The “Yes Men” are two guys, supported by a changing team of other folks, who engage in a kind of Abbie Hoffman-style political theater. More specifically, they are anti-globalization, leftist activists who impersonate people from the World Trade Organization (WTO), giving talks and appearing in the media frankly defending only slightly satirical versions of the most heinous policies of global capitalism.
This documentary shows them making several such presentations to different audiences. It also contains a small amount of commentary from figures like Michael Moore.
In their talks, among other things the Yes Men explain how exploiting third world labor is far more profitable than—and hence more desirable than—literal slavery, how technology is now making it possible to more closely monitor one’s workers around the world (this one features a demonstration of a comical spacesuit with a giant penis-like appendage with a monitor at the end for the remote manager to wear; they explain how it can be programmed to use electrodes to transmit productivity information directly into the brain of the manager, while using electric shocks to spur the workers on to work faster), and how McDonald’s will shortly be unveiling a new hamburger made largely from human feces to sell in developing countries. They also give a talk in Australia basically confessing that the WTO has utterly failed to do anything other than further enrich the wealthiest countries, corporations, and individuals at the expense of the world’s poor, and that therefore it has decided to disband and regroup when it has figured out how to work instead for global justice.
A couple quick notes about The Yes Men as a film, and then I mostly want to talk about the type of activism the Yes Men practice.
The film has the feel of a very low budget, shoestring kind of documentary. It doesn’t have the production values of, say, a Michael Moore film. In that regard it’s probably even below his original Roger and Me.
The talks themselves are presented well and are consistently interesting. My complaint is that almost everything else feels like filler. The commentary from figures like Moore is quite good, but there’s very, very little of that. What there is is a lot of footage of these guys in hotel rooms preparing for a talk, them riding public transportation en route to a talk, or background information about so-and-so who is helping them on a certain project after having done such-and-such in college.
It strikes me as a fine 20 or 30 minute short that they decided to add an hour to in order to make it feature-length.
Maybe if they had padded it out with more of the commentary instead the lengthening would have been justified, but then again maybe then it would have been too dominated by talking heads and would have been boring for most viewers.
Anyway, I’m certainly on the same side as the Yes Men on these globalization issues, and I found myself admiring and chuckling over their antics to a degree, yet at the same time I felt a certain discomfort watching them.
Some of that may just be that I was empathizing with them, cringing at the thought that they’ll be found out and embarrassed, or get into some kind of trouble. It was like watching a high wire act.
But I suspect at least a little bit of it was an ethical discomfort. There’s just something about deceiving people in order to make a political point, or to be entertaining for that matter, that doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve always been an Andy Kaufman fan, for instance, yet have always had mixed feelings about that whole “put on” version of performance art.
I’m not saying that what they do is at all on the same level of sleaze as something like Breitbart fraudulent videos against ACORN—not only is there a morally relevant difference between using a tactic against injustice versus using it in defense of injustice, but in the end these guys at least admit that what they do is a con; it’s not intended to permanently be taken literally—but there’s still an element of making fools out of people who trusted them.
I find myself thinking, for instance, about the low level employees of these groups that arrange speakers and such, and were taken in by the Yes Men. Once it becomes clear that the talk is a gag, how must they feel, and how secure are their jobs now? That doesn’t sit well with me.
I don’t know. I’m probably overstating how objectionable it seems to me. Really I’m more on the fence. I have some qualms about the tactics that prevent me from fully laughing at their shenanigans and applauding them, but on the other hand a part of me really likes their method of raising awareness and getting people to think about these issues.
As they say in the film, what they expect, and pretty much what they intend, is that the people who come to these talks will buy into it in the beginning, but then gradually it’ll dawn on them that what these alleged WTO folks are saying is so outrageous that it can’t be real, and then they’ll think about “Well, if what they’re saying is horrible and unjust, but at the same time it’s so close to what groups like the WTO stand for that it took a long time to even figure out it was a spoof, what does that tell us about these entities and their philosophy?”
In a way, then, they’re disappointed that often no one does challenge them as frauds, that for instance they just sit there and accept that the WTO would be working on high tech ways to shock Third World workers remotely to get more labor out of them.
Really the only talk where people eventually figure out it’s a gag—or at least boo them off the stage because of the obscene nature of what they’re saying, whether they realize it’s a gag or not—is one that they give to an audience of college students (business majors or something like that, I assume), and it takes them quite a while to figure it out. Plus I don’t know if the students really rise up against the talk because they are not yet as brainwashed and as automatically accepting of any horror as long as it benefits the richest corporations, or if they do so because it is the most outrageous of the talks and the hardest to believe. (It’s the one about using shit to make McDonald’s hamburgers.)
I found especially interesting the audience reaction to the talk wherein the imposters made a fake announcement that the WTO has seen the error of its ways in being a tool of the 1% and helping oppress the global poor, and that therefore it is shutting down. This was given to a business audience in Australia, and not only did they not figure out it was a gag, they were totally in agreement with the talk.
Now granted this is judging from the audience interviews after the event that are shown in the film, and for all viewers know those were selected and edited misleadingly, but assuming what we’re shown really is indicative of how the audience responded, their reaction was not only that, yes, it’s all true that groups like the WTO are all about coming up with sophisticated ways to further enrich the wealthiest by screwing over the poor, but that we’re really happy they’re admitting it and we look forward to their coming back as a radically different entity that actually fosters justice instead of injustice.
Presumably that’s all because the person telling them these things is purportedly a representative of the WTO itself. Had it been, say, a debate, where on one side was an opponent of globalization making these exact same points, and on the other side was a defender of the WTO, I seriously doubt these business folks would have wholeheartedly sided with the globalization critic. More likely most of them would have been totally closed to what he was saying, and dismissed him as a Marxist or whatever.
Yet here they are talking about how refreshing it is to see the WTO admit the error of its ways, and accepting the evidence of its failings as self-evidently true.
On the whole the Yes Men are on the side of the angels, and this film is interesting, funny, and thought-provoking, but I have to put a limit on just how unreservedly I can praise either.