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The Yes Men -- A Blipvert Appreciation for The Best Prank of Our Time

Anti-WTO impostors have struck again, delivering a spoof lecture to an enthusiastic crowd of scientists, engineers, and marketing professionals - all of whom thought they were watching an official World Trade Organization representative.

I remember when I originally read about Hank Hardy Unruh's lecture to the WTO in Finland in 2001 I was awestruck by its perfection: it is the Mona Lisa of contemporary pranks. Mr. Unruh and his Yes Men:

  • succeessfully infiltrated the WTO as experts in neo-liberalism

  • presented a brilliant lecture to some of the world's most influential power elite that camouflaged its true meaning by hiding it in plain sight

  • was intensely subversive

  • was accepted by the status quo at face value — something which speaks volumes in itself

  • ended the lecture by exhibiting an enormous golden phallus to symbolize his meaning

  • was applauded for this!

  • pulled the whole thing off with style and "professionalism"

  • (and without getting arrested)

  • got an immense amount of coverage

  • succeeded completely in embarrassing the WTO, all it represents, and its members

  • gave hope to all who seek another way that the power elite are not impervious

  • decisively contributed to the WTO's adoption of more transparency in its workings, and at least giving lip service to issues of social and environmental justice

It was a stunning achievement and must rank among one of the alltime great pranks, right up there with George Psalamanazar, The Dreadnought Hoax (in which Virgia Woolf participated), and The Central Park Zoo Escape.

What follows are excerpts from the speech and slide show. Those who were in the audience who paid close attention would have been titillated at what promised to be an unforgettable speech:

Looking around at this diverse sea of faces, I see outstanding elements of corporations like Dow, Denkendorf, Lenzing, all at the forefront of consumer satisfaction in textiles. I see members of the European Commission, Euratex, and other important political bodies that aim at easing rules for corporate citizens. I also see professors from great universities walking into a prosperous future hand in hand with industrial partners, using citizen funds to develop great textilic solutions to be sold to consumers for profit and progress.

I see on all of your faces a touching, childlike eagerness to tackle the biggest textiles questions today. At the same time I see a deep understanding that some of these solutions may not be easy, but that come what may, we have to press on into a future that few of us understand, except in terms of its dollar results.

How do we at the WTO fit in? WTO helping hand Well, that's easy: We want to help you achieve those dollar results. When roadblocks to dollar results arise — protectionism, worry, even violence against physical property — we want to help make sure that none of this stands in the way of your dollar results.

What do we want? A free and open global economy that will best serve corporate owners and stockholders alike. When do we want it? Now.

It is truly remarkable that they didn't see what was coming and have him dragged off the stage right there and then. It is even more remarkable when he started talking about the evils of protectionism as illustrated by the American Civil War:

The South, of course, wanted to buy industrial equipment where it was cheapest, and to sell raw cotton where it fetched the highest price — in Britain. The North, however, decided the South should NOT have the FREEDOM to do this, but instead should HAVE to do business with the North, and only with the North.

The North used its majority stake in the country's governance to exploit the Southern landowners and deny them their freedom to choose the cheapest prices; this of course made them very angry. You'd be angry too if you were denied your freedom of choice! And so the North's abusive tariff practices basically caused what otherwise was a perfectly good market to spiral into a hideously unprofitable war.

Now some Civil-War apologists have said that the Civil War, for all its faults, at least had the effect of outlawing an Involuntarily Imported Workforce. Now such a labor model is of course a terrible thing. I myself am an abolitionist. But in fact there is no doubt that left to their own devices, markets would have eventually replaced slavery with "cleaner" sources of labor anyhow.

In a brilliant example of guerilla theatre Mr. Unruh gives a clear visual illustration of how multinationals should approach worker issues:

Now we all know that not even the best workplace design can help even the most astute manager keep track of his workers. You need a solution that enables a lot more rapport with workers — especially when they're remote.

[At this point, Hank steps out from behind the podium, and his assistant Mike grabs him by the tie and belt and gives a big yank. Hank's suit comes off, to reveal a shiny golden suit.]

This is the WTO's answer to the two central management problems of today: how to maintain rapport with distant workers, and how to maintain one's own mental health as a manager with the proper amount of leisure.

How does the MLS work — besides being comfortable? Well, allow me to describe the suit's core features.

[Hank unzips the front of the suit, then pulls on a ripcord that inflates a giant golden phallus. The audience claps.]lecture suit

This is the Employee Visualization Appendage — an instantly deployable hip-mounted device with hands-free operation, which allows the manager to see his employees directly, as well as receive all relevant data about them.

Signals communicating exact amounts and quality of physical labor are transmitted to the manager not only visually, but directly, through electric channels implanted directly into the manager, in front and behind. (The workers, for their part, are fitted with unobtrusive small chips that transmit all relevant data directly into the manager.)

The MLS allows the corporation to be a corpus, by permitting total communication within the corporate body (on a scale never before possible)...
&sdot &sdot &sdot
...with the MLS I'll be able to not only see protests right here, but I'll be able to feel what's going on in the hot spots of the world. What will the danger level be when the first protester is beheaded? I'm against beheading, but they do that in Qatar, where we're holding our next meeting. The MLS can in a general sort of way show us things — it can help us discover new metrics.

In conclusion:
This suit — is it a science-fiction scenario? No — everything we've been talking about is possible with technologies we have available today.

Yes, you read that right — the audience claps! When his "lecture" is over there is a "healthy amount of applause."

What's so brilliant about this speech is that both those who don't "get" it laugh and applaud just as much as those who do.

Sadly, those who don't "get" it control the world. And, in my opinion, this, more than anything else I can think of, illustrates why the world is so fucked-up. As The Yes Men themselves say:

Not a single person objected to Hank's crude and dangerous talk — not because they were stupid (most had Ph.D.s or the like) but simply because Hank was from the WTO.

If it's so easy to say such crudely crazy things to a group of Ph.D.s, imagine how easy it is for the WTO or other profit-oriented entities, with much more care and tact, to say what they want to less educated audiences.

The awesome power of "Credibility Props" cannot be overestimated. Just ask Stanley Milgram.

(The Yes Men have recently published a book that documents their incredible and effective culture jamming pranks. I expect it will make for some very entertaining, valuable, and even hopeful reading.)

[Thanks to sniggle.net for inspiring this little appreciation.]