Big (Yes) Men on Campus

My friend and I were driving around campus last week, when we heard a booming voice yelling, “Vote Bush for War! It’ll be the last president you’ll ever need!” We laughed, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. It was then that the “Yes, Bush Can” bus came heading toward us. Along the side of the bus was a giant photo of George W. Bush’s head. Beside the photo was the tag line “I’m telling the truth.”

“That’s the Yes Men!” I shouted, “We have to follow them.” The next 20 minutes consisted of chasing the Yes, Bush Can bus in my tiny silver Toyota Echo, honking and yelling out the windows in an effort to get the Yes Men to pull over and talk to us.

Finally, the bus stopped at a traffic light. We pulled up beside the bus and managed to get the driver’s attention. “Where are you going?!” I yelled. He said they’d be at the South Street Brewery later that night for a “live telecast with the president.” So later that night, I grabbed a couple of friends and my digital camera and went downtown to check out the spectacle and ask a few questions.

Yes, Bush Can is a mock campaign operating under the pretense of getting Bush re-elected. The Yes Men use the faux campaign, however, to expose the problems with the Bush administration. “People often think ‘Yes, Bush Can’ is a pro-Bush campaign,” said Yes Man Mike Bonanno, “And they’re right. Our goal was to be more pro-Bush than Bush supporters, to make them feel revolted by our openness about Bush's plans and goals.”

Yes, Bush Can is just one of many pranks pulled by Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, the infamous Yes Men. Their mission? To “correct the identities of the most powerful criminals in the world” by impersonating them. In one of their most notable pranks, Mike and Andy impersonated World Trade Organization representatives. They set up a mock WTO Web site to help bring light to the truth of the organization through satire. People thought the site was real, and the two young men started getting invited to conferences all over the place. This newfound power led the unlikely activists to pull more pranks in support of the causes they care about.

At the University of Virginia last week, Yes, Bush Can made quite a scene. The Yes Men drove around campus all day shouting humorous “pro-Bush” slogans and playing a George Bush remix of Usher’s “Yeah.” Props on the bus included smoke and a missile with the phrase “The end is near” painted on. The group gained quite a bit of attention from curious college students, faculty, police officers, Charlottesville residents and homeless people alike.

As part of the campaign, the Yes Men dispersed pro-Bush pamphlets, urging students to take “The USA Patriot Pledge.” Taking the pledge means volunteering one’s children to fight overseas, vowing to lobby in favor of building nuclear waste storage in one’s community, taking a vow of pre-marital celibacy, and more. The pamphlet describes Bush’s platforms—according to the Yes Men—on such issues as nuclear arms, terrorism, global warming, family values, and the economy. One passage praises George Bush for having “the political courage to embrace global warming as a useful weapon in the trade wars.” Another denounces liberals, claiming they are “dependent on the votes of homosexuals, adulterers, socialists, and the like.”

Yes, Bush Can has been traveling all over the country to spread what the Yes Men say is the truth about the Bush administration. Their reception, however, seems to vary only slightly based on location. “Surprisingly, the regional differences aren’t as big as one might think,” said Bonanno. “Although right now we are in the Carolinas, where people have been much more reserved about expressing their political position.” Bonanno also said that local residents in places like Washington D.C. tend to be more in tune with the subtler aspects of the satire of Yes, Bush Can.

So why do the Yes Men think the Bush administration falls into the category of “powerful criminals”? “We think they want to hasten Armageddon,” said Bonanno. ”They are fighting terror in a way that will make hell on earth. Even Rumsfeld has said that attacking Iraq will make the world more dangerous. Of course, then there is their longer term commitment to Armageddon by failing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, etc.”

Furthermore, Bonanno and Bichlbaum fear Americans are the victims of an information gap for which they say the Bush administration is responsible. “There is still a huge majority that think Saddam Hussein had connections to al Qaeda, had WMD’s, and even that they got a bigger tax cut than the wealthy,” said Mike. “If [this gap] can’t be corrected, we will have to keep living with these lies.”

The success of the Yes Men seems to be tied to the popularity of political satire. Television programming such as “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart are hugely popular, particularly with a younger audience. This combination of politics and comedy could be crucial in getting young people to the polls next week.

The Yes Men strongly encourage young people to become involved with activism. They believe students make up a particularly important group because college promotes critical evaluation. When I asked Bonanno what activities he was involved with when he was in college, he replied, “Vomiting in red, white, and blue at a Dan Quayle fundraiser.” While their methods are unconventional to say the least, the Yes Men are undeniably committed to “changing the world, one prank at a time.”

As they began packing up to leave Charlottesville Tuesday night, the Yes Men left us with a few final and ever-convincing words on behalf of their cause. “Bush/Cheney: Fighting terrorism with fascism!”

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