it in a way that is not apologetic has been an important step for me because being apologetic tells a person that you are guilty. I don’t feel guilty and I’m glad to be able to reflect that to people who aren’t used to thinking about decent people doing something like this.
SUN: Have you tried to explain to your parents and family what you are doing?
SPRUYT: When two articles came out in the newspaper, I made photocopies and sent them to all the members of our immediate family so that they would not only be up-to-date with what we were doing, with the kinds of liabilities we were incurring, but would also have some notion of our thinking.
SUN: How did your families respond?
SPRUYT: My father was very supportive. He has been depressed for years by what is happening in the world. Over the years, he has sent us articles from papers he reads dealing with questions of environmental pollution and the arms race. My mother-in-law tends to look at the personal, financial liabilities we are incurring although I think she is basically in support of us.
SUN: Knowing the effort it has taken, do you encourage others to become tax resisters?
SPRUYT: Everyone must decide for himself how much energy and sacrifice is appropriate in terms of this kind of issue, whether it’s the arms race, nuclear pollution, or other kinds of problems which are particularly acute. Most people assume that life is going to go on without a nuclear war and with a continuation of the kind of affluence we have enjoyed up to now. I think these assumptions are very shaky. There are many people knowledgeable about international relations and group psychology and political realities who are extremely concerned and pessimistic and I think it’s foolish to disregard those opinions. I am concerned that there isn’t a more organized effort to develop indicators and techniques of charting how close to the brink we are. What would be the influence of certain decisions? For instance, if Reagan is re-elected, or if war breaks out between Israel and an Arab state, what effect will it have? If we had tools to measure the effects, people would have more confidence in taking steps to make a difference.
SUN: Do you believe that what you are doing will make a significant difference?
SPRUYT: There is a tremendous feeling of impotence and helplessness. We are each such a small dot in the ocean and have so little real control over what’s happening. For me it’s important to limit my expectations to an area which I do have some control over, one in which I can feel some personal responsibility. I have received many letters and comments from friends, and this has made me realize that it’s my friends that I’m responsible to and with whom I share in the evolution of life. There’s somewhat of a myth that we can make a big difference in Washington if we somehow do things right. I think that’s possible but overrated. There are so many forces influencing what a congressman does or doesn’t do; we often delude ourselves into thinking that we have more influence than we do. That doesn’t mean that people together can’t make a difference but these people getting together and doing something happens because they know each other and are having communication on a personal level. The task becomes one of living in a way which is in harmony with one’s own perception of living in the Light. If you can do that well, other things will fall into harmony and one almost doesn’t have to worry about them because they’ll be resolved as a consequence of that harmony.
SUN: Quakers talk about living in the Light. Were you raised in the Religious Society of Friends?
SPRUYT: My family was not a church-going family but had very strong notions of what values were important in life and what our responsibilities were toward those values. When I first came in contact with Friends, it was quite by accident. I was at Swarthmore College, which the Friends started. I was there after the Second World War when many students were returning to school having either been in camps or in the service. We were grappling with basic questions about individual responsibility in our communities and in our country, particularly in terms of the military solution to international questions. It was a very exciting time to be in that kind of environment. Some of us were impatient with the local traditional Friends Meeting where there were lots of gray-haired people sitting on the facing bench pronouncing words of religious wisdom every Sunday with everyone else listening. So a few of us started a student Meeting which soon grew into a group of 25 or 30 including some of the younger faculty. We did lots of other things together, too. We had a Bible study group, pot-lucks, and a before-breakfast meditation every morning from six-thirty to seven. That was my discovery of Friends.
SUN: How did your experience of being in the war affect you in relation to what you’re doing now?
SPRUYT: I started from the bottom of the hierarchy in the navy as a deckhand. I was a lookout, which meant I spent four hours at a time gazing out over the ocean and had lots of time with myself to think about the world and my life and my responsibilities. It was in a way a forced retreat in a beautiful setting. At the end of the war I went to Nagasaki with the strategic bombing survey group to investigate what had happened after the bomb dropped. It was just a wasteland. I had learned some words of Japanese greeting and as I walked through the hills from the destroyed area to where the farms were still intact, I would call out this greeting. People, children particularly, would respond from across the valley. It was an extremely touching experience being a stranger in a country that we had been responsible for destroying and then finding that these people were still friendly and hospitable.
SUN: What would you say to those of us who are concerned about what is going on in the world?
SPRUYT: One of the questions I wonder about is how much can we learn secondhand? Or are we forced to learn everything firsthand? For example, can a Congress that is largely older men, upper middle class men, be responsive to the needs of children and women and minorities? Are there ways in which they could, through role plays and contrived environments and experiences, enlarge their understanding about the various groups to whom they are responsible? Can they learn to handle more wisely, more sensitively, and more knowledgeably the needs of people and groups they have not yet encountered in their own life experience? This same question is important in terms of a country and war. If we have to experience war firsthand in order to deal with it maturely, we may have to kill ourselves in order to get to that point. People who have participated in war come back, as I did, into an environment where that world is not real. When I was in the navy, my civilian life was unreal and when I got out of the navy, that life was unreal. There’s a separation. At war, we were isolated from the things that are a part of our environment now — families, the food we eat, the kinds of houses we live in. At war these things were all strange and translating that experience back to this environment is a very difficult thing to do. It happened over there, out of the United States, and doesn’t seem relevant to the kinds of decisions we are trying to make as a country. It’s this phenomenon that tends to make me pessimistic about the future but I think that those of us who went through a military experience can talk about it and perhaps find an answer.
SUN: How do you think political activism has changed over the years?
SPRUYT: There is a natural rise and fall in the level of activity that people can sustain. There is a natural resistance to changing what one has been doing. Only in a real crisis do people respond, and this can only last a certain amount of time before they return to buying houses, having babies, and enjoying their everyday lives. This is a worry to me because I see the opportunity for mass support behind any kind of change in government as having a limited life unless there is an outside emergency which gets people out of their old ruts and willing to do something different. There were race riots and we responded with The Great Society. Then there was the Vietnam War and we responded with protests and demonstrations. And now we’ve got the arms race. But it’s going to peak and we need to have accomplished something lasting by the time it peaks, before we lapse back into laissez-faire, business as usual.
SUN: Do you see any kind of progress being made since you’ve been spiritually or socially aware?
SPRUYT: It’s hard for me to separate society from my own inner growth. I can say that in the formal spiritual community I have seen an awakening that I feel is encouraging. Through the issue of the arms race I have come in contact with people from other churches and realize how much we have in common and how artificial are the boundaries. People have said about national boundaries that we have a need to focus on the differences in order to preserve our identity as a country but it’s dysfunctional.
SUN: What gives you hope?
SPRUYT: To me, hope comes with life. As long as we have life, an essential ingredient is hope. I tend to be optimistic and that gives me energy to keep on. Young people today seem to have a more pessimistic outlook having grown up under the shadow of the bomb. Pessimism is in itself a liability.