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The Yes Men Rule

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The bottle looks beautiful. It sports an old-fashioned spring-top stopper. The red, diamond-shaped label features an elegant font. From a distance, the silhouetted landscape on the label looks exotic. It is, like all fine gourmet water, "bottled at source." Even the French name of the water suggests elegance: B'eau Pal.

But wait: B'eau Pal? That sounds rather familiar. You look at the label more carefully. The top of the label reads: "25 years of pollution." The picture on the label isn't an exotic location after all. It's ... the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that poisoned a half a million people and killed thousands back in 1984 when it accidentally released tons of methyl isocyanate.

B'eau Pal is the work of the Yes Men, the dynamic duo of disinformation. Five years ago, one of the pair, Andy Bichlbaum, appeared on BBC as a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, to announce that his company would provide $12 billion in medical care for the 120,000 victims of the Bhopal calamity and fully clean up the site. Dow lost $2 billion in market value in 20 minutes. That's how long it took before the hoax was exposed.

"We demonstrated what would happen if Dow did do the right thing in Bhopal," Bichlbaum told Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Mark Engler in Pranksters Fixing the World. "What happened? The stock market punished Dow. And if it had really happened, the stock market would have kept punishing Dow. The guy who made the decision would have lost his job. Or he would have been sued by the shareholders, which happens."

The Yes Men's point: The heads of major corporations won't suddenly do the right thing even if someone -- somehow, somewhere, some day -- manages to reveal to them the errors of their ways. Now five years later, Dow blathers on about the importance of clean water even as it does nothing for the residents of Bhopal, who are suffering from a drought. To catch the attention of all those who have forgotten about Bhopal -- virtually everyone except the people of Bhopal and a handful of dedicated activists -- the Yes Men created B'eau Pal, a critique wrapped in a jest and shrouded in faux-corporate hype.

With their spoofs of the World Bank, fast food restaurants, and Exxon Mobil, the Yes Men are culture jammers par excellence. Their altered advertisements, mock press conferences, and off-kilter conference presentations are delightful inversions of corporate propaganda. They interrupt life's regularly scheduled programming to bring us these important announcements. They treat corporate reality in the same way that hackers approach websites or Marcel Duchamp approached the Mona Lisa.

They are, in other words, the ultimate Lords of Misrule.

During the Middle Ages, at the end of the Christmas holiday, came Twelfth Night, a tradition dating back to the Saturnalia of the Roman age. On this one night, under the guidance of a specially selected Lord of Misrule, the world turned upside down. Men become women, beggars became kings, prostitutes became queens, jesters became judges. In this topsy-turvy world, the community indulged in fantasies and tolerated transgressions. Everyone drank a lot and let off steam. Indeed, because it was more a safety valve than a way of imagining alternative futures, Twelfth Night ultimately reinforced the status quo. Nevertheless, the tradition has spawned satirists, surrealists, and subversives of all varieties.

As the latest Lords of Misrule, the Yes Men aim to change the rules of the game. They're not satisfied with an annual flouting of tradition. They're not interested in turning poisoned water into a high-end beverage as a one-off prank. They want to continually bring the high low and the low high, smothering the corporate elite in their own puffery and amplifying the voices of the victims.

This is deadly serious stuff. But remember: If you can't laugh, don't bother to join their revolution.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.