Yes, You Can
If you want to know what free trade fantasists really believe about the stretch of corporate power – such as giving companies the right to buy someone's vote and letting supply and demand sort out democracy – then you'll want to check out a new film called "The Yes Men."
Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, two activists who live in New York, went on a truth-finding mission to uncover what happens at various conferences and meetings on free trade by posing and speaking as World Trade Organization officials. The documentary follows the irreverent pair pulling off hilarious stunts and suggesting to eager trade lawyers and representatives how to increase productivity by ending the siesta in Spain or using electric shocks to spur on workers, even if they are child laborers. Instead of outrage from the free trade representatives to such ideas, The Yes Men discovered an eerie quiet acceptance from the men and women who would auction off every possible resource of the planet in the guise of free trade. The Yes Men's radically honest speeches about the true goals of the World Trade Organization will make you laugh just to keep yourself from crying.
Currently the Yes Men are touring the country in what looks like a George W. Bush campaign bus with Dubya's picture and the slogan "Yes, Bush Can. I'm telling the truth." The Yes Men are hoping to correct the identity of George W. Bush by telling voters Bush's true position on the issues and distributing fliers at various stops. One section from the flier boasts that "Only George W. Bush has had the political courage to embrace global warming as a useful weapon in the trade wars." Supporters are asked to sign the U.S.A. Patriot Pledge which states "I support tax cuts favoring the elite, and I volunteer to pay more than my share of taxes to allow the elite to invest their money in our nation's economy."
BuzzFlash: Your film, "The Yes Men," opens this Friday, Oct. 1. The movie follows how you and your comrade Andy Bichlbaum impersonated World Trade Organization representatives and spoke at major conferences and various meetings. Tell our readers more about your irreverent comedy.
Mike Bonanno: Over the course of about three years, we went and represented the World Trade Organization at conferences, business meetings and on television around the world. In 1999, we set up a web site at the domain gatt.org, and that stands for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the predecessor to the WTO.
A lot of people went to this site and, surprisingly enough, didn't read the satire that was there, and instead immediately sent us messages thinking we were the real WTO. Some of them even invited us to their conferences and meetings, thinking that we were the WTO. So we showed up and gave them sort of a more-honest-than-usual vision of WTO policy.
For the first event that we did, for example, in Salzburg, Austria, at a conference on international trade law, we introduced ideas like outlawing the siesta in Spain because it got in the way of work, and outlawing the long lunch in Italy because, of course, it also gets in the way of work. The end of the lecture was when we suggested that a free market in democracy be opened up by allowing corporations to sell votes to the highest bidder. We basically followed free-trade logic to its extreme.
When you first designed and put up the web site, did you expect that people would invite you to speak at various conferences and meetings?
We did not expect that we would be invited based on the web site. I mean, the web site, if anybody read it, was critical of World Trade Organization policy and it was a satire. We thought that people would recognize that. But a lot of people went to the web site and didn't read it very carefully, including those who are engaged in inviting the World Trade Organization to conferences. That was a surprise for us.
I read your book as well that documents a lot of what's noted in the film. When you were essentially "radically honest" at these World Trade meetings, did anybody question your motives or your authenticity?
We never had anybody question who we were, which was actually shocking because we went there intending to get arrested or to at least raise the ire of the conference participants. We thought that they would recognize that we weren't the WTO because we weren't staying on message with what the WTO would usually say about their policies. We were keeping with the logic of the WTO – the logic of free trade – but we were saying things that they would never be able to say themselves.
You were essentially speaking WTO language without the spin.
Yes. We were basically saying what we imagined the WTO would say if they were honest. For example, if they had to be honest about how their policies were making the rich richer and the poor poorer, instead of the other way around, where they say that their policies are going to eventually enrich the poor, then things would be a little bit different.
Any time that an activist uses antics, or however the media likes to describe it, you can't escape any kind of comparison with Michael Moore. But what's interesting here is that you're the antithesis of Michael Moore, in the sense that rather than confronting power and justice, you assimilate yourselves into that environment and expose it. Would you say nonetheless that Michael Moore was an influence on your work and on the film?
We really admire Michael Moore's work since becoming aware of it when he put out "Roger and Me" years ago. I think we've both really enjoyed it and been inspired by it, so I would say that it can't not be an influence now, since it's so huge. But there are thousands of other examples that we've also been influenced by that are a little less in people's minds right now, but every bit as important.
How and when did you and Andy get involved in the anti-globalization movement? Did something happen in your careers or in your life, or was it something you observed or read that made you decide to do something about it?
You notice these problems locally first. You notice the disparity of income in your neighborhood. Or you notice the businesses have left. And you start to try to figure out what are the causes. I think for both me and Andy, we kind of worked our way up the food chain, until we got to the WTO as a symbol of this free-trade philosophy that is causing so many people and the environment so much trouble. It's just one convenient symbol.
Unfortunately it's based in this belief that goes back to the 18th century that by rewarding greed you're somehow going to help the poor and help the environment, which is, of course, an absurd idea. But it's one that's deeply held by many of the world's economists, as well as, at this point, much of the world's population. The way that we got there was simply by, over time, working our way up this food chain of problems – recognizing them locally and then nationally, and then looking international and seeing that it was there. Also we were educated by all these people involved in the anti-globalization or anti-corporate globalization movement that was really up and coming in the '90s and emerged in Western international media in 1999 in Seattle.
You're on tour right now, correct?
Tell us about the tour. I've seen some of your brochures about the U.S. Patriot Pledge.
Well, right now, we're onto a different project. Luckily we have a distributor – United Artists – that is promoting the film, and the film is [opened] September 24 [in New York and Los Angeles], so they've been a little preoccupied trying to get the word out ... and we hope people go see it.
At the same time, we've launched into another project, one that we find very urgent right now, which is to correct the identity of George W. Bush. George Bush has replaced the WTO for us as not only a symbol of corporate power and greed, but as perhaps the worst and most violent perpetrator of this free-market philosophy in quite a while. We believe that the types of things that George Bush has been doing internationally, like the invasion of Iraq, are simply a more violent version of opening markets. We can see that he's installed friends and relatives and business associates in positions of power there economically in Iraq. Unfortunately we're still headed into a very dangerous spot there. So we're focusing on George Bush.
Tell us about your gigantic bus. Have you come across progressives who think that you're actually campaigning for the president?
We have a bus that looks like a Bush campaign bus – it has a giant photo of him on the side of it, and it says "Yes, Bush can." Underneath there are quotes: "I'm telling the truth." We're goofing around in this bus and campaigning on his behalf, being more honest than he can be on subjects like the Iraq war and tax cuts.
We do things like talk to people about why we should give tax cuts to the top 1 percent of the income earners in the population. We talk to people about why we should support the concept of increasing global warming. And we talk to people about the necessity to cut down all of the forests, including the ones in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.
We've been successful with some conservatives – getting them to think twice about it. We've been very successful at making liberals angry with us. In fact, all we have to do is drive down the road in most cities, and I'm guaranteed to get in the course of three blocks at least three middle fingers. So it's a very strange thing trying to be Bush for a while. But it's been interesting. We're learning a lot.
Are you filming this particular tour on Bush as well?
Yes, we are videotaping some of this. We hope to get some of the video available out there for people to see. It'll be on our web site, among other places – theyesmen.org. We're also writing about it, and we have photographs and a blog that we've been putting together on theyesmen.org web site.
It's fascinating when someone looks at the anti-globalization movement – which is a phrase I don't particularly care for, but it's the one that's most accessible. There was a new poll that came out about young people, who, by very large margins, are concerned about where their clothes are made and what the working conditions are. There seems to be an emerging generation gap on the globalization issue. After looking at the protests in Genoa and Seattle, there's been this amazing groundswell of people who are questioning global corporate power. It seems to have been an organic expression of local outrage about what free trade is doing to small communities and to developing countries.
But it's a complicated issue. It's not the cheap-and-easy headline that you hear from the mainstream media or the presidential campaigns. It is a sophisticated issue, and it's complex. You have to talk about economics and development. What has been your response on the road? I know you're focusing on Bush, but nonetheless I'm sure you get asked about your film and the anti-globalization movement.
It's been really interesting. A lot of people characterize it as a very complex issue, in part, I think because it often takes a while to explain it. There are a lot of details. Not all free trade is bad. Some free trade is, in fact, good. But I think that overall the issue is very simple. It's like whether or not people care for giving overall local autonomy to corporations and making the poor poorer and the rich richer. It's as simple as that. Overall, we have had a lot of support, and it's been really interesting and educational for us because we keep learning a lot as well.
One thing that's really difficult is that part of the problem is that we have to unlearn so much. I went to public school here in America, and I grew up thinking that the idea of freedom was basically synonymous with being able to buy and sell what you wanted, where you wanted. In fact, that's a very different concept of freedom than most people would have.
During the making of the film "The Yes Men," what were the most dramatic moments for you? Was it the protests in Genoa, Italy, that turned violent?
Probably what shocked us was the first time when we went and lectured and nobody reacted to what Dr. Bicklebarrow was saying. When you can stand in front of an audience of trade law experts and nobody sees a problem with selling votes to the highest bidder as a way to create a free market and democracy, then there's got to be a huge problem.
I think that was the most shocking moment – when we realized that either people weren't listening to us, or they were listening and they were tacitly agreeing with these terrible ideas simply because they were in line with this philosophy of free trade. Free trade is a deeply held, almost-religious belief, that freedom of trade can somehow benefit people and increase democracy.
You guys went into this hoping to upset and anger people, and, in fact, they didn't respond that way.
They loved it. They thought: Sure, why not? This fits with our philosophy – open the free market and democracy. Let people buy votes. Let's outlaw the siesta. The type of thing that people were a little bit more up in arms about were the cultural implications; they were a little more sensitive to that, perhaps because we were in Europe and people are a bit sensitive to that with the European unification. It's a large discussion. But overall the thing that was shocking was what didn't happen, rather than what actually did.
Did you progressively get more absurd in your suggestions at these meetings and conferences?
Yes. Once we didn't get a rise out of people in Salzburg, Austria, for suggesting selling votes to the highest bidder, we decided that we'd make a great graphic. We were going to a conference in Finland called Textiles of the Future, and we created a golden leotard that had a three-foot inflatable golden phallus on it. We thought, OK, if people can accept whatever the WTO is saying, they're not going to be able to accept the idea of a WTO representative wearing this absurd symbol of power, which we called "the manager's leisure suit."
When [Andy] revealed the leisure suit – we ripped the business suit off of him, and underneath, he's wearing this golden suit, and he pulls these ripcords and a three-foot-long phallus inflates – the audience is shocked but pleased by the whole device.
Later in the conference, nobody really had a problem with the concept of a device for administering electric shocks to workers in sweatshops. It was also posed as a way to solve the distance problem: managers in the First World want to stay on the beach in the Riviera, while the workers continue to work in the sweatshops. The managers don't have good enough communication skills, so they need this tool, like a tele-presence tool, that would allow them to give electric shocks for workers. And people accepted that idea as well, which was shocking for us.
I heard that you guys got onto the floor of the Republican National Convention.
That's true. We did go on the floor a few times. Got a few photos with Newt Gingrich and Spencer Abraham, the energy secretary, and we rubbed elbows with some of these guys. Unfortunately we weren't able to do anything very interesting, although we did root around in the trash in the control room on Tuesday night after Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech. We found the script for the convention, which was quite interesting. We always hear that these conventions are scripted, but until you actually see the real 250-page script, or one day of it, you don't realize how dramatically scripted they are.
Every single spontaneous moment and bit of applause is in there, and they're including all the pauses and all the motions from the floor by delegates. So that was sort of shocking and interesting. We scanned that and put it up on the Web. Hopefully it'll turn into some kind of play or something, and we'll be able to do readings from it in the future.
Mike, best of luck to you. Thanks for speaking with us.