The Yes Men: fighting to save greedy executives, from themselves

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If we can't count on the government to keep us safe from the the Madoffs, coal ash spills that swallow up entire houses, arsenic in our tap water, or E. coli in our hamburger meat, then it's nice to have American D.I.Y.-ness to hold big business accountable.

Meet The Yes Men, two wacky guys who pose as regular corporate executives and say in public the things they wish corporations would. They do this by setting up websites cloned to look like the multinational corporations they want to prank, then wait to get invited to big industry conferences. When the invitations roll in, and they do, it's gloves off.

Their recent acts of hilarity include posing as Exxon Mobil execs and giving a morbid keynote speech on climate change to 300 oilmen at Canada's largest fuel conference. They also stopped by the Wharton School of Business as representatives of the World Trade Organization to tout new exploitation strategies for Africa.

"You learn the difference between right and wrong when you're very young, and somehow most of us forget it when we go out to work. Because we've set up a system where corporations are rewarded for bad behavior as long as they're making a profit," says Mike Bonanno, one half of the key duo of The Yes Men's operation.

Now their exploits have been captured in a movie, "The Yes Men Fix the World," which shows their activist sword-wielding. It is now hitting the road--you can look for a screening near you here.

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"For all of us, what we try to do is just remember what the difference between right and wrong really is, and hold corporations accountable to that," says Bonanno.

"We happen to have a very, very great degree of freedom for corporations [in this country], which erodes everyone else's freedom," says Andy Bichlbaum, his partner in conference crashing. "Other places have carbon taxes, for example, taxes on emissions. It's one of the reasons gas costs three times as much in Europe as it does here. Nobody complains about that because they understand it's for the public good. We can do the same thing here. We can have those kinds of common-sense solutions to huge problems."

After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) controversially cooperated with private developers in tearing down public housing in high-need areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, The Yes Men posed as H.U.D. reps and, following the governor and mayor Ray Nagin onto the podium at a public function, publicly promised that the organization intended to reverse these actions.

When the United Nations held a special summit on climate change, The Yes Men produced authentic-looking versions of the New York Post exposing the impending dangers of global warming. In another print prank, their re-creation of The New York Times last November declared the Iraq War over.

During "The Yes Men Fix the World" opening in New York this past week, the two encouraged the crowd to take part in an impromptu raid on a Whole Foods in Manhattan to protest C.E.O. John Mackey's anti-health care reform pontificating. They also introduced SurvivalBalls, human-size-cantaloupe-looking suits that C.E.O.s of polluting companies can live in after they've successfully rendered our planet inhabitable. (For a look at SurvivalBalls, check out the video interview above.)

In the film, they focus on Bhopal, India, site of the worst industrial disaster in history. A gas leak in a Union Carbide plant in 1984 killed 10,000 people with 555,000 more suffering serious health problems, including cancer and kidney failure. Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's C.E.O., knew that the plant was vulnerable and took precautions at a similar plant in the U.S. while declining to take the same steps at the plant in India. Anderson arrived in Bhopal immediately after the accident and was quickly arrested for manslaughter. Posting bail, Anderson fled on a private jet and has since lived out his life in the Hamptons and Florida.

The Yes Men seek to live in a sensible world and view their pranks as calls to action. If we can't look to our government to hold executives responsible for lives taken in the name of profit, then the best hope we have are The Yes Men.

UPDATE: The Yes Men fooled CNBC, FOX and other networks, again, today by putting on a press conference at the National Press Club as representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and claiming to support the job-creating, planet-saving Kerry-Boxer bill, which the Chamber of Commerce is against:
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