Tricks of the Trade

Pranksters vs. the WTO: The Yes Men

Yes, yes

One of the toughest political cases for a U.S. politician (or even a left-wing U.S. political activist) to make is the one against American exceptionalism. What a seductive vote-getter: “Let’s raise the price of everything so the rest of the world can eat!” I mean, why the hell should we? Let those damn Third Worlders come here if they want to make a living wage! Oh, wait—too many of ‘em are coming here. Never mind: They should have picked a better place to be born. Face it, the average blue-collar worker who can’t afford a house and has zero job security isn’t going to be terribly receptive to the “elitists” who preach that we’re living too high off the inhuman labor of others. Michael Moore excepted, none of anti-exceptionalism messengers have broken through to the U.S. cultural mainstream, and even Moore didn’t get very far on that particular horse.

The best grass-roots hope for spreading the word that much of the world hates us for some understandable reasons is an army of pranksters like the ones depicted in the delicious documentary The Yes Men (MGM). It’s from the makers of American Movie (1999), the depressing but tenderly funny portrait of a heartland auteur with more dreams than resources (or maybe talent). The Yes Men are two “elitist” (i.e., educated and informed) academic/software-engineer types, Andy and Mike, who create a spoofy World Trade Organization Web site and wind up invited to business conferences by people who mistake their satire for the real thing. Andy is the one who runs a razor over his locks, dons a business suit, and, in the guise of various WTO representatives with names like Hank Hardy Unruh andDr. Andreas Bichlbauer, earnestly addresses business communities in Finland, Australia, and much of Europe via CNBC’s European business channel. The Yes Men are such sophisticated, wonky parodists that their biggest problem is that no one in their audience gets that it’s a joke. It just seems like the WTO being more frank than usual.

Take the lecture that they imagine will outrage their Finnish audience: Andy begins by pointing out that, while he is pro-abolitionist himself, slavery in the United States didn’t need a costly war to kill it: It would have died a natural death when businessmen realized that it’s far more expensive and problematic to transport workers from their native country than to let them stay where they are: You can pay them a lot less, you don’t have to feed them, and, best of all, you can put their children to work. No homesickness, no racism: You don’t even have to see them. Outsourcing is the logical evolution of slavery! Then he rips off his business uniform to reveal a golden corporate leisure suit with a giant inflatable phallus equipped with a video screen to monitor workers in Gambon, Rangoon, Estonia—you name it. The businesspeople don’t throw Andy out: They love it!

The movie’s directors, Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith, bring in Michael Moore to show pictures of living conditions over the border in Mexico—unchanged, he points out, since the adoption of free trade. But mostly they just tag along after Andy and Mike, observing their pre-performance jitters and allowing them to make the casual point that there is no humanity in the corporate multinational structure. (The Yes Men dovetails nicely with this year’s documentary The Corporation, which sets out to show that corporations have a mandate to behave as DSM-IV-certified psychopaths.)

The Yes Men is breezy, brief, and often a howl: It suggests that the left might finally be turning away from P.C. pedantry and back to the outrageous confrontational humor of Abbie Hoffman and his ilk. That said, the Yes Men’s final prank is mirthless. Before a gathering of Australian businesspeople, Andy solemnly announces that the WTO has decided to disband—that it has realized the inhumanity of pushing unfair trade rules on Third World countries and keeping so many millions of people in poverty. The directors interview businessmen leaving the conference who say that this might be a good thing—bad for business, perhaps, in the short term, but a very hopeful sign for the future of the world. It’s announced in the Canadian parliament to nods of appreciation. Outrageous as it is, for a moment, a lot of people who should know better are living the dream. That’s what’s so touching about these rabid jokesters, Andy and Mike. They’re cockeyed optimists.