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Wherefore Thou Art #21
Interview With a Yesman

This month I’m giving the law a rest and go in a different direction. With the election leaving us with a regime many despise and resent, some kind of political resistance will be de rigueur for many (pardon my French). But how and what? The past several months have shown that reason and truth are ineffective tools in the face of unblinking conservative religious zealotry. Maybe some good shocking political theater is called for.

The most unique of the numerous recent left-leaning political documentaries is The Yesmen, about a pair of media-manipulating activists who spent several years pretending to be officials of the World Trade Organization. The film shows The Yesmen presenting a WTO agenda promoting slavery at a textile manufacturer’s conference in Finland; debating (with incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo) anti-globalization activists on CNN Europe; and announcing to stunned agri-business executives in Australia that the WTO was disbanding, because the organization could no longer justify it’s program of economic oppression.

I recently sat down with Yesman Mike Bonnano for a chat. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know The Yesmen and their related entities (RtMark.org, Voteauction, etc.) have been favorite clients of mine for since the late ‘90’s, and Mike is a close friend. So if you’re looking for something fair and balanced, look elsewhere.

PR: Would you call what you do art, activism, or both?

MB: Ohhhhh. How about neither? (Laughter) No, I think both, for me it seems like both. I think there are plenty of examples of satire throughout history that could be considered both literature and art and activism. Things like A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift would be good company to place it in.

PR: Was there anything left out of the film that you wish was in there?

MB: Well, let’s see, the thing that I don’t think is in the film that would be good to have in there is more information about what the WTO is, does, and what’s wrong with it. I think one of the weaknesses of the film is that it assumes too much knowledge; it expects that the audience already knows something about the WTO. I don’t ever expect that but the film does.

PR: What can you do to address that?

MB: Obviously nothing with the film itself, it’s out there, it’s done. I typically do try to address it now in the press, the media and I’ll keep it in mind in future projects.

PR: With the Bush victory this week, people are saying that we’re entering a golden age of political activism. Do you agree and what do you think it would look like?

MB: God. I was hoping that we could look at the run-up to the election as a very successful period of activism. We saw the mobilization of many, many, many people to the cause of defeating Bush. I was hoping that was a moment we would look to and say the golden age of activism would be over. So I don’t know. At this point it does seem like we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s time to regroup and figure out what tactics to use given Bush’s election. I do think we will see more and more activism. I mean, I can’t see Bush changing what he’s doing and suddenly deciding to do things in a better way, so that means we are going to see a continuation of policies that are destroying the environment, that are hurting the poor, that involve attacking foreigners, and those kinds of things are going to lead to activism, so we’ll see.

PR: Since The Yesmen came out in September you’ve been traveling around the country “campaigning” for George W. Bush, at least in a fashion. It’s all been documented on your website. Is this going to form the basis for another film?

MB: Yeah, we’ll have another film, or at least a television program from the campaign. We’re hoping to get it done sometime in the early New Year; I think it would be ambitious to think we could finish in time for the next coronation, but that would be a nice deadline for us. But yeah, we’ll be releasing a tragedy soon. (Laughter) This current one is a comedy, and the next one, the sequel, will be a tragedy.

PR: What’s the closest you’ve come, as a Yesman, to being arrested?

MB: Oh, man. That’s a good question. Umm.

PR: I guess often you wouldn’t know! But as far as you can tell, what’s the closest?

MB: The closest probably has to do with street protests, like when we participated in the protests at the G8 in Genoa or when we were in Quebec City for the NAFTA protest or in New York for the Republican National Convention. In those situations you often get arrested for doing absolutely nothing (Laughter). It seems like with the infiltrations we’re kind of off the radar. We did get kicked out of the building after we interrupted the Heritage Foundation meeting, but they weren’t clear about who we were and they were reluctant to call in law enforcement.

PR: Was the Heritage Foundation event the one that involved the gorilla suit?

MB: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter) It was when we nominated Ed Meese as a third party candidate for president because Bush wasn’t conservative enough. From a fiscal standpoint. We made the argument, as many of the conservatives there made the argument, that Bush had created the largest corporate welfare program in history with the Iraq war; he was using the war to drain money from the public and to dump it in his pockets and the pockets of supporters who run corporations. People there agreed with that generally. I won’t call it a strong undercurrent, but there was an undercurrent among the free-market radicals that were at this meeting that Bush’s policies were undermining their goal, which was to have a small government.

PR: Would getting arrested be a good thing for the Yesmen?

MB: Well, it’s hard to say. It depends for what. For certain things it’s worth getting arrested and for other’s it’s just not. One of the tricky things about getting arrested is that while your arrested, it’s hard to direct a campaign or even to publicize it. So I can’t say it would necessarily be good but it wouldn’t necessarily be bad, either. If it was a situation where it was clearly unjust, where it was ridiculous to arrest us, that would be the only circumstance where we’d like to be arrested, where it would make sense.

PR: Who’s been your strangest ally, and I mean not an accidental ally like these Republicans that egg you on because they don’t understand what you’re doing, but for real, who’s been your strangest or most surprising ally?

MB: There have been some Libertarian allies, and I guess that’s not entirely surprising. There have been some religious allies, for example, there’s been a fairly strong “cancel the debt” movement that comes out of churches, and especially the Catholic Church. We’re seen a progressive strain in some churches, people who are really concerned with the theology of love (Laughter) and who end up coming to similar politics as we have, and the movement to cancel the debt is supported heavily by some churches.

PR: That’s foreign debt you’re talking about?

MB: This would be canceling the debt of struggling nations, and it’s a big part of the anti-globalization movement. What ends up happening is that a lot of the debtor countries have borrowed themselves into a place where foreigners are beginning to own everything of value there, and it creates a kind of slave state where every resource is being drained off for international sales for the benefit of an international bank or other international interests, leaving the people with no hope of ever getting out of poverty as a result. And a condition of a lot of the debt is often more liberalization of the local markets, letting foreign companies into those markets, so it ends up this untenable situation, so a lot of the anti-globalization activists, including a growing number of churches, are opposing those policies.

PR: Well maybe this parallel religious activism will lead to The Yesmen’s entrée to the world of the Southern Baptists and Evangelicals during the next four years.

MB: Exactly! I hope so!

© 2004 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.