No Country for Yes Men
Notorious political pranksters the Yes Men have made a career out of impersonating henchmen from major companies, including Exxon, Dow Chemical and McDonald's-- and getting away with it. Their methodology, which includes setting up faux websites that copy graphics and type styles from corporate materials, had never, until recently, met with any legal repercussions.
Just before the late-October release of their latest film, The Yes Men Fix the World, The Nation sat down with the two chameleon-like stuntmen, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (real names Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos), to talk current affairs, progressive engagement and the prospects of activism transforming the dimensions of daily life. When asked about potential copyright infringement issues in the pair's past work, Bichlbaum remarked somewhat cavalierly, "Whatever. They're not going to come after us. If they come after us, they have more to lose than they have to gain."
In late October, the Yes Men found themselves slapped with a lawsuit. Following a fake press conference in which the duo, purporting to be representatives from the US Chamber of Commerce, announced a total reversal of the Chamber's retrograde position on climate-change legislation. The Chamber is pursuing a copyright infringement case against the Yes Men and their fake Chamber website, asserting that the Yes Men's hijinks obfuscate the truth. But the Yes Men say that they practice "identity correction," elucidating the truth behind corporate positions.
Meanwhile, a slow exodus of companies from the Chamber in opposition to its stance on climate change illustrates its vulnerability. And the Chamber's lawsuit suggests that the Yes Men are more than mere court jesters on the political stage. Bonanno said that the Chamber "is lashing out like a cornered animal." "The Chamber really is under attack," Bichlbaum added. "Why they're choosing to say they're under attack by the Yes Men is a whole other question. All we did was a little skit. Any high school drama club could have done it. All we did was raise a little more attention for the issue."
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with the Yes Men:
Shakthi Jothianandan: In the film you imitate corporate and government representatives, recant their positions and act as you believe such institutions should act. You complicate the contention that corporations can't ever do the right thing, versus doing the lucrative thing. Yet your own film suggests that demonstrating that corporations can act in the interest of humanity is pointless. The market punishes corporations for making responsible choices, and the media vilify you, the Yes Men, claiming that your hoaxes inspire false hope among those who stand to benefit tremendously from ethical corporate behavior. Do you expect in the future that corporations will ever do the right thing?
: They will, once we create a framework by which they are forced to. But that's the only way to make it happen. Right now the corporate bottom line is defined as profit and growth, and we need to have a corporate bottom line that is defined as being a benefit to people and the environment, and that necessarily is going to eliminate the imperative for endless growth and the imperative for endless profit.
Because short-term profitability is not what's going to make the world a better place. So we need to create a new legal framework to govern the behavior of corporations. Everybody says, "Oh, that's impossible." But it's not, in fact. It's really, really simple, in a straightforward kind of way. The basic idea is really simple--much more simple than the complicated logic that it takes to excuse the behavior of seeking profit at all other costs.
SJ: It's funny, sometimes one watches the news and there's no line between the absurdity you expose in your films and what's actually happening in the world. Take, for example, the thirty Republican senators who opposed an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would punish defense contractors who refuse to let victims of workplace rape and sexual assault pursue civil legal action. Those senators opposed it on the grounds that the government shouldn't be inhibiting a private exchange, and that it was a pointed political attack on Halliburton.
: What we find sometimes is that our wild fantasies are actually reality. And although we may not have, you know, actual SurvivaBalls, sometimes the truth is even more scary. The Halliburton SurvivaBall [an "emergency life-saving" personal bubble meant to withstand climate-change-induced catastrophe] is this representation of the gated community for one. But when it comes down to it, and when you just look at the data you can see that now we are building these fortified communities for the rich to survive while basically we do nothing to change policy to prevent climate change. And so that's essentially what we're doing. The bonuses keep going up. The profit margins stay the same.
SJ: What do you think about the recent attempts to pass new climate-change legislation?
: None of it goes far enough. Of course, we need to push through whatever legislation we can get that pushes things in that direction. But it should go way further, and it shouldn't involve carbon trading. It should just be straight up taxes and incentives. Regulations and incentives, regulations sometimes in the form of taxes and regulations in the form of simple outright laws against practices that we know are going to kill us in the long run. The climate thing...shows how weird we are--people are--because we know that we're going to basically be killing potentially billions of people.
The latest UN reports say that by 2050 over a billion people will be homeless due to the effects of climate change. It's like, Oh shit, that's civilization ending kind of stuff.... And it becomes almost like we are all accessories to murder, or something, because we're watching this train wreck happen and we know how to put the brakes on, but we're not doing it. We're just standing by. Obama should be applying the brakes hard, because he's in that leadership position right now, globally. He's like, "woo-hoo, Nobel Peace Prize," you know. Earn it by committing to a 90 percent reduction by 2020. Let's not wait. If we don't hit that mark, too bad. But we'll have tried. And we won't look back in the future and say, "Why didn't we do that?"
SJ: That said, what do you think about the possibilities of the new administration getting its act together, in terms of the climate change crisis we're facing?
: This is the moment, and we have to make change now.... We've got a progressive president who probably wants to do what we force him to do. I still trust that he will enact very progressive legislation if there is a clear mandate, if people are in the streets demanding it. The other reason is that we are simply literally running out of time. Right now they say that if we don't cap emissions at current levels by 2015, we'll get into the place where runaway climate change happens. And runaway climate change is like the train that you can't stop; it no longer has brakes, and there's nothing you can do about it. And so, we're talking about five years to make commitments to major cuts, and this [America] is a place where it has to happen, because we use twenty-five times more, we consume twenty-five times more, than people in the developing world. We should be able to cut by 90 percent just to get to that level.
SJ: When Naomi Klein interviewed him for The Nation, Michael Moore said that he "admired" the right wing because "they are organized, they are dedicated, they are up at the crack of dawn fighting their fight and on our side I don't really see that kind of commitment." How do you respond to that?
: It's a lot easier to be organized like an army when the idea that's unifying you is idiotic and everybody believes it. When there's no complexity to the argument and no, no anything, you can just rally the troops. It's what fascism is based on. It's much harder when you're trying to say, "Well, maybe poor people should be helped up a little bit, and maybe we need to organize society in a way that helps everybody." I think the challenges of organizing the left are much bigger and much more interesting. But it does work, sometimes. There are periods of history when it works and the left achieves a lot. I think we just have to look at those periods and say, "Well, what's the difference between then and now?"
SJ: What do you think the differences are?
: Well, in the '30s, things changed dramatically in a progressive direction, similar to after a crash. And after everybody saw that there was a major problem with the way things had been done--which was a very free-market way. It had led to a collapse, and there was a progressive president who was ready to make those changes. But people took to the streets and forced it to happen. And what we need to do is recognize that we have a progressive president now, and we need to actually take to the streets and give him the pressure that he needs. And how to actually mobilize people, I'm not sure.
SJ: That's the question. Do you think the progressive populace needs a motivating fuel of possibility, to actually see that meaningful change can be enacted? Do you think that people have given up?
: No, I don't think so.
SJ: Are people frustrated with Obama?
: They shouldn't be. They should be frustrated with themselves. What's he going to do if we can't give him the pressure he needs? I guess Michael Moore is right: there's something missing. I don't admire the right at all. I think they have really stupid ideas, and I think it's easy to organize around a stupid idea. [But] I do get really annoyed with progressives. There are so many errors of thought involved, because it's more complicated. Like, "Obama should be more left-wing than he is." Well, of course he should be, but the reality is, he's basically progressive, the same way Roosevelt was basically progressive. And all that's missing is pressure.
It's the only way anything has every changed in American history. Maybe if people just realized that, they'd realize "Oh yeah, I need to take to the streets. Great, OK let's do this. This is part of democracy." It's not a radical thing; it's not a super-radical position--to take to the streets and demand change. It's actually a necessary component of democracy. Maybe we just need to communicate that more clearly. Maybe it's up to people to make films or whatever to communicate urgently that we need to take action.