20 September 2004

Conventional Warfare: The Billionaires

The relationship between demonstrators and police is important for groups faithful to the Anarchist principle that no demonstration is complete until a heavily armed riot cop is provoked to violence against a lightly equipped civilian, thereby revealing the state as the brutal, repressive force we all secretly know it to be. But as last Sunday showed, 2004 is not 1968, and the confrontation with the Man is less important than the relationship between demonstrators and the media who cover them. The new breed of demonstrators understand themselves as event planners for an audience of journalists who will then pass on the message to their readers and viewers. Primarily, they are performers. To this extent, at least, they can be evaluated aesthetically. Indeed some of them even wish to be appreciated aesthetically. They are fervent believers in the transformational power of the image. Whoever orchestrated the parade of a thousand flag-draped coffins believes that Americans need to see mock funerals in order to understand the cost of war. They succeeded in getting a front-page photograph in the Times, but it’s unclear how many souls they enlightened and how many they alienated; some read the protest as merely another desecration of the American flag. The image was straightforward, but, once repeated and reconfigured in print or television, its message became ambiguous.

Visibility matters, but so does sophistication. Most of these groups are burdened by a sense of political theater as kitsch—as laden as Bush’s Mission Accomplished farce. (Right wing kitsch will always beat left wing kitsch, since right wing kitsch elevates reality to some mythic dream while left wing kitsch offers only the consolations of victimhood and rage.) The stand-out exception among convention protesters has been Billionaires For Bush. The Billionaires are less Brecht than Oscar Wilde. They work backwards, beginning with their pseudo-advocacy. Their chants are pure wit, neatly reversing expectations: “Four more wars,” “Reappoint Bush.” They dress the part of camp moguls from the roaring twenties, down to the monocles, top hats, and ball gowns. Their style and their speech come from the elegant Hollywood of David Niven and Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn. They are drag queen capitalists.

And, astonishingly, like a man who only finds his ideal of femininity once he stumbles into bed with a transvestite, the media have fallen for the Billionaires. For some journalists, this is literally true. My friend in the Bs4B says she seldom leaves an event without several reporters’ home phone numbers tucked inside the sleeve of her elbow-length calfskin gloves. There’s something about a woman who dresses like a princess, speaks in a hybrid of ab-fab and high Wasp and underneath it all knows she’s putting you on. The aura of monied leisure is enough to draw attention. At their recent croquet match in Central Park, there was a journalist for every three Billionaires; at the Vigil for Corporate Welfare, 20 journalists interviewed as many plutocrats. Washington Post convention diarist Robert Kaiser even credits them with bipartisan appeal: no matter what your politics, [The Billionaires] must be one of the most likable protest groups ever formed. Even the New Republic hails them.

This is no ordinary seduction. Yes, the Billionaires cultivate their skills carefully. Their website offers high-level PR tips to would-be participants. (From years of experience, we’ve learned that an effective political campaign requires tight message discipline.) But this is the sort of spinsterism that can be found anywhere. The Billionaires have tapped into something greater than the secret that good-humored fun, sex appeal, and staying on message make good electoral politics. They’ve broken new ground in the use of irony in politics with consequences that they themselves may not yet understand.

On the most basic level, irony is understood as saying the opposite of what you mean. So the chant of “Four More Wars” can be understood just as plainly as “No More Wars.” At the next level is the destructive irony of role play, impersonation, and quotation. The “billionaires” take on the characters of real billionaires, and, as with all good theater, they give voice to what lies mostly mute or inarticulate behind the screen of wealth. They do it in order to show that the very rich really are different from you and me. Not only do they have more money, they have very different desires, chiefly the desire to dominate. The “billionaires” don the mask to strip away the mask. At the last and deepest level, however, irony transforms back into a kind of truthfulness. Not only are you saying what you actually do mean, you’re also acting as you mean to act. Irony becomes a way of acting out the truth while keeping your distance from it and not acknowledging it as your own.

The Billionaires succeed with the left on the first level. They are succeeding with mid-cult journalists and citizens, in part on the second level, as they expose the hypocrisy of the ultra-rich and the Bush administration by playing them as fully articulate, self-aware, old school plutocrats. But their real popularity comes from a sincere private fantasy they live out publicly. As usual, “the Billionaires” put it best, Americans like to think that they, too, will one day be rich. This is also true for American journalists. The Billionaires go a step further. They enjoy pretending to be upper class. They’re the kind of people who like to dress well and throw lavish parties. They like feeling rich, and even super rich. If they were the billionaires they pretend to be, they really would be FOR Bush, but since they’re middle class folks they’ll vote for Kerry so they can continue to afford modest luxuries. This is the poignancy of the billionaires. At their most ironic, they are actually performing the American dream, down to its dreaminess. In the good America, everyone gets to be a hero and a movie star and a billionaire—or at least they should have the leisure, income, and education to be able to pretend.

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  • Marco Roth
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