Corporations don't always do what's right. Maybe they can't. Maybe they don't want to. Maybe they want to but the shareholders wouldn't like it.
Government? Same problem, only substitute voters for shareholders.
Beginning in 1999, at the time of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington, two men -- let's call them satirists -- began to take on some of the really big and intractable global issues of our time. They couldn't be at the protest. And they thought to themselves, what can we do to participate anyway? They set up a fake Web site to draw attention to the issues of climate change and the questionable objectivity of lobbyists surrounding the issue. They wound up invited to participate in conferences, but not necessarily in the way you might think.
The impermeable "Survivaball," from the HBO premiere tonight of "The Yes Men Fix the World"
Since then, they've taken on Dow Chemical, The Coca Cola Company, Halliburton, ExxonMobil, Shell, insurance companies, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the late economist Milton Friedman and his defense of free markets, Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Bush, Schwarzenegger, former CEOs turned lobbyists, opponents of climate change. There's more, but you get the idea. Who are they exactly? Let's begin with a story.
Twenty years ago this December, Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India blew up, killing thousands of people and maiming hundreds of thousands for life. Mistakes were made. Attorneys were hired. A small clinic now cares for whoever it can. That's India for you: these things happen, what's life without risk, etc.
Since then, Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide. Union Carbide's value at the time was assessed at approximately $12 billion. Soon after, a Dow Chemical representative named Jude Finisterra appeared before 300 million people on BBC News in Paris and announced that Dow was taking full responsibility for what had gone wrong in Bhopal, and was going to liquidate Union Carbide and give the $12 billion to its victims in India. The unprecedented announcement made headlines instantly on wire services, Internet news sites, and newspapers around the world. The people of Bhopal cried and cheered in the streets. Dow stock plunged $2 billion dollars in 23 minutes.
Only it wasn't true. Dow Chemical had no such plan. The representative from Dow was actually not from Dow at all.
He was Andy Bichlbaum, a political activist from a group called The Yes Men. Bichlbaum and his colleague, Michael Bonanno, had set up a fake Dow Chemical Web site called Dow Ethics, and been invited by the hard-working BBC, who had been tracking the story of Bhopal and corporate culpability for years. When the BBC was duped into believing the fake Dow Chemical Web site was the real Dow Chemical Web site, and had therefore invited its representative to speak live on air at their studios, Andy Bichlbaum bought himself a suit, slicked down his hair, prepared his remarks, and appeared. Within hours, the prank was unveiled, retractions and explanations were proffered, and The Yes Men moved on to the next opportunity for what they call the "identity correction" of some of our most prestigious global corporations.
Tonight at 9pm (ET) on HBO, that story and others are revealed and explored in the cable television premiere of The Yes Men Fix the World. Do they fix the world? Or parts thereof? Not so much. It's more of a wake-up call about all those things we leave to others, whatever our reasons, as the 2009 Sundance smash hit features Bichlbaum and Bonanno continuing the incredible story of who they are, what they do, and why.
Here's some of how an organization called The Evil Twin Booking Agency describes them:
The Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) have gained international acclaim and notoriety for exposing dehumanizing business practices and helping to keep critical issues in the international spotlight. They do this through impersonating representatives of powerful corporations and government organizations such as ExxonMobil, McDonald's, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Yes Men's famed hoaxes include a collaboratively produced fake New York Times announcing the end of the Iraq War, a phony George W. Bush website celebrating the unsavory details of the then-Presidential candidate, and the false announcement of the World Trade Organization's dissolution in order to shift focus to helping the poor.
As for what people call The Yes Men elsewhere, suffice it to say it's not all as witty as the Wikipedia's The Groucho Marxists, which can be found under guerilla theatre. But frankly, I can't help seeing them as a sort of Candid Camera with Abie Hoffman as Allan Funt. Except while Candid Camera was a charming and delightful glimpse into human nature, The Yes Men Fix the World is an astounding and alarming full look into corporate nature.
Bichlbaum and Bonanno wrote, directed, and produced the documentary, but their co-director is Kurt Ensfehr, best known for his work on some of Michael Moore's films. Somebody had to shoot the two of them doing Esther Williams-style water ballet in their business suits while we hear the strains of "Forget Your Troubles, Come On, Get Happy."
Third Screen: What do you tell people you do for a living?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Identity correction. Impersonating big time criminals to publicly humiliate them. We've got some funny plans for September. It's Climate Week, so our focus for September 20-27th is climate week in NY. The UN General Assembly has called for a resolution on the part of member countries by December in Copenhagen, and so it's going to be a huge week for NY and really decisive. Basically, we feel the US has to be the leader of these negotiations and if the US enters with a diluted crappy Bill, nothing will happen and the world will go to hell in a hand basket.
Third Screen: So basically, what is your day like?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Civil disobedience. Risking arrest. Doing things that don't necessarily follow the rules. Non-violence. Going places where you're not allowed. One of the reasons protest gets noticed is because people put their bodies on the line. It's the same way in film. We could get in trouble but it's worth it because we're making points that are extremely important, and, you know, people are behind you in spirit.
Third Screen: What do you hope people will do if they are moved by what they see when watching one of your films or witnessing one of your political hijinks, for example, on the issue of Climate Week?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Go to Capitol and demand leaders do something. Climate Week isn't the end of the process. No time is too early. Climate Week is middle of the process -- the end of process is December in Copenhagen.
Third Screen: How do you measure your impact, your results?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: We can't. But look at all the people who put an end to apartheid in South Africa in 70s and 80s. It was concerted public action, a lot of people getting arrested, a lot of celebs getting arrested. Leaders had no sane choice. The ridicule of the government of South Africa became so intense and persistent, nobody took them seriously. People just kept saying, in many ways, Why are you doing this, this stupid system that nobody likes? And eventually massive international ridicule affected change.
Third Screen: How did you come up with The Yes Men?
Bichlbaum, Bonanno: Mike, do you remember what month we went to Salzburg? Right after that thing in Spain? In 1999, we couldn't go to the Seattle protest against WTO so we set up a fake Web site for the World Trade Organization. The Web was pretty young and the dot.com boom was going on and people thought there was a lot of money to be made. Everyone was looking closely at the Internet. So we thought, let's give them something to look at, a fake WTO about why people are going to Seattle to protest. The WTO actually reacted to it instead of all the protesters. The Internet seems very important to them. They called us deplorable. And nobody noticed that they called us deplorable because nobody noticed their press release. So next, the WTO wrote to us, and we sent their press release to 10,000 journalists to emphasize how deplorable we are. Then they noticed it. And linked to it. Google started picking up on it. An invitation to a WTO conference followed. That's when Mike said we should call ourselves The Yes Men. I looked it up -- May 2000.
Third Screen: Why The Yes Men?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Because a Yes Man is someone who agrees with the boss no matter how repugnant what he's saying is. We would become Yes Men, infiltrate, and agree with the boss until we reduced his meaning to dust. So we'd get these invitations to major conferences through our fake Web sites for big corporations, and we'd go and speak,
Third Screen: How'd it go? You became noteworthy for your powerpoints on risk assessment, your "Golden Skeleton" -- Gilda -- for demonstrating the formula for costing out the value of a human life against profits, and more that people will see in the film tonight.
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: We were shocked. The very first time we thought we'd just end up in handcuffs in jail. When we weren't tossed out of the conference, we knew we were on to something strange. There's kind of a natural tendency to just believe whatever you see on a stage. I actually can't watch horror movies because I'm so gullible I forget the guy's not really killing someone. If you believe something and just go along with it, well, then, that's the point. If I really believed someone on the stage was killing someone, I hope I would stand up and do something about it, and not just be one of a bunch of people falling for unforgivable antics.
Third Screen: What's the after-story to what you staged for Bhopal?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Basically we're now doing a launch -- Bhopal water from the taps and hand pumps in Bhopal, from Hand Pump Number One. It's one of many contaminated wells there which are a result of never cleaning up after the industrial disaster. An ad agency in London helped us create 10,000 bottles of designer Bhopal water. Bhopal water is filled with heavy metal contaminants that are actually killing people at a higher rate than after the disaster - and we've planned it to coincide with the release of new study of health effects by the Bhopal Clinic. We're going to do a product launch on the street in London. To passersby. We won't let anyone drink it because it's really unsafe. We'll be in front of the London Dow offices.
Third Screen: It's actually not your first product. There was the fake New York Times, dated for this very month, in which peace is declared in Iraq. You handed that out in Times Square, which, of course, is named Times Square because The New York Times is located there. Some of their reporters must have gotten the fake issue. What was the reaction?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: One of them wrote about it on the blog immediately and said this is great, how flattering Then they wrote a vitriolic review a week later.
Third Screen: You are not fans of Milton Friedman and the free market approach, and go to some trouble to delineate how "freedom" in free market terms tends to mean "unrestricted greed"? At an insurance conference, you brought one of your props -- "Gilda the Golden Skeleton," to talk about how to turn a regular skeleton into a golden skeleton. I believe she dances through the corridors of a corporate office in the powerpoint, and you used pyrotechnics to make her blow up in a puff of smoke at the presentation?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: We have a few of them. They're easy to make. They're not really gold. The one we still have our hands on was recently loaned out to an activist doing things against power plants in Western Massachusetts. She's going to deliver her back to us for the opening of the film in London in October. Gilda will be there to answer questions.
Third Screen: In the documentary we'll see tonight, you talk about the effect building up the wetlands had in furthering the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We also see you on a panel, as a fake corporate representative, with the Mayor of New Orleans and others. We see you at a convention there about rebuilding in which the only booth that really seems focused on helping the people is Mongolian company offering the citizens of New Orleans portable yerts. Did the people who lived in some of the undamaged public housing you show ever get back into their homes?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: No. You can't win everything. It doesn't diminish the value of our prank just because it didn't result in a concrete change right then and there. It's more about how the cumulative impact of movements changes things. We can't say that what we do is effective but then again we can say that what we do is effective -- because it gets the word out there and buttresses other people's fights. In the case of the Bhopal thing, our action led to about 600 articles that wouldn't have been written about it. The whole goal of people fighting to get media attention is to force legal changes that put the cabash on corporate risk-taking with human life.
Third Screen: Do you ever feel bad for the subjects of your pranks?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: We had mixed feelings about the BBC. It was a great opportunity, but we were sorry to have had to pull the wool over the eyes of the BBC, in no small part because they're not Fox News. As far as news organizations go, they are one of the few that still has some public funding and is not beholden to massive corporations. It means their journalism is quite a bit better than other television journalism out there. One reason they fell victim to the hoax was because they were trying to get Dow Chemical on the line, and to keep the Bhopal disaster on people's minds. To BBC's credit, they did a lot of reporting on Bhopal.
Third Screen: How do you feel about the quality and focus of journalism now?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: Journalism these days? The real problem with journalism right now is consolidation. Fewer and fewer people owning more and more of the media. The blogging phenomenon is overtaking the world of professional journalism. So many people are being fired. Papers are folding. Magazines are folding. And unfortunately, it can have a really serious effect on democracy. We need to have a good exchange of information, an informed citizenry, in order to self-govern. That's the whole idea of democracy. We would like to see more public money going towards making sure we have decent journalism out there, that it's valued and preserved as a profession and not just the work of hobbyists and lobbyists. This is not to denigrate the work of bloggers out there. It's great. A lot of people are doing really great work. But we wouldn't have had a Watergate if we didn't have professional journalists doing long-term investigation. There are still some star journalists whose jobs aren't at risk -- the Seymour Hirsches of the world -- but even for established serious journalists, it's become incredibly difficult. And that's a real problem for democracy.
Third Screen: And the readers?
Bichlbaum/Bonanno: All we can do as citizens is voting and lobbying. If we lived in anarchy, then everybody being their own mouthpiece would be perfect. But we don't. We live in a system that has complex relationships that work from the top down, and individual voices don't matter at that level. We need watchdogs paid in a professional capacity to get the information we need, uncovering it, delivering it, in order for our representative democracy to function. Just because I can get a megaphone today doens't mean that it's going to help. I think the Internet is making possible a lot of really interesting communication. What we see going down in Iran right now, for instance, is really remarkable and has a lot to do with how technology functions today. At the same time, it's no excuse to eliminate journalism as it has existed for years. The message of the film is that we have to deal with what we've been putting off for a long time. Fix the world or we won't have one. What we're trying to get across is that a lot of people believe the same thing, and that now it's a matter of holding the government accountable and pushing forward.