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The Revolution of Exalted Embarrassment

for Buy Nothing Day (Friday, November 25, 2005)

Photo by Fred Askew

And so the Revolution of Exalted Embarrassment begins. The silence of the products, the deep put-on of the products, is no longer the monarch before which we grab and swipe and save and spend. In fact we are belly-laughing profoundly. We are watching the amazed wandering away of our hands. Our consumerized gestures have had some kind of century storm blow through them. We’re just NOT BUYING. And why aren’t we buying? Because YOU, CHILDREN, YOU STOPPED ME. And I am from the Church of the Necessary Interruption and I am returning the favor. I break you from your mindless fondling of the bottle of something or other that you thought you would buy, you look up, giggling, perhaps nauseous, then you pull away from the product. Can we even remember what that product was? It was powerful and silent, and introduced to us by happy famous faces along the walls of the streets.

Can I tell you what that product was doing to you? It protruded itself into your hands, sexual contact from a science fiction world that is ruled by only one bewildering value: per-share return to distant investors. But for you and me—that DO-I-BUY-IT? MOMENT is the last chance for change, the stress fracture in the commodity wall, the nearly invisible actual voting booth of America—and the only glimpse we’ll get of revolution when revolution is not yet content for a product called Revolution. Amen?

Photo by Fred Askew

And we back away. Carefully we edge away from the predator’s glossy eye, from the commercial hologram, from the great organization chart of averaged desire. Yes, this is the day our shopping stopped in Aisle F. Back near the mousse gels. Back in the instant soup. Back in the uranium depleted bullets. We don’t say, “Today is a good day to die.” We say, “Today is a good day NOT TO BUY And the Rumsfeld’s of retail don’t know how to scramble their jets as the post-consumptive children walk slowly off the pavement. And we’re not just discussing a boycott here; we’re talking about all the rest of our lives, the sensuous continuum beyond shopping. Not buying is the Practice, now where is the Temple?

As the artist formerly known as Jesus once said, “Our body is God’s Temple, which he hath created.” As the poet Robert Creeley once said, “The Plan is the Body. The Plan is the Body.” As Emma Goldman once said, “Love is the Law.” As Jimmy Swaggart once said on his knees with his aghast wife staring at him in the front pew, “Oh! God Almighty! Oh! Please! Dear! I’m so sorry, Dear!” And as the advertisers said when the doughboys returned from The Great War, “You need to deodorize your armpits or you won’t ascend to THE LAND OF LARGE WHITE APPLIANCES.

Buy Nothing and you get some incredible THING. And it’s FREE. Back away from the Shopocalypse and you are not merely spared. You’ve got your body back. That’s where the fun starts, my children. That’s the SPRING BREAK where banned books fly again in great flocks, the libraries solemnly removing the fig leaves and refusing the Homeland spies a computer read-out of our curiosity. Getting our body back? HERITAGE FOUNDATION SPY READING THISGO AHEAD! MASTURBATE TO THIS PARAGRAPH!

This is the love of life that is a couple miles beyond the strategic atmospheres in big boxes and the counter-help terrified into dullness. We become, what?—Unbuying! Damn! We BUY NOTHING. We cause the cigar smoke of CEO’s from Bechtel and Wal Mart to writhe into looming shapes. It is THE WRITHING ON THE WALL. “Oh! Harry! Have you read this morning’s Barrons?—The shoppers are no longer shopping for some reason. It says here that nobody in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has bought anything for days.” It’s happening in Perth! It happened down in Queens! Now they’re not buying out in Houston, or down in New Orleans!

There is the backing away from the product, that’s one thing. We hope that we still have the privilege. Being blown off the oil rig, drowning in a petro-chemical lake, being PUSHED OFF THE PRODUCT, that is our lesson from the wind, the waves and the fire. Consumerism’s convenience must wreak its violence, its death by gas and oil. The Shopocalypse is right on schedule, Katrina is only a larger version of the whores and devils that they didn’t want to notice in New Orleans. If we keep shopping then Katrina and Rita will become just two more products on the shelf, costing $300 billion. And since American products never have a past, never have a cause—these storms, final proofs that global boiling is really here, become only products whose advertising campaigns opened badly. The marketers are astonished that we’re still buying, even as the waters rise. We are struggling to awake from a society-wide hypnosis—but soon, soon we will shout: NO! WE STOPPED SHOPPING!

What IS the Shopocalypse? The word Revolution has been trademarked by Nike. That’s the Shopocalypse. And the word God is copyrighted by Fox News. And the phrase “Hi—are you hungry?” is owned by McDonalds. I’m not kidding. That’s the Shopocalypse. It’s the voice-over actor in a Starbucks ad who realizes that somewhere in his air-tight sound booth there is hot water that makes the wind scream. It’s the American public that can’t look at an unnatural disaster without the sentimental response of 9/11 or a bad war, or simply, a purchase of the pop emotion and strictest depoliticized compliance with the no-bid contractors of the Shopocalypse, who wait on higher ground for the dying to get off the news.

In the Church of Stop Shopping we believe that “In The Beginning Was The Body.” We believe that the people who translate the Bible so that the opening words are “In The Beginning Was the Word” are trying to reverse life for financial gain. They want their fine print at the creation and the big bang at the end, where they can control it. Come ON! They are snake-oil salesmen posing with the bleeding Christ. Actually, “The Word” came near “The End,” several billion years after the body was dedicated to some very beautiful grunting. Words. Children, on your Buy Nothing Day, if we do manage to back away from the product, we will be rewarded by such words as FREEDOM, DEMOCRACY and AMERICA. Now—raw unmediated words, coming straight into your body, this may be an upsetting thing. We must help each other with our remedial education, learning these new old words. Some among us will think that the sensuous honesty is so wonderful—what is more sexy than a real vowel coming up through? – the eeeeeeee in Freedom and Democracy and American vibrating our bones? Some of us will reach for the plastic because we think, of course, ‘I’m having a sensation, where do I pay?’

Now the long-awaited Rapture of Consumption is underway. It’s THE SHOPTURE. The Shopocalypse lifts the fundamentalist bargain-hunters up into the air, up into the super mall of Eternal Convenience. There are thousands of chain stores in these clouds, and even breathing is on credit. The official plan of the Shopocalyptic executives is that the Katrinas and Ritas and weapons of mass destruction will hellishly attack those of us who remain on the ground. They are “shoptured up” and we have buildings and airliners and various tsunamis falling on us because we walked away from the WHITE SALE. They are arranging for the economy to gather in the Chosen People communities under their domes in Arizona, where even the electricity is “Saved.”|

But in OUR theological year in the Church of Stop Bombing Weddings, our high holy celebration is Buy Nothing Day. And with it comes this responsibility: As we witness these hapless consumers vortexing straight up into their second America, we have a duty to grab their ankles. That’s what we must do. We shall pull these consumers down, screaming from their advertopia. They will think we’re devils, of course—they will think we are a lot of things. But be gracious. Simply say, “Hello, we are from the Church of Disturb the Customers. Your shopping is the End of the World.

LET US PRAY. We ask for the blessing of the Fabulous Unknown. LET US DRIVE THE MONEY-CHANGERS OUT OF OUR BODY Yes we can be trusted to forego the mediation of a celebrity or graphic schtick selling us something that presumes to give us PERMISSION TO ASK OUR OWN BODY FOR A DANCE. I’m so ready for the Revolution of Exalted Embarrassment. PUT THE ODD BACK IN GOD



Change-a-lujah, indeed: A Reply to Rev. Billy by Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood

The anti-consumerist left’s tactic of non-buying emerges from a broader ascetic anti-consumerism. The most egregious example of this unfortunate tendency is “Buy Nothing Day,” the demand (largely invisible to the world beyond Rev. Billy’s flock) that people refrain from spending money on the day after Thanksgiving, the second-biggest day on the retail calendar.

Telling people to stop buying things is a political nonstarter, because the one thing American-style capitalism succeeds in delivering to the average person is the pursuit of happiness through consumption. Unless you’re rich, the U.S. is a terrible place if you want healthcare, education, or security in your old age—but it’s the best place on earth to buy stuff. So why target the one side of the system that works—and even provides some enjoyment—for most people? Good luck trying to inspire a mass following.
What’s worse is that this ascetic position accepts the larger historical trend of reducing citizenship to consumer choice. The wording is very reassuring on this point: all you have to do today is stay away from the mall. Or, as Reverend Billy puritanically puts it, “Back away from the Shopocalypse and you are not merely spared. You’ve got your body back.” Reverend Billy’s preacher persona is entertaining, but he’s not actually kidding: He shares American Protestantism’s conviction that sensual pleasure is sinful. That’s not radical—it’s conservative.

Of course capital would like nothing better than a population that defines politics as the decision to shop or not to shop; business interests spent most of the last century trying to convince us to find meaning in such gestures. When we do that, capital wins, since unless you’ve got the capacity to grow your own food and ride a horse and buggy to work, you’ve obviously got to start shopping again at some point.

Yes, a lot of American consumption represents waste on a grandiose scale. Routine American buying is ecologically unsustainable, and is a constant affront to the several billion people worldwide who are barely getting by. But you’re not going to change that through symbolic gestures, or even altering individual behavior; it’s going to take far deeper structural transformation than keeping the wallet shut on a single day could ever inspire.

Another problem is a muddled understanding of how the economy works. If –taking a preposterous hypothetical—this boycott actually did strike a blow against the economy, who would suffer? Not the Bush Administration, that’s for sure. They’re not going to lose their jobs, be forced to work unpaid overtime, or find they’re suddenly not on the schedule for the next three days because the store manager has to cut hours to make payroll, just a few of the indignities retail workers suffer when times are tough. If there’s one person who probably can’t help you out with your complaints about GWB & Co., it’s the cashier at your local Wal-Mart.

Impotent gestures like Buy-Nothing Day are symptoms of a left that prefers doing something to nothing, even if that something doesn’t even reach the level of an empty gesture. Fantasizing our power isn’t the same as building it, and we’re unlikely to build it by advertising our powerlessness in ephemeral pursuits.


Reverend Billy

Reverend Billy is the leader of the activist performance group The Church of Life After Shopping.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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