Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Talking about Class Warfare in Burning Questions
Q. You have intimated that one of the underlying themes of your novel, Burning Questions, is class warfare. Can you explain what you mean and give some examples?
A. Sure. Keep in mind that it’s done subtly. This is not a polemic. Accusations of “class warfare” are au courant at the moment, especially from people on the right who seem to be whining that things like a progressive income tax are discriminatory against the rich. But that’s not the way it works in reality. And it is not the way it is treated in the book.
Burning Questions is set in a fishing community (Gloucester, MA) in 1969. A rich kid is found shot in the head. When his mom rejects the coroner’s verdict of suicide, the Yankee aristocrats and their minions in city government instinctively turn their suspicions on his girlfriend, Christina, who hails from a poor, Portuguese fishing family. They accuse her of being a gold-digger. That’s a form of prejudice that, when it brings the cops down on her, becomes a form of class warfare. The rich would rather see her take the fall than have the kid declared a suicide, which is a mortal sin.
The central theme of the book revolves around hotel arson. But the arson is condoned and maybe even facilitated by the powers that be. Why? Because syndicates own the hotels, and the intent is to obtain insurance proceeds that will fund real estate development. That’s a rich folks’ game. Imagine how different the law’s response would be if a disgruntled chambermaid torched the hotel.
Another example in the book is the relationship between Nate and his girlfriend, Diana. He went to a third-rate law school. She attends Wellesley College, a very upscale women’s college that boasts alumna such as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Madame Chiang Kai Shek. She’s the daughter of a famous artist. She acts brashly at times, with a sense of privilege and impunity. Unlike Nate, she brazenly goes where she shouldn’t, confident that she can use her privileged status to get her out of trouble ¾much like Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. Nate knows that he can’t get away with the same delinquencies. Certainly Christina can’t. The different ways the characters are treated by the cops in the story highlights the privileges of wealth.
Are these examples of class warfare? It is subtle but I think they are. Money buys a different set of rules. So the jails are filled with low-end miscreants when they could just as well be filled with rich criminals who steal much more and end up doing more harm overall.
It was Anatole France who pointed out "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." He was saying that a land that is ruled by the profit motive is a land where there is, at its very core, class warfare. Its laws reflect that conflict. It is absurd to pretend that there is no such war going on in America. Apropos of that reality are the evictions of Occupy Wall Street protesters from their campsites. Sure, they are messy and dirty, but that is not really why the authorities are bring the police down on them. It is the content of their protest that the city bosses who direct the police don’t like. If they liked the content, they’d work something out short of arrests. All over the world there have been protests that have gone on day and night for months and even years. (Think of the mothers’ demonstrations in Latin America calling attention to their children abducted during military coups.) Somehow, even more repressive societies than our own have managed to live with these extended protests.
The story in Burning Questions couldn’t, or wouldn’t happen if Nate and, or Christina were members of the ruling elite. They wouldn’t have been picked on the way they were. Rather, they would have been protected