No, argues T.A. Frank in The New Republic.
Frank's headline is "Is Pie-Throwing Ever Morally Justifiable?," but I've qualified my heading to make it clear that we have to exclude consensual pie-throwing, which is probably more common than what Frank is talking about: pie-throwing as an attempt at protest.
Pie-throwing is the issue of the day because Rupert Murdoch was almost hit with a pie while appearing before a parliamentary committee in London before his wife, Wendi Deng, successfully intervened.
Frank admits that no one seems to be supporting the pie-thrower in this incident, but he says this isn't a universal reaction to non-consensual pie-throwing. For instance, he cites Matthew Yglesias's approving reaction to someone hitting Thomas Friedman with a pie. Frank writes:
A common defense of pie-throwing is that it’s, well, just a pie. But, of course, the person getting attacked has no idea what the hell is about to hit him or her. In 1976, during a campaign appearance in his first run for the U.S. Senate, Pat Moynihan got pied by a Yippie yelling “Fascist pig.” Moynihan, a child of Hell’s Kitchen, was no softie, “but it scared the hell out of me,” he told The New York Times. It had been “a violent act.”One exception to Frank's general rule that pie-throwers don't get in trouble is Johnny Marbles, the man who tried to pie-throw Murdoch. He was arrested and jailed. So, does Marbles regret what he did? He writes:
The defense that the fear lasts only a short while—between the time you first notice you’re being attacked and the time you realize it’s just a pie—doesn’t work, either. If fleeting fear were no problem, then mock executions would be just hilarious. But momentary fear can be very powerful indeed. If someone aimed a machine gun at me and started firing loud volleys of harmless whipped cream, I wouldn’t laugh it off. I’d scream in terror. And, if someone “just” charged me with a foreign object in hand, I’d be pretty damn frightened, too. . . .
Dignity is a tricky concept, hard to define. But it’s central to many religions, and it’s mentioned in numerous international conventions. The Geneva Conventions famously prohibit “outrages on human dignity.” What separates civilized nations from barbarous ones is that they treat all human beings, even the enemies that they kill and the criminals that they punish, with dignity. (If prisoners of war were to have custard pies pressed into their heads upon being taken into enemy custody, decent people would see it as a sickening humiliation.) It’s also what separates civilized people from bullies and brutes. Pie-throwers want to rob their victims of dignity. That degrades the rest of us, too.
By the way, what’s ironic about many of these pie-throwers is how seriously they take themselves. When the supposedly light-hearted [Noel] Godin, who kicked off his career by throwing a pie at Marguerite Duras in 1969, explained why he spattered Bill Gates with a pie in 1998, it was because Gates “chooses to function in service of the capitalist status quo, without really using his intelligence or his imagination.” Yeah, intelligent and imaginative people don’t bring personal computing to half the globe. They spend 30 years throwing pie.
Ultimately, pie-throwing amounts to the most violent way possible to attack someone powerful without being likely to get in trouble for it. (Victims rarely press charges, because they don’t want to look like bad sports.) But it’s the not the hegemony of elites that’s threatened by pie-throwing. It’s ordinary decency and openness. Murdoch goes back to work tomorrow. But, if there are further hearings, the public will have to go through much more security to get access to them. Today, only journalists were allowed to stay after the pie incident. Ordinary onlookers were made to leave. Thanks, pie-thrower.
I had intended to unleash a wave of polemic as I made my move. As it turned out, the whole thing was far too weird for me to string two thoughts together, particularly as Murdoch's wife rose from the chair to prevent and avenge her husband's humiliation. As it went, I'm glad I was even able to make the accurate understatement that he was a "naughty billionaire".Even the aspiring pie-thrower himself was unable to articulate a convincing case for what he did, either at the time or in a long-winded editorial after the fact. So I agree with Frank: in addition to being violent and degenerate, pie-throwing simply isn't the incisively satirical act the pie-throwers seem to think it is. In fact, it's the opposite of what it's trying to be. People don't have trouble understanding why Marbles would want to do this because pie-throwing is too surreal or subversive for our comprehension; we have trouble seeing the point because pie-throwing is trite, formulaic, old-fashioned, humanizing toward the target, and ultimately meaningless.
As I languished predictably in a prison cell later that evening, I contemplated whether people would understand why I'd done it. I knew it was a tall order: a surreal act aimed at exposing a surreal process was never going to be an easy sell. I worried, too, that my clowning would detract from the scandal, or provide sympathy for Murdoch.
Believe it or not, I even worried about Rupert Murdoch's feelings. You see, I really don't hate 80-year-olds and, at the end of the day, Rupert Murdoch is just an old man. Maybe what I was trying to do was remind everyone of that – that he is not all powerful, he's not Sauron or Beelzebub, just a human being, like the rest of us, but one who has got far too big for his boots.
ADDED: A couple people have asked me if I feel the same way about the people who are going around throwing glitter at politicians who are opposed to gay rights. Here's my response.