Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A protean thief

"I'm no Robin Hood," says Tony Musulin--but note the hed at the link.
Folk narratives are indelibly inscribed in our collective soul, no matter how stubbornly he refused to perform.

He's now serving three years in prison for making off with about $15 million--or somewhat less--in a Loomis security van that he drove for a living. After ten years with the company, he says he simply wanted to get back at his employer:

"As I was single I couldn't have holiday during the summer, they didn't pay me all my hours, we were not respected," he told the court. "I respect the law but at a certain moment I crossed over to the other side because of all these injustices."

Rather half-heartedly, it seems to me, he submerges his personal sense of grievance in a class-struggle narrative:

He blamed his employer almost entirely for his actions. He had put himself in danger for Loomis every day for 10 years, he said, but still earned just $1,700 a month. He said he was forced to drive the same route every day, a duty that “will drive you crazy.”

He added that his employer fired people for no reason and regularly asked the drivers to carry millions of dollars more than the legal limit.

Mr. Musulin said he didn’t plan the heist, but decided on the same day that he had had enough.

Musulin had, it must be said, a certain lack of imagination:

He testified that after hiding the cash and ditching the truck, he went to Italy because “Italians are cool” and he could eat pasta. But he said he soon ran out of money. He decided to turn himself in after he saw TV reports and realized how much attention he was getting.

The comedic potential in those lines seems boundless. "The Spaghetti Bandit," perhaps. A man pleading poverty with a garage-full of money, like a Wall Street executive--with, however, far more plebeian culinary tastes.

His folk-hero status, in any case, soon evaporated. Yes, in tough economic times he defied nameless and faceless thieves, the ones who batten upon the ordinary folks who suffer the dire consequences of their mistakes, and pay for their bailouts. And yes, he committed his deed without violence.

But something was missing.

It was considered the heist of the century, and the Loomis employee became an instant folk hero for people who blamed their own financial hardship on a banking system gone out of control.

They learned Tuesday that their Robin Hood wasn’t a hero bent on breaking the banks, but rather an ordinary man who was mad at his boss.

From another account:

The seamlessly and peacefully carried out robbery came when France was feeling the full effect of the financial crisis and earned Musulin a legion of fans who declared him a hero of the people. Internet groups sprang up, T-shirts were made and bumper stickers reading "Tony Musulin: Without Hate or Violence" sold well.

That devotion lessened after police found the majority of the money in a safety deposit box in Lyon. His popularity then plummeted after he handed himself in and claimed to know nothing of the remaining €2.5m. [emphases added]

How can we explain this contradiction--that finding the money alone diminished Musulin, and not finding all of it diminished him still further? Before the money was found, it existed as potential: fire stolen from the gods by a doomed, heroic Prometheus. Then it--but not all of it--turned up, and so did he. Once again, it was only money, and the now-unresisting Musulin was just a person who had stolen it. And the outstanding funds, if they exist, have more likely than not been squirreled away for his own eventual use, or so we might suspect.

Writes one commenter:

A common theif [sic]. He had no intention of giving the money to the poor. People believe whatever they want to believe. It has nothing to do with reality.

Note the palpable sense of betrayal in this counter-narrative--and its profound inaccuracy. What people "want to believe" is their "reality," whether romantic myth, gritty working-class naturalism, or the vast constructs of law and science. The commenter wants to believe that Musulin is a "common thief" with no altruistic designs. (Yet in other contexts we extol such in-it-for-themselves people: we are called upon to admire their greed-driven individualism. "Captains of industry." "Self-made men." "Rags to riches." Must only the poor have noble purposes?)

Musulin, in a word, disappointed. He was just a grunt with a lousy job and a miserable employer, and he acted on impulse. And he didn't have a clue what to do next. When he started to hear about himself in the media, he meekly turned himself in.
He didn't fit the hero narrative one little bit.

But that "reality" is just another narrative. He was a man out for himself, driven beyond endurance by his circumstances, taking a risk and making his fortune in a moment. Like a gambler, or a lucky day-trader. We are less sympathetic, because we are less involved. So he now becomes an object lesson, a not very bright or very brave lawbreaker who quickly got what was coming to him. Order in the universe is restored, even if it's a universe in which most of us feel dispossessed and powerless.

Upon Musulin, in fact, we merely inscribe our own stories,* what we "want to believe." No matter what we say of him, as Meister Eckhard once said of God, it is not true. We don't know him. He comes to us mediated, a series of accounts to which we add our individual flourishes. But on the infinite playground of language, he can be discovered, again and again, in his numerous guises and roles. Everyman, you might say--or, no one at all.

*CORRECTION: "Our own stories" is problematic. The shift from a subject-position of resistance ("Robin Hood") to a subject-position of oppression (the law, the lawbreaker, the punishment, the restoration of order--resistance to which had, just previously, been celebrated) is a function of power and ideology. We might think we are generating these stories, or at least making them our own, but it would be more accurate to say that they are telling us.

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