Archive: Issue No. 89, January 2005

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Yes Men

The Yes Men
by Carine Zaayman

You've probably heard of the Austrian professor, Dr. Bichlbauer, who suggested that Americans votes should be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The reasoning was that so much money goes into campaigning and manipulation that the American public's votes are in any way bought already. In his suggestion, the money would then actually go towards the people themselves, which would make for an improvement in the current system where politicians and media networks land all the cash.

Dr. Bichlbauer was really a creation of the Yes Men. Andy and Mike are two activists that strategically impersonate powerful people (whom they call 'powerful criminals') from institutions such as the World Trade Organisation. At the heart of their endeavours, is the desire to expose the severe 'big money'-oriented nature of politics, as well as the inhumanity and corruption that attends it. Something we already know, right? Maybe, but the interesting thing about the Yes Men's interventions is that people tend to be unaffected by what I think are outrageous statements. Does this mean that the public is unable to distinguish between their exaggerated parodies of (say) the WTO and what the WTO actually says?

Let me give an example: at the conference that Dr. Bichlbauer was accidentally invited to as spokesperson for the WTO, he stated that doing business in Italy is difficult, because Italians are lazy and take long lunches. Similarly, that since the Spanish take siestas, they are extremely unproductive. For this, Dr. Bichlbauer got no real responses. Perhaps because these statements are so obviously silly as to be credible?

Still, when someone, whom everyone in the room believes to be a representative of the world's most influential body on world trade issues, defends Hitler on what he calls 'free market principles' and no-one bats an eyelid, one has to wonder what is going on. Moreover, when people seem to support vote buying as another extension of good clean capitalism, again believing the ideas to be coming from the WTO, it does strike me as disturbing.

Since the event involving Dr. Bichlbauer in 2000, the Yes Men have continued on their quest to see how patently absurd they could get while still maintaining that they speak for the WTO and similar organisations, and gauge how tolerant people would be of their antics. The consistent response has been one of apathy, the only exception being the group of students they addressed in Plattsburg.

Other, more recent, projects include their imitation of a George W Bush website. Another project is one in which Andy and Mike appeared at a convention on the European Union wanting to meet their hero, Captain Europe - the great uniter of all Europeans.

In 2004, a Yes man pretended that he was a spokesperson for Dow Chemicals in an interview with BBC. In the interview the Yes man stated that the company accepted responsibility for a leakage of lethal chemicals in Bhopal, India, which cost the lives of seven thousand people. In addition, he stated that a compensation fund has been set up for the victims. When Dow reacted (they had no choice), they not only had to tell everyone that the spokesperson was an impostor, but they were also forced to admit that they did not have a compensation fund, nor did they accept any responsibility for the disaster. Dow Chemicals lost two billion dollars in market value following the interview.

The Yes Men's website chronicles their activities since the late 90s, and provides details on how you can join their organisation and become an impersonator yourself. Apart from the section detailing their work - with text and video, the other interesting section is their blog, in which they provide updated accounts of their exploits. The Yes Men have also recently released their DVD and book, which is on the site.

At a time where there are many disillusioned and disgruntled world citizens, there is also bound to be much activism. The question is always, however, what the activism is able to effect. People would not be apathetic unless there was some sense (rightly or wrongly so) of safety or lack of control over the institutions that determine the structure of our lives. In the sense that the Yes Men are able to rattle the bars of the cage more effectively than most, I think that they might also be able to achieve at least some awareness. While the Yes Men have been called 'TechnoSituationists' by Douglas Rushkoff, I hope their interventions will prove more lasting.