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Gary Younge
Bonus Outrage: Class Struggle or Class Envy?

During

Michael Moore suggests to Dick Herland, a former producer of

, that he find new villains.

Rather than screening mostly black and Hispanic men being chased by law enforcement, why not have a show called

, where police hunt down white-collar criminals?

“I’m telling you, everyone in America who’s got just your basic, everyday job…is gonna love watching the boss being chased down the street with his shirt off, thrown to the ground and a knee to the neck. I’m telling you, that is gonna get ratings,” says Moore.

“Yeah, I’m with you,” says Herland. “And if I can find a police outfit that would prosecute corporate criminals appropriately and would go after them appropriately…. But…when police go after the guy who’s just stolen $85 million [as opposed to one who’s lifted a purse with $85], they treat him like he was a member of the city council–as he may or may not be–and it’s not exciting television. If you could get that guy to take his shirt off…yeah, and throw his cellular phone at the police as they come through the door, try to jump out that window, then we’d have a show.”

There have been moments over the past few weeks when it’s seemed as though that day had nearly come. The celebrity website TMZ, which once brought you Britney Spears exposing herself, recently uncovered how Northern Trust bank, which received $1.6 billion in bailout funds, threw a lavish Hollywood party. Meanwhile, the entertainment channel Extra had crews outside the Madoff trial, and ABC, the Disney-owned channel, is stalking failed-bank executives to catch them alighting from their corporate jets. “The corporate jets never…disappoint,” Rhonda Schwartz, chief of investigative projects for ABC News, told the

. “It’s like they never get the message.”

Such is the mood of the moment. To what extent it is driven by the media instead of being a genuinely popular political force is not clear. Either way, the AIG bonus furor reveals the degree to which such episodes are a distraction from the urgent issues in this period, as opposed to a rallying point to broaden the audience that might discuss those issues.

In a country where the left rarely gets to choose the conditions on which it fights, the appeal of trying to capitalize on AIG’s woes isn’t difficult to fathom. The symbolism of the government essentially handing over huge sums to wealthy people who have screwed up is indeed a teachable moment. Rarely do things get as blatant as this. While perfectly competent minimum-wage workers are being laid off because of the economic crisis, the people responsible for creating the crisis are being paid millions to stay on. Executive pay can be a useful means of raising awareness of a broader corporate culture that treats workers with contempt. As a trade union organizer, I have used it myself.

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