Experiments in Satirical Activism, 1990s
SOAK THE RICH? That’s what people did, literally, in the African kingdom of Barotse. Decades ago, drummers in a royal barge, traveling from the capital to an outpost with the king and his court during annual foods, were allowed to throw overboard great nobles “who had offended them and their sense of justice during the past year.”1 They particularly targeted magnates who had been stingy with gifts of food.
More often it is the poor who get soaked—both literally and figuratively— as illustrated in an audacious political spoof by the Billionaires’ direct precursors, who are this chapter’s focus. This 1990s Massachusetts network offers a rare glimpse of the embryonic stages of a national political mobilization.
Those drummers in the royal barge in an African kingdom, like this chapter’s creative activists, were marginal subjects who enjoyed symbolic structural superiority for a day. In a gesture that was both pragmatic and sentimental, Barotse political overlords willingly forfeited their status during that annual spectacle. Allowing subordinates to blow off steam in such rituals of reversal (or status inversion) can contribute to political stability as well as signal elite empathy with the poor and marginalized. Indeed when joking itself is part of a ritual, it can express positive values of community and spontaneity.2
But can such rituals of “disorder within the rules”3 be more than a mere safety valve? When they imply that something is awry—and thus potentially unstable—in relations between rulers and subjects, or between rich and poor, they can be dress rehearsals or provocations for actual insurgencies.4 Rituals of