My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awestruck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "free market system" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Halliburton in particular is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.
After reviewing their DVD I emailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting "no" for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules — working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time — I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my emailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.
Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno
Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?
We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time, the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.
So how did you settle upon this as a career choice? As a child did you say to your parents "I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up" or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it… although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids.
What brought the two of you together?
Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do — so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?
Well… the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think it's worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough?
What would you call what you do?
We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
The chances of shaming someone – or something – like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim; so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?
Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and HUD, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina. And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well.
What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?
We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something… put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted.
When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US — our politicians would never even dream of saying something like "let the market forces fix a natural disaster" – they would be run out of town on a rail (Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies). Why is it do you think Americans as a whole accept free market capitalism so cheerfully?
I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all… one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy. All the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird Cold War hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud.
Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.
I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas, but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at World War II to see that there were plenty of American companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans – even after the invasion of Poland – simply because they were in business together. It's pretty sick!
I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it — that nobody asked "Well, why the hell aren't you?"
But people do ask this all the time… the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice… especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water."
Did you consider the fact that releasing The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?
We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore… but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved.
On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?
Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate. There have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!
How do you fund these activities? Travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events. Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?
We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs… at least the getting to events and whatnot. And increasingly through speaking engagements.
I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example, the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.
The way it's done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.
There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail on March 23 that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be done to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?
The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. It's either that or revolution.
With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt-ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations – like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation – that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?
There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster — with much more certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
On a more cheerful note, what's next for The Yes Men?
The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab!
Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work – doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos – you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from YouTube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.