The Yes Men Strike Again

Tyler Huggins

 

"Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."

- Paul Hawken

 

Commencement speech, May 2009

 

In rapper Notorious B.I.G.'s seminal piece, "Juicy," one of the more recognized lines comes near the end of his second verse: "Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool/Considered a fool 'cause I dropped outta high school." The lines detail his Horatio Algier-esque storyline in reverse sequence, a wealthy Big Poppa preceded by poor Chris Wallace. Within this particular couplet, Biggie throws an interior rhyme in the middle of the second line ("fool") to punctuate his resilience in the face of tremendous adversity (dropping out of high school and, in turn, written off as a "fool").
 

Biggie Smalls may have played the role of the fool, but that made all the difference. He juxtaposes the images of extravagance and conventional foolishness to highlight how his foolish actions led him to a lifestyle of "lunches, brunches and interviews by the pool." (This particular couplet from Biggie is especially, well, juicy. His use of "'cause" instead of "because" is a well-placed eschewing of formal grammar, especially when considering the rest of the line: "I dropped out of high school." Match his nose-thumbing with his reverse juxtaposition of his extravagant lifestyle as a result of a stereotypically frowned-upon retrogressive measures and voila!: unadultered lyrical genius).
 

By playing the fool and sidestepping conventional wisdom (and the status quo), Chris Wallace became Big Poppa, one of the cleverest lyricists to date.
 

 

Playing the Fool

 

The idiom "playing the fool" hearkens back to the jesters and charlatans from Shakespeare's prodigious canon. Touchstone from How You Like It, the Porter from Macbeth and the Gravediggers (personal favorites) from Hamlet are paradigms for the role, characterized by cleverness and cutting wit during grave (ha!) times. Their wordplay and beguiling personas have endured and conflated into the modern idiom, and none epitomize the archetype better today than Andy Bichelbaum (Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (Igor Vamos), the founding members of The Yes Men.

 

¡Bienvenidos a Yes Men!

 

The Yes Men revolt against the status quo of corporate antipathy and civilian complacency with Swiftian public displays. In their traditional approach, Andy and Mike portray themselves as corporate executives and deliver presentations, awards or speeches that satirically out the inhuman nature of the company they purport to represent (think Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal using modern modes of dissemination). They've documented and detailed their exploits in three films: The Yes Men, The Yes Men Fix the World and The Yes Men Are Revolting (soon to be released). If the fate of the world is played on a corporate stage, the Yes Men are playing the role of the fool.
 

As allegiance to fossil fuels continually exhausts the environment, our future inevitably suffers. And so, the Yes Men have pooled their talents to expose corporations that do considerable harm to the environment, urging citizens to recognize the damage our planet has already and will continue to sustain. The resulting publicity from each stunt has inspired like-minded activists to partner up with the Yes Men against the status quo. Although the Yes Men's stature is minuscule compared to corporate Goliaths, their use of humor-as-protest (or, playing the fool) is effective enough for our nation to take notice.
 

Neutralization Through Acculturation

 

The threat of co-option into a cultural machine, which parcels counterculture into icons of cool and neutralizes their potency through assimilation, looms forebodingly over the Yes Men.
 

Consider the plight of Bill Watterson's Calvin character. Eschewing the bluntness of Doonesbury, Calvin delivers cutting critical barbs as a sardonic, yet lovable, six-year-old. His scorching assessments are easy to stomach. Predictably, marketing firms took notice of the fictional six-year-old's popularity and co-opted Calvin into a brand identity. Soon after, rival car companies typecast Calvin as a corporately-sanctioned anarchist micturating on rival brands. He became their mascot. That's what the Yes Men face, mascotization.
 

And so, Igor and Jacques have established some safeguards. They've decentralized, allowing other like-minded groups and individuals to use the Yes Men resources (such as the Yes Lab) for contrivances against normalized corporate corruption and exploitation; the Yes Men consult and provide funds when necessary or proper.


 

In their newest film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, the Yes Men have created an interactive approach to systematically assist project ideas proposed by fellow or burgeoning culture jammers. They've joined forces with other counter-norm activists (Occupy Wall Street, Improv Everywhere, Greenpeace and more) and blurred the lines between their cause and that of their associates, rendering their collective activities a bitter pill for mainstream culture to appropriate. And they've diversified, increasing their membership outside the now-notorious duo and introducing new spokesmen for their culture-jamming projects. 
 

But are these efforts enough? How does the Yes Men's existence affect national and global activism? Are they an asset? My answer to my own inquiries: Yes and no. Remains to be seen. Probably.
 

Their efforts to buffer themselves from acculturation are well-taken, but unless the two Yes Men significantly diminish their roles as activists, they will ultimately hinder the future of anti-corporate and environmental activism. As activist focal points, the Yes Men act as vessels for civilian unrest. Malcontents only need to protest vicariously through the Yes Men's anti-corporate activities. This grants the inactive a channel for their angst and allows them to continue working for the corporations they collectively loathe. In this capacity, the Yes Men threaten their very philosophy. And so, it's imperative Mike and Andy remove themselves from the public eye.
 

They've initiated the process. Lately, the Yes Men have been approached with such an overwhelming amount of requests to protest that their standard response has been: "You do it." It's not out of impishness, but encouragement. In order to be truly effective, the Yes Men need to incite those who wouldn't naturally rally around the flag of activism to act out, and the reply "You do it" is a catalytic command. Activists will always fulfill their activist role. But when the conditionally inactive rouse themselves, a movement begins.
 

Excerpts From an Interview With Mike Bonnano
 

On the phone, Mike (real name: Igor) delivers ardent messages about the pressing threats of climate change and the failures of democracy. Igor is an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As he speaks from the East Coast, you can tell he's busy, but we get in a solid half-hour before he adjourns for another interview.
 

On Democracy:

"Democracy has failed. Democracy has been bought and sold. We're looking for short-term profits, allowing these companies to moderate our future for a few bucks."
 

On Capitalism:
 "Capitalism is driving us into the ground. It's privileging money over everything else. All of the frameworks we have right now is for helping businesses do business."
 

On Revolution:

"We need a revolution. In the short-term, a nonviolent revolution is possible. If that doesn't happen soon, a violent revolution is impending. We need to address the causes. The urgency is paramount. In the rebuilding [of New York], people came together. This needs to happen on a global scale."
 

On The Yes Men Are Revolting:

"The film is all about building action into the film itself. The action switchboard is the most exciting thing about the movie. With the switchboard, we'll be thinking long-term in contributing to the movement."
 

 The Right Approach to Climate Change

 

His concerns echo the exponentially rising tide (unavoidable, sorry) of scientists, citizens and government mobilizing against carbon emissions, water scarcity, deforestation, desertification and oil dependency. It's not enough. Mike knows that his dogged efforts to motivate the apathetic public are constantly frustrated by the immutable forces of bureaucracy and corporate greed. Still, he and the Yes Men persevere, using humor in the face of brevity and fueling themselves with media coverage, activist zeal and copious amounts of alcohol.

 

In his book Plan B (Igor insisted I read this book/blueprint for change; now I offer it to others), Lester Brown lays out the climate dilemma and provides feasible goals and solutions for corporate and government implementation in order to limit the extent of climate change and environmental, economic and human destruction incurred. He advises Earth's powers to forswear the "business as usual" model and push for a new eco-economy. To further quote Brown, we must "halt the rise in atmospheric CO₂ concentrations . . . reverse the decline in world food security and . . . shorten the list of failing states . . . Plan B is not based on conventional thinking, That is what got us into this mess. It takes a new kind of thinking, a new mindset, to get us out."
 

America's Approach: Debate First, Act Never

In an excellent example of superfluous criticism and divisiveness, Emory University's Center for Ethics director Paul Root Wolpe scribed Was the Shell Oil Hoax Ethical?, questioning whether the Shell Oil Hoax (which was orchestrated by the Yes Men, Occupy and Greenpeace) was an ethical form of protest.

 

The article aligns the joint actions of the Yes Men, Greenpeace and the Occupy Movement with cowardice and libel, encouraging aspiring culture jammers to avoid practicing deceit as a form of protest (for those unfamiliar: The Yes Men released ArcticReady.com, a website that portrayed a far too transparent Shell company detailing their excitement to drill in the Arctic. Soon after, a YouTube clip made by the Yes Men, Greenpeace and Occupy was released of a Shell soiree gone hilariously awry, with oil spouting all over an Alaskan landscape site model and an aged oil baroness. The clip quickly became the top link on reddit.com and the second most popular clip on YouTube).
 

Wolpe's philosophies: In an interview with PBS, Wolpe demands that humans lower their carbon emissions by giving up some creature comforts (drive less, turn the heat down, invest in public transportation, etc.). He's firmly on board with lowering humanity's collective carbon footprint.
 

However, he's critical toward the very people (the Yes Men, Occupy, Greenpeace) that push this cause into the public eye (with far more success than he and his contemporaries, it should be noted). Wolpe represents the current philosophy of American mobilization: Debate trivial non-issues first, then mobilize when time runs out. The Yes Men et al. may practice controversial (or even deceitful) tactics, but with considerable success. If deceit is what's necessary to ensure a better future for us and the generations to follow, so be it. Sometimes Machiavellian ethics are required.
 

Humanity has moved past the argue now, act later philosophy. The World Bank recently released a report that Earth's population has already shot itself in the foot with carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency; and global temperature is expected to rise two to four degrees centigrade by the end of the century.

 

The impact will be astronomical. Yet we still quibble. An MIT report prognosticates that our dependency on non-renewables will cause precipitous declines in population and economy. Our future, the report states, is unsustainable. Still, we quibble. We quibble about whether climate change is a reality; we quibble over the balance between economy and environment; we quibble over whose duty it is to curtail carbon emissions; we quibble over the right way to expose global warning's worst offenders. All of this energy spent on argumentation, instead of acting first and debating later. Too bad we can't harness that energy.
 

When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, Ireland had plunged into despair. Tired of ineffective pamphleteers, milquetoast politicians and the general inhumanity of the wealthy toward their fellow citizens, Swift penned a satirical proposal, mocking pamphleteers, politicians and the wealthy in one brief pen-stroke.
 

Proposal elicited a laugh or two, but the social criticism within the pamphlet was largely ignored. Swift's readers condoned humor, but a criticism of business-as-usual held no appeal. Out of solidarity for his country, the pamphlet became the last politically-charged piece Swift wrote.
 

Igor and Jacques face the same frustrations as Swift, writ large. Instead of proposing to offer the world's wealthy a new cuisine of succulent beggar baby meat (aged one year), the Yes Men provide SurvivalBall suits for the wealthy to withstand the freakish weather patterns that will become more prominent as excessive carbon emissions take a toll on the Earth's climate. Or, they release 80,000 special edition New York Times set six months in the future with articles such as "Patriot Act Repealed" and "Maximum Wage Law Succeeds."
 

The Yes Men, like Swift before them, practice the fool's art of being glib in the face of undeniable injustice. Sure, their approach is humorous and deceitful, but their deception is so transparent that the companies they purport to represent are left exposed, effectively rendered transparent. If the Yes Men can overcome the complacency and apathy that turned Swift away from his mischief, then perhaps our future won't be lined with Vivoleum candles.

 

Author Bio:

Tyler Huggins is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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