The Yes Men, New York Times, July 4, 2009

The Yes Men: An exclusive interview

by: Garrett Heaney

You may have seen The Yes Men in The New York Times recently — they made the July 4, 2009 issue. If you didn’t catch that one, follow the link. Their verve to draw attention to the most destructive players on the global scene (WTO, Exxon, Dow, and the eceteras) moved me to contact them for interview. I was very happy to read these responses and thank them for their time and professionalism.

Why are you called the Yes Men?

You know how a funhouse mirror exaggerates your most hideous features? We do that kind of exaggeration operation, but with ideas. We agree with people — turning up the volume on their ideas as we talk, until they can see their ideas distorted in our funhouse mirror. Or that’s what we try to do, anyhow — but as it turns out, the image always seems to look normal to them.

Can you describe a dream scenario for the Yes Men — something too good to be true, but one that you’d jump at if you had the chance — and what you’d do?

You know the last scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator? Mistaken for Hitler at the border of Austria, the Jewish barber makes a speech to the soldiers waiting to start the Anschluss:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.... Even now my voice is reaching millions… victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.... Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you.... Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty.”

The soldiers cheer wildly and call off the Anschluss. Perhaps a faux Bush could announce this today? I’m sure our troops would cheer....

Who and what inspired the Yes Men?

Both the methods and the goals of the Yes Men are as hoarily ancient as, say, lemonade. Criticizing those in power with a smile and a middle finger happens in literature from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, in mythologies from the Volga to the Mississippi, in movements from the Diggers to the Situationists… and of course in lemonade.

What are your principal methods?

Principally the broad back-and-forth, or, for difficult stains, rapid-fire circular motions. After all, a clean suit is an absolute prerequisite for successful imposture. The suit can be gotten in your average thrift store for around 20 USD (16 euros, 2000 yen).

What’s your opinion of the mainstream media’s response to your actions?

Very nice. Mainstream journalists almost always get our serious points, and transmit it to the journalism-consuming consumer. A lot of these people (journalists) really want to write about important things — but in the U.S. at least, you can’t cover the WTO or the Bhopal anniversary just because they’re tremendously important. We can provide the fodder, sometimes, that lets these subjects get covered.

Speaking of Bhopal—didn’t you create false hopes in Bhopal with your latest Dow stunt?

No. For 20 years, the victims of Bhopal falsely hoped that Dow and Union Carbide would do something to ease the suffering that they’d caused: a hope that was, apparently, completely false and unreasonable. What we did on December 3 was create false certainties: those who heard our announcement didn’t falsely hope, they were falsely certain that their suffering was at long last over.

Well, okay, we stand corrected. Regardless, don’t you feel bad about it? You should!

If you think we hurt the Bhopalis, then do something about it! If the deaths, debilities, organ failure, brain damage, tumors, breathing problems, and sundry other forms of permanent damage caused by Dow and Union Carbide aren’t enough to arouse your pity, and the hour of “false hopes” we caused is—fantastic, we won! Go straight to Bhopal.net and make a donation.

Why don’t you feel bad about it?

Two reasons:
1. Our intention was to get news about Bhopal into the U.S., where most people don’t even know what happened there in 1984, let alone that a person still dies every day from residual pollution that has never been cleaned up. Right there in Dow’s headquarters — Midland, Michigan — most people don’t realize that Dow still refuses to do the slightest thing to repair the damage they are responsible for. In getting the news to these folks, we succeeded wonderfully: hundreds of articles about the event made it into the U.S. press, whereas on most anniversaries of the accident, it hasn’t even found its way into one mainstream source. (Note: Whereas much of the UK press focussed on the “false hopes” angle, almost none of the US press did, perhaps because they had to spend the column-inches explaining what Bhopal was in the first place. Since the UK wasn’t our target almost everyone in the UK had heard plenty about Bhopal in the media — the coverage there just didn’t matter.)

2. The Bhopali activists we’ve spoken to are very happy with these results. In fact, they were happy about them the same day, as soon as they got over their disappointment. Why would we care about what anyone else thinks?

3. We’re not trying to win a popularity contest.

This is getting way heavy. Let’s get back to the WTO stuff. What themes have the Yes Men presented at conferences, and how were they received?

Eat, destroy, swallow, devour, gobble, despoil, maraud, munch, slay, smash. Hurrah, cheers, kudos, honor, exalt, extol, salute.

In more detail?

When we went to the International Legal Studies Conference in Salzburg, we delivered a speech that we thought would make people think twice about WTO policies. We suggested that the siesta in Spain be made illegal because it gets in the way of work. We suggested that a “free market” be established in the realm of democratic government by allowing the buying and selling of votes… we even showed them a Website that could make the process very efficient.

All of these ideas simply follow the free market philosophy at the core of the WTO to its logical extreme, which is of course quite illogical when you look at the facts. And the facts are that in the last 25 years the poor of the world have gotten even poorer… while the rich have gotten astronomically richer. And all that during the implementation of policies that the WTO claim will help the poor. Of course, these kinds of twisted ideas of what is right for the weak or the poor are not new — there was a bizarre logic that supported colonialism too. Unfortunately, our current religion of free-trade is so strong that despite our best efforts to satirize the logic, the various audiences we spoke to simply agreed with every sinister, corrupt, and disgusting idea that the “WTO” could muster. So we learned exactly how frightening this reality is.

Who and what inspires your targets — say, the lawyers in Salzburg? Surely it’s not greed that makes them agree with such lunacy.

Right: it’s mostly faith… the power of faith to transcend the most obvious logic is a well-established phenomenon. When the Crusaders discovered themselves in pitched battle against Christians they had travelled thousands of miles to save, they refused to amend their theory that these Christians needed their help. Faith!

Faith, likewise, spurred thirty-nine web developers to don Nikes and swallow poison, on the theory — not backed by much solid evidence — that they’d shortly meet up on the Hale-Bopp Comet. (The “Heaven’s Gate” suicide was remarkable among mass suicides for its interface with observational astronomy.) And when Appalachian snake handlers insist on dancing with poisonous critters, despite not-so-rare deaths and lost limbs, it is from faith in the theory that God is protecting them. (The basis for this often-contradicted theory is two Biblical verses: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”— Mark 16:18 — and “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions” — Luke 10:19.)

Similarly, our audience of lawyers in Salzburg had a theory — that the free market could bring happiness to the world at large — and they had the deepest possible faith in it. We had imagined that if we pushed our proposals into the outer limits of ugliness, we could horrify our audience into objecting. But the nature of their faith was such that so long as our proposals derived from the one true theory, there was no way they would ever see anything wrong with them.
We weren’t the first sloppy satirists to make the mistake. In 1703, a troublemaker named Daniel Defoe, seeking to show the absurdity of a bill forbidding non-Anglicans to hold public office, had suggested in a widely-published pamphlet that barring the scoundrels from office was a big waste of time, and that it would be much more efficient to simply execute them.

Defoe, to his shock, found his histrionic, inaccurate, and profoundly ridiculous words taken seriously. A large number of radical Anglicans, thinking one of them had authored the screed, came out loudly in favor of execution; this solution, after all, was quite clearly consistent with the widely accepted theory that only Anglicans had any virtue, and that all others were “Poisoned Spirits” in the body politic.

We too discovered that once a premise is laid — whether it be the toxicity of dissenters or the friendliness of free markets — there is no way to push the implications enough to shake off believers. Why should international trade lawyers, presented with logical conclusions of a theory they deeply believe and practice each day, be any different from snake handlers, Crusaders, or radical Anglicans?

Since we hadn’t read Defoe, we were condemned to repeat him. At least we found ourselves just somewhat poorer, rather than, like Defoe, rotting in jail awaiting the pillory....

What is the difference between http://www.WTO.org and http://www.GATT.org?

One of them belongs to impostors who pretend to know something about world trade and how it can benefit humanity, and the other belongs to us.

How do you keep from cracking up when you are being the WTO?

It’s not very funny to stand in front of audiences of suits spouting the most hideous ideas imaginable! It might be funny for someone else to watch, but for us it’s kind of scary.

Then how do you keep from being too scared to function?

Well, if reading a prepared speech, it helps to just read the damn speech. If conversing with people over cocktails, the cocktails help. Then it’s like suddenly having license to be as stupid and crazy as you ever wanted to be at a party.

Are you afraid of being recognized?

The world’s largest industrial disaster (Bhopal) is still not recognized by many — so how would we be?

* For an unabridged version of this Creative Commons Licensed Q&A, check out the Yes Men FAQ page here. For the record, we asked questions that had already been answered, for the record.

After the interview, we also filmed the following videos. ENJOY!

Media Gallery

Download video!

ˆDow accepts responsibility for Bhopal

Download video!

ˆSlavery proposed by WTO

Download video!

ˆWTO ideas about profiting from world hunger

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