What They Want
“We’re giving them what we think they want.” The Yes Men work nerves. Strangely, however, they’re rarely noticed by those whose nerves they’re working. That is, the Yes Men (sometimes also known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) engage in prankster-style direct activism, revealing the illogical and hypocritical practices of institutions that habitually “put profits ahead of everything else.” Their usual mode is face to face, as they attend a conference or address a group of people in suits. Unlike fellow activist Michael Moore, however, the Yes Men, because they are so agreeable, tend to be invited to such events.
As revealed in The Yes Men, directed by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price, Andy and Mike deploy a particular mix of overt and covert tactics. As they recall in the film, the Yes Men weren’t always so visible. In fact, one of their earliest interventions was online, that last bastion of anonymity in a mass media age. At the start of the last U.S. presidential election, they were asked to design a George W. Bush parody site (currently down, as the keepers are “too busy trying to defeat Bush and elect John Kerry to keep GWBush.com going right now”); the address was similar enough to the real thing that earnest supporters checked it in search of information on their man, only to be surprised that this information pointed out that he was not the “environmental governor,” as his campaign asserted, but rather had dismantled all sorts of environmental protections.
Bonanno was also involved in the Barbie Liberation Organization (the BLO), that delicious action initiated in 1989, in which activists switched Teen Barbie voice boxes with G.I. Joe voice boxes, returning both dolls to the toy store shelves during the Christmas season, such that kids opened their presents on that special day, only to hear Barbie declare, “Dead men tell no lies!” and the soldier guy assert, “Math is hard!” (And that website remains in place, with instructions on how to concoct a similar action.) The action drew international media attention to the BLO, and a notion was born: they would use visibility to make their case, they would work within the very organizations they wanted to expose. They would steal identities, not to commit criminal mischief, but to correct them.
In the film, Bonanno describes the process of “identity correction,” as a means to address “these things that are not really presenting themselves accurately: we want to bring that out. We think the WTO is doing all these terrible things that are hurting people and they’re saying the exact opposite. And so, we’re interested in correcting their identity… We target people we see as ‘criminals’ and we steal their identity in order to make them honest, or try and present a more honest face.” Working together, Bichlbaum and Bonanno have endeavored to “create public spectacles that in some kind of poetic way reveal something about our culture that’s profoundly a problem.”
Indeed, you might call what goes on in The Yes Men poetic. The film follows a specific set of actions developed around their dealings with the World Trade Organization. Not incidentally, the film includes Michael Moore’s description: “The WTO was supposed to be a United Nations of Commerce,” he says, established originally to “help countries who are developing, so that the world community could help raise them out of poverty… In fact, the organization has allowed wealthy countries to exploit developing populations even further.” Shortly after the Yes Men designed another website, gatt.org, whose address is similar to that of the WTO’s earlier incarnation, the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), other organizations took it seriously, apparently not noticing its excess and indictment of organization, and invited the makers to come speak at a meeting. Being the Yes Men, Bichlbaum and Bonanno said yes.
Having been invited to speak at a conference in Austria, where the audience dutifully nodded and took notes, though Bichlbaum advocated selling “votes” to highest bidders, the Yes Men decide they’ve been too subtle. And so they devise an outrageous stunt for their next performance as the WTO, at an August 2001 trade conference called “Textiles of the Future,” in Tampere, Finland. Bichlbaum, posing as “Hank Hardy Unruh,” presents a paper on the ways that “remote labor” can be monitored via a tv mounted on a three-foot long phallus, attached to a gold lamé bodysuit—though he begins his talk in a suit, they have designed this to rip away, to reveal the lame and the penis, which, he notes, also allows the wearer to administer long-distance electric shocks to induce harder, um, work. The audience nods and takes notes.
The only audience in the film who does notice something is unreasonable is a group of students at university in Plattsburgh, NY, where the Yes Men go to rehearse a performance, in which they advocate for recycled hamburgers, complete with colorful animation. The recycling here has to do with human waste, and the intended “customers” and “consumers” are those underprivileged, un-white others round the world who are so desperate even to eat that they won’t much mind the sources of their nutrition. The kids in this classroom, at least, have the wherewithal to be horrified by the proposal, and ask right-minded, morally astute questions of these presumed authorities, to the point that several end up walking out in disgust. At last, the Yes Men have found someone who will say no.
At a time when Donald Trump is king of the world and the Bush administration sets various policies according to how much money might be made by select corporations (say, Halliburton), the Yes Men’s efforts are at once worthy, smart, very funny, and also, small. “What can’t corporations get away with?” they ask. How to fight the behemoth of corporate globalization? It’s true that the WTO, like George Bush before it, eventually noticed the Yes Men’s tomfoolery (the organization offered a press release, saying it “deplored” their actions, upon which the Yes Men offered their own press release, “deploring” the WTO). But few others—even those who might be interested in their work—have seen them in action, or even known of their existence.
The movie will bring attention to them, and that’s the ironic rub, that they must be noticed, become visible, in order to show the effectiveness of their interventions, though that effectiveness is also premised on the utter acceptance of their conference audiences. Perhaps the negative response to the yes Men will be swifter now, but don’t bet on it. Their current bus tour, for which they have corrected the identity of Bush supporters, and are offering true believers the chance to sign the “U.S.A. Patriot Pledge,” which includes promises to “embrace global warming as a useful weapon in the trade wars that will define our future economic well being, and that of our children,” or to commit to pre-emptive war on terror, that is, commit young people—your children or yourself—to combat in the scariest parts of the world. As the Yes Men put it, it’s crucial to press on, to impersonate and really, to expose in that impersonation, “whoever holds power who needs to be criticized.”