Last night a couple of people wrote comments in the Kermit thread, accusing me of being a jerk about OWS because I made fun of Puppet Man, the OWS protester who quit his secure job, took out $35,000 in student loans to finance his master’s degree in puppetry, and now is angry at Wall Street because he can’t find work. One writer, Cannoneo, said that even though I have said in my blogging here that I broadly agree with OWS’s grievances against Wall Street, it seems petty to the point of “narcisissm” that I tend to highlight characters like Puppet Man and criticize them. I put up several responses in the comboxes, but it occurs to me that I should move them up here to make sure the rest of you see them, and can weigh in. Here:
Yours is a fair question. I suppose it might well come down to the fact that I’m a moralist, and these people seem decadent. Not “decadent” in the Bourbon-Street-on-Mardi-Gras sense, but decadent in the sense of unserious, narcissistic, and sometimes flat-out ridiculous (e.g., Puppet Man). It was the same view the Old Left had of the New Left. I think for me, laughing at the excesses of the OWS protesters is a way of expressing frustration and disappointment that we have a situation as serious as we do, and this circus of downtwinkles, organic food snit-fits, and Puppet paupers is the only real response we’ve seen.
I think too that for many of us, OWS is, like the Amish, a blank screen onto which we can project our hopes and desires. I think some of you who hate it when I poke fun at this or that aspect of the demonstrations don’t like it because you really, really want to believe that this thing is going to be what changes the situation. I think I keep reminding you that no, these people aren’t serious, and nothing’s going to come of their protest. In my case, perhaps I focus too much on the nitwittery because it reflects a general frustration with the unseriousness of American life — to be specific, how, for people like me, our SWPL vanities distract us from the real business at hand.
I’m a failed Puritan. I am too slack in my habits, and love to eat and drink and laugh too much to succeed at Puritanism. But I still have a moralistic streak a mile wide. And I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing, or even mostly a bad thing. But it is a thing.
And finally, it could be with me partly the case that I’m extremely frustrated at people like me, who think Puppet Man and his ilk are silly people, but who can’t figure out what ought to be done instead. At least Puppet Man is doing something. But if joining the movement means having to agree that Puppet Man has a legitimate grievance against Wall Street because he screwed up his own life by going into debt for a MFA in puppetry, sorry, I refuse. It’s just impossible not to smirk at the pretensions of all that (for which I also indict The Nation, which wrote of Puppet Man as if he were a true victim of someone other than his own vanity).
I’ve thought about this overnight, and I stand by my position. I wouldn’t have known about Puppet Man if The Nation hadn’t held him up as an exemplar of things that are right and good with OWS. When the Tea Party was getting underway, one of the things that put me off of it early was the fact that people started showing up to those rallies with guns — perfectly legal, of course, and not representative of the entire movement. In fact, the movement’s grievances were just. But seeing that, and seeing the clip of the old person who yelled at the socialist government to keep its hands off his Social Security (an absurdity that has been repeated in private conversation I’ve had with an older Tea Party supporting friend), made me a lot more skeptical of the Tea Party as a movement — even though I broadly agree with their complaints.
To be clear, I also decline to identify with the Tea Party for more substantive reasons, especially how they’ve been co-opted by the GOP to a certain degree. In fact, this is *primarily* why I decline to identify with them. But the initial bad impression I had from the gun-toting, “blood of tyrants” activists, as well as the confused oldsters ranting about socialism but demanding their government checks, stoked early and deep doubts about this movement. I am quite sure Tea Party activists hated when people pointed out the characters that made them look bad to the broader American public, in the same way you, Cannoneo, hate it when I point to the SWPL-y aspects of OWS.
No broad social movement is going to be without its fringe characters. I know that. But Puppet Man doesn’t seem to be a one-off with OWS; he seems to be emblematic of a certain kind of person who has affiliated with this movement: an overeducated, white, middle-class person with radical-chic opinions or twee grievances (e.g., “I owe $35,000 for my MFA in puppetry, and it’s Wall Street’s fault!”) that I feel an outsider to, even though I agree with their broad critique of the system.
You are entitled, though, to say to me, “I prefer the activism they are doing, flawed as it may be, to the activism you are not doing.”
Let me put it another way, Cannoneo: I don’t think opposing the privileges of Wall Street requires us not to criticize, or even laugh at, the excesses of OWS. In fact, that kind of criticism might be necessary to some degree to create the kind of broad-based movement that might actually compel Congress to change the laws.
Question to you, Cannoneo: at what point does the concept of “moral hazard” apply to people like Puppet Man? I think you and I both agree that it’s hugely unjust, and consequential, that Wall Street figures were allowed to operate without real moral hazard in play, because they could rely on the backstop of the US taxpayer if their gambles failed.
To what extent ought this to be true for Puppet Man, and for DJ Samson? They seem to feel some sense of exemption from moral hazard for the decisions they made, given that those decisions have not panned out for them economically. I’m not saying that Puppet Man’s failure to find puppet-making work is as harmful to the common good as what happened on Wall Street, but do you see why an outsider would find it difficult to agree that Puppet Man is a sympathetic figure, even within a movement that is sympathetic? I mean, even if we were all partying like it was 2005 in this economy, Puppet Man would probably still struggle to find some way to put his degree to good use.
It’s like the film school student I wrote about the other day who rejected state school to go study at a film program at a more expensive private school, decided he didn’t like it after all, and now owes a ton of money in student loans. At what point must people be allowed to face the consequences of their bad decisions, whether they’re on Wall Street, or opposing Wall Street?