As a 14-year-old fan of both Jimmy Carter and George Orwell, 1984 was a tough year for me.
I was convinced Ronald Reagan would find a way to ensure an Orwellian dystopia and that a dark future was at hand.
It turns out I was right.
But the plot proved to be a lot bigger than Ronald Reagan, and Big Brother manifested more as a corporate medusa than a monolithic government.
If I'd known what to look for, the signs were sitting right in front of the sleepy rural town in which I grew up.
On Dec. 3, 1984, 32 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of a Union Carbide Corporation plant in Bhopal, India. Death toll numbers vary depending on the source, but between 4,000 and 18,000 people were dead within two weeks.
Meanwhile, just a few miles west of my home in Bishop, Calif., and upriver from the sweet little stream that trickled past my house, Union Carbide was running the largest tungsten mine in the United States. In my town, Union Carbide was a source of good jobs and local benevolence. Union Carbide guys were heroes.
I can remember my mother explaining to me that big companies weren't always as responsible as they should be and would sometimes cut corners and take advantage of the poverty in other countries, but that the neighbor who worked at the mine wasn't necessarily a bad person.
As the years wore on, people continued to die by the thousands in Bhopal. Union Carbide claimed it was not responsible and it abandoned the Bhopal plant, leaving behind another 390 tons of toxic chemicals that continue to leak into the groundwater to this day. The disaster there is now frequently cited as the worst industrial disaster in history.
Twenty years after the Bhopal leak, on Dec. 3, 2004, a spokesman for Dow Chemical Company, which had purchased Union Carbide in 1999, announced on BBC World News that the company would pay reparations to the people of Bhopal and foot the bill for a comprehensive cleanup.
In a little more than 20 minutes, the value of Dow stock dropped by $2 billion. The spokesman was a hero.
But he didn't work for Dow. He was Andy Bichlbaum. He was a Yes Man.
The Yes Men, an activist organization that uses parody and satire to bring attention to government and corporate misdeeds, came to prominence when they participated in the faux World Trade Organization website, gatt.org, which was launched in tandem with the protest-riddled 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, Wash.
Bichlbaum and fellow Yes Man Mike Bonanno have spent the 10 years since engaged in increasingly elaborate and far-reaching activist stunts.
In 2000, the group spoofed President George W Bush's election website, prompting Bush to say, famously, "there ought to be limits to freedom."
Among its many pranks striking at the core of social and economic issues, the Yes Men, in corporate or spokesman guise, have proposed that McDonald's include 20 percent post consumer waste in its hamburgers, announced that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development would do right by impoverished citizens left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and suggested that Africa could be better managed through the use of slavery.
More recently, the Yes Men held a press conference in which they announced the US Chamber of Commerce's newfound support for alternative energy and pretended to be representatives of the Canadian government at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
As a result of Yes Men actions and film projects, thousands of articles have been written about otherwise-ignored issues. They have become the de facto publicity and propaganda arm of social-justice activism and, this week, they're on the loose in Santa Fe. SFR spoke to Bichlbaum about life as a Yes Man, and asked the group to provide some hypothetical "actions" for some usual New Mexico suspects.
WHO ARE THOSE UNMASKED MEN?
SFR: An article in Mother Jones recently argued that Yes Men high jinks have degenerated to the level of mere entertainment, that it has become difficult to parse your attacks on corporations like Dow Chemical and Halliburton from the social or celebrity antics of Borat or Ashton Kutcher.
AB: Really? I haven't seen that. But, you know, we're just trying to get an important message out through the means that are available to us, the avenues that we are good at. We are doing what we can to publicize and drum up enthusiasm and engagement surrounding issues that we and a great many other people consider to be important. Certainly we use humor. And certainly entertainment can be about making people laugh, but also about something greater. Borat, for example, makes some points beyond simple jokes; there's a kind of a thesis in there. But the Yes Men are activists who are using comedy and I'm not sure there's a direct comparison to comedians who may have some activist element or some amount of social agenda that appears in their routines.
Is humor an effective way of cutting to the heart of our most pressing social, economic and political issues?
Laughter is a simple tool that gets publicity and that results in articles being written and in the development of a broad audience. If what you're doing isn't funny—and I suppose you could correlate that to entertainment value—then your audience is likely to be a lot smaller. But it's possible that ridiculing those who are in fact ridiculous or whose ideas and actions are somewhat ridiculous can translate to some popular and progressive power. Some believe that humor is a potent political weapon; humor may have kneecapped Sarah Palin's run for vice president or it may have toppled the Soviet Union. I don't know if I believe that exactly, but humor certainly is a powerful component of human belief and experience.
If the Yes Men differ so significantly from comedians, what about self-declared activists with a different agenda, like James O'Keefe and Robert Flanagan and others involved in the controversial ACORN videos and the attempt to infiltrate US Sen. Mary Landrieu's office?
Oh, those guys are rank amateurs. I mean, going in and messing with a senator's phone lines and not even bothering to make fake ID? It's just unbelievably stupid. It's also not at all like what we do. They seem to be about hurting people who are in a position of weakness or hurting people who are trying to help people who are in a position of weakness. We're more interested in stopping and exposing people who are hurting others. I mean, I don't actually understand the motivation for those guys: How can you put so much energy into hurting people? I know they're using the, uh, 'fair and balanced' argument, but that doesn't play with what amounts to a fraudulent sting-style operation perpetrated under false pretenses. Again, what we do is something a little different.
But wait…when you posed as a US Chamber of Commerce representative, you didn't have any business cards when questioned. Why not?
Good point. I guess my only defense is that we were engaging in political theater. We weren't up to something definitively illegal. We were not trying to do something that we knew could land us in jail. There's performance and there's amoral, illegal behavior, and I think the difference is perceptible.
Do you think that Yes Men actions have been effective?
Well, it gets media attention for sure. And, as I said, I think if that attention relates to a larger, cohesive campaign then, yes, it can be very effective.
What's an example of relating to a broader strategy?
Our sort of multifaceted attacks on Dow Chemical related to the Bhopal disaster were highly coordinated with groups that are dedicated to helping the victims in Bhopal or raising awareness about the incident. At the Copenhagen climate conference we worked with the Climate Debt Agents. We sort of drum up attention for causes that many other people and groups are already working on. Everything we do comes down to pointing out when economic policies place the rights of capital before the needs of people and the environment. That's the key problem that we're always driving at and we can usually frame our actions within the context of other organizations that are dedicated to some aspect of that fight.
Is corporatocracy the primary problem facing the US today?
I think I can agree with that. Yes, yes it is.
Is there an official Yes Men response to the US Supreme Court's recent assertion that the rights of corporations extend to unlimited campaign contributions?
Just the obvious: It's horrifying. It's exactly the wrong direction to go in and, as a nation, we'd better not let it stick. It's so totally bad. The only way to ever see progressive legislation would be to end corporate lobbying—period—and this ruling, of course, goes in exactly the opposite direction.
In some opposition to the usual position of the more conservative justices, that ruling appears to attack states' rights, as a great many states have laws governing corporate contributions. Do you think states will become the front line on this battle?
I guess I'm not up enough on that as I should be. I don't really know what role the states will play.
Your presentation in Santa Fe serves as a benefit for the Santa Fe Art Institute. Are the Yes Men artists?
I don't know. I guess it depends on who is asking. Or who is being asked. Or…I don't really think of it that way, I don't wonder about how to define what we do; I just think of it as doing something.
Why are so few of us doing something?
I don't know that either. It's a good question. Maybe most of us don't realize how fun it is to start doing something. Trying to make things better may not sound like a good time but, I promise, there can a lot of fun in it.
Are you able to hint at any new targets on the horizon or do you have to feign innocence?
Well, the list of potential targets is, regrettably, almost endless. But right now, I feel like we've just finished a movie and that's a pretty exhausting process and I would say a vacation is in order.
What's next for the Yes Men after recuperating?
My main focus is on creating what we're calling Yes Lab. It's about helping organizations and groups that do the kind of activism that we do. If someone is up to some creative activism or trying to figure out an unconventional angle of approach, the Yes Lab will help to workshop the issue and develop a strategy.
Is that off the ground or are you still planning the Yes Lab?
There are a couple of projects in the pipeline already. It's mainly working with activist organizations that want to take on a project and want brainstorming help. It's part of making sure that what we do is tied into larger campaigns concerned with the same or similar issues.
Are you and Mike Bonanno the Yes Men or do you really represent a broader group of collaborators?
It's a lot more people than just the two of us. We always collaborate with a big crew. Even if we're not directly working with another activist organization—and frequently we are—we need coordination between many different people in order to pull off some of our, um, you know…the things that we do. Mike and I are more like central, recurring characters, but we are not really the Yes Men alone.
What will you do in Santa Fe?
We'll come out a few days early and go hiking, go walking in the mountains. Then, I'm told, we're giving some kind of talk. If people are doing things out there and want to talk about how to approach it, we'll be happy to brainstorm. Nothing too formal, just having fun.
LEGALESE, IF YOU PLEASE
The Yes Men don’t spend too much time worrying about being sued by the corporations they prank, saying, “Our targets, while horrible, aren’t entirely stupid.” In other words, they’re confident that lawsuits will only waste corporate cash and prolong the punch of pranksterism. Corynne McSherry, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and current legal representative for the Yes Men, explains:
SFR: What’s the current status of the civil complaint filed against the Yes Men by the US Chamber of Commerce?
CM: Currently, we have filed a motion on behalf of Yes Men
and Action Factory DC, the co-defendants, for dismissal of the complaint. On Feb. 5, the Chamber of Commerce filed its opposition to that motion. Our own reply to their opposition is due shortly. It’s not clear at this point whether or not there will be a hearing.
Do you have any thoughts about the merit of the chamber’s complaint? It alleges the Yes Men aren’t activists but, instead, perpetrate pranks with the intention of profiting from books, movies and merchandise?
I have a few thoughts about that, starting with it being just silly. I think the notion that this act of clear parody was undertaken for financial gain is absurd. It’s very clear to anyone with a sense of reason or a sense of humor that the action in question was political theater, political criticism and very successful criticism at that. To respond with a legal complaint is a heavy-handed tactic that’s traditionally used by the powerful to chill free speech. Fortunately, our clients will not let themselves be so easily frozen out of the dialogue. The chamber prides itself on a supposed long history of promoting free speech and entering the political dialogue and running off to court because they disagree with something that doesn’t comport with that history.
The chamber is alleging the Yes Men are profiteers. At the same time, it has issued an email plea to its membership claiming it’s under attack by a group of pranksters and needs immediate financial support in order ‘to help weather these continued attacks.’ Hypocrisy? Irony?
I think the notion that an organization as massively well-financed as the Chamber of Commerce needs help to defend itself against these small activist organizations is, again, silly. And, yes, I do find some irony in its own attempt to profit from the situation.
The Canadian government was embarrassed by the Yes Men and other activists at the climate change conference in Copenhagen earlier this year. It also pledged to pursue legal action against the Yes Man—has anything occurred on that front?
So far as I know, nothing has come of it. What folks need to learn is that there’s a Streisand effect here. Going to court or pursuing these matters publicly just magnifies the original activism and it prolongs the public debate and discussion. Now that’s probably a good thing as far as public debate, but the Chamber of Commerce or the Canadian government probably need to ask themselves if that’s the goal they actually have in mind.
YES LAB SAMPLER
SFR asked the Yes Men to take on New Mexico and come up with ideas about how to yank the chains of some state entities and institutions—the ones that deserve a poke every now and then.
Target: Intel, the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer and New Mexico's largest private employer
The problem: According to the Southwest Organizing Project, the cost to New Mexico water users, taxpayers and the environment has been tremendous since Intel's first major expansion took place in 1993, creating a legacy of depleted aquifers, health problems allegedly associated with Intel air emissions, disgruntled employees, and communities with deteriorating infrastructures and declining tax bases.
The prank: Intel has been giving you their waste and taking your water for years. It's payback time! Whenever you're in the neighborhood, take your empty water bottle to the Intel headquarters and ask for a fill-up—it's only fair. You might ask them if it's also OK to bring the company a bag of your waste!
Target: Qwest, the primary telecommunications carrier for 14 Western states
The problem: Qwest has a long history of deal-making with shady corporations like Enron, Global Crossing and The Carlisle Group. In 2007, Qwest's one-time CEO was convicted on 42 counts of insider trading. In the past two years, Qwest has faced multiple class-action lawsuits for improper fees and price fixing. Qwest is listed at urbandictionary.com as a synonym for "swindle."
The prank: At 9 am mountain time on Monday, Feb. 22 (the morning of the Yes Men event in Santa Fe), call Qwest media contact Tom McMahon (202-429-3106) and demand that the company turn over a new leaf and make its fees, business dealings, partners and investments transparent. If enough people call at once, the phone system may crash. In that case, you can email McMahon at firstname.lastname@example.org and say, "Gee, something seems to be wrong with my phone service. Again."
Target: Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the nuclear bomb
The problem: LANL's chemical and nuclear waste have been surface and water contaminants for decades. Currently, LANL is managed by a consortium led by Bechtel Corporation, the reportedly CIA-connected engineering corporation with a reputation for influence peddling. Bechtel's management résumé includes the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, involvement with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a toxic gold mine in New Guinea, the Three Gorges Dam in China, and ongoing disputes with outraged communities in Bolivia and India.
The prank: Start a pro-nuclear-waste citizens group. Either be subtle and professional in demeanor or be aggressive in your support. If aggressive, consider painting yourself in fluorescent colors and wearing a big foam No. 1 over your hand during public meetings at which LANL and/or Bechtel are questioned.
Target: The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, a trade association that represents 400 "independent oil and natural gas producers" including Shell, BP and Halliburton
The problem: IPAMS claims to be dedicated to "building a sustainable energy future," but it lobbies against alternative energy and devotes the bulk of its advocacy to ensuring the continued primacy of fossil fuels.
The prank: Register for the IPAMS "Washington call up." Bring 10 friends and perform a musical theater piece in the middle of the keynote speech. RSVP for the briefing by emailing Becca Ness or calling 303-623-0987. Be sure to use a good pseudonym!
Target: The City of Santa Fe, the governing bureaucracy in charge of our city
The problem: The City of Santa Fe, despite being in control of an entire public works department, is mysteriously unable to keep the roads plowed of ice and snow, or get bone-jarring potholes repaired.
The prank: Start a vigilante group of zombie mimes. Next time it snows, go on a rampage: Armed with snow shovels, follow public works crews around and "clean up" after them. Be sure to invite photographers!