Protest with tongue in cheek, one corporation at a time
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Nobody’s happy about the state of the economy or that the planet’s getting warmer. Or that big companies often steamroll the little guy. Few though, do anything about it.
That’s where the Yes Men come in. Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum dish out their brand of corporate comeuppance in pranks and stunts that get worldwide attention. Dow Chemical and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are two of their more high profile victims.
Mike Bonanno, good to have you here.
Mike Bonanno: Thank you very much Kai.
Ryssdal: Where did this idea come from, lo these many years ago?
Bonanno: The idea for the Yes Men was to criticize the people in power who were doing bad things and to do it on their own turf.
Ryssdal: Did you and your friend Andy just sorta sit down one day and say, Listen, we gotta do this?
Bonanno: No it just happened to us. Andy had put up a fake website for the WTO before the Seattle protests. We didn’t expect people to take it seriously because it was satirical. And then people actually believed it, even though we suggested things like, opening a free market and democracy by selling votes directly to the highest bidder over the Internet.
Ryssdal: Let me fast forward a couple of years to what I would say was probably your highest-profile prank, for wont of a better word, about Dow Chemical taking responsibility for the Bhopal incident 25, 30 years ago, where a gas leak killed 2,500-something people. I guess it was Andy went on the BBC — you got an interview on the BBC — and you came out and said, We, Dow Chemical, are taking full responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy, we will pay reparations. It got incredible play.
Bonanno: Yeah it was the number one item on Google News that day, and even the retraction, actually, the revelation that it was a hoax was then the number one item on Google News. You know, it should be, because Dow was washing their hands of the responsibility for the largest industrial accident in history. We’ve developed a culture that is very invested in handing over ethics to the imperitives of profit. And we really need to shift that because otherwise, the whole planet actually is in peril.
Ryssdal: You guys have taken up sustainability recently. You had a big thing a year and a half ago, at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington. You went in there and had a fake press conference and said, ‘You know what? The Chamber of Commerce is reversing its stance. We are now gonna take on global warming and do something about it.’
Bonanno: You know, it’s about constructing this alternative reality in which suddenly these real bad guys who are doing real nasty things could listen to their sense of morality and justice and do the right thing. In the case of the Chamber, they did sue us, and we still have a pending lawsuit. They claim that we’re not trying to criticize them for any other reason than making money, which is a total joke, of course, because we don’t make money. But we teach at universities, that’s how we get by. The Yes Men loses money at the scale of our ambition.
Ryssdal: And you’re proud of it.
Bonanno: Oh yeah, yeah. The bigger we get, the more money we lose.
Ryssdal: You know, the financial crisis, it seems to me, would be like mother’s milk for you guys. It is the crisis that keeps on giving of corporate scandal and yet, I don’t recall, and maybe I’m wrong, I don’t recall you guys having really done anything about it.
Bonanno: Uh, no, but if you put all the pieces together from the various different actions that we’ve carried out, then you can see a picture that’s critical of the sort of casino capitalism that got us in that position. And it was doing the work for us. We don’t have as much work to do when the system is imploding. You know, because people see a reason to criticize it. One of the problems that we face now is that all of the effort is about getting the system back on track, when in fact, we have a great opportunity to change the system entirely.
Ryssdal: What’s next? Where do you guys go from here?
Bonanno: Well, we plan, within the next couple days, to bring capitalism as we know it to its knees.
Ryssdal: Call me and just let me know, all right?
Bonanno: All right, yeah. We’re working on it.
Ryssdal: Mike Bonnano. He is one of the Yes Men. Mike, thanks a lot.
Bonanno: Thank you very much.
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