Those Dirty Rotten Taxes

Scott McLemee reviews 'Those Dirty Rotten Taxes' by Charles Adams

By Scott McLemee

Published March 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Cartoonist Matt Groening once drew a guide to the species of professor a student could expect to encounter at college. There was the Marine-like disciplinarian, the I'm-OK-you're-OK classroom therapist, the inaudible lecturer, the midlife lech and so on. One square in the cartoon was devoted to the instructor with an idie fixe -- an obsessive theme coming up, lecture after lecture, no matter what the topic. Groening portrayed him as a wide-eyed little guy saying (if memory serves), "Remember kids, it's all about magnesium!"

According to the biographical note to "Those Dirty Rotten Taxes," lawyer and independent scholar Charles Adams was "formerly a lecturer at UCLA."
I'm pretty sure where he fits on Groening's professorial grid. Adams hates the income tax with a passion. That is not, in itself, so unusual --
especially this time of year. And lately, it does seem that public disgust with the high-handedness of the Internal Revenue Service is at an all-time
high. But for Adams, taxation is more than a burden. It is the root of all evil.

"The ever-increasing extension of federal bureaucratic power into everyday life has only been possible because of our tax system," Adams writes on the first page. "Our excursion into Vietnam was possible because of our tax system." The subject gets him excited: "There were easily a dozen revolts in America and Europe in Jefferson's lifetime, and all of them were over taxes!" Taxes destroyed the Dutch Empire! The French Revolution was basically a tax revolt! The IRS is indistinguishable from the Gestapo and the Soviet secret police! Magnesium!

An audit reveals that about one-third of "Those Dirty Rotten Taxes" consists of chatty tirades ("Shouldn't the government forget handouts and clean out the vipers' nests of vicious criminals that are everywhere around us?") that were probably delivered at dinners sponsored by various Junior
Chambers of Commerce. Far more interesting are the remaining chapters, which treat the history of the world (and the U.S. especially) as a conflict between tax collectors and tax rebels. Some of his narrative is well-grounded: The struggles over taxation and representation that started the American Revolution continued throughout the early years of the republic. But when Adams interprets the English Civil War in the same terms (ignoring little details like, say, Puritan religious belief), it's clear that historical facts are just useful decoration.

The monomania reaches full bloom in some engaging but deeply muddled chapters on the American Civil War -- or, as Adams prefers to call it, the War for Southern Independence. The Confederates objected to protectionist tariffs imposed by the tyrannical Yankees. The war had nothing to do with slavery, it seems. The author notes in passing that the postwar Ku Klux Klan was an organization of heroic tax rebels. He does not elaborate, which may be for the best. Adams believes that the income tax will be abolished sometime in the next century. He makes some half-hearted gestures to distance himself from Montana Freeman-style "tax rebels." Yet he also endorses the attitude that "violence and civic disorder -- murder and mayhem -- [are] the consequence of an unjust tax system." It's astonishing that a major publisher has issued this book. I mean, why bother? Isn't that what Usenet is for?

Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

MORE FROM Scott McLemee

Related Topics ------------------------------------------