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Yes Men Come to Campus in Cooper Series Event

October 8, 2010

Photo by Jiuxing June Xie

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno of the activist group the Yes Men gave a Cooper Series lecture in LPAC Cinema on Thursday. The Yes Men have famously impersonated members of corporations and governments in order to highlight what they believe to be detrimental political and environmental policies. To an audience of 300 students, faculty, and staff, the Yes Men showcased several examples of their own work and the work they collaborated with others and fielded questions from the audience.

One of the Yes Men’s most infamous pranks involved pretending to be members of the Canadian government giving a press release announcing drastically changes to their stance on climate change policy during the Copenhagen talks last year. Blaine O’Neill ’11 and Zach Postone ’11 were both part of this action; they were brought up in front of the audience to explain their involvement.

O’Neill was called up again to discuss a pending project regarding mountaintop removal in Appalachia, an issue which will be addressed in a workshop run by the Yes Men on Friday. The Yes Men also run the up and coming Yes Lab, an organization devoted to collaborating with groups on performing this sort of work.

Photo by Jiuxing June Xie

The lecture featured a lot of interaction with the audience, including an exercise where Bichlbaum and Bonanno asked everyone in the audience to call the White House switchboard and the Attorney General’s office on their cell phones, to report that the government was breaking its own laws pertaining to massive ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. O’Neill and others also discussed Swarthmore’s relationship with PNC Bank, currently among the largest financiers of mountaintop removal.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno also showed numerous videos, including news reports and footage of past pranks performed by the Yes Men. Perhaps most memorably, they showed footage of Bichlbaum posing as a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce (scroll down for video) and announcing in a press conference to real reporters that the Chamber had reversed their stance on climate change legislation.

You can read more about the Yes Men’s work on their website.

After the lecture, the Gazette spoke to Bonanno for a few moments.

DG: Could you briefly mention what the Yes Men do for those who weren’t at the lecture?

Mike Bonanno: We impersonate people and corporations that have a lot of power, and then we ridicule them for their nasty policies: anti-environmental, anti-human policies.

DG: Things got a little rushed at the end of the lecture. Could you talk about what the Yes Lab is again?

MB: The Yes Lab is a way for us to collaborate with organizations to try to help people that try to do projects like we do. If an activist organization sees something we do and wants to do something similar, we get emails like that all the time, it’s a way for us to have a framework so we can go in and do a workshop with them. That’s what the Yes Lab is. It’s like a Yes Men school for creative activism.

DG: Other than those mentioned in the lecture, are there any highlights you’d like to share of projects done by groups affiliated with the Yes Lab?

MB: Well right now it’s just started up, so we’ve got a lot of projects that are kind of happening now but haven’t come to fruition. The two things that we showed today, which included this impersonation of the Canadian government in Copenhagen at the COP15 conference, and also the impersonation of the US Chamber of Commerce, both of those followed that model where we collaborated with an activist organization, sometimes more than one, and came up with an idea together and went forward and executed the idea. The idea with the Yes Lab is that we train people to do it without our help, but we stayed along for the process in those instances. But, we’re refining our methods and techniques, and trying to make it work as well as possible.

DG: Your movies have touched on some of the positive and negative effects of your pranks. Are there pranks you wish had gone differently or that you regret?

MB: Well there’s always things that you would like to go better, but we don’t have many regrets. One of the nice things about what we do is that if something doesn’t go very well, or isn’t very interesting, we can choose not to release it, because for a lot of what we do if it doesn’t go well it isn’t getting on news stations unless we really push it hard, and if it’s not going well we’re not going to do that. It’s been overall really positive, we haven’t had things go astronomically wrong ever. It has all gone well.

DG: I guess this next question is on my mind since I’m graduating soon. Do you have any advice for jobseekers or those stepping into the real world for the first time for how to stay involved or help out?

MB: Just find something that you think is really cool or interesting, and just walk through the door and make yourself indispensable. Basically, if you can afford to volunteer somewhere on a part-time basis…get a job bartending or whatever it is, flipping veggie burgers, and then go and volunteer 20 hours a week. Walk into the coolest place you can find, and start volunteering for them for free. Make yourself indispensable, and they’ll find a way to pay you if there’s any way possible to do that. The only thing I can say is to people who are finishing college: you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, especially if you don’t have kids or anything like that. You still have the freedom to not be tied down to the yolk of being a wage earner. You can live frugally and do what you think is right.

DG: I know you probably can’t talk about specific future pranks, but are there any issues that you didn’t discuss in the lecture that you’ll be trying to draw attention to in the near future?

MB: Well, there are tons of different issues. There’s an unlimited number. One of the pressing ones right now that is ongoing is climate change. There are environmental fires to put out all over the globe. Right now, that’s where the zeitgeist is. If you look at something like the climate justice movement, it’s become a kind of umbrella for other kinds of issues. If you can’t fix that, you can’t fix social justice issues. The disparity between rich and poor increases, everything exaggerates if you can’t fix that initial problem. But, for now we work on whatever issue an organization delegates and that they are trying to carry out a campaign on, and we try to work with them.

DG: Are you moving exclusively toward Yes Lab-related things, or are you still doing the “old fashioned” pranks that you became famous for?

MB: We’re kind of moving exclusively toward Yes Lab stuff, but if something really catches our fancy you never know, we may be completely immersed.

  • Lisa E

    The Yes Men are amazing. Nice interview!

  • Danielle C.

    Yikes. If Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are indeed altering geopolitical politics, it may be time for those of us who appreciate open and honest dialogue to pack our bags for Mars. I am less disturbed by the Gazette's article as I am with the fact that the “Yes Men” were invited to the Swarthmore campus at all.

    According to their comedy sketch, watching Corporate America crash and burn is supposed to be hilarious. Evidently, the news that the Chamber of Commerce is suing the "Yes Men" is supposed to make me howl. But I find myself confidently siding with the Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses, 96% of which are comprised by 100 or fewer employees.

    Instead of discussing the Climate Bill controversy in a rational discourse—and contrary to what the Left will have us believe, it is quite a faulty slice of legislation—the "Yes Men" have promoted their agenda (and movies) through outright deceit. The "Yes Men" are duping themselves,They are not “impersonating criminals.” They are criminals.

    They seem to believe their blatant lies are protected by the revolving door of free speech, but lifting the Chamber of Commerce, New York Times, and New York Post logos speaks to a litany of libelous behavior. Why is it, I ask, that when Terry Jones threatens to exercise his First Amendment rights by burning a Quran, he gets a personal phone call from Defense Secretary Gates warning him he’s about to incite WWIII? Meanwhile, the Yes Men receive a pat on the back from the Swarthmore community, not to mention two successful films. Make no mistake, Terry Jones is an unabashed wing-nut with no understanding of Islam, but at least he’s honest about who he is. I wish I could accuse the "Yes Men" of lacking a comprehensive understanding for the vast ramifications the Climate Bill would have on American business and the middle class and leave it at that. But alas, I’m not quite sure who the "Yes Men" are. I would take it so far as to say the "Yes Men" have committed more overt fraud than any of the corporations they’ve criticized. I’m not excusing bad business practices, but I’m pretty sure even the worst of Wall Street are not scratching their noggins on how to outwardly dupe the nation on a daily basis. Sure, the "Yes Men" claim they’re educating the public, but, given the mode by which they “educate” is through manipulation, disinformation, and bias, is this an education to which we, as Swatties, wish to subscribe?

  • nautilus

    Danielle, inviting the Yes Men to come speak at Swarthmore does not mean that everyone at Swat (or the College itself) agrees with their positions or methods. Should we really say that the Yes Men should not have been invited to speak just because they are controversial figures? On the contrary: their lecture provides the starting point for an important discussion about free speech and social justice.

  • Danielle_Charette

    No, I completely support free-speech, but when was the last time a conservative commentator came to campus? Sometimes I think Swat students think free speech only applies to people with whom they agree.

  • P


    The Yes Men discussed this a bit at their lecture. The thing that makes their lies different is that they're immediately revealed to be false; the point is to draw attention to what they think are important social issues through stunts and hijinks.

    Also, if you want more conservative commentators at Swarthmore, work to bring them yourself. Everyone who comes to Swat is brought by somebody, and it's natural that since the majority of students at Swat who care about social and political issues in a day-to-day sense are liberal, most of the people coming are going to be liberal. If you want to try to revive the College Republicans or start a College Tea Party or just try to get somebody to give a lecture, it's very possible for you to do.

  • Danielle_Charette

    As a matter of fact, a few of my friends and I are re-launching the College Republicans. We'll be focusing on fiscal conservatism and constitutionalism, as opposed to social issues, since we, for the most part, are happy with Swat's take on social politics.

  • Peter ’11

    A while back Swat had an awesome lecture on social conservatism, advocating for "modesty" on behalf of men and (primarily…) women. It was very thought-provoking and, frankly, was much, much more interesting than this lecture was. Interesting people, horrifically boring and poorly run lecture. They pulled a prank on Swat by getting them to pay for that.

    I also recall a lecture from a conservative talking about reasons for the Iraq war? Though some might call him a moderate at this point. I don't recall exactly who it was but somebody who advised Bush or something.

    Also, hate to break it to you, Danielle, but it sounds like you're a libertarian more than a republican. I'd love it if both voices had a presence on campus, though, and it's totally ridiculous that they don't.

  • Phil Chodrow

    Quick point of clarification: libertarian and Republican stances on questions of fiscal policy and constitutional interpretation are not really the same, so having Republican stances on these issues but liberal ones on social issues is not a formula for libertarianism.

    Danielle: I think that your point about the Yes Men being forces against rational discourse is probably on the mark, but raises an interesting problem. How much room do we have for rational discourse in this political climate? As you've aptly pointed out, the actual substance of most bills and policies is often absent from the stage of public debate. With this in mind, is rational discourse an open possibility for those earnestly hoping to improve the nation?

    Perhaps even more interesting: if rational discourse is indeed not effective, are we ever justified in using "indirect" means (such as the Yes Men) in pushing agendas? When those agendas are good ones? Bad ones? While I sadden to think this, it seems to me that the answer to this question must be "yes, at least some of the time," else all politics be considered unjustified.

    Of course, we might not be to that point if there is indeed still room for rational discourse in politics. How much and how effective is a question I won't pretend to be able to answer.

    By the by, President Obama and Secretary Gates have been getting a bad rap for calling Terry Jones, both in your comment and in a Phoenix article from a few weeks ago. I think that your criticism, and those of the Phoenix writer, are unjustified. The Phoenix article rested on a pretty faulty premise, that a call from Obama is equivalent to the exercise of the coercive organs of the state. Your argument is a bit different, but I still don't think it stands. It is important to remember that Jones was planning to engage in action which would actually endanger himself and the U.S. as a whole. In doing so, he was costing quite a lot of resources: the government felt compelled to give him protection, the Pentagon needed to attempt to find out to what extent the action would incite terrorism, where, and how, etc. etc. So, a call requesting him to lay off seems like a pretty good move to me. Did he have the right to burn the Qurans? Absolutely. But the fact is that in exercising his right, he would have endangered himself and others. A request not to do that, even one from a high authority, seems, all things considered, fair.


  • Das Racist

    Keep telling yourself that fiscal conservatism and constitutionalism aren't social issues, yo.

  • Argos

    Was ist los mit Das Racist, amirite?

  • AM

    Danielle —

    1. What are Swarthmore's social politics? I wasn't aware the college had views or that there was some kind of monolithic belief system shared by all students.

    2. If "Swat's social politics" means generally liberal {for gay marriage, for abortion, for religious freedom, for free speech}, you can't really support constitutionalism, as it's a pretty bs methodology used by people like Scalia to deny gender equality in the workplace and keep semi-automatics in the hands of civilians.

  • Phil Chodrow

    AM: I don't see why social liberals can't be constitutionalists; they would simply need to oppose Scalia on what, precisely, it means to BE a constitutionalist. Yes, Scalia claims to be a constitutionalist, and yes, he is socially conservative, but he does not have a monopoly on the term or the philosophy.


  • Max Parke

    We had a conservative come to campus once upon a time. It didn't turn out well:

    "On Sept. 27, Andrew Bernstein, adjunct professor of
    philosophy at Pace University and the State University of New York, gave a
    provocative lecture titled “America at War: The Moral Imperative for Self-Defense.” The talk
    was sponsored by the Students for Objectivism, a small student group formed last year to promote novelist Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which Rand described as a combination of “reason, capitalism, self-interest, and objective real-
    ity." Bernstein criticized America’s lack of “moral courage,” arguing that the current struggle is primarily philosophical, not political,
    and that a nation’s most powerful weapons are moral rectitude and the courage to defend its citizens. President George W. Bush must have the moral
    courage to “wipe out” America’s current deadly enemies, he said. “Nobody respects a coward.Moral cowards will be prey to every bully.”

    Several of the approximately 60 attendees walked out during the lecture, which prompted a subsequent debate in the student on-line newspaper, The Daily Gazette, first via opinion pieces and then on
    the Gazette’s new on-line bulletin board. “It is shameful that we cannot respect each other, that we cannot offer understanding to political and social
    minorities on campus,” Olivia
    Toro ’05 wrote."

  • Maurice Eldridge

    For Danielle and others. You might find the following information useful as you seek to organize College Republicans and others. (I do caution against applying labels too definitively on one another; I have found that when you get to know people and scratch beneath the surface that most thoughtful people prove to be more complex than the reductive application of a label might reveal). Here is the information you might find useful:
    "The Charles Boone Houston II Endowment Fund was created in 1990 by his grandson, Bruce M. Brown. Charles Boone Houston II was a member of the Class of 1914. The Houston fund supports student clubs devoted to conservative social or political viewpoints, or to business or entrepreneurial interests. The annual income from the Houston endowment will be used to support lectureships, special projects, or student trips pertaining to the activities of the organizations specified above."
    Maurice Eldridge '61

  • AM

    Hey, Phil,

    If people would like to reclaim the political ideology of "constitutionalism," power to them {I'd still disagree, but we can move on}.

    But let's not be disingenuous — that term applies to a certain brand of conservatism that is anything BUT socially liberal. I've certainly never heard anyone, personally and in the political spotlight, identify as a constitutionalist who didn't also support socially conservative policies. Parts of the Tea Party Party do claim to be constitutionalist but not socially conservative, but their major candidates don't reflect those views {nor does their alliance with a racist political party}.

  • Danielle Charette

    Actually reading the constitution and abiding by it makes me into a right-wing conspirator? That's pretty outrageous. We may disagree on how to interpret the document, but now you're saying the document itself obstructs thought? Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave. As a point of clarification, just because I don't believe the constitution provides for issues like gay marriage doesn't mean I'm a homophobic. The constitutionally correct way to achieving gay marriage is through the amendment process.

    AM–for the record, this is me supporting originalism and socially liberal policies. I just don't think the constitution is a "living document". Either did the founders. That's why we can amend it and make the changes we wish to see reflected in society.

  • Danielle Charette

    And smearing Republicans as racist is unsubstantiated. I take deep offense on that one, I really do. The race card may work for judicial activists, but it doesn't gel when we're actually attempting to have a rational discussion about the constitution.

  • err

    "race card"

  • err

    I won't be playing one of those and risking your deep offense. Because it is true, this topic does not directly involve race. Just be aware that "everyone's a little bit racist." The idea that everyone should be assumed to be colorblind unless they explicitly profess racial superiority, is, in our society today, a deeply racist one.

    Anyway, on the first issue you address:

    Corporations have every right to sue the Yes Men for libel. In some cases they would probably win. But they don't sue because they know that suing the Yes Men would be a PR nightmare. This is how civil law works, and there are VERY good reasons that libel is generally an issue of civil law and not criminal law. Is it "fair" that the Yes Men are gaming the law? Maybe not, but then it is also not fair how corporations game the law. And they do it on a much bigger scale.

    Corporations will break laws on purpose all the time when they think that the benefits outweigh the cost of the possibility of a successful lawsuit. Just as corporations won't sue the Yes Men because of the huge PR costs of a lawsuit, regular people won't sue corporations because of the huge monetary costs of a lawsuit. So corporations will do illegal things ALL the time that they know they could be successfully sued for, but probably won't be.

    Why aren't you railing against them? Is telling a lie somehow infinitely worse than poisoning, cheating and stealing from people? If we were going to expand criminal law into places that are traditionally civil matters, I wouldn't change libel law to muzzle a few well-meaning activists saying mean things about multinational corporations. I would change environmental and financial law, so that the greedy people who knowingly rob and kill are treated like the criminals they are. Do you disagree?

    On the issue of "constitutionalism":

    There is no one "original meaning" of the constitution, and even if there was, that meaning could not be recaptured today, because meaning is always contextual. That doesn't mean the only alternative to "constitutionalism" is the postmodern idea that we can all make our own meanings and that judges should be politicians (note: the vast majority of liberal so-called "activist judges" think that this critical legal studies way of thinking is bullshit). No, instead we have more than two centuries of legal tradition and precedent to work off of. And it is not the "activist judges" that want to do away with these traditions, it is the "constitutionalists". This is one case where today it is the "conservatives" who are the radicals. It is a destructive, reactionary radicalism with no positive vision for the future.

  • Danielle Charette

    In regards to the Yes Men, I'm not saying corporations never cut corners, but last time I checked we weren't inviting CEOs to campus and praising their illegal activity as hilariously funny.

    I agree, the originalists probably are the radicals in this situation. For me, it's a radicalism worth looking at. I think of the Constitution as a contract between citizens and government. If you and I were to agree on a contract, would we, in 200 years announce, oh this contract doesn't really mean what it says because it's not quite applicable anymore? We should just adopt it according to the times? Paper documents aren't magical, but if they account for amendments, as our constitution does, than let's alter them to fit our evolving societal ideals. People who oppose the grounds on which Roe v. Wade was decided in '73 arn't inherently in opposition to reproductive rights. It's just, last time I browsed the constitution, there was nothing about abortion, therefore, it strikes me as a little absurd to say a document from 1787 can account for such a thing. Yeah, the constitution was purposefully broad and loose, but it wasn't THAT loose.

  • Peter

    I'd say, in general, Swat "social politics" lean very heavily liberal. Here's a hint: we're in the middle of school-supported Coming Out Week. That's not exactly a conservative stance.

    There does seem to be a blanket and unfounded accusation that corporations "game the law" and that they somehow "deserve" what the Yes-men are doing to them. While there are of course a few bad apples (ex: BP, Goldman Sachs, ect) most companies are just trying to be profitable within the scope of the law.

    The Chamber of Commerce is allowed to disagree on climate change. This does not make them bad people, nor does this mean they're involved in any illegal activity. To say that they deserve to be impersonated & ridiculed for their views is rather appalling, no matter what your stance on constitutionalism is.

  • AM


    I think you didn't read any of what I said but took offense to some phantom words.

    I never said anything about your right-wing conspiracy theories or the Constitution blocking intelligent thought, but I don't give a good damn what Jefferson is doing. He didn't write it, by the way. He wrote the Declaration of Independence.

    I would basically quote err's points about constitutionalism {first half of the paragraph, not the bit about judges}. That's why I disagree with people who attempt to "recover" what the founders thought. I also don't see the value in clinging to eighteenth century political thought when our country, the world and thinking has changed.

    The correct way of achieving direct marriage, my constitutionalist friend, is reading the 14th Amendment. It's already there.

    Also, if you had read what I was typing, I never called all Republicans racist. I called the Tea Party Party racist.

  • AM

    Also, I really think you either don't have an understanding of or are purposefully underplaying how difficult it is to amend the Constitution. To save all the rights that need saving is not going to happen through amendment, particularly on hot button issues like abortion. It's going to happen through courts upholding rights already established possibly in the big C. or in legal precedent and legislation.

  • err

    We do bring corporations to campus, not to give public explanations for their actions like the Yes Men, but to recruit students for jobs and internships. We live in a culture where corporate malfeasance is considered normal and acceptable, because, who doesn't want to make a ton of money, right? The Yes Men's actions seem outrageous to us, while corporate "law gaming" is just background noise that we implicitly accept. Their whole point is to draw attention to this fact.

    On the constitution stuff—you say that abortions aren't constitutionally protected because there is nothing "about abortions" in the constitution. Okay, then emails are not protected speech because there is nothing about email in the constitution.

    What you mean to say is that there is no right to privacy in the constitution. I guess talking about (learning about?) the actual way jurors reason is more difficult than just saying that they make stuff up.

    The contract analogy is a good one. There is, in fact, a whole field of law that deals with the fact that contracts are by their nature unable to deal with every exigency. If you look into contract law you will see why it is absurd to say what you are saying about contracts and by extension the constitution. If contracts worked the way you said they did, they wouldn't work.

    To Peter:

    Corporations game the law because in almost all cases their major aim is to make profits for shareholders. And gaming the law is profitable. I'm not saying every corporation breaks criminal law, though many do, especially since crimes like bribery, collusion, and insider trading are hard to discover and prosecute. They do all game civil law, like the Yes Men do with libel. They break contracts when it is profitable to do so, pollute when it is profitable to do so, ignore safety regulations when it is profitable to do so, etc.

  • Danielle Charette

    The constitution is supposed to be difficult to amend. That's the point. Judges shouldn't circumvent the law just to expedite progress. I think it's troubling when people make the argument that Republicans shouldn't be elected to Congress because they'll "impede progress." Our constitution ensures healthy, often prolonged debate. Let's respect that.

    I didn't say there's no guarantee of privacy in the Constitution. But to what degree does privacy transcend protection against search and seizure and protect abortion? This gets tricky. Roe v. Wade relies on a circuitous combination of the Bill of Rights to achieve something the founders never would have anticipated. Can I enter the founders' inner-thoughts, no. But I'm pretty sure they did not foresee such a leap. I'm not saying just because the founders didn't anticipate our modern world doesn't mean we can't strive to accomplish a realization of modern values, however.

    In this example, I believe abortion rights, if desired, should have been reached legislatively.

  • The Yes Men Would Say Yes!

    Man — this was one of the most conspicuously poorly-organized events I've ever been to. Ever. Maybe the question we should really be asking ourselves (and the Cooper Foundation) is: have we been duped?