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Discovering the present in the past

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Can we learn from the saga of Bonnie and Clyde and find ways to rebuild the working class or will we continue driving full speed into our own ambush? 

By Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall

On May 23, 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died in a hail of high caliber bullets in an infamous ambush just outside of Sailes, Louisiana.

Allegedly. 

At least in our speculative fiction series, the notorious outlaws were plucked out of harm’s way by a mysterious government handler who needed their special “skills” to protect FDR from an assassination attempt (Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road). They prove just cunning and vicious enough to be useful, and so are forced to try and save Hoover Dam from saboteurs (Bonnie and Clyde: Dam Nation). In book three, which we’re currently working on, the two are forced undercover at the Hanford nuclear reservation to try and protect the Manhattan project from Nazi and Soviet spies.

We chose Bonnie and Clyde because, even 84 years later, they still provoke a strong emotional response from people — good and bad. That made them the perfect anti-heroes to take readers on a sexy, action-packed thrill ride through the aftermath of the Great Depression to explore the power of love and redemption. And as we dug into the research on the real Bonnie and Clyde, and the 1930s era they lived and died in, we found some disturbing parallels between then and now.

Wealth inequality

As Mary Wollstonecraft — a writer, philosopher and staunch advocate of women’s rights (and mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein) — once famously said, “people are rendered ferocious by their misery." 

And things were pretty miserable in the United States in the 1930s. The country was just coming out of the Great Depression and unemployment was high, poverty was rampant and there was little hope for the future. That was doubly true for Bonnie and Clyde, who lived in the slums of West Dallas. Poverty does not, of course, excuse a life of crime, but it’s certainly an enabler, and that’s the crucible in which Bonnie and Clyde were forged. 

Rather than accept their destinies, they instead chose to lash out regardless of consequences, knowing they would likely go out in a blaze of gunfire or in the electric chair. And they probably would have died forgotten if their crime-spree and rebellion hadn’t struck a chord with so many dispirited Americans who saw the duo as striking a blow against the system that had failed so many.

The system, of course, is failing many people now as well. It’s not as bad as the Great Depression, but we’re certainly facing many of the same contributing factors that led up to the crash. It’s especially telling that wealth inequality — the gap between the haves and the have nots — was the second worse in American history in the 1920s as the robber barons diverted profits to the few and left the many on the edge of desperation. When was it worse, you might ask? Well, now, sadly.

Also, the 1920s and early 30s saw organized labor being bullied by big business, which meant working men and women had little say in their own futures. And when the bottom fell out, there were no jobs to be had and no safety net to support them. It took bold and decisive federal intervention from FDR to turn that around, with New Deal policies that reigned in the excesses of capitalism, protected unions and used higher corporate taxes to abate poverty and create jobs. And of course, the Black Tuesday crash was also caused by Wall Street speculation and a brewing trade war. Does any of that sound familiar? 

For-profit prisons

Clyde Barrow, one of the country’s most notorious criminals, first found himself on the wrong side of the law for the shocking offense of failing to return a rental car on time.

That put him on the radar of local law enforcement, so when he graduated to stealing turkeys (poultry was a common target of hungry thieves) it wasn’t long before he entered a brutal prison system that used prisoners for profit. 

At Eastham, convicts were used as slave labor in the fields, picking cotton for example. Margins on cotton were always razor thin, but free labor gives growers a certain advantage, especially when things like safety and nutrition were ignored. In prison, Clyde was brutalized and sexually assaulted; he was so desperate to get out, he chopped off two of his toes (in vain, as it turned out; his mom had already secured his release). From that day forward, he dreamed of exacting his revenge against the bloody ‘Ham, as he called it.

Today’s industrial prison system doesn’t make money in the same way, though some prisons do have work programs providing a captive pool of labor at below market rates. Instead, they make money by privatizing incarceration, then charging municipalities for the privilege of storing prisoners out of sight. As with many companies, they then cut corners wherever possible to squeeze out a profit — on healthcare, safety, meals, rehabilitation, etc. When money can be made off of criminals, petty crimes become life sentences and shareholders benefit. If, under those conditions, men and women are released back into the community with the same anger Clyde developed, our system has effectively radicalized them.  

Social media

Almost a hundred years later, the myth of Bonnie and Clyde is alive and well. They probably would have died in obscurity and been forgotten by history if not for becoming social media stars.

All media is social, but those days it was primarily radio and newspaper, and the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde “got the clicks.” Salacious headlines sold papers, and sensational reporting kept people engaged. At the heart of it was the unspoken recognition that Bonnie and Clyde weren’t married and were likely having all kinds of crazy sex. The reporting tended to glamorize their life on the road as some kind of trigger-happy sex fiends living the high life and thumbing their noses at authorities. The truth was far less glamorous. They basically barely stayed one step ahead of arrest, camped rough and suffered all manner of injuries, including a savage burn from a car crash that scarred Bonnie’s legs to the bone. And those famous photos of Bonnie with a gun and cigar? They were just goofing around; there’s little evidence that Bonnie even carried a gun, much less pulled a trigger.

As we look out into the world today, with angry online trolls, celebrities parlaying bad behavior into sponsorship opportunities and fake or malicious news influencing elections and ruining lives, the legend of Bonnie and Clyde is a good reminder that we should always look behind the headlines. People’s actions may not always be predictable, but they are rational. In a world of low opportunities, taking what you want is actually a rational choice, if the rules only benefit the wealthy. And in a world where controversy sells, sex tapes and cyber bullying are also rational choices if success can only by quantified by wealth. Those two examples, though 84 years apart, are linked by an economic system built on desperation. Imagine if Bonnie and Clyde had the social media tools of today, tweeting about their sex life and posting crime spree photos on Instagram.

Will we ever learn?

The past holds lessons for future, but only if we are open to learning in the present.

The anger and vitriol roiling the country right now is the product of an economic system that — no matter which side of the political spectrum you stand on — is stacked against all but the very wealthiest. The for-profit prison system is literally incentivizing incarceration to make money off of petty crimes and ruined lives. And social media is magnifying our worst tendencies and fueling narcissism and bad choices. 

The question is, can we learn from Bonnie and Clyde and find ways to rebuild the working class and help the poor when they need a hand up, or will we continue driving full speed into our own ambush? 

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