Review: Aaron Russo's 'America: Freedom to Fascism'

In "Fahrenheit 9/11," filmmaker Michael Moore set out to show, in a not terribly favorable light, how the Bush administration responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Super Size Me" offered the same sort of wry take on the healthiness and desirability of McDonald's fast food. "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" raised troubling questions about how the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno handled the bloody Waco, Texas, disaster.

Now Aaron Russo, a Hollywood businessman and entrepreneur, has released a political documentary that aims to turn the same kind of critical eye toward RFID (radio frequency identification) chips, the Real ID Act, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. tax code. Russo produced "The Rose" and "Trading Places," and unsuccessfully ran for the Libertarian Party's 2004 presidential nomination.

Russo's new film, which runs about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and opens in some theaters today, sports the incendiary title "America: Freedom to Fascism" and describes what Russo sees as the nation's descent from a constitutional republic to a bureaucratic state, where the IRS and police have run amok.

There may be some truth to this claim. Given the drug war, the Patriot Act and National Security Agency surveillance of dubious legality, there are plenty of examples for Russo to cite, and he makes the most of some of them.

"America" describes IRS harassment of small businesses and how federal agents are not held accountable for it. He correctly describes how the federal Real ID Act, enacted last year, will create something akin to a national ID card for Americans (but incorrectly says it will necessarily have an RFID chip on it--that's up to the Department of Homeland Security). His interviews with former IRS agents who say they got a straight answer about a law requiring Americans to pay taxes make for excellent theater.

Russo also warns his audience of what he calls the dangers of RFID--miniature chips with antennas a few inches long that are being used to track pallets of goods in warehouses. Joining him is privacy activist Katherine Albrecht, who has co-authored a book that's described as outlining how RFID fulfills "biblical prophesies" in a way that's "uncannily similar to the prophecies of Revelation."

Albrecht and Russo don't seem worried about RFID being used to track bulk goods. Rather, what they worry about are RFID tags being woven into products like clothes. If that happens, they say, Americans can be tracked surreptitiously without their knowledge--and it's just a short step from that to implanting chips in humans. (Wisconsin politicians seem to share these fears: They've approved a law banning the practice.)

The problem, though, is that "America" never manages to do what a compelling documentary must accomplish: state a thesis and adequately defend it. More than half the movie is spent lauding the tax protest movement, including Russo's sometimes-entertaining efforts to get the IRS to answer his questions--but then the focus abruptly shifts to RFID, NSA surveillance, national ID, President George H.W. Bush's "new world order" speech and so on. Plus, the movie's length is too much; Russo badly needs an editor.

Russo is especially sympathetic to tax protesters, who have spent years challenging the IRS to show them a law requiring them to pay federal income taxes. They claim that section 861 of the tax code covers only corporate income and, alternatively, that the 16th Amendment was never properly ratified (largely because of slight differences in wording).

The problem for the tax protest movement is that courts have routinely rejected these arguments; iconic tax protester Irwin Schiff was convicted by a jury and, as the IRS helpfully points out, was sentenced last year to more than 12 years in prison. A jury has acquitted at least one tax protester on criminal charges, but the IRS doesn't need a unanimous jury to win a civil lawsuit. (Brian Doherty's 2004 article in Reason magazine is illuminating and more even-handed than "America.")

Russo knows all that, of course, and he even interviews one of the jury members who voted to acquit on criminal charges. So what's the point of the movie? One explanation is that documenting government lawlessness, even if the courts disagree, is a valuable moral exercise.

Another explanation may be more likely. Perhaps Russo believes that if he can convince enough Americans not to pay income taxes, the IRS and Department of Justice won't have the resources to convict them all--and "America" will be not just be a glimpse at a fringe political movement but one that was prophetic.

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