Faith in Free Trade: Interview with the Yes Men


By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

The Yes Men—Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum—arrive on time and in thrift store suits, a parody of the executives and economists they imitate so well. At the end of September, they’re touring to promote their movie, The Yes Men. Co-directed by Chris Smith (American Movie), the documentary chronicles the adventures of Bichlbaum and Bonanno, as they intervened in corporate globalization, performing as spokesmen for the World Trade Organization, invited by various groups who mistake them for the real thing.

While their WTO activism is already relatively old news—though hardly over, given that the WTO isn’t going anywhere soon—the Yes Men are currently embarked on another mission. They’re campaigning for the President, on a bus for Bush, soliciting pledges from patriots. Look out.

PopMatters: How do you think the film, The Yes Men, and specifically your visibility in it, will change your activism?

Mike Bonanno: The visibility isn’t going to change what we do, much. Hopefully it delivers the story and the issues we try to address to more people. I don’t think people are going to recognize us, if we go and try to impersonate someone from the WTO or the World Bank or someone from the Bush Campaign. Even if it did happen, other people could be doing this work.

Andy Bichlbaum: And more people knowing what we do is good, they’re eager to help and offering their services.

MB: There are probably people who can do it much better than we do it.

PM: You do seem “invisible” even at the meetings, even when you present images and ideas that seem outrageous.

MB: We just follow the same logic, just take it a step further usually than they are willing to admit.

AB: The only step too far would be to say, at a WTO meeting, that free trade isn’t a good thing. They might notice that. But if you stick with the premise, within the context, they’ll accept it.

PM: Amid the jargon, there’s an emotional appeal embedded in the language, a kind of “faith” in “free trade.”

MB: Yeah, “freedom” is such a frequently used word and it means different things to different people. When Bush uses it, it usually means military strength. Or now it’s almost interchangeable with this economic model, this oppressive capitalistic economic model.

AB: And the faith thing. There’s no scientific evidence that this model works, it’s just been believed since the 17th century. Because the rich and powerful people in the world have seen an interest in it becoming the dominant model, it has.

PM: You went to the Republican National Convention in NYC?

MB: We went to conservative events, like a National Review party, where they had Fox News on all the feed screens. It was incredibly boring. The most interesting thing that happened to us was, we got in late on Tuesday night and found our way into the Convention Hall. We found this script in the trash in the control room [pulls it out], which includes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comments on free trade. Can I do a reading of Arnold here? [In Schwarzeneggerian accent] “If you believe we must be fierce and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican. There is another way you can tell you are a Republican: you have faith in free enterprise and faith in the U.S. economy. Don’t be economic girly men” [laughter]. It’s a straightforward speech. But it’s weird to see it written down, with all the pauses and breaths written in. Did you hear that part in his speech about visiting the soldier in the hospital? He talks about how wounded he is, and still, how he’s going to get therapy and a new leg, and he tells Arnold, “I’ll be back.” Then, Arnold says to the Convention, “America will be back.” It’s such a weird analogy. It’s like, here we are, we’re missing a leg, we think we’re going to get a new one, and go back to Iraq! That’s what we are right now. It’s so direct.

PM: It appears, given the surging popularity success of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, for instances, that comedy is a productive route for the sort of political work you do.

AB: Yeah, it does seem that you have to be a clown to get serious ideas across. To get in the news, either you’re a mass murderer or there’s something funny in what you’re saying.

MB: Definitely it helps to make it “entertainment.”

AB: People don’t like to be preached to, so perhaps this is the best way.

PM: Do you think there’s a generational difference in the ways people respond to you, as when the students in the film [at the University of Plattsburgh] are horrified by the idea of “recycled hamburgers”?

AB: I think the students have not been indoctrinated into the speech of the WTO, speech in which talking about recycling hamburgers is consistent with the corporate globalization and theories of neo-liberalism, but the students aren’t used to it so it strikes them as the grotesquerie that it is. I don’t know, though, I think any “normal” audience would be horrified by that idea, but the WTO people were prepared to listen, were just hearing the outline of the idea, the format, and not the content. Like in Finland, when we were talking about slavery, essentially: all that’s just a detail to them. As long as it’s wrapped inside the basic idea, that markets must be free, that they must be allowed to operate regardless of any human consequence, little details of slavery go unnoticed.

PM: Bush appears to exacerbate the possibility of “speaking” in broad strokes, without details, and without making sense. That is, he speaks, his sentences don’t always cohere, and the journalists—save for the fake newscasters or the comedians—report it as news, without comment on the illogic or incoherence.

MB: He’s definitely softened things up [laughter].

PM: Recently, Bush called the war in Iraq, apparently following Tommy Franks, a “catastrophic success.” And the next day, John Edwards did say, in public, “No one even knows what that means.”

MB: [laughter] That’s great. And what can that mean? Sometimes, people for whom English is a second language come up with these phrases that are just poetry, that you couldn’t have thought of. It’s kind of genius. I read today that gaffs are “moments of honesty.” Like when Bush said recently [to Matt Lauer], “Oh, we can’t win the war on terrorism,” before he recanted.

AB: Right. We can’t win it but we can make it less acceptable [laughter].

PM: Can you talk about how business culture has permeated all aspects of our lives and belief structures?

MB: Everybody does accept a general idea that free trade is good. We were on the radio this morning and nobody in the room really knew what the WTO is. And it was hard, how do you reduce it to two seconds? I grew up living and breathing the idea that free trade was just a great idea. It’s about freedom, and opening up borders, and helping people. I got that all through my upstate New York, suburban, elementary school through high school life. It is a faith, a deep, underlying belief for many kids I the U.S.

PM: Do you get frustrated that this sort of resistance work doesn’t get attention by mainstream media? I’m thinking too of the protests at the RNC, which were only minimally covered by tv news.

AB: At first, yeah, there was a level of psychological frustration: we were trying to get this message across, and they weren’t paying attention. We want something to happen. But at a certain point, I think we realized, it’s kind of great that they’re not noticing because that kind of points out what’s going on here. But then you need the next form [the film] in order to get it out there, to show how they don’t notice. On the Convention, you’re right. Though the New York Times and the Washington Post covered the protests pretty well, Fox News mentioned briefly there was a big protest, then cut quickly to the dragon [used at one protest] and tube with explosives in it, and an interviewee complained about the focus on the protests by the other, elite media. He was especially worried that the protestors looked “normal” on tv, because he’d been there, and “It’s not like that.”

MB: Right: “90 percent of them are weirdos!” Something like that.

AB: They were chomping at the bit for something terrible to happen, and then they reported the 1000 arrests and all that.

MB: People arrested for standing on the sidewalk. It’s interesting that the idea of preemption is back in vogue.

PM: What constitutes mainstream and outsider status anymore? For instance, Fox News posits themselves as the outsiders, set against the elite and the liberal mainstream. But their numbers are huge, which they also like to state repeatedly.

AB: I think people just watch Fox or CNN and don’t look outside what reaffirms what they believe. They never think of looking for something that isn’t directly out in front of them.

MB: Everyone has to retreat, to define the opposition as strong, or as the mainstream. Because you have to feel beleaguered in order to feel righteous, to rally the troops. It’s quite bizarre. The minority of rich white men. They’re these oppressed people who can never get their message out because of the liberal media, twisting their views. They can’t start their wars, they can’t grab their oil. They’re really being hampered.

AB: They’re brilliant, because they appeal to people who feel just like that. They tell them to not think too much, just trust your instincts, just feel.

MB: Operate out of fear.

PM: It’s easy to see how that appeals to rich folks, who want to maintain what they have. But it also appeals to underclass and working class people.

MB: Right, because Christians are a minority, persecuted. The gays are ruining everything, clearly corrupting society. That’s why, when we go out campaigning for Bush, which we’re gonna do, the first thing we’re going to do is offer a preemptive gay annulment program. We’re going to be doing gay divorces and gay annulments, based on the SETI Program, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The problem is the mathematical possibilities for all the marriage combinations are so great that we can’t just do it on any single computer. And we don’t want to tie up a Defense Department computer. So we’re going to make it so individuals at home can download the software, and we can all together work to combine the hundreds of billions of possibilities of marriage. This software is gonna do it. But everybody has to download it and run it on their own computers. But beyond that, we’ve got a bus to campaign for Bush. We’re asking people to take the U.S.A. Patriot Pledge, asking people to demonstrate their commitment to the policies of the administration.

AB: So, for example, you pledge to live with the consequences of the administration’s policies, to see America fulfilled.

MB: Check off, in fighting terrorism abroad, you agree to send our children to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and anywhere President George W. Bush deems necessary. Or, for the nuclear challenge, “I volunteer to have a permanent nuclear waste facility in my community.” For fighting terrorism at home, “I volunteer to give up some rights, specifically, I volunteer to allow government agents to search my home, to have my phone tapped and my internet use monitored.”

PM: Which are already done.

MB: Exactly, the Patriot Act already made much of this legal. The nuclear challenge: we are volunteering to allow nuclear waste facilities in our community. Because Bush is, for some reason, working to keep the flagging nuclear industry afloat. There are plans on the boards for new plants, propped up with huge infusions of money. The nuclear power industry, or the “energy sector,” hasn’t been able to come up with that money. And the mini-nukes programs, so we can have nuclear weapons to fit in a suitcase. It’s like fighting fire with fire, because we’re afraid the terrorists might get these weapons, so let’s make them! And some of these pledges are funny, like Family Values: “I volunteer never to divorce and to stay with my spouse until death, no matter how incompatible we may be.” And this: “I support tax cuts favoring the elite, and volunteer to pay more than my share of taxes, so the elite can invest their money.”

PM: Again, it’s the manipulation of language.

MB: It’s so creepy, the whole no child left behind thing, which is about privatizing the school system, about taking the public schools away from the people. It’s leaving everybody behind except if you live in a rich district. It’s to exacerbate that and make it worse, it’s all doublespeak. The Clear Skies Initiative? The Healthy Forests Initiative: to make room for all the roads.

PM: Do you imagine a time when the balance will shift?

AB: I think it has to. The 19th century was a time of free trade and total rapacity. And unfortunately, it took a total economic collapse to bring in the New Deal and support for people who weren’t capable of making a fortune. I hope it doesn’t take a total economic collapse again. It could happen without that, without total catastrophe or devastating revolution.

MB: Right. We could have the “catastrophic success”!

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