RPI hoaxer: Crusader or ego stroker?
First published: Tuesday, December 14, 2004

This year, as we draw near the finish of another twelvemonth, those of us involved in the practice of journalism feel compelled to review what has transpired during the latest cycle. It's something in our genes.

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My favorite annual summation deals with Rensselaer County's stupid criminals.

Last year, the hands-down winner (?) was the East Greenbush woman who pulled off a string of bank holdups in East Greenbush and Rensselaer while wearing various disguises -- a fake beard and military outfit, long black and red wigs, baseball caps and sunglasses.

Her getaway car wasn't all that difficult to ID: a red 1997 Pontiac Grand Am with a large skull decal in the back window. Also, when she was picked up by police, she had in her car $4,300 in cash, several of her disguises and a copy of a book called "How to Rob a Bank."

I was beginning to despair of this year's crop of do-badders as we lurched into December with no real winner (?) in sight. Then came The Yes Men.

Let it be said up front that I do not know for a certainty that Dr. Igor Vamos, a faculty member at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute presently on sabbatical and unreachable for direct comment, did anything illegal. But if what he's accused of turns out to be accurate -- and an army of lawyers will be slugging out that one in the civil courts -- our bewigged bank robber loses her title.

Here's the scenario. Vamos and pal Jacques Servin are a satirical duo they call The Yes Men. Their goal in life, apparently, is to use various questionable means to make their commentaries on whatever big businesses they don't like.

Some people think their actions are hilarious and commendable. Some think they're juvenile and criminal. Most would at least agree they think big.

These are the guys who, for example, swapped the voice boxes on hundreds of G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls and put them back on store shelves for unsuspecting children to pick up. Hah, hah.

They also sent a hoax representative to a World Trade Organization conference, and set up at least one Web site to confuse people about international trade operations.

The latest caper came earlier this month when Servin, claiming to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical named Jude Finisterra, was interviewed on BBC television. He announced that Dow was taking full responsibility for the horrendous 1984 chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India, and immediately releasing $12 billion to provide ongoing medical care for the victims.

Servin/Finisterra also announced to the world that Dow -- which several years ago bought Union Carbide, which owned the Bhopal site at the time of the poison gas explosion -- would urge the U.S. government to extradite ex-Union Carbide official Warren Anderson from his Long Island home to India to face manslaughter charges for his role in the disaster. Furthermore, he said, Dow would provide no-strings-attached funding for anyone who wanted to conduct research into the safety of any Dow product.

The story was picked up around the globe and, however briefly, the hopes of those in Bhopal affected by the disaster soared.

Turns out it was a hoax. Hah, hah.

The BBC, which shirked its duty to verify that there was a Jude Finisterra and that he, indeed, was authorized to speak for Dow on such a gigantic issue, broadcast the interview twice before pulling it. A little name dissection by the BBC might have given them a clue. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes; finisterra is Latin for end of Earth.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. Around the world, student groups, ecologists, ethicists and others are making serious renewals of efforts to have Dow-Union Carbide come to terms with the incalculable aftermath of the disaster -- the medical horrors, ground site contamination, legal wrangles and avoidance of responsibility.

Did The Yes Men's little stunt do any good? It is doubtful. Attention is more on these self-appointed vigilantes than on the victims of Bhopal. Ego was gratified more than the cause was advanced. In a self-created question-and-answer session on their Web site, their response to the question of raising false hopes with their stunts resulted in this little conceit: "All hopes are false until they are realized."

How will the stunt play back at RPI? I suspect the knee-jerk stance taken by faculty senate president Bruce Nauman will be typical: "Professor Vamos is free to have his own opinions. It is not up to Rensselaer to police his outside activities."

Did you think there would be any hint of engaging in a discussion of free-speech ethics? Hah, hah.



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