Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Identity correction – Yes Men style. Interview with Andy Bichlbaum.

The gags employed by Bonanno and Bichlbaum have academic roots, borne lightly though Bichlbaum stresses. On their site they provide info and links on precedents from Aristophanes through to the Situationists, but they're also happy enough with a simple laugh leading to greater awareness on an issue. “It [The Yes Men] all evolved through accident and inclination, – shrugs Bichlbaum, – When we try to look back now at what might have influenced us it's obvious that there are some theoretical links. We both read French absurdism, Da-da, and Surrealism in college or before. It's obvious that some of the same concerns were around back then, shortly before the Second World War, in the case of Da-da. At points when things have been falling apart in history people have had some of the same reactions”.

The obvious question, from those reared on the concepts of regulation and law and order, is: why haven't the Yes Men been put behind bars yet? Surely in the Bush era it's impossible to get away with the sort of the pranks that they have! “It's not clear what's illegal in what we do, – laughs Bichlbaum, – and what isn't. We've asked a lot of lawyers, and usually before we do anything we ask some lawyers what the possible consequences of our actions are. Generally the answer is that they don't know. Some respond 'don't do it, it's too dangerous', and others have said 'well, it probably won't result in anything too
bad happening', and we've followed the advice of the latter, and gotten away with it [laughs]. It's probably not illegal. The real crimes are being committed by our targets, and those are very real, demonstrable crimes. The ones that we're committing are victimless, and probably not even crimes”.

Do the Yes Men then wonder about their effectiveness? The lukewarm response from the corporations targeted, and the lack of legal action might suggest that there's a lack of concern on the part of the high and mighty (the WTO's sternest response to their impersonations so far has been to call them “deplorable”). “It's a good thing to worry about, and we do sometimes question how effective we're being, but the truth is that the lack of reaction is probably showing the opposite, – Andy responds, explaining – There's this thing called a SLAPP suit in the United States – a strategic litigation against public participation. It's when activists target companies in various ways, as happened with the McLibel case, and companies take spurious law suits against them. The companies don't necessarily expect them to stand up in court, but it ties the activists up in red tape. That's the way the McLibel case began, and surprised McDonalds by turning into a really big thing. In our case we've managed to drum up enough media attention from any threats we've received to make companies wary of attacking us in that way”. For example George W. Bush attempted to get their site shut down, blundering in his own inimitable way “there ought to be limits on freedom”, and in so doing created mountains of negative press coverage. “The WTO have said this explicitly”, confirms Bichlbaum, “speaking to a journalist, who asked ‘why don't you go after these guys in court?', they said ' it will just get them more attention than they've already got'.With the Bhopal thing – he continues – on the BBC, it's almost certain that Dow won't come after us because they just don't want any association between Dow and Bhopal in the same sentence, anywhere”.

The Bhopal stunt could well be considered the high point of the Yes Men's career (though subsequent to the film) to date, when Bichlbaum, in the person of “Jude Finisterra”, spokesperson supposedly for Dow Chemicals, managed to announce live on BBC that Dow had decided to take full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and were committed to providing full compensation and medical costs to the survivors, along with a full clean up of the toxic area. Quite an about turn for a company that had previously denied any responsibility for the disaster, and which had termed a derisory $500 compensation package per survivor as “plenty good for an Indian”.

Over 16,000 people died in Bhopal when a Union Carbide plant released methyl isocyanate gas into the air, while, through cost cutting measures, various safety and alert systems had been disabled. Dow Chemicals bought Union Carbide in 2001, claiming, as it continues to do, that it bears no legal responsibility for the Bhopal disaster. Legal experts disagree, and there are various outstanding criminal actions underway, both in India and in the US. Conditions in Bhopal continue to be extremely hazardous to locals. When Finisterra's statement was read on the BBC, and picked up by various other news organisations, Dow's shares dropped, losing 2 billion dollars on the German stock market, before rebounding later that day as the hoax became apparent. The cautious press release issued by Dow seems to back up Bichlbaum's guess, that legal action is the last thing Dow wish to engage in, where Bhopal will be once again brought back to the public's attention.

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