No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America

 

Popular accounts disagree: are we living in an age of irony or a post-ironic era? On the one hand polls show that Jon Stewart, the modern-day master of satire, is one of the nation’s most trusted news sources; on the other hand, the Occupy movement’s almost painful earnestness has dominated the sphere of progressive protest for the past two years. Parody has become a paradox in the United States — and in this thoughtful and inspiring ethnography, Angelique Haugerud probes the limits of satire as a political tool.

The book centers around a well-known group of satirical protestors known as the Billionaires (usually styled as Billionaires for Bush but occasionally for other politicians or principles). The Billionaires’ modus operandi is to perform a parodic impression of exorbitant wealth, both visually (the protestors wear tuxedos, evening gowns, top hats, and tiaras) and politically (carrying signs that say things like “Corporations Are People Too” and “Make Social Security Neither”). In other words, the Billionaires voice the ostensibly sincere viewpoint of a stereotyped conservative, dynastic wealth, yet through their dramatic exaggeration they implicitly criticize the viewpoints they pretend to hold. The Billionaires, Haugerud explains, use satire to critique and to raise awareness about their two focal issues: the wealth gap and the increasing influence of corporate money in electoral politics. But why do they choose satire, and how is that choice shaped by the contemporary U.S. political landscape? These are Haugerud’s central questions.

Haugerud traces the history of the Billionaires and describes in great detail the organization’s strategies and day-to-day functioning. This institutional ethnography is coupled with rich contextualization, both political and theoretical. She touches on the evolution of satirical protest in the United States, provides an overview of the current state of economic inequality, explores the role of the modern mediascape in creating and responding to spectacular forms of protest, and considers the implications and methodologies of ironic humor as a political tool.

This is a book of impressive ethnographic depth. Haugerud draws on participant observation with the New York chapter of the Billionaires over an eight-year span; she complements this data with briefer work amongst several other satellite chapters, as well as in-depth interviews with key players in the nascent movements that served as the Billionaires’ predecessors. Haugerud combines an oral history approach with a broader portrait of the Zeitgeist, drawing on popular media generally and on media coverage of the Billionaires in particular. She also interviews spectators at Billionaire events and even a bona fide billionaire-by-proxy (William H. Gates, Sr.). Haugerud wields these diverse sources of information expertly, weaving them into a engaging exploration of contemporary American politics.

This many-angled approach is crucial, because, as Haugerud deftly shows, political action can never be reduced solely to actors’ motivations. Political organizations are complex institutions composed of people with diverse, often conflicting goals and strategies; their work depends on dense intertextual connections to past, current, and future events; and, as satire so vividly demonstrates, the meaning of a political action is not stable but emerges as it is taken up by audiences (both direct and mediated). Satirical protest is a remarkably slippery object of analysis, and its study requires a wide net.

Because of this sheer diversity of topics and types of data, the book tends, at times, toward bricolage — an assemblage of ethnographic vignettes and brief theoretical analyses, arranged thematically but not building toward an overarching conclusion. This approach is both one of the book’s strengths and one of its weaknesses. Satirical protest is itself a bricolage, Haugerud observes: a postmodern cobbling together of disparate texts, identities, and political motivations. By resisting the urge to force her observations into a linear argument about the contemporary rationale for and role of satirical protest, Haugerud is sensitive to the polysemy of her informants’ political action — a polysemy that is not merely incidental to parody but at its core.

Why, for example, do the Billionaires choose irony as their mode of political engagement? Haugerud’s answer to this question is manifold: at times she identifies irony as a form of catharsis, a collective exorcising of the demons of hopelessness. At other times she suggests that performing parodic wealth, by “avoid[ing] the semiotics of poverty,” is a more palatable form of protest than are more “traditional” approaches (p. 187). At other times still she focuses on the outsized media attention that “spectacular dissent” draws (p. 42). These rationales co-exist without necessarily being reconcilable, and the book’s diffuse style accommodates this ambiguity well.

But it also may leave readers with more questions than answers. Ultimately scholars are only partway toward answering the book’s central dilemma: can satirical protest effect social and political change, and if so, what are the necessary conditions for humor to subvert unspoken norms rather than reify them? And scholars are given new questions that beg to be addressed: when does play become protest, and vice versa? As protestors draw on chronotopes of Gilded Ages and New Deals, what narrative possibilities do they potentiate and foreclose? Is irony always a tool of indirectness, or are there ideas that cannot be expressed except through irony? And how do political actors contend with the great meta-irony of irony: namely that, as one of Haugerud’s informants tells her, “if you pull off the illusion too well, you become what you’re spoofing” (p. 154)?

Although readers looking for a highly systematic discussion of the methods and mechanisms of satirical activism may be dissatisfied, the proof of Haugerud’s book — much like the efforts of the activists she studies — is in how it is taken up by audiences. For me, it is a rallying cry for the study of the supposedly frivolous and unserious, terms that obscure great political depths. It is also a lucid illustration of the value of nuanced and sensitive ethnography to the study of contemporary American politics. Haugerud’s work demonstrates that there is truth to be found in humor, for protestors and academics alike.

Elise Kramer, University of California – San Diego

Haugerud, Angelique. No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America. Stanford University Press, 2013. Read more at Stanford University Press. 

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