The Yes Men — founded and led by Andy Bichibaum and Mike Bonanno — practice what’s known as cultural jamming, which is the integration of satire into the everyday-ness of the world. The Yes Men might, for example, take on the guise of corporate CEOs and other international higher-ups and announce that Dow Chemicals will be remunerating the victims of the Bhopal Disaster or that Canada will be working hard to cut carbon emissions drastically by 2020. Then the real representatives of Dow Chemicals or Canada come out and say, “No, we’re not doing that at all!” And, as a result, the stunts create awareness of issues ranging from environmentalism to social justice. It’s these sorts of stunts that appear in the documentary The Yes Men Fix the World, out now on DVD.
Ben Kharakh: In the course of your pranks, you assume the identities of various corporate higher-ups. What’s your experience been like with real higher-ups?
Mike Bonanno: We know quite a few CEOs. In the course of our work, they don’t always know who we are. They’re quite real. Most of them are not monsters; some of them are. Most of them are people out to make a living, or make a killing. They think of what they do as a game. They’re trying to make money for themselves or the shareholders. It’s not like we wouldn’t want to go fishing with them or, if we played golf, play golf with them. That doesn’t seem to be the problem. The problem is the system that allows them to make short-term profit at the expense of, at times, the planet.
BK: What psychologies allow them to be comfortable with doing that, if they’re aware of doing that at all?
MB: Our culture encourages it. We live in what some anthropologists call “a culture of capitalism,” which is now a sort of global phenomena. Therein you achieve status by doing these sorts of things — by making your way to the top, by consuming more, owning more, having the capacity and money to buy things. So it’s not such a big surprise that they would accept these things, because it’s actually the norm. It’s what we’re rewarded for most in our culture. Psychologically, maybe the more interesting question is: what allows people to stop? What makes it possible for someone to say, “I’m not interested in that”? “I’d rather not participate in that system and give up my job as a CEO and do something else.” Or, “I’m going to institute rules in my company that’s going to make us lose money!” which is what would ultimately have to happen for a company to become environmentally friendly.
BK: What keeps you from participating in the system on the level that a CEO might?
MB: It’s not that simple. We decided not to participate, as in trying to do as little damage as we can — to not aspire to be CEOs of oil companies. But we have day-jobs. Both of us work at universities. Universities are feeders for entire systems, for this entire culture of capitalism. We fly to events. We have really big carbon footprints relative to other people. In the long run, we’re a big part of the problem too. That points out that no mater how good your intentions are as an individual, you’re not going to be able to do anything unless we regulate at the source of the problems, which are at the heart of the production process. In order to do that, you need the political will. Unfortunately, that’s what’s been lacking.
BK: Many say that what’s needed is an informed public…but how informed?
MB: First of all, I think the problem starts really early with poor education when it comes to social and political issues. I think the US education system is seriously lacking when it comes to teaching people about basic social justice. I went to school in the ’70s in the US, and we really didn’t learn anything. What we learned was a series of dates, when wars happened. We didn’t learn about social dynamics, the environment, or global policies. I think it could change, but it can only change if enough money goes into education. And the way that education works in the US is that local property taxes basically determine if a school is good or not. That’s a horrible way of doing things. It creates great inequality. But then there’s also having a media whose mandate it is to reveal information that’s useful in determining what they should do in a democracy. Right now, the media, for the most part, is governed by the profit motive. Most of the news programs are beholden to what sells. Newspapers are certainly vulnerable to that. Many of them are closing their doors, and most investigative journalists have been laid off because they’re too expensive to keep on the payroll. Without journalism that’s not tied to the profit motive, how can you really get an informed citizenry? I don’t think it happens through blogs. Everybody has the economic pressures of their day-to-day work. How are they going to do the investigative journalism necessary to hold corporations and government figures accountable?
BK: Balancing a job and investigative journalism would be quite a feat. You do something comparable, since you have your commitments to the Yes Men but have a day-job at a university too. How do you manage to do both?
MB: With great difficulty, actually. Basically, by not having a whole lot of time for anything else and doing a lot of night shifts at the computer. We’re both in a period of reconsidering how we go about doing what we do, because we’ve worked too hard for the last ten years. We have to take mandatory vacations because we haven’t taken any vacations. It’s fun going out and doing these things, and, in a way, they’re like vacations. We go down to Florida and impersonate Halliburton. We’re pretty busy, but we’re in Florida.
BK: Where do you go on vacation when Florida has become a place of business?
MB: I’d like to just float down a river — a small river somewhere in the United States. Just get in a canoe and go down the river in the summer.