Stephen King: Tax Me, Save America

“Stand by Me”

Stephen King, the world’s bestselling author outside of J.K. Rowling (and therefore a multimillionaire), has written an essay calling for his taxes to be raised. Others (Warren Buffet, for instance) have recommended the same, but King’s essay stands out because he brings to the argument the colorful language for which he is famous. The Daily Beast’s headline for the article is “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!”

The piece got me thinking about whether there is a “tax me” vision in the novels, and I think I’ve found one. But first, here’s an excerpt from the essay. (But do yourself a favor and read the whole thing for yourself.)

King is responding to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s statement that he is tired of hearing from those very wealthy people who have called for higher taxation for people like themselves. That a governor of a state where social services are being cut would turn down the possibility for more revenue baffles me, but nevertheless Christie has said that people like Buffet should “just cut a check and shut up.” This is red meat to King:

Tough shit for you guys, because I’m not tired of talking about it. I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar. It’s true that some rich folks put at least some of their tax savings into charitable contributions. My wife and I give away roughly $4 million a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (Jaws of Life tools are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts. Warren Buffett does the same; so does Bill Gates; so does Steven Spielberg; so do the Koch brothers; so did the late Steve Jobs. All fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

King, in other words, is saying that we need to think of ourselves as citizens of a society who have responsibility to that society, not as self-involved individuals who can choose what, when, and whether to contribute. Some of his best books make this point in their own way.

For instance, The Body (made into the film Stand by Me) is a semi-autobiographical novella in which four buddies go in search of the body of a boy who has been hit by a train. The emotional crux of the story is how the boys, although each a misfit, all work together. They have their conflicts, but in the end they are able to stand up to trains, bullies, leaches, and their own psychological histories and accomplish their mission. They are a miniature version of how a society is supposed to work.

The same drama occurs in It, my favorite King novel. There again we have children banding together, this time against a dark force that has been terrorizing the area since time immemorial. Often it takes the shape of a clown and tears the limbs off of children. But it is just as likely to take the form of racist lynchings, torture, and other dark human behavior. I particularly like how, in It, the children have to come together as adults to fight the menace once again. It is as though, in their childhood gang, they saw a vision of how communal society is supposed to work and are trying it out on an adult level.

In The Stand, finally, King shows adults working together to rebuild a civil society. A killer flu virus has escaped from a military bio-weapons research facility and infected the entire world. Although 99% of the world’s population is susceptible, that still leaves 1 percent who are immune, and following a collective dream that they all have, they find each other and restart society in Boulder, Colorado (at least the American survivors do).

Standing in their way, however, are socially destructive individuals, and they have built a community of their own.  Their tyrant leader, Randall Flagg, uses torture, crucifixion, and other means to control them. His community is located in Las Vegas and he has plans to destroy the Boulder community. King pits the forces of human darkness against the forces of social affirmation and, in the end, shows otherwise ordinary individuals performing extraordinary acts of self sacrifice for the good of the whole.

Stephen King may not be one of our top tier writers (as he is the first to admit). His genius, however, lies in his ability (as Harold Bloom has begrudgingly said of Edgar Allen Poe) to dream America’s nightmares. (Bloom is begrudging because he doesn’t think Poe is a very good writer but has to admit that he’s a genius.) King understands America’s selfishness and he understands America’s capacity for selfless heroism.

I think that’s how King sees the current political scene. On the one hand, he sees a rage that overtakes Americans and causes them to demonize others while putting their own desires first. He puts the Tea Partiers and selfish billionaires in that category. On the other, he applauds responsible adults who are engaged in the difficult work of building communities. He believes that paying taxes is one thing that adults do.

It’s not that King would characterize raging wingnuts and cantankerous rich people as childhood bullies, homicidal clowns, or tyrannical devil figures. Rather, like a shaman, he is charting our energies—dreaming our nightmares—and giving them to us in stories that rivet us. We would not be so entranced if we did not recognize the truth in them.

To sum up King’s message to us: we should stop yielding to our dark angers, commit ourselves to society’s welfare, and pay our fair share. In fact, we are to go above and beyond what is called for.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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