Children of Privilege (2012)

It had been a routine Tuesday so far. I filed my reports for the morning, set the phone to forwarding, and headed down to lunch.  I was reading the international news in the Times – the paper version; old habits die hard, you know – when McGinnity joined me at the table.  We shared a few moments of standard pleasantries, and then a pause while he contemplated the beef Stroganoff on his plate.  “There might be a new threat out there, y’know,” said McGinnity.  A bit too casually.

I looked up from my coffee cup.  “Oh yeah?”  I couldn’t help but notice that McGinnity looked unusually distracted – his brow was deeply furrowed, all the way to the thin wisps of hair on his high forehead.  He wasn’t easily rattled; I’d known him for years, and seen him face down dangerous criminals, raving lunatics, even Congressional staffers – he was usually unflappable.  But I could tell that something about what he wanted to tell me disturbed him a great deal.  “So, what’s their beef, Ted? Middle East? Climate change?” I kept my voice sounding light and unconcerned.

McGinnity looked around a little bit, and hunched a little closer to the table as though he was wary of being overheard.  The background noise in the Agency commissary made that unlikely, but McGinnity always checked out all the angles.  That was one of the things that made him good at what he did.  One of the reasons I respected him.

“Their beef?  Vegetarianism,” he chuckled.  It was an old joke – but McGinnity wasn’t prone to cracking jokes unless something was making him uneasy.

“Actually, I shouldn’t say ‘new threat,’ like it’s some new cell of Wahhabists or something.  No, this seems to be a different kind of threat, Jim, we haven’t seen this before.   And it’s not one thing, not one issue, that’s driving it.  It’s – well, it’s the whole thing.”

He saw my puzzled frown.  “Just started getting aware of the full scope of this – been trying to find how widespread it might be before raising any alarms, wouldn’t want to raise a fuss over something insignificant, you know -”

“So what do you have so far?”

“Bunch of rich kids.  Well, rich families, I mean.  Upper class, upper middle, managerial, executive… American mostly, some European, some South Asians.  These kids – well, not kids anymore I guess, they’re in their thirties now, most of them…”

“Rich kids?  What, they read some Marx in college, they dropped out, grew their hair, all power to the proletariat, trying to shock the ‘rents?”

“No, no, that’s just it, they’re not just rebels.  In fact, they’re not ‘rebelling’ at all.  They’re being smart about it.”

He had my attention.  “Whaddya mean?”

“They’re working, mostly in their family businesses…”

“Family businesses?”

“Yeah.  Top-level corporations, private capital firms, law firms.  Pharma, finance, military contractors, IT.  These kids -” he shook his head, with a wry chuckle.  “I have to stop doing that.  These are not kids. Not at all.”  He shifted again, sat up straighter, looked at me with a strange intensity.  “These – people, they’ve looked around and decided they don’t really like what their fathers and mothers have accomplished.  This whole system we’ve built – they see exploitation, the systemic inequity, the abuse of workers, the environment, poverty… and they just refuse to accept those things as inevitable.  They’ve made up their minds, independently it seems, to take it apart.”

“The whole system? How?”

McGinnity hunched a little closer, and his voice took on a new note of urgency.  “From the inside, of course.  The way that only they can do it.  They’re leveraging the access they’ve been given, taking advantage of their stations in life.  They’re working their asses off, for now – doing exactly what they’re supposed to, following the rules, getting as close to the centers of power as they can… And then, at some point – they say they’ll know when the moment is right – they’re going to take down as much of the System as they happen to be able to lay their hands on at the moment.”

“Could they really do significant damage?”

McGinnity smiled, smiled as though it hurt to smile.  “Need I remind you, Jim, that it only took one young, unsupervised currency trader to almost take out the entire economy of France?”

He had a point there. “And do we know who they are?”

“No.  There’s no clue.  There’s no organization – there are documents circulating that lay out their program and describe their modus operandi, make suggestions, and that’s about it.  And even those documents have multiple variations – the instructions on distributing the information suggest that each person should make their own version, or multiple versions, to confuse anyone who might be watching.”

“Like us.”

“Yeah. Emails, letters, blog posts, comments on news stories, even poems, songs – they’re using a lot of different forms. Now of course just the fact that someone gets one of these emails or whatever, that doesn’t mean that they’ve bought in – and there’s usually no way to tell who’s passed on the information, or if they pass it on out of solidarity, amusement, or outrage.  There’s no way to distinguish them from their peers – not without doing some ugly kind of purge of the whole ruling class.”

“Well, we can make some guesses, can’t we?”

“Yeah, sure.  Like for instance – I’d bet that we’re probably not looking at people with families of their own.  You’re single, childless, you’re less worried about taking care of others — ”

This was the part of the process I liked.  “And if you’re attached to property, lifestyle, responsibilities, you’re less likely to rock the boat.”

“Right. But at the same time, you’re looking at people with access to extra resources.  They could make arrangements to get their own out of the way before any really serious disruptions happen.”

“Ah – what about lifestyles?  Do they eat organic, drive hybrids, give to charities, that kind of thing?”

“Hmmm.  They could.  But they have to fit in, being too different might not help their career goals.  And there are plenty of people who make those kinds of behavioral changes who aren’t interested in bringing about a fundamental and wide-ranging restructuring of society itself.”

I let out a long breath.  “Sounds dangerous. They have access to information, they know which switches to throw, they know where the bodies are buried — ”

“It gets worse.  Part of the program is that as they rise through the ranks, they’re keeping track – they identify the people in the System who, you know, who they think are the most rapacious, the greediest, the most aggressive — the people that to them embody the worst qualities of the System.”

“You mean the ones who are the real go-getters? The alpha males, the queen bees?”

McGinnity looked at me for a long moment.  “You could say that, I guess.”

“Keep track?  What for?”

“To ‘neutralize’ them.  Whatever that means.  It might mean just to keep those people away from power, divert them into harmlessness…”

“Or worse?”

“I don’t think they’re plotting assassinations, no.  They seem to think they can do this nonviolently… but you know how that goes, there’ll be a fringe, some will go outside the guidelines — I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some kidnappings, disappearances, manufactured scandals…”

“But they’re responsible, too, aren’t they?  They’ve benefited themselves, right?”

“Yeah, sure – they claim they’re expiating some of their guilt.”

“By taking the System down? They have some replacement ideas in the pipeline?”

“Nope – they say that’s someone else’s job, they can’t see alternative futures from where they sit, all they can see is that the present doesn’t work and isn’t likely to get better.”

“But there are -”

“Oh, sure, there are lots of people out there thinking about new kinds of systems, Jim, absolutely, but most of them are outside the structures we’re talking about.  I’m talking about people within deeply entrenched centers of power, the ones that you would think would have a lot to lose from any kind of meaningful social redesign.”

I started putting things together.  “So we have some informal leaderless network of self-radicalized upper-class workers, maybe threats to – what, infrastructure, distribution systems, maybe individual lives if things get desperate…? But we can’t infiltrate them, we can’t surveil them ’cause we don’t know for sure who they are and they’re operating in exempt circles anyway… can’t disrupt them without economic risks…”

“Right. The rest of the class would never stand for anything that might actually be effective.”

“Like… our bosses, for instance…?”

“Nah, more like their bosses.”

I sat back in my chair.  The implications…. yeah, they were disturbing. I could see why McGinnity would be loath to escalate the issue until he was more certain about it.

“Well, the thing would be to keep them from picking a moment, then?” I said.

“I guess that’s all we can do.  Building in more redundancies wouldn’t be a bad idea – but you know how the money feels about that, anything affecting commerce – ”

“That – but if the word got out about them, you think some of their potential targets might behave better?”

He smiled that pained smile again.  “Well, there might be a silver lining there,” he admitted. “Fear of God and all that.”

“This group have a name?”

“Some of the emails are signed, or addressed to, ‘the Children of Privilege,'” said McGinnity.  “They also have another name for themselves.”

“What’s that?”

“‘The Sins of the Fathers,'” he said.  “You done?  Let’s get back upstairs.”

“Good idea,” I said.  I started to reach for my tray, and stopped.  “Tell me one thing, though -”

“Yeah?”

“What is it, Ted – I can tell, we’ve worked together for a while, and I can tell this is bugging you, more than usual – ”

“Yeah,” he said, with a sigh.  “Yeah, you’re right.”

“So?”

“I was thinking about Brent -”

“Your son? He’s not involved, is he?”

“Oh, no, not at all, so far as I know – but remember when he did that Peace Corps stint?”

“Yeah, you said he really liked Togo -”

“Oh, he did, best experience of his life, he says – so he went into International Relations in college, you know, minored in Finance, interned with the World Bank, he’s still in Brussels on that consulting gig now… And we talk, you know, he kinda knows what I do, he’s alright with that, but we do have some discussions sometimes, we disagree on a few things, but he’s no radical. But I keep thinking about the things he told me, the things that he’s seen –

“And you know what? Just between you, me, and the microphone in the salt shaker… part of me says they might have a point.”

We stood, picking up our trays. Gotta clean up your own mess, after all, that’s what they always taught us.

“Thanks for the heads-up, Ted – and, uh, if you want, forward me what you’ve got, OK?”

“Yeah, you bet,” said McGinnity.  “I’ve got a lot of emails to send out.”

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One response to “Children of Privilege (2012)

  1. I like it, Skip. Reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Learned Loving”.
    http://www.kidzsearch.com/wiki/Theodore_Sturgeon

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