The Common Good
July-August 2000

Clowns and Poets and Artists -- Oh, My!

by Julie Polter | July-August 2000

Saying no to the Disneyfication of America.

Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping does not preach the Christian gospel. It's just as well. Most denominations would frown upon a cleric who leads his flock on "shopping interventions" at a Disney Store. In 1999 the good reverend preached for 45 minutes on top of the check-out counters while his followers sang "Whistle While You Work for 15 Cents a Day." (No fellowship hour afterward, because Rev. Billy and others were being arrested.)

But Christians would do well to pay attention to Rev. Billy. He's got a good word.

Rev. Billy was created by New York City actor and writer Bill Talen (with the encouragement of Sidney Lanier, a former Episcopal priest active in theater circles). Rev. Billy is sort of a non-religious "social prophet" against consumerism and chain stores run amok.

Describing the psychic and cultural emptiness caused by what he calls "product hypnosis," Talen says, "I wanted to do something besides just being ironic about it." The resulting guerrilla theater project takes on the forces - Disney, Starbucks, (then-) Mayor Giuliani's attacks on community gardens - that displace local businesses and disrupt communities in Times Square and surrounding neighborhoods. With a TV preacher's bounding cadence and the backing of the Mackey Dees Gospel Choir, Rev. Billy leads on-stage "church" services at a theater space, followed by street actions (audience participation is encouraged). Rev. Billy and audience-congregants have cleaned up a community garden and planted garlic, demonstrated against sweatshops, and waged paint assaults on billboards.

This spring and summer, Talen's revival efforts are aimed at the Starbucks "attack shops" that have been set up opposite community cafes in the 9th Avenue area west of Times Square. In response, the Church of Stop Shopping is working on a campaign for a Franchise-Free Zone there. As Talen describes the chain store threat, Rev. Billy briefly emerges, intoning, "Children, we are drowning in a sea of identical details. There will come a time when we will not know where we are!"

Now, maybe you feel that the reverend goes too far when he shouts, "Children, Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist!" Maybe you have your worries about syncretism, that potential Christian converts might become anti-consumerist fanatics instead of true believers. But while Rev. Billy is not promoting faith, his point is not to mock it either. He does take on the false idols of Name Brands, Corporate Control, and Privatized Public Spaces. Talen backs his performances with thoughtful analysis of how the mall-ification of neighborhoods destroys the simple human interactions that create community.

TIMES SQUARE WAS NOT, it should be noted, paradise before Disney and Giuliani's uberpolicing tactics cleaned it up. It was crime-ridden, dirty, rough, tacky. Muggings and sex shows don't make a healthy community either. But is what's good for Goofy the best way to clean up our cities? In the long run, who profits and who doesn't? What happens to those who don't "fit" the tourist-enticing Disney stage set?

In our current Western culture, money and material goods become idols not by overtly demanding allegiance, but in forming a seamless and subtle dominion. Our common consciousness is flooded by ads on every available surface until we barely recognize unmarketed reality. Rev. Billy's in-store revivals tear open that dominion for a few moments; his preaching symbolically brings the sweatshop workers to the point of sale and invokes the memory of the hot-dog stands, theaters, and tenements that once stood on Times Square's now-Disneyfied turf. As Talen writes on his Web page, when the Church of Stop Shopping briefly silenced the Disney cash registers, "We all felt the sudden absence of the gravitational pull of the content-provider of the empire."

Bill Talen is just one of a number of activists these days who combine serious civil discourse and action with fun and creativity. All over you can find people playing with forms of protest, bringing art to their politics, animal costumes to their marches, raves to their causes. New protest models are emerging that don't seem to require the equation of integrity with over-earnestness or policy-wonking. Dot.com and trademarked powers and principalities seek to buy and manipulate our cultures and our meeting spaces (both real and virtual). We need clowns and poets to pull back the curtain and reveal the naked rear ends of our would-be cultural masters - what better way to make clear who isn't God?

JULIE POLTER is associate editor of Sojourners. Check out www.revbilly.com.

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