City Hub

Yes Men to the rescue

They told us the Iraq War was over in a special edition of the New York Times, and took on some of the most powerful corporations on the planet posing as spokespeople for the WTO, McDonalds and the Dow Chemical Company.

The bold activists known by the aliases Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have perpetrated a series of hoaxes as daring as The Chaser’s APEC stunt.

Jacques Servin (Bichlbaum) and Igor Vamos (Bonanno) have pulled off some impressive exploits, including impersonating an Exxon official at an oil conference in Canada and presenting the company’s new biofuel, Vivoleum – made from human victims of climate change.

The anti-capitalist pranksters were also involved in producing 80,000 copies of a fake edition of The New York Times in November 2008: its headlines proclaimed Iraq War Ends and Nation Sets its Sights on Building a Sane Economy. The front page contained the motto “All the news we hope to print”.

But their biggest hoax was the 2004 BBC interview in which Andy Bichlbaum appeared as Dow Chemical spokesman “Jude Finisterra” and promised to liquidate Union Carbide to pay compensation for the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster in India. By the time the story was discredited Dow’s stock had plummeted in value by $2 billion.

These humorous attacks on corporate greed are chronicled in their new documentary film, The Yes Men Fix the World, which will open the Sydney Underground Film Festival at The Factory on September 10.

From Paris, Andy Bichlbaum fielded a few questions for the City Hub.


Q. Why do you do the stunts you have become renowned for?

A. Occasionally we can really measure the effects of things that we do – as
when 600 articles in the US were written connecting Dow and Bhopal in the
wake of our BBC appearance as Dow. We see our work as contributing to a
cumulative movement that does effect change (if it weren’t for the
environmental movement, we’d be in far worse shape).
As for immediate, concrete changes – they can indeed happen. Take Tim
DeChristopher, who walked into a Utah oil and gas auction – Bush’s parting
gift to the oil and gas industry – and began bidding on leases to pristine
Utah land. DeChristopher was arrested, the auction was suspended, and when
Obama took office, the auction was cancelled. DeChristopher had
single-handedly saved thousands of acres!

Q. What first set you on this audacious path?

A. We both have grandfathers who died in the Holocaust; that must have
instilled in us how out of hand things can get if you just trust an
ideology. And today, trusting an ideology is what has happened, in a
really big way.

Look at the way people excuse injustice: “It’s the market, it’s a
necessary evil; like any other system it’s just a kind of side effect,
unfortunate.” That’s the way all ideologists have excused the horrors
their ideologies have unleashed on the world. They all think that it’s
doing basically a good job, and yes, there are these problems like the
Gulags or whatever, but…

Q. What have been the worst repercussions to you personally of your hoaxes? And the best?

A. For the best, see #1 above. The worst… Hm. Overwork?

Q. What was the most enjoyable hoax you have ever pulled off?

A. 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.

Oh wait… We didn’t do that. Never mind.

Q. What can we, the people, do to help in the fight against self-serving individuals and multinational organisations?

A. At least in the US, the historical precedent is that change only happens
through people taking to the streets. In the Great Depression, Franklin
Roosevelt instituted national healthcare, a retirement plan, labour laws
and so on. All these things that everybody in the developed world takes
for granted, especially in Europe, came out of the Great Depression in the
US. But it wasn’t Roosevelt’s idea. It was massive public pressure –
regular people demanding these things, taking over relief offices and
saying, “We need relief if we don’t have jobs; we need to be kept alive.”
It was people in factories unionizing, taking over factories and marching
down the streets. There were a lot of people forcing the changes that
Roosevelt conceded.

Today, we in the US have a president and a lot of people in Congress
who wouldn’t mind doing the right thing. But they need our pressure. If
they can point to people protesting, they can say to the industrial forces
pressuring them, “I can’t do what you’re telling me to do because people
are taking to the streets.” This is a crucial part of democracy.

Fortunately, the banking crisis has helped make millions of people
more political, and we’re starting to see a lot more action. Our movie, we
hope, will contribute to this.


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