The Gospel According to Reverend Billy
“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” – Rousseau
The prime, often countervailing, logics of 21st Century America – capitalism and democracy – seem dangerously out of balance today. Meanwhile, vestigial factors, like Puritanism, sometimes affect public life in surprising ways. Since the Giuliani years, America’s largest city – New York – has seen lower crime, infrastructural investments, an infusion of capital, a proliferation of chain stores, a vast profusion of surveillance devices and, perhaps, the general evisceration of democracy. Just recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored widespread opposition to the construction of two billion dollar stadiums and the much-maligned Atlantic Yards construction project. More egregiously, he bullied our City Council into overturning a term limits law that had been passed fifteen years earlier by public referendum. Now running for his third term, Bloomberg’s campaign war chest has intimidated all prominent Democratic challengers.
As politics appears as (yet another) massively-financed spectacle of buzzwords, scandals, outsized personas and deep psychology, is it possible to enter the political fray without selling your soul?
Can we get the attention of the public eye by taking on an identity at once striking and also familiar to our public culture? Fifteen years ago, William Talen began the process of becoming a New Yorker and re-inventing himself as “Reverend Billy.” Today, armed with this identity, he enters churches of consumption – like the Disney store in Times SquareÊ- to project a powerful message opposing corporate retail, a culture of consumerism, and the encroachment of our public spaces.
Reverend Billy’s charisma, energy, and smarts have gathered him a gospel choir, the attention of CNN, a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock “What Would Jesus Buy”, and now the nomination of New York’s Green Party for the 2009 mayoral race. Reverend Billy combines a Nixonian charm, the overly stylized tropes of a preacher, and, perhaps as prime mover, a rich Calvinist heritage. America has a long history of Calvinist preachers – you may know them as “Puritans” – who rail against impure desires, the “moneychangers,” and fret mightily for the souls of their congregants.
Having written an article decrying the evils of shopping malls twenty years ago, I wonder if Reverend Billy’s message is especially timely in an age of ever-bigger, ever-greedier capital. Does working for a big corporation make you an entrepreneur or a bureaucrat? When chain stores achieve virtual monopolies over advertizing media, joint ventures with government, and prime locations, do we shop in them under our own volition?
On the other hand, do Reverend Billy’s antics disrespect your choice to bring your kid to a Disney store without some loudmouth with a megaphone and a choir hectoring you? Is this a case of personal decisions having a truly political nature or is righteousness slipping into self-righteousness? If Billy’s anti-consumerist crusade is, as he says, psychologically rooted in his Calvinist heritage, what can we learn from the history of “Puritanical” movements? How do Calvinists regard freedom of choice? Should his candidacy trouble those fearful of religion (mysticism, spirituality) in politics or is this a lampoon that suggests the opposite?
Just how dire is our condition? Does the repeal of mayoral term limits suggest the eclipse of democracy or are term limits an affront to the free choice of citizens to vote for whomever they choose? Do the excesses of the Bloomberg years require a reformist leader from outside the two-party axis? Are Billy’s moxie and inventiveness necessary for a leader facing dangers created by business as usual? Is the story of his campaign that New York City politics is a plutocracy, a vital democracy open to all voices, or a joke worthy of performance art? Has Reverend BillyÔs experience as a performance artist and political activist provided him with a sense of the City unknown to party machines? Even if he doesn’t win, is his candidacy a success for having introduced a unique and important set of issues? Supposing again that he doesn’t win in his bid for mayor, would a candidate who is solely dedicated to the issues run for a lower elected office or return to protest in civil society?
In practical terms, what would happen to New York City if Reverend Billy was elected? Would we have a greener, more egalitarian, pluralistic city, one more open to entrepreneurship? Or would the wealthy and their enterprises – like the Stock Exchange – merely move out of state? Since the stock market accounts for nearly ten percent of the City’s budget and one percent of tax filers provide nearly HALF of revenue, would New York City return to how it was in the 1970s, when it went bankrupt and lost a million inhabitants (despite immigration)? Does the addition of one million residents since 1990, at a time when Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and other cities shrank, suggest the City has been better run by Republicans? Is New York City a hostage to capital? Do bankers make good neighbors? Is it possible or advisable to be principled under these circumstances? If not now, when?
As being and seeming are smudged in postmodern performativity, a question emerges: Is Reverend Billy a reverend-turned-activist-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician or an activist-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician or an actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician or a politician-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician? You decide – especially those of you who can vote on November 3rd in New York City.