The students also believed our identities, but they just didn't like what we were saying. Gullibility isn't the problem.
Here's the bare-bones story of what happened in Plattsburgh, along with some musings:
Richard Robbins, who has written a textbook on corporate globalization, offers to organize a lecture "by the WTO" for his students at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, where he is a professor.
Andy and Mike are happy to accept this invitation—especially since they already have been invited to speak to some trade experts in Australia. They feel they have come up with the surefire reaction-getter, but since it's likely to be their last chance, they'd better make sure. College students will make an excellent test audience before the real thing in Australia.
Just before leaving for Plattsburgh, they hear the conference in Australia has been cancelled. This is no longer a dress rehearsal.
The whole crew (Mike, Andy, Matt, Caz, Wolfgang, Snafu, Andrew, Rich) drive up from New York and arrive in Plattsburgh. Richard shows them the venue. Andy and Matt put on standard WTO business suits, while Mike wears a McDonald’s uniform.
Richard is kind enough to foot the bill for more than a hundred McDonald’s Hamburgers, which Mike passes out to the students at the beginning of the lecture. Andy introduces the talk by asking that important basic question: “Why is starvation a problem?” Matt’s illustration of “poverty guy” stands shrugging on the PowerPoint slide. Andy explains with candor how WTO agribusiness policies (like the policies of the British during the Irish Potato famine) are causing widespread starvation in the Third World today. He suggests a solution that—unlike protectionism and so on—remains within the logic of the free market.
The solution, as elegant as it is simple, is to provide Third Worlders with filters that allow them to recycle their food—extending the lifespan of a typical hamburger up to ten times.
In answer to one student’s outraged question, Mike explains that McDonald’s, in partnership with the WTO, is already experimenting with this technology in its products, and has been including 20% “post-consumer waste” in many of its hamburgers. Patrick’s 3-D animation of Ronald McDonald squeezing Menu Item Number Two from his colostomy bag erases any doubts about what is actually being said: the WTO believes that the poor should eat their own shit, or perhaps eat the shit of the rich, if an efficient pipeline can be established.
As might be expected, the students react violently to these concepts. But what is more surprising is that they have been reacting—with hisses, boos, even a spitwad or two—ever since the beginning of the lecture. Long before Andy tells them that they have eaten shit, they are appalled at the version of reality that he is asking them to swallow.
This is the only negative reaction Andy and Mike have gotten for a lecture. But the strong reaction clearly isn’t because the lecture is any crazier, since the students started reacting from the very beginning: it’s because the audience is smarter. All along, the problem has not been with the lectures, as supposed, but with the audiences themselves.
Years of neoliberal “education” and experience seem to make people stupid.
This realization causes Mike and Andy to abandon the lecture they planned for the agribusiness conference in Sydney (cancelled, but a special luncheon just for the "WTO" has been scheduled in its place), and to devise a whole new approach to the problem of representing the problems of free-market orthodoxy.
And here's a more elaborate, fanciful story, adapted from Chapter 4 of our book, The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization. It's not all quite honest.
In 2001, we were pretty sure our stint as "identity correctors" for the WTO was over. We'd given keynotes in Austria and Finland, advocating for neoliberal hellscapes and a form of compassionate slavery through remote monitoring technology: a giant, inflatable, golden phallus. The WTO had even published a banner on their website warning visitors about us. Press kept coming in after the fact, and our lectures hadn't elicited much beyond applause. We felt like inept puppet masters before incredibly dour children.
But then, against all odds, another speaking invitation soon arrived, this one from an accountants’ association in Sydney, Australia. The subject of their conference was “Business Without Barriers,” and they wanted the WTO to come speak on the subject of “Agribusiness Globalization,” with special focus on the Australian lamb and Canadian salmon trades. The project you're looking at now—Let Them Eat Hamburgers—was meant to be a dress rehearsal for the real big bang in Sydney.
This time, we swore, the outcome would be different. The event in Sydney was still months away, leaving us ample time to construct an air-tight, failsafe, 100% devastating portrait of WTO-style globalization that couldn’t possibly be misunderstood by anyone. We even decided to do the unthinkable – practice. Before a live audience even. Professor Richard Robbins of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh generously reserved an auditorium for a date two months before our Sydney engagement, and promised to publicize our presentation for his students, our rehearsal, as an actual WTO lecture.
For the next four months, from the top of a big round skyscraper outside of Paris, Andy assiduously performed perruque (“wig”), the traditional French activity of weaseling time from work to do unprofitable things. For four or five hours each day, he marshaled the resources of mobile-phone giant Cégétel towards the formation of an airtight demonstration of the functioning of the modern market.
The talk grew from five pages to fifteen to thirty, then settled back down to twelve. The printer ran out of paper many times, out of ink twice. Andy’s boss was happy to see him so excited about the company’s new accounts and policies, which, like many bosses, he knew nothing about.
While paper, ink, and time were abundant, privacy was not. The concrete stairwell was the only place it could be found, and only for fleeting moments. “Words didn’t work, visuals didn’t work, so we’ve got to get right inside them,” Andy said to Mike.
At the other end of the line in New York, Mike wondered why Andy’s voice was echoing so bizarrely.
“Inside means food,” Andy continued. “I’m seeing a hamburger, ” he said even louder.” “No, I’m seeing hundreds of hamburgers, maybe thousands. Sadly, they’re all... they’re all from McDonald’s."
“I see,” said Mike.
“And speaking of McDonald's, what else does inside mean, besides food?”
“Privilege?” asked Mike.
Andy thought for a moment. “No. I wouldn’t call it access.”
“Okay, I give up,” Mike said. “What does inside mean, besides food?”
Just as Andy was about to answer, Mike heard the sound of a door opening, and the line went suddenly dead.
To our great disappointment, two weeks before our Plattsburgh lecture, the Sydney conference was cancelled. All the meticulous planning we had done for an event halfway around the world was now to culminate in this event a few hours drive from Mike’s house. The “dress rehearsal” had become the main event. We made an extra trip to the thrift store to get just the right shoes for Andy, plus some brown polyester slacks to match the vest Mike had borrowed after a brief stint behind the counter at McDonalds eighteen years before.
When Andy called for questions at the end of his speech, a dozen hands immediately shot up like spears.
“Coming from a Third World country,” said one of the students, “I found most of what you said really offensive. In your view, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. And who is to say whether people in the Third World even want a burger?”
“You know,” Andy said, “I sometimes find it in my heart to agree that cultures deserve equal consideration, perhaps to develop on their own terms. But we’re simply different. Culturally. We’re rich, they’re poor! And staying within the market’s logic, this is the most humane solution we can come up with.” Mike stood up in his McDonald’s uniform. “I’d like to answer a portion of that question as well, if that’s all right—and this answers the question about desire for the product. Our biggest growth areas are in fact in the developing world—so people do want the product. And I’ve brought a video presentation that demonstrates why.”
He inserted a videotape in the deck under the podium. On the screen appeared a McDonald’s interior in lavish 3-D animation; the mouth of a virtual woman was shown in close-up devouring a hamburger. “This here is a consumer in the First World eating a hamburger at McDonald’s,” Mike explained. The woman entered the bathroom and sat on the toilet. “This is a process we’re all familiar with,” Mike noted. “I don’t think I need to explain it to anyone.” The woman stood back up and closed the lid, which featured a Ronald McDonald face under a big “Thanks!” As the woman flushed, the video followed the plumbing underground into a system of tunnels.
“This is a standard piping system,” Mike narrated. “This isn’t unusual. We do this for oil. We could do this for food as well.” The underground tunnels whizzed past for a while, marked every few meters by the McDonald’s logo. “It’s rendered in this elaborate 3-D style because studies have shown that consumers are most responsive to this sort of animation right now, particularly in developing countries.”
The video followed the McDonald’s tubes back up to the surface. “Now, you can see the material emerging somewhere in the Third World, in another McDonald’s.” A big machine in the shape of Ronald McDonald discharged a lump of brown goo from its rear end onto a hamburger bun. “There’s also a filtering process, of course, not shown here,” Mike explained. “It’s completely hygienic." On the screen, a man in a turban was choosing his meal from the overhead menu. “Here, the Third- World consumer is choosing his meal. He can choose the number one, number two, number three, or number four, but instead of referring to combinations of food it refers to the number of times the product has been recycled. We can’t announce this publicly yet, obviously,” Mike explained. “But we want to be as transparent as possible and let people know what’s happening, at least in closed forums like this."
“And we’re lucky to be able to partner with the World Trade Organization, which has slightly different goals from ours. McDonald’s goals are to profit and grow, and we hope that we can provide a nutritious and tasty product in the process.”
“And our goals,” Andy said on behalf of the WTO, “are to help McDonalds profit and grow. And all other corporations as well.”
“Do you think the WTO is maybe lacking, like, a kind of human element?” asked a clean-cut kid in the back. “Have you ever seen starving people?"
“In pictures, yes!” Andy exclaimed.
“So tell me,” the student continued, "if you saw someone starving to death, don’t you think it might hit you in a sensitive place? Maybe then you’d think that markets and money and don’t mean so much—maybe feeding people means more.”
Andy nodded emphatically. “I must say that yes, there is a personal side to this, there are questions that we might very well have about this as human beings. But...”—Andy raised a finger to signal the essential point—“we at the WTO have a firmer grasp on theory than the average human, so we’re not quite as subject to this kind of emotion. As a result, we can direct world trade in a much more intelligent way—a theoretical way—in collaboration with our colleagues at the largest corporations.”
Afterwards, chatting with some offended students at the front of the class, Andy and Mike noticed that a bunch of students to their left were smiling. A few had dreadlocks, and one of them had a big handmade sign that said “KO the WTO.” He handed the sign to Andy. “Nice act,” the boy said wryly. “Y’all had me going for a good minute there."