41 years old. Author and troublemaker. Born and bred New Yorker. Dedicated straphanger.
While trolling your site, we discovered your many vocations - writing, teaching, cultural activism, political rabble-rousing, performance, street theater production… you’re obviously a guy with a lot on your plate. Any one particular thing getting you up out of bed in the morning these days? Ever feel like there isn’t enough time in the day?
For the last 14 months – except when I’m too depressed – my current obsession, Billionaires for Bush, has been getting me up in the morning. It’s a do-it-yourself media campaign that uses humor and street theater to show how Bush has supported the corporate elite at the expense of everyday Americans. (Or tongue-in-cheekishly, it’s a grassroots network of corporate lobbyists, decadent heiresses, Halliburton board members and other winners under Bush’s economic policies.) We’ve just hit 100 chapters nationwide and it’s been quite year -- and, of course, there’s never enough time in the day. Problem is, if we had more than 24 hours, then Karl Rove would too, and that wouldn’t be any good, would it?
What was the genesis of Billionaires for Bush?
Well, there’s a long and complicated pre-history, which includes the Rich People’s Liberation Front in 1997 and the “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” in 2000, but the basic impetus is the idea that while straight-on arguments for greater economic fairness often get dismissed as “class warfare,” the Billionaires for Bush—by impersonating the super-wealthy in a boosterish, over-the-top manner, and ironically cheering on George Bush and his economic policies—are better able to paint the President as a friend of the corporate elite. It’s a back door by which you can show -- in surprisingly sharp terms -- who are the economic winners and losers.
How did the "Million Billionaire March " during the RNC work out? Must have felt good, we imagine, to finally bring some proper attention and privileged perspective to stories improperly spun by the biased liberal media…
Yes, we had 400 (!) Billionaires from 30 states marching down 5th Avenue with banners & placards reading “Corporations are People Too,” “Free the Enron 7!” “Widen the Income Gap,” “Privatize Everything,” and “We Paid for 8 Years.” Art Spiegelman joined us and made a lovely comic strip about it in the New Yorker. We were national news in Sweden, Italy, South Korea, and all over the US. You can take a look at some of the great coverage.
Word on the street is that the Billionaires have quite a fan in Karl Rove…
In February we got wind that Karl Rove, senior political advisor to the President, aka "Bush's Brain," was coming to town for a fundraising dinner at Eugene's in the Flatiron District. 20 of us assembled in a nearby park, dressed in tuxedos, top hats, gowns and tiaras, and marched towards the club, chanting "Karl Rove is Innocent! Karl Rove is Innocent!"
People stopped to look, and behind their curious faces, you could almost hear the mental gears clicking: "Innocent?...hmmmm...so, wait...what's he not guilty of?" And we had a long list of all that he was "not guilty of" (push-polling, misinformation, Machiavellian dirty-tricks, etc.) laid out in a leaflet, which we handed them.
When we reached Eugene's, some protesters from the Sierra Club were already there. You could tell they were protesters because unlike us, they didn't have matching outfits, and their signs were hand scrawled, unlike our perfectly lettered placards. You could also tell they were protesters because the NYPD had stuck them in a protest pen on the other side of the street.
According to the NY Times article that came out the next day, when the commanding officer saw us coming down the street, he radio-ed ahead : "OK, we've got two groups now-*CRACKLE*. One against. -*CRACKLE*And one for. Let's keep them separate." And so, where did they put us? Right in front of the club, right next to all these button-downed Wall-Street execs lined up waiting to get inside -- and now, thanks to our arrival, in various states of puzzlement and discomfort. We turned to them and chanted "Write Big Checks!" Then we turned to face the Sierra Club protesters and chanted "Buy Your Own President!"
Eventually the police figured it out and stuck us in the pens along with the poorly dressed Sierra Club protesters. But immediately after they'd done that, a black town car arrived. "It's Karl Rove," someone said. We began shouting "Karl Rove Is Innocent!" as he exited the car and strode up the steps of the club. He must have heard us, because he turned around and looked over at us. He saw our banner, "Billionaires for Bush -- Government Of, By, and For the Corporations" and came over to shake hands with us.
The TV media crushed in to capture the scene. He turned to the cameras: "These are my supporters." The cops and Eugene's security were all freaking out. The Sierra Club folks even got into the act, shouting "Shame! Shame!" right in the guys face. In spite of this, he popped under the barricades, and joined hands with us. Finally, with a big wink, he revealed himself to be Tony Torn, professional actor, stealth Billionaire, and with the help of a little talcum powder, a pretty damn good Karl Rove impersonator.
Luckily, the NY Times was writing all this down and their article the following day was picked up on the blogs and news portals. It became a word-of-mouth favorite, helping to insinuate the "Billionaires for Bush" virus into the hearts, minds, and funny bones of voters across the nation.
You taught a class Artful Activism : Creative Strategies for Social Change. One of the lessons in the syllabus was "Humor: Ridicule is our most potent weapon." Isn’t there somewhat of a risk if you’re too funny – and Billionaires for Bush is pretty damn funny - that folks won’t take you seriously?
You can never be too damn funny. Billionaires for Bush is funny because what it is playing off of is all so horribly true. Whether we’re celebrating Cheap Labor Day, or holding holding “Vigils for Corporate Welfare,” or thanking Geroge Bush for “freeing us from the Green jackboot of the Kyoto protocols,” it’s all funny because it’s all true. At one level folks might dismiss it as a big joke, but at some other level the truth is getting through.
Anyone ever not get the joke?
Yes, all the time. We’ve had Bush supporters chanting “4 More Wars!” right along with us. Last month we got a great hate mail from a pissed-off Republican that read: “Shut up! You are not helping the President get re-elected. You are making the Republican Party look like a bunch of out of touch elitists! Ass-holes!” And in another way, curiosuly, our most enthusiastic supporters sometimes forget that it is a joke – we pull off the corporate elite thing so well, that folks forget that behind the façade, we’re actually a struggling grassroots group that relies on their donations.
You hear all the time that “every vote counts,” but New York State is pretty much of a given to go Democratic in the upcoming election. So does every vote really count? If you really wanted to make a difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to do something like move to Florida or Ohio?
No need to move. Just pick up a phone and visit : www.votercall.org. In fact, PLEASE PLEASE do this. Afterall not everyone can afford to travel through the swing states in style like we did during our Get on the Limo tours.
In your writings, you've described what you do as a type of cultural intervention. Just what the hell is a cultural intervention?
My favorite cultural intervention happened sometime after “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow” came out. Many of the top directors in Hollywood confronted Roland Emmerich at his Beverly Hills mansion. They took him aside, sat him down, and said, “Look, we love you and that’s why we can’t let you do this to yourself (or us) any more.”
OK, they never did that, and that’s not what a cultural intervention is, but someone should get him to stop.
[Ed. Note: The brand of cultural interventions performed by the Billionaires is perhaps best described as a sniggling form of street theater employing guerilla communication techniques.]
For that matter, what on Earth is the “Church of Skeptical Mysticism”?
It’s a spiritual home for folks who’ve had a life-transforming encounter with a God they don’t believe in, a church for relativists who’ve experienced absolute truth. It’s presided over by one of my alter-ego’s, an existential monk called Brother Void. The sacred text is a book I wrote called “Daily Afflictions” (Norton, 2002). You can visit the church at www.dailyafflictions.com.
You also wrote a book “Life's Little Deconstruction Book: Self-Help for the Post-Hip.” What inspired that?
I have a love-hate relationship with both post-modernism and self-help, and so to simultaneously honor and make fun of each, I wanted to see if you could fit all of post-modern theory into 365 one-a-day maxims. And, it turns out you can. “Leverage ficticious capital.” “Get along with each of your selves.” “Displace the canon with attitude.” are a few of them, and you can add your own at www.pomotogo.net
You’ve described yourself in certain “more personal” settings as “Soulful yet fierce, wacky yet responsible, radical yet ironic, Dionysian yet Apollinian SM, 39, seeks tender yet tenacious SF, 30-42”. Any luck? Any great New York dating stories?
Sneaking onto the High Line for a twilight picnic. Camping out on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of January to watch the sunrise. A carnal act in a to-be-left-unamed church in the West Village (on a Sunday). These were good dates.
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
Whenever I visit LA I’m damn glad I live in New York.
Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
Well, if the Billionaires for Bush succeed in their “Keep Off the Grass” campaign to privatize Central Park, then the Great Lawn will be soon be a private preserve where Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley can play croquet undisturbed by the great unwashed and their plastic frisbees.
There are over 39,000 police officers in the Big Apple. Any out of the ordinary run-ins (positive or negative) with any members of the NYPD you’d like to share?
I’ve had my share of face-off’s with the cops over the years at demos and such, once literally slipping thru the hands of a big boy in blue during a labor union action outside the MOMA, but the best story involves a huge 15-foot long paper-machier missile. It was the night before a big anti-Iraq war demo. We had just finished constructing the thing, the paint on it was still wet, and we had to get it home. As we carried it through Tomkins Square Park, we passed a cop car stationed in the Park. There we were, post 9-11, walking past the cops late at night, carrying a huge missile. They said nothing, but nonetheless, it felt a little strange. Then just as we were exiting the park, their bullhorn kicked in: “Kkkcchh…No missiles in the park. No missiles in the park.”
Bloomberg... good, bad or just plain ugly?
Just plain rich.
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
I consume as little news as possible to know what I have to know to do what I have to do. I follow Scoop Nisker’s dictum: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
Name one person you trust in politics.
George Orwell. But since he’s dead, I’d go with SubCommandante Marcos.
If you could ask G-d one question, what would you ask?
What’s in it for you?
Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond