Not so long ago, puppets brought cheer to a child's life.

Those puppets of yesteryear — Howdy Doody, Kermit the Frog, Lamb Chop, Yoda, Larry King — were loveable and harmless and charming.

What happened? How did the happy puppet become a gruesome golem of gloom? 

It first went bad for the Puppet World five years ago, when Israeli and Palestinian television producers attempted to make a peaceful "Sesame Street" set in a happy neighborhood of Jews and Arabs. But the Palestinian side refused to allow such a friendly muppet world. 

"To be believable and authentic and be credible to children, it couldn't be too far away from reality," Palestinian producer Daoud Kuttab told the Voice of America in March 1997. 

Of course! Children have no trouble believing in felt-headed monsters with ping-pong balls for eyes, but they've never been able to comprehend a peaceful Middle East. 

And why should they? After Sept. 11, their so-called muppet pal "Bert" was revealed to be a top lieutenant for Usama bin Laden. It was then that children turned against the muppets and hoped to embrace the old-fashioned puppets

Those innocent, heartbroken children were too late. The hippies had already corrupted the puppets. 

While puppet analysts had been distracted by the Mideast Muppet Crisis, the Battle of Seattle was ignored. It was at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests when the cuddly non-corporate puppet was first brought over to the Glum Side. 

The hippie kids didn't have the real issues of the old days: civil rights, Vietnam, Yoko Ono. They needed something new. But they weren't smart or funny like the old-school lefties, so they decided to be against everything. What would be their trademark? The black beret? The peace symbol? Donovan? 

Nah, those were used up — exploited by The Man. So what did these neo-hippies chose as their modern symbol? Large, gruesome, papier-mâché puppets. The puppets all look the same: two-dimensional misshapen faces suffering macular degeneration. Whether it's Seattle in 1999, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 2000, New York in January or Washington over the weekend, you can count on these lumpy, sad examples of representative art to be held high at every protest. 

What do they mean? Why are they so poorly constructed? Is a large round face a symbol of the universal oppression of democracy and hamburgers, or is it simply the only thing a bunch of stoners can make

I've dealt with papier-mâché. All people have, as children. It's safe for the youngsters. If you eat the newspaper-paste mix, it doesn't kill you. Those blunt-bladed scissors can't do much damage to a clumsy artisan, and all mistakes can be "fixed" by simply adding more layers of gluey paper mush. It's the perfect craft for a Greyhound's load of sleepy dirtbags — and it's a filling snack! 

Sadly, the resulting art symbolizes one thing only: the terrible challenges faced by those with no eye-hand motor skills. It reflects the utter incoherence of the protesters' world views...just like those political metaphors you hear so much about these days. 

Am I being cruel? No! One can't be too cruel when assessing the following Gallery of Regrettable Protest Puppets: 

Giant Puppet Head with Stenciled Slogan (2000). Anonymous. 

Eye-Jowled Sorrow With Bad Dentistry, Looming Above David Letterman's Mom (2001). Anonymous. 

The Crow's Regret (2000). Anonymous; Chicago School. 

Percy and the Deviled Ham (2000). Glerfeld Dingus, Brazil. 

Marlon Brando Eats His Young, (1999). Vichy McGlummie, Sydney. 

Reverse Oppression: White Woman in Black Man's Skirt, (2001). Heather X. 

The Laziest Space Alien: Reflections On a Free Society, (2000). Jové Biskït. 

Puppet Wilts From Traffic Policeman's Distant Gesture. (1999). Compendium for a Larger Idea Collective. 

To the neophyte, these images may seem disturbing, comical or even worthless. But for art historians like myself, such images clearly prove that the CIA is running the American Protest Movement.

Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.

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