Subversion isn’t an easy thing these days. In the Abbie Hoffman heyday of late-1960s protest, the Man and his minions didn’t have the instant communication infrastructure that emerged with the Internet. The counterculture was able to move with a degree of freedom unthinkable in today’s wired world. Now, when protest organizations list information on their Web sites and law enforcement officers can easily contain the voices of opposition, new tactics have become necessary.
Enter Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum, collectively known as the Yes Men. The pair is the subject of a hilarious new documentary from the creators of “American Movie” (distributed by MGM).
The film begins in 1999 as George W. Bush’s presidential campaign was gearing up. The Yes Men set up a Web site that mimicked the candidate’s actual site, stirring then-Governor Bush to say, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” Then, they moved on to satirize the Web site of the World Trade Organization, inadvertently setting a course toward a new form of protest: “identity correction” (as opposed to “identity theft”).
“I’d like to think of it as part of a master plan we’ve had since birth,” Bichlbaum told The Hatchet. “It wasn’t an accident that we put up the GATT.org (Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the W.T.O.’s predecessor) Web site. We put it up because we wanted to make fun of the W.T.O. for these hideous policies they have that hurt the poor and helped the rich. And so we put up the fake Web site that looked like the real W.T.O. Web site but with a more extreme vision of W.T.O. policies. And people didn’t notice that it was fake. A lot of people would write to us asking obscure trade questions that we tried to answer as best we could. Eventually people started inviting us to conferences, thinking we were the real W.T.O. So it was kind of an accidental process.”
Bichlbaum chimed in, “Think of a schoolyard. It’s as if on a schoolyard there’s the bullies and the weak kids. The W.T.O. acts as if it’s the principal making sure the weak kids can’t defend themselves against the bullies.”
When asked if they’re the guys who hide dead raccoons in the bullies’ lockers, Bichlbaum exclaimed, “Yes!”
After the fake Web site is mistaken for the real thing, the documentary follows Bonanno and Bichlbaum as they impersonate W.T.O. representatives at trade conferences, lectures and on CNBC. With straight faces, the pair offers ideas and does things so absurd that any casual observer (or, in this case, the documentary’s audience) laughs out loud or allows their jaw to drop in disbelief. However, the financial elites present never realized they were the brunt of a joke.
“It took us a long time to understand why that was happening, but it seems to be that we weren’t actually saying anything that weird,” Bichlbaum said. “These people (at the W.T.O. were so tuned into these ideas that they were just listening for the basic outline. As long as we were saying ‘might makes right’ and ‘let greed run rampant,’ all the rest was details. And normal people would listen to any of the details and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'”
Simply watching Bonanno and Bichlbaum prank unwitting members of the world’s upper class provides viciously funny real-world humor. But the documentary, however funny it is, also provides a rude awakening to the apathy of the world’s puppeteers that is anything but humorous. In what was supposed to be a bright new millennium, we live in a time that can seem so scary that George Orwell would wet himself if he were here. In the shadow of the prosperous and peaceful America of the 1990s, poverty and war are no longer on the other side of the world; they’re at our doorstep. But in a time that can be hopeless, we can all rest just a little easier knowing that somewhere out there, two little guys with big voices and a bigger sense of humor are battling the well-dressed armies of darkness in the name of honesty and justice.
“The Yes Men” hits local theaters in Washington, D.C. Oct. 1