Lords of Misrule

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Art, Articles

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.

Torture and the Bomb

The Yes Men are the mirror image of those infamous No Men, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The Yes Men speak truth to power; the No Men spoke lies to the powerless. The president and vice president said no to peace, to international treaties, to economic common sense. When the world protested, they said, “No, we will go our own way.” When the U.S. public protested, they replied, “No, history will vindicate us.”

This repudiation of moral standards reached its nadir with the torture issue. The Bush administration attempted to create its own moral universe ruled over by a ticking bomb and governed by ruthless expediency. This was not, however, an unprecedented break with tradition, as FPIF contributor Jon Reinsch points out.

“When the United States adopted torture as a weapon in its ‘war on terror,’ it was a turn to methods that shock the conscience, and when discovered, officials and their media surrogates went to great lengths to gain public acquiescence for their policies,” Reinsch writes in Torture and the Bomb. “It was not the first time the country betrayed its highest ideals, nor the first time U.S. citizens were led to deny that any betrayal had occurred. The United States had gone down the same road in 1945, when it used nuclear weapons to destroy two Japanese cities. One case involved the product of intensive scientific research, the other methods dating back hundreds of years, if not to prehistory. But in the way the U.S. government made and justified these fateful decisions, the two stories contain many disturbing parallels.”

A Trio of Abuses

The Mexican economy is reeling from the current economic crisis. Its economy will likely shrink by 7.5% this year. Against this backdrop, the Mexican government didn’t punish the managers and financiers and government officials responsible for this disaster. Instead, it has cracked down on workers. This month, the government effectively shut down the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, one of the largest independent unions in the country.

“The ravenous right has set out to prove that it’s not the rich who will pay for the crisis,” writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Mexico’s Union Bust Reveals Flaws in NAFTA. “One of the arguments for eliminating Central Light and its union was that it employed too many people, making it ‘inefficient.’ For the Calderon government, offering decent employment to more than 40,000 families is a crime in a year when unemployment has doubled and nearly 800,000 Mexican workers have lost jobs due to the crisis.”

In Honduras, meanwhile, the human rights violations continue to pile up in the wake of the military coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya. As FPIF contributor Margaret Knapke reports, there have been at least 100 fatalities as well as over 1,000 illegal detentions, many beatings, and more than a dozen rapes by the Honduran police. The number of women killed in Honduras has also gone up dramatically. “Clearly, the Honduran crisis is a real opportunity for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to prove their human-rights and feminist mettle,” she writes in Coup’s Impact on Honduran Women. “Conversely, a failure of resolve toward the illicit and abusive coup regime could do lasting harm to Obama’s and Clinton’s political credibility — and cost many more Honduran lives.”

In Central Asia, too, the United States has a chance to pressure one of its occasional allies, Turkmenistan. The leadership there, following the death of long-time dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, promised many liberal changes. They made some steps in that direction — in education, in communications — only to stop and re-impose government controls. “Washington should think about inviting Turkmenistan’s leader for a high-level and high-profile visit, while setting out certain human rights prerequisites before the visit would take place,” suggests FPIF contributor Farid Tukhbatullinin Turkmenistan: Waiting for the Second Step.

From the corporate heads of Dow Chemical to the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, and Turkmenistan: The real Lords of Misrule are still in place. The Yes Men are calling all jesters. Let the games begin…

FPIF, October 26, 2009

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