Shop Till You Stop
"Take your hands away from the product!" roars Reverend Billy. His Church of Stop Shopping -- about 12 people dressed in gold robes and rocking side to side as they sing an anti-consumerist gospel -- pull their hands violently up and away from an imaginary Mickey Mouse toy made by sweatshop labor, or from a $5 latte, or from one of FAO Schwartz's "war toys."
Union Mall Rats -- Where even Rev. Billy goes to shop
Reverend Billy is putting on the best show in New York this year. He's been preaching his ascetic Word in Times Square and various Starbucks around the city for the past five years, and he's now very natural in his role: dressed in a white suit, black gloves, and with the white collar and (bleached) blond bouffant of a Southern Baptist minister, he plunges into the crowd and shakes many hands and kisses one baby. "Come on, my children!"
A few police officers trot alongside as the crowd starts marching down a rain-soaked Fifth Avenue thick with post-Thanksgiving shoppers. The Rev.'s choir sings a chirpy hymn that goes, "Stop shopping ... Hallelujah ... Change-a-lujah," and someone bangs a drum and someone else blows a trumpet.
This theater of the absurd is met with brick-wall faces by passersby. Many don't even look twice, so caffeinated by Starbucks and mesmerized by Nike and hypnotized by products that they can't recognize The Odd any more when they see it. "Wake up!" Billy screams. "You're living in a multinational theme park illusion!"
The blank faces only confirm for Billy how desperately people need to hear his message. Members of the church hand out flyers to bemused shoppers explaining the conceptual art they are witnessing. "Where do our purchases come from?" the flyer asks. "Who made them? Do these products express us? Are we proud of where they came from?" People are encouraged to use independent stores (see sidebar), to create a gift economy, and, finally, "Try small changes first and be kind to yourself!"
The Buy Nothing Day ethos put forward by Adbusters, which holds that hyper-consumerism is a soul-sapping regime enforced by greedy multinationals who enslave people in the Third World, is represented nowhere more perfectly than by Reverend Billy's puritanical theocracy. He has a book released on Buy Nothing Day (ironically), called "What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store?" (the title of a memo sent to all Starbucks across New York after Billy stood on one too many tables and made one too many speeches about exploitation and banal interior decoration).
By the time we reach the Disney store, the flock has thickened.
"Children, we're going inside!" Billy orders. The choir gleefully slips through the door and follows Billy as he prowls around the aisles, waiting to pounce. Out of the ruckus of the street and inside the pink palace of the Disney store, he is momentarily silent, and even the choir stops singing. The many reporters in tow snap photographs and the tension is gorgeous. Finally, the Rev. raises the red bullhorn to his mouth and shouts at the ceiling: "SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOYS AND GIRLS MADE THESE TOYS IN A SWEATSHOP IN CHINA!" A disciple cries out: "Your soul is not for sale!" Another says: "Spend time with your kids, don't buy them things!"
By now about 20 people have infiltrated the store and the cops are coming in too, chewing gum and frowning. Reverend Billy continues preaching. Some people by the checkout do not look round at the cacophony. Some members of staff look concerned but others don't appear to notice the drama unfolding in their store. Only one person responds to Billy's proselytizing: "Go ahead and be a hippie, then!" he says, and tries to cover Billy's bullhorn with a newspaper. "Sweatshop labor!" a disciple cries defiantly. "Hippie!" the man replies.
The crowd in the store is reaching critical density so Reverend Billy orders the flock back out onto the street. Then three or four cops grab him and bundle him against their three-wheel patrol mobile. They force his hands behind his back and cuff them with the plastic cuffs that cops always carry at protests. During the kerfuffle, there is the now familiar scenario of reporters and protesters taking photos of the cops who are taking photos of them. The flock runs after Billy as he is escorted to a paddywagon and they yell at the cops indignantly: "What's the crime?" and "Who are you protecting?"
Billy is shoved inside the van and one cop answers, soldier-like: "We're protecting peace." The wagon drives away and the flock, who have by now removed their gold robes, stand around disconsolate and on an adrenalin comedown.
The exhilaration of absurdity is fast replaced by frustration and impotence. "This is what you get when you interfere with consumerism!" someone shouts at indifferent shoppers. "You were blocking the pavement," a cop says to the thinning crowd of protestors. The march tentatively continues but now there is no leader, no uniform and only one plaintive cry from a curly-haired boy out in front: "Stop shopping. Please."
I ask a bystanding couple what they think is going on here. "People think it's a joke. But we were told that this guy is a minister and he has a church. He wants people to stop shopping and spend more time with their family on Thanksgiving," says Kevin, who is from Indiana, here on honeymoon. His wife Sandra says: "Shopping really defeats the purpose of Thanksgiving, doesn't' it?" Then Kevin says, straight-faced: "Well, the church is not meant to protest shopping. My church wouldn't do this. A minister's job isn't to be involved in social reform. His job is to bring Jesus into people's hearts."
Confusing you is the nature of Bill Talen's game. He was an actor by profession before he hit upon the character of Reverend Billy as a way of injecting uncertainty and spontaneity into what he sees as the dictatorial simulation of the retail environment. If he failed to get his political message across to shoppers during the Buy Nothing Day debacle, he at least created a bit of chaos for a while, and for him this is a result.
Faith In the Absurd
Two weeks earlier, I sat down with Talen, his media handler Michael O'Neil, his wife Savitri Durkee, and the choir's piano player, Brother Benny. "Shoppers and tourists have a very specific, narrow, set of behaviors," Talen said. "They don't know that what they say and think and talk about in a store is really narrowed down as much as when you get on an airplane and there's the succession of 23 protocols."
He looked furtively around the restaurant as he spoke. "Freedom has been redefined as that which..." His frustration was palpable as he fumbled for the right words. "...positions of your boy, situations where your voice can't be heard... our freedom is defined..." He tried again: "We're told constantly that we're the freest people. But we're in hallways all day, we're in traffic all day, we're in mutual dead zones all day, we're in prisons or malls that resemble prisons with Muzak and fluorescent lights. We're consumers and all day long we're in positions where there's a distance between our body and anything that we could impact."
Talen has a firm faith in the absurd (one of the songs he wrote for his choir goes, "You've got to be impossible sometimes to understand") and an actorly sensibility about free and creative movement of the body. This either sounds like a version of the adolescent wail, "Get off my back, man!" or testimony of Foucaultian bio-politics, depending on how generous you're feeling. But Talen is sincerely thrilled by transgressing the unconsciously enforced physical rules in stores, and striding into the Disney store as an observer of a performance rather than a passive shopper was, for me, a weirdly invigorating experience. Talen says, predictably, that he considers the store to be his stage.
Michael O'Neil speaks up. "The question we always ask is this: Are we a theater group that does direct action, or are we a direct action group that does theater?"
Judging from the coherence of the Church's political message and the way it's delivered, they are probably better thought of as a theater group. I ask Talen whether he really believes that making people feel guilty about shopping is a sound basis for a political movement.
"When someone makes a decision to sell their SUV and get something more energy efficient," he says, "or when someone decides not to go into Starbucks anymore or not buy sweatshop products anymore... it's just good. Guilt might be a more shallow kind of adjustment. You can change because of guilt and then not change a lot of other things. But I'm just trying to get people to do the first thing, and if it's because of guilt, then great."
In his book, Talen describes an incident when he was preaching outside the Disney Store about the evil of Mickey Mouse. A woman turned around and said: "Lighten up, Reverend. I'm just buying a toy for my sister's kid." He is sympathetic to some kinds of materialism -- the stuff that we need -- but insists that there is no such thing as a "benign" purchase in the Disney Store or at Wal-Mart. "We get challenged that way sometimes," he said. "A guy came up to me once and said: 'You have contempt for ordinary Americans who need to go to those stores.' I said 'No, the only reason to do this is to honor ordinary Americans.'"
Then, out the blue, Brother Benny, a beady-eyed old man and inspiring choir master, opens a book and starts bellowing a passage: "The hatred of sin is still hatred. And because it is still just hatred, it is not morally superior," he says prophetically. "The hatred of sin creates the absurdity of an error's condemning an error. There is not much to gain in shaking one's fist in indignant wrath at sinners other than a self-serving kind of demagoguery."
An awkward silence descended on the table. It seemed that Benny had --accidentally? -- got to the core of the problem with the Church of Stop Shopping: The undertones of moral superiority, even aesthetic snobbery, are pretty clear when you tell someone they are at best a fool and at worst evil for drinking a Starbucks.
"But we're not coming out of anger!" Benny said when he finished reading. "That's the difference. We're all sinners! We don't mean everything we say literally!" The performance of the politics is very smart: It allows free rein to Billy's apocalyptic poetry ("Consumption children walk slowly off the sidewalk") and to all the worst knee-jerk reactions to consumerism ("We believe supermodels are -- state terrorism"), and at the same time it insulates the Church from criticism -- they're just playing around, after all.
"We're saying: Look, you can have dissent and you can still feel good," Benny said.
Billy stepped in: "You have to be eccentric." And then he disappeared from the table. I learned that this is normal; after the third and final night of the Church's performance at this year's Burning Man Festival, Billy disappeared into the desert for hours without telling anyone where he was going. Now that Billy was gone again, Savitri took over the questions. Can you achieve what you're looking for without systemic change in America -- and the world?
"That kind of thinking just leads to complete paralysis," she said, "because there's this extremist view that you have to change everything, and that's so daunting that you end up content with changing nothing. So we say No, it doesn't have to be a systemic change. It can be a minor change. It can be as simple as choosing one store you don't go to. As changing the brand of toilet paper you use. Minor change has major impact."
This is comforting and optimistic, but annoyingly vague. What would the world look like with universal fair labor laws and fair trade -- assuming that this is the goal of global justice activists, rather than outright revolution, and assuming that selective consumerism can help achieve it?
Tom de Zengotita, a professor of anthropology and philosophy at New York University and a regular essayist for Harper's, has speculated about this. Proper remuneration for labor might lead to the creation of a global middle class of consumers who would populate a kind of "Mall World" in which mass culture rules. Maybe. And are global justice activists like those campaigning on Buy Nothing Day really willing to give up their anti-mass culture aesthetics if global justice means global mass culture?
The first thing underpaid workers in India or Africa would probably do when they got some money is go to the newly built mall. And this is the optimistic analysis; the chances are that Mall World will come around without global justice. De Zengotita hasn't yet found a way out of his claustrophobic Mall World thought experiment. His essays bristle with frustration at the lack of a new grand narrative that explains the post-communist world and offers a credible alternative to neo-liberal free market hegemony. He wants something more intellectually rigorous than the trinity No Logo, Adbusters, and the Reverend Billy. In one piece for Harper's, he called for someone to put in their 10 years in the library and come up with the new Das Kapital.
For him, the Church of Stop Shopping doesn't cut it. I tell him their plans for "minor change" that will create a "major impact." There is silence. He looks dejected. "OK." Pause. "I don't know what to say about that. These are good people and they care. They see that things suck and they want to do something. God bless 'em all. But this idealism is no longer attached to an intellectual analysis of what's going on in the world that even remotely begins to be adequate, in my judgment."
Aside from the poorly thought-out consequences of Buy Nothing day, assuming it achieved its goals, there are two major philosophical difficulties with its ethos. The first seems to be an outrageous question, but it's worth considering: Would the 9/11 hijackers have been fans of No Logo and Adbusters if they had read them? The troubling answer is: possibly - even as they racked up huge credit card bills and lived the high life in the West. According to Paul Berman's reading in Terror and Liberalism, Said Qutb, author of a founding text of Islamism called In The Shade of the Quran, rails against the "hideous schizophrenia" of modernity, with its compartmentalizing of life into religious and secular zones, its emphasis on material pleasure, and the insidious spread of Western consumerist values. Adbusters and Reverend Billy do much the same thing, lamenting the moral and spiritual vacuum of the postmodern entertainment/consumerist/military complex. Billy calls it "the mind-bending logic of Free Market pornography" and yearns for a simpler world.
De Zengotita says that this disturbing convergence of fundamentalisms is normal, historical, and not much to be particularly troubled by.
"If you look at the history of radical responses to the more or less continuous rise of bourgeoisie liberalism -- which is now more or less globally dominant, let's not forget -- you'll see a common theme in the critique that comes form the left and the right when they're focused on attacking the bourgeoisie subject that they all hate. A lot of proto-fascist attacks on the bourgeoisie culture are very similar to the anarchic left. So it's not uncommon and shouldn't cause you distress," he says.
And, of course, Reverend Billy uses democracy, not bombs, so his critique is OK.
"If he says these things... that's nothing. That's fine, it's fun. If he came along and blew the store up, that's another thing. But if he wants to come in and throw Mickey Mouse dolls around, fine, I kind of support it. But I don't think it's gonna get very far in the long run."
Problem number two is more debilitating: the snobbish politics of self-expression that Buy Nothing Day represents. "We're caught in a cultural situation that I can't fully understand," De Zengotita says, "but it involves us doing and believing most of what we do and believe in public because of how it makes us feel about ourselves."
Righteousness is the animating force of the Church of Stop Shopping. The irony of the indignation is the kind of fake irony that allows one to express, in disguise, an unacceptable opinion -- in this case: Your life is empty because you buy things and I feel as much pity for you as I feel hatred for chain stores.
De Zengotita has a lot of sympathy for Billy's movement. He says it's "cute." He doesn't go to Starbucks himself, because "I just think it's fucking ridiculous to spend that much on coffee and it's obscene to have that much stuff devoted to coffee. Have a cup of coffee, for God's sake. And the same goes for the proliferation of everything -- juice, cereal, shoes. The whole thing repulses, nauseates me as an aesthetic, and there's politics in it. If it was just the politics I'd be back at: What fucking difference does it make what I buy? That would be enervating but that's probably where I would come out."
But the Church of Stop Shopping ends up focusing too much on the aesthetics of consumption and of personal expression. Attaching yourself to Buy Nothing Day or Adbusters is the same process as becoming attached to a band -- choosing an identity according by picking iconic accessories. "And that's not bad," de Zengotita says. But his hope is that politics can disengage from "feeling" for a while. "What I'm asking for is a little delayed gratification." Instead, a new politics should attach itself to something a little more objective -- a new system for understanding the world that doesn't yet exist. "And so we're back where we started again," he says, exasperated.
Media critic Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, isn't so concerned with grand theory. "The measure of the value of activism is pragmatic," he says. "Reverend Billy has been doing it for a certain period of time. Are there any results? If there aren't, then the strategy is wrong. Period."
Gitlin was the president of the Students for a Democratic Society group in the early 1960s. He has a realistic approach to protest. In his book, "Letters to a Young Activist," he encourages dissenters to be adventurous, never to fall into dogma, and above all, to go for results.
Gitlin also has a convincing explanation for the thousands of blank faces that passed Billy by on November 28, and the few disgusted ones. "He's going at the reward structure that sustains everyday life." This is a bad tactic because, "Shopping is the form in which people's freedom lives. To them this is the deferred pleasure of living. So it's hard to believe that the scales will suddenly fall from their eyes as a result of a moralistic appeal that they stop shopping." Put simply, "this kind of protest has a sort of puritan quality that doesn't go down well in an anti-puritan culture." Billy might say: But exactly.
Returning to the grand theory, I ask Gitlin if he thinks capitalism could sustain the fair labor laws and fair trade that the global justice movement wants. "I don't know. I'm an economic idiot. The only way to know is to implement those reforms across the board and see what happens. Capitalism requires rules. It withstood fair labor laws in the US and other countries. If the floor were raised would the falling rate of profit crash capitalism once and for all? I don't know."
And if we rely only on the shits and giggles of Reverend Billy and Buy Nothing Day, we might never find out. But at the performance on the 28th, another activist group latched on to Billy's Church. They carried placards saying "Killer Coke." Before the pantomime in the Disney Store, they stopped outside the Coca-Cola Company building and spoke about the recent murders of union leaders for workers in Coca-Cola plants in Colombia. They handed out pre-written letters for passersby to send to the Coca-Cola board that read: "Apart from any legal liability you will face, you have failed to use your influence to end violence against workers and their families. Your silence, both individually and as a board, is scandalous."
This is the specific and strenuous kind of protest that Gitlin champions. But it was so much more fun and exhilarating violating the Disney Store.
James Westcott is associate editor of Mastermind magazine, a freelance writer, and a Masters student in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at New York University.