When is a hoax morally justified? In this "Borat"ized era of virtual news and escams, this question is more than academic. In its own jokey way, "The Yes Men Fix the World" aims to answer it.
The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) and their latest documentary is a series of attacks on corporate malfeasance. Creating fake websites and pretending to be spokesmen for such bastions of capitalism as ExxonMobil and Halliburton, the men are, amazingly, invited to speak at corporate conferences, where they offer up their outlandish proposals in pitch-perfect technospeak. Usually they are quickly found out, but not before they make their point (or PowerPoint).
You may have heard of the Yes Men from their phony, expert mock-up last November of The New York Times, which was distributed free of charge throughout the city to the unsuspecting and featured such headlines as "Iraq War Ends" and "Patriot Act Repealed." The rationale behind this prank, according to the Yes Men, was principled: They wanted to emblazon a wish list of hopes for the future.
But just how principled are the Yes Men? This question comes to the fore in their most astounding stunt, in which Bichlbaum, pretending to be a Dow Chemical spokesman, announces that Dow is ponying up $12 billion in aid to victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster for which it has never taken responsibility. When Bichlbaum's identity is revealed, BBC World, quite rightly, asks whether the poor people of Bhopal, whose hopes were momentarily raised, are the true butts of this hoax. Bichlbaum responds that Dow, having refused restitution, is the true hoaxster and deserving of our wrath. In a rather tendentious sequence, the two men, on the heels of their unmasking, travel to Bhopal to gauge the effect of their handiwork. Without exception the Indians shower praise on them. Wasn't there even one individual who felt scammed?
The rationale behind the Yes Men's antics is that, by infiltrating the enemy – by pretending to be the enemy – they shine a spotlight on bad works in ways that conventional activists never can. This is kind of a slap in the face to all the hardworking investigative journalists out there who don't feel the need to play dress up on global TV, but it fits the apocalyptic mind-set of progressives (and reactionaries, too) who think that the only way to get the world's attention is to be as outrageous as possible.
This mind-set also fits into the methodology of documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose guerrilla raids on corporate bad guys often resemble performance art. (Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" touches on some of the same issues as "The Yes Men Fix the World," which serves up a murderer's row of talking heads spouting the Milton Friedman capitalism-is-freedom line.) Like Moore and Spurlock, the Yes Men are also remarkably self-serving. In the guise of reforming the world, they are promoting themselves as "personalities." They are branding themselves as strenuously as any megacorporation.
I don't mean to trash the Yes Men unduly. They are highly entertaining and I am sympathetic to most of their grievances. When they announce to a stunned audience in New Orleans that HUD is re-opening the Ninth Ward housing projects shut down post-Katrina, or when they demonstrate a new and potentially lucrative use for corpses from disaster sites – a fuel called "Vivoleum," from which stinky candle samples are passed out to conference attendees – they raise pranksterism to dazzling new heights. But what have the Yes Men actually accomplished with their japery? Their film is an inadvertent reminder that activist antics are not the same thing as reform. Grade: B