A prayer for Owen Mean

John Irving emerges as a capitalist windbag as class warfare erupts in Vermont.

By Peter Kurth
Published July 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The man Vermonters love to hate these days is John "World According to Garp" Irving, whose recent comments in opposition to Vermont's controversial Act 60, an equal-education law that took effect here last year, have aroused the most pungent indignation among the natives. Irving has lived in southern Vermont for more than 25 years, but no matter: In Vermont terms, he's still a flatlander, and when he threatens to pack up and move to New Hampshire if Act 60 isn't repealed, there are already plenty of people lined up to help him. Even die-hard Irving fans, who normally impute almost mythical powers to their favorite author, are wondering how a man who calls himself a "notorious liberal" can have emerged so quickly as a mean-spirited, right-wing nut. The phrase "too big for his britches" is heard a lot lately.

Irving the World Famous Novelist became Irving the Frothing Dad and Capitalist Windbag when he told Time magazine, in an article about Act 60, that "I'm not putting my child in an underfunded public school system," and that he has no intention of sitting idly by while Vermont is overrun by socialists. The essence of Act 60 is that it removes control of funding for public education from individual cities and towns by imposing a statewide property tax and dividing the proceeds equally among all students -- $5,100 annually for every child in the public schools. The law went on the books after the state Supreme Court ruled that Vermont's previous system of local school funding was unconstitutional, imposing an educational disadvantage on children from smaller and poorer towns, while allowing those in the richer ones -- the so-called gold towns, including Stowe, Plymouth, Manchester and Irving's town of Dorset -- to reap the benefits of a swank education by virtue of their higher tax base. Act 60 equalizes standards of public education across the state and guarantees every child access to the same quality of services, whether they live in tony Shelburne on Lake Champlain or in the stricken hamlets of the Northeast Kingdom, where poverty is a way of life.

"Without Act 60, some taxpayers would go on paying $1.55 per $100 of assessed property value to pay for cold classrooms with ancient textbooks, while others paid half as much for fancy schools, spare computers and classes in Arabic," explains the Burlington Free Press, Vermont's largest daily newspaper, in a stern rebuke to Irving called "A Prayer for Owen Mean." Nor will the 41 officially designated gold towns find it easy to raise extra money on their own for their schools, since the law requires that they share 60 to 70 percent of anything they raise with the 211 "receiver towns" that need it. Most people who oppose Act 60 will tell you that it's the inflated percentage, not the noble intentions of the law, that they really object to; that they would even prefer to see a specific state tax that addresses inequality in education; and that they are genuinely fearful for the future of their schools.

Not Irving, who up till now has lived very quietly in the state and who has a son of kindergarten age. "This is Marxism," Irving sputters. "It's leveling everything by decimating what works ... It's that vindictive 'We've suffered, and now we're going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm.'" Time reports with a straight face that "class warfare has broken out" in the Green Mountain State, while the Wall Street Journal, proud as punch of its unexpected literary ally, sees "lefties in Vermont's Supreme Court and legislature" and "educrats" under the bed. The cry has been echoed by conservative pundits across the land.

"Never since the bold deeds of Vermont's Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution has the state experienced such a mood of rebellion," reads an editorial in the arch-conservative Washington Times. Act 60 "has opened a social chasm between rich and poor that the state has never seen." That the widening chasm between rich and poor is a global phenomenon, not peculiar to these hills, is of no concern to the current crop of sound-bite social historians.

"This is civil war," says an anti-Act 60 activist in Time. Another declares that the heated nature of the Act 60 controversy makes her feel "like somebody is going to get shot." Apparently neither of them has ever been to a Vermont Town Meeting, where all important decisions about local government are made and where acrimony, animosity and paranoia are the annual order of business. In Burlington, Vermont's largest city and lifestyle capital of the state, people are laughing in the streets, little suspecting until last week that the social fabric has been rent asunder and that they are poised for a millennial showdown between the haves and have-nots. Irving, meantime, is emerging as a colossal buffoon, a whiner and an ingrate, rather than as a political force to be reckoned with. Every time he opens his mouth he sticks his foot deeper into it.

"My response is as brutally upper class as I can make it," he has said, adding later that Vermont "has a high degree of knee-jerk presumptions against the rich" and against people "who weren't born here. There's a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that's rich people." Challenged to account for himself after the Time interview, he replied that "Act 60 isn't chiefly about education -- it's chiefly about the redistribution of wealth." And in a final wallop from a well-known wrestling fan, Irving says he doesn't want to talk to local media about his opposition to Act 60 "because I don't want to make my child a target of trailer-park envy."

It is this remark, not his fulminations about "Marxism," that's earned Irving the widest condemnation around the state. Vermont is as "correct" a place to live as you will ever find, proud of its historical reputation for live-and-let-live conservatism, cautious in its politics but true to its independent roots. A joke here insists that Vermont only became the 14th state of the union in 1791 because it waited to see who won the Revolutionary War. The state has a governor, Howard Dean, who comes as close to being a Republican as a Democrat can and who has never impressed anyone before now as a "lefty." The rich have always lived here, too, normally migrating from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, but in a state whose motto is "Freedom and Unity," social pretension is and always has been restricted to private occasions. Nobody in Vermont minds that the Rockefellers once devoured Woodstock, because they never talked down to the help. It's just not done -- not if you want any help, that is. In Vermont, condescension is in the nature of a capital offense, and "Owen Mean" could have his meaty hands full the next time he needs a new gardener, housekeeper or garage mechanic in Dorset.

For the moment, Irving is sulking in his tent, having fired off a letter to the Free Press last week in which he modestly insisted that he "didn't invent class warfare," and having entered a nasty public squabble with his old friend Peter Shumlin, president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, who's "disappointed" that Irving "doesn't feel more responsibility for all of Vermont's kids. If you read his novels, his characters are often fighting for the little guy, or the person who doesn't have a voice. I don't know what's happened to John." There are people up here who honestly think he's lost his mind, including the editors of nearly every newspaper in the state and Peter Freyne, Vermont's foremost political columnist, who's been tweaking the Great Writer mercilessly in his column in the weekly Seven Days.

"It's 'Government Against Rich People' time in Vermont," says Freyne, "and the 'rich people' are wailing and gnashing their capped teeth." Freyne thinks Irving "deserves a medal for his contribution to the world of nonfiction. He's pulled the rug out from under all the other anti-Act 60 crybabies who have tried to camouflage their greedy opposition to Vermont's landmark education law with dozens of diversionary themes."

In fairness to Irving, it should be noted that what he really wants to see in Vermont is a school voucher system, which would allow parents to collect the state's block grants to their children and apply them anywhere they like. This proves nothing more than that the wealthy will always prefer to send their children to private schools and let parents in trailer parks stay stuck where they are. Six lawsuits have already been filed in Vermont challenging the provisions of Act 60, and the issues will undoubtedly be decided eventually by the state Supreme Court. A year from now, we'll all be laughing, remembering our close brush with "civil war" and knowing that the hostilities, as always, came from the top down. If he's still around, if he hasn't taken his marbles and gone home, Irving might even find that the natives are still willing to mop his floors. He'd do well to ask them nicely: Memories in Vermont are as long as the winters.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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