Ruminator (January/February 2005)
JUST SAY YES (pg 1)
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JUST SAY YES: An Interview with Anti-Corporate Pranksters, The Yes Men
Interview by Susannah McNeely Schouweiler
The Yes Men, headed by Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno, and Bob Spunkmeyer, are behind a number of pranks that have embarrassed news outlets, the World Trade Organization, McDonald’s, the George W. Bush presidential campaign, and industrial giants like Dow Chemical. For the last three years, Andy and Mike have been traveling the world giving outrageous lectures and proposals about free trade, the WTO, and multinational corporations to lawyers, industry leaders, and political leaders around the world. And they’ve done it by passing themselves off as representatives of the WTO; or by posing as Republican campaign workers; or by impersonating a spokesman for Dow Chemical. They’ve been quoted in newspapers, interviewed on CNBC and the BBC, and have appeared as featured speakers at a number of big industry conferences and free trade policy meetings around the world. In 2004, a book and film were released documenting the Yes Men’s exploits; the DVD of the movie is out in February. Ruminator spoke with the Yes Men’s Bob Spunkmeyer about the controversy surrounding some of the tactics and the unintended consequences of their impersonations, about the state of progressive activism, and what the group hopes to achieve .
SUSANNAH MCNEELY: It’s a pleasure to talk with you. I get the sense that you have quite a pivotal role in the Yes Men, but I’m not quite clear what it is. What do you do for the group? You’re listed as an author of the new book; I suppose you must have some hand in the planning and execution of the hijinks.
BOB SPUNKMEYER: I’m really just a behind-the scenes character. As you’ve probably noticed from the book, I don’t actually do the hijinks. I help more with the conceptualization, planning and some of the writing.
SM: You’ve been an involved activist for progressive causes for much of your adult life (in gay rights, in South America, the Balkans). Has your other activist experience informed your activities and tactics for the Yes Men?
BS: Well, yes, of course. I suppose I’ve been able to help the others think through some of the consequences. But that’s the thing about what the Yes Men do—you can’t afford to think the consequences through too much. If you did, you’d never actually do anything.
SM: In the beginning, the Yes Men’s pranks seem to involve primarily exaggeration and parody of existing corporate or business rhetoric. Then, there was a tactical shift: pretending to be spokesmen for Dow Chemical, you guys went so far as to announce $12 billion in compensation would be awarded to survivors of the chemical leak in Bhopal 20 years ago. Is there a line you feel you shouldn’t cross ethically? At what point do you risk hurting the very same people you’re trying to help? A lot of affected people in India had high hopes that they’d be getting compensation for their sickness, they must have been incredibly disappointed to find it was all a hoax, a joke.
BS: In terms of the Bhopal question, the whole idea of false hopes is a tricky one. Because ultimately, that’s a line of argument that would prevent you from ever really doing anything. Why have a demonstration at all then? Wouldn’t it get people’s hopes up that they might actually make a difference? Won’t they be disappointed when they find out their demonstrations and protests didn’t do any good? If you follow that line of reasoning, you’re left with the idea that any activism is doomed from the beginning. If you take on a foe that’s more powerful than you, how can you possibly get the result you want? Why even try? It’s just a dead-end argument. You’d never do anything if you operated that way. In fact, all hopes are false until they come true. So the question is, why don’t those hopes come true?
SM: So if you had to articulate a moral code that underlies the Yes Men’s activities, what would it be?
BS: I think it’s summed up in the idea of “identity correction.” Essentially, the idea is that if identity theft is where criminals impersonate honest people, using their personal information, their credit cards, their names and use that information at the honest person’s expense, then identity correction is honest individuals assuming big-time criminals’ identities (both human and institutional entities doing horrible things at everyone else’s expense); they then offer correctives for the public good. So yes, we think of ethical considerations all the time. We try to do things so that it’s clear who is the appropriate, intended butt of the joke. At the WTO presentation, the point wasn’t to make fun of the particular people attending the meeting; it was the larger organization we were targeting. We’re interested in targets that will point out the problems in the existing power structure, and speak truthfully about who that power really serves. We’ve had opportunities to impersonate people that we’ve turned down.
SM: Can you tell me what kinds of pranks you’ve turned down?
BS: Well, I don’t want to be too specific; but we’ve turned down things where the folks who would be made fun of, or impersonated, are undeserving targets. We wouldn’t pull any pranks on them. It’s not only articulating how the power structure really works, but also to show people how things might be better. That was the motivation for the Bhopal action: to show them that there’s a different world possible. And that if powerful people made the right choices, then things could be solved there, or at least made much better. Things don’t have to stay the way they are.
SM: If “identity correction” is an exaggeration or parody in order to highlight a truth about how things really are, is the tactical shift to making these “announcements” a kind of super-identity correction, the way you think the WTO or Dow should operate?
BS: Yeah, exactly. You should know, we didn’t sit down and conceptualize all aspects of identity correction until much later. One thing led to another. I mean, Andy is a very talented computer programmer, with an anarchist-democratic inclination. On a goof, he made some parody websites, and then totally by surprise, started getting speaking invitations.
SM: What did you think when those first invitations came in? There had to have been a moment of truth. I mean, there’s a big difference between creating a parody website and actually impersonating someone.
BS: Well sure; we even describe it in the book. Andy and Mike just didn’t think there was any chance they were going to make it through the whole presentation. We even structured the speech so that we got a couple of jokes in there really early, because we were just sure that three paragraphs in, this was gonna be all over. We had no idea that five impersonations later, they’d still be reporting it in the newspaper.
SM: What about before Andy and Mike even got to the conference? It’s a pretty big leap just to make the decision to get on a plane and go. As a group, did you nearly chicken out?
BS: Of course.
SM: There are a lot of people who might get invited, but it’s gotta be a pretty rarefied group who would then say, “you know, that’s a good idea. I think I’ll go.”
BS: Well, now you’re getting to the special skills of Andy Bichlbaum. Some would say they’re special, and some would say they’re reckless, and other people might say they are retarded. . . I mean, we just did the first presentation, then we did the second, and, after a while we started thinking, well, what are we really doing? Where’s this all going?
And that’s when we came up with the idea of identity correction. But that was a long time after all these actions were put together, as opportunities came up, in a piecemeal way. There’s not a grand scheme. The Yes Men is basically just a group of friends rolling with the punches and trying to do the right thing. Mostly, I think it’s really important that we have fun, because the world is a pretty sad place right now. And really, a lot of activism isn’t fun.
SM: And I guess it’s a little preachy sometimes too.
BS: Yeah, a lot of activism is boring; it’s preachy. You know, you go to marches now, and they’re so dull. They rarely accomplish anything at all. And they have such a history! I mean, when workers were marching at the turn of the century, demanding bread in Russia, that was a classic worker’s march. Then, a march had consequence. If there were thousands of workers marching in the street, it meant that they might tear the presidential palace down, or that there would probably be a riot. But now, so much of what we do in the progressive movement is done by rote. And the Yes Men are fun. We have a great time, and I think people respond to that.
SM: Do you think that’s why you’ve been successful at not just getting coverage, but also public support and sympathy?
BS: Absolutely. People think it’s fun to watch, and we keep trying to tell them, it’s even more fun to do.
SM: Are you still getting queries on gatt.org and dowethics.com (the fake websites)?
BS: Oh yeah. In fact, Andy’s in the middle of some really interesting correspondence right now. I can’t really tell you anything more about it; but, yes, the offers are still coming in.
SM: What will you do if, like Michael Moore, Andy just becomes so recognizable that people can’t be fooled and start to turn him away?
BS: That kind of success is just unimaginable. I hope that happens. If it were, it would mean that our pranks had hit targets of several orders of magnitude higher than anything we’ve achieved so far. But again, none of this happened by plan. We didn’t set out to do anything big. Andy didn’t get the computer programming job on SimCopter for the purpose of hacking the game. He took the job because he needed a job. He just hacked the game because he got bored.
SM: I have to say though, that those speeches are so articulate and fully-thought out—it doesn’t seem like something you put together piecemeal or in a halfbaked way. Somebody took a lot of care with those.
BS: You can see in the movie Andy and Mike spending sleepless night after sleepless night putting those speeches together. They worked really hard on them.
SM: I saw on the Yes Men web site a vague reference to funding you’ve gotten from “various arts organizations,” and I’d love to know what those are. Have you gotten grant money?
BS: We had a secret slush fund set up by the old KGB. And…
SM: Come on, are you gonna be cagey?
BS: Okay, actually we were getting financed by Saddam Hussein. . . Here’s the thing: almost everything we’ve done requires little or no money. We have frequent flier accounts, and friends all over the world who let us sleep on their couches. Setting up a web site is free. All the big Yes Men successes hardly cost a penny. As we’ve gotten better known for our activities, we’ve gotten some grant money. But the weird thing is, all of those grant-funded projects fizzled. Something about having a budget, planning it all out. It just didn’t work.
SM: I guess it gets to be like a real job once you’re given official funding, not as free or spontaneous.
BS: Yeah. It’s funny. This kind of activism doesn’t cost much. The Yes Men’s most successful actions haven’t cost a penny. All you really need is free time (which all of us are fortunate enough to have); for much of what we’ve done you’d need a rudimentary knowledge of HTML; you need an internet connection, a sense of humor, and you can’t be too intimidated by legal authorities. That’s really all it requires. That’s not to say that if people were to offer us lots of money we’d turn it down, but we have yet to figure out what to really do with money. It hasn’t been helpful so far.
SM: On your web site you’ve got a feedback form, where people can post their own Yes Men-style hijinks. Do you worry about whether these folks won’t adhere to the same kind of ethical code you have for yourselves?
BS: No, not really. You know, the world is full of hoaxes. Yes Men-style hoaxes are really pretty trivial compared to the hoax that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Now, there’s a hoax; there’s a media stunt. Or, what about the media stunt claiming that the Social Security system is about to collapse and needs to be privatized? I mean, that’s a massive hoax still underway. Half the stuff that’s in the media is a hoax. So the idea that democratic and egalitarian-minded people, when they’re engaged in Yes Men-style activities, might do something wrong and step on somebody’s toes. . .I suppose it’s a concern, but let’s get real here. We’re talking about tiny, resourceless nobodies taking on the powerful institutions in the history of the planet. So is there a big concern that these little nobodies are going to do something terrible? No. That’s a wildly out of proportion worry.
SM: Has anyone sent you news of a Yes Men-inspired hoax that sticks out in your mind? Do you have a favorite?
BS: Well, Voteauction.com was really good. And the fact that even state Attorneys General didn’t get it, that it was a joke. . .it’s disturbing to think they found it plausible. It just shows how close things are to that already—that it doesn’t seem that out of line to buy votes.
SM: Isn’t that the amazing thing about the responses the Yes Men parodies have gotten all along? Hardly anyone realized those presentations were jokes. It’s stunning how far the audiences would follow Andy down the path of these ridiculous ideas without balking, let alone realizing he was an imposter.
BS: It amazes me to think that Andy is photographed for a big newspaper, in that gold spandex suit,” with a huge phallus sewn on, and that the reporters and newspaper editors still bought that he was a WTO representative. I mean, that had to get past the people at the conference, the journalist, the photographer; that picture got taken back to the newspaper, and the editor would’ve had to look at it and say, “Ahhh, that’s reasonable. Let’s print it.” So many people seemed to find it reasonable to assume that it’s something the WTO might do. That’s just extraordinary.
SM: Do you really think they bought it? Or is there a polite discomfort, a sort of “let’s pretend the guy’s not naked” kind of thing going on? Or were they just not really paying attention to the speakers?
BS: Well, Andy said at one point that he thought that for the people at the conference, the possibility that the representative from the WTO might be an imposter was just so off the radar, it might be easier to believe the WTO delegate just went nuts on the airplane. And once the prank’s out there, we have no control over how it gets reported.
SM: Has a story ever gotten away from you, or done something you wish it hadn’t?
BS: Well, the Bhopal thing was pretty hard. We hadn’t anticipated that it would be shown in news organizations all over India, or for as long as it was. . . But it’s fine, because in spite of all the criticism we’ve gotten about raising false hopes for the victims, the chemical leak happened twenty years ago, and there’s very little pressure left on Dow to do anything about compensation or clean-up. It’s the twentieth anniversary of the leak this year, and it wasn’t getting much attention. It’ll get even less on the twenty-first anniversary, or the twenty-second. At least what we did put some pressure on Dow and got the situation in Bhopal back in the public’s attention. That’s a good thing.
SM: How is the Yes Men organization structured?
BS: It’s not organized in any way, shape or form.
SM: So it’s purely democratic? Or anarchist?
BS: I wouldn’t call it democratic . Chaotic would be a better word. That’s for sure.
SM: Well then, in your fondest hopes, what do you hope the lasting consequence of the Yes Men might be? When the publicity dies down and corporate embarrassment from your pranks fade, what do you hope might last?
BS: I wish there was going to be a lasting impact. I wish we had a big plan that outlined step by step: we’re going to do this and then this, and then this is how the world is going to change. But we don’t.
SM: So you don’t see yourselves as a movement?
BS: Nah. No—that’s way grandiose. It’s just that we’re living in a world where the bad guys are consistently winning, and it’s really hard to see the way it all works together. And those on the left are having a difficult time articulating a vision for how things might be different. Everybody’s just feeling their way forward. In that context, we’re just a group of friends with a funny, odd way of doing that; we’re feeling our way forward in this just like everyone else. This just inadvertently landed in our laps. It’s not that what we’re doing is the most profound political thing ever. I wish we had something to do that was more effective—that was good enough to actually result in Dow Chemicals compensating the Bhopal victims and cleaning up that mess. But do I have a better idea right now? Nope. Do you? If you do, I want to hear it. Tell me please . I don’t see us as movement leaders. Nobody elected us to do anything. But if we have a contribution to make, it’s to show that there are cracks in the wall. If you’re creative and alert, and not too averse to taking risks, then you can get in those cracks and push around, explore them. You can make them bigger. What will the ultimate consequence be? I don’t know; but whatever happens, it’ll be better than if we don’t do anything.
Getting to YES: A Timeline of Yes Men Development
1993: In college Mike swaps the voiceboxes of a bunch of G.I. Joe dolls and Barbie dolls so that the G.I. Joes say “Math is too hard” and the Barbies warn “Dead men tell no lies.” The altered dolls are returned to store shelves with a note urging customers dissatisfied with their dolls to call a “customer service” phone number. When upset kids dial the given number, they find themselves talking with journalists at TV news desks. These same reporters also received a mysterious video (from the “Barbie Liberation Organization”) showing the BLO’s “gender transformation laboratory” and claiming responsibility for the tampering. The incident was covered by 60 Minutes and in newspapers around the country.
1996: Andy is hired as a computer programmer for the video game SimCopter. When Andy got bored with programming the officially sanctioned characters of the game, he inserted a few extra: a small army of men, clad only in swimsuits, who periodically popped into the game to shower the player and each other with kisses. When this illicit “feature” was discovered by the company, Andy was promptly fired. News leaked to journalists of the swimsuited, kissing men, and Andy’s prank was covered in newspapers around the world including the Wall Street Journal.
1996: Andy establishes RTMark.com, an anonymous website which encouraged, posted, and claimed to fund activist pranks. Issuing a historically revisionist press release, Andy claimed the computer game prank was RTMark’s first success. When Andy got wind of Mike’s gender-bending adjustment of the Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, the two joined forces and began the collaboration that would become the Yes Men.
1997: Andy and Mike perform a number of actions under the auspices of RTMark.com including “World Phone In Sick Day,” and an internet assault on the Mexican government’s web servers in support of the Zapatistas.
1999: The Yes Men grows to include a number of additional members and behind-the scenes planners like Bob Spunkmeyer. Their first act of “identity correction,” involves registering the domain name GWBush.com and setting up a parody web site made to look virtually identical to Bush’s real web site, GeorgeWBush.com. The phony web site focuses on Bush’s alleged cocaine use, the decline of pollution standards in Texas during his tenure and his business failures in private life. The Yes Men caught the attention (and ire) of George W. Bush, who threatened to sue them for copyright infringement and complained to the Federal Elections Commission about their activities. The Bush campaign then spends lots of money buying up potentially embarrassing domain names. Articles and stories about the Yes Men’s web site appear in newspapers and on TV news programs across the country.
2000: A fan purchases rights to the domain name www. GATT.org and suggests that the Yes Men build another parody web site, this time mimicking the internet content put up by the World Trade Organization. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the international trade agreement signed after World War II, was a precursor to the establishment of the WTO (which was formed to implement the terms of GATT). Andy and Mike model the phony www.gatt.org to look roughly identical to the WTO’s actual web site, but stuff it with rhetoric about the abuses of “free trade,” and its cost to poorer countries and workers around the world. A number of reporters and people surfing for information and contacts within the WTO don’t realize that www. gatt.org is a fake, and they contact Andy and Mike, mistakenly assuming they are communicating with spokesmen for the WTO. At the same time, the WTO itself issues a press release condemning the Yes Men’s phony web site. The ensuing publicity from the WTO’s condemnation of the Yes Men in the press cements the Gatt.org in the public’s attention. More people visit www.gatt.org than ever before. The Yes Men set up a similar parody site highlighting what they perceive to be Dow’s failure to accept responsibility for the Union Carbide (whose assets Dow acquired) 1984 chemical plant leak in Bhopal, India, called www.dowethics.com.
May, 2000: Andy and Mike begin to accept invitations from trade show organizers, journalists and policymakers to speak as WTO representatives at a variety of industry meetings, international trade conferences and in news interviews.
July 2000: After honing their impersonation skills, the Yes Men make their first national splash when Andy (as WTO spokesman “Granwyth Hulatberi”) is interviewed July 19, 2000 about WTO’s policies and positions for the Genoa G-8 summit during CNBC’s European Marketwrap program. Though his responses are often ridiculous, even incoherent, CNBC doesn’t realize Andy is merely an imposter.
2004: The Yes Men continue on their merry way, releasing a book and film of their exploits, both entitled The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization.
The book is available from the Disinformation Company; the documentary, directed by Chris Smith of American Movie fame, will release on DVD in February.
The Management Leisure Suit
At a textile conference in Tampere, Finland, Andy presents a speech on globalizing the industry. After giving a long justification for a free-market solution to slavery, Andy goes on to suggest a device that would afford First World managers better control of their Third World “remote labor force.” Andy culminates the speech by modeling his prototype: a gold lamé “management leisure suit,” adorned with an “employee visualization appendage” screen affixed to the end of a large, inflatable phallic protrusion from the suit. Though he’s interviewed and photographed in this gold leotard for a number of newspapers, no one questions his identity as a WTO representative.
Let Them Eat “Hamburgers”
At the invitation of a university to speak to business students and faculty, Andy recommends a solution to the problem of hunger in poor parts of the world. The proposal involves feeding poor people “recycled” McDonald’s hamburgers, reconstituted from human waste—just, as he claims, like the ones the audience has been given. The college students, not fooled by the slick Powerpoint presentation and illustrations, are the first audience to respond with hostility to one of Andy’s proposals.
The Death of the WTO
In 2002, Andy is invited to speak on behalf of the WTO at a luncheon given for free-trade policy experts. In an exercise of “super-identity correction,” Andy declares that the WTO will disband due to free-trade policy failures and injustices, and even crimes. He also announces the re-establishment of a global trade organization that will be based around the principles articulated in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. Again, no one initially challenges the veracity of Andy’s announcement. The real WTO is forced to issue a statement insisting upon their continued existence.
Posing as Dow Chemical company spokesman “Jude Finisterra,” Andy announces during a BBC news report that Dow is taking full responsibility for cleaning up the site of the 1984 Bhopal, India chemical leak, which killed thousands of employees and residents, and will provide a $12 billon compensation package for victims of the disaster. The story isn’t retracted for over two hours. The report on BBC is aired widely throughout India, as well as in Europe. Those in Bhopal who have been suing for compensation are ecstatic as news spreads of the cash payments to come. Dow issues a press release denying that the company will offer any increase in compensation for those affected by the chemical leak in Bhopal, and further deny that they have any new plans to clean up the plant site.
(Copyright Susannah Schouweiler. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced without written permission of the author.)
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