Tuesday, March 17, 2009
At South by Southwest this weekend, I saw the new documentary by the Yes Men, who stage elaborate pranks in which they purport to represent corporations or government agencies at conferences and such. One of their most famous stunts was to appear on a live BBC television broadcast promising on behalf of Dow Chemical finally to accept full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster and devote $12 billion to compensation and remediation. In another prank, one of the Yes Men went to a reconstruction conference in New Orleans posing as a HUD official, wherein he publicly promised to re-open the public housing projects that the federal government has been in the process of closing. You might call these kinds of activities spreading false good news.
What struck me was the reaction of many of the forces of propriety and respectability, including some journalists, to these antics. Although most journalists simply reported the hoaxes, as they should, some expressed outrage that the Yes Men would so cruelly raise the hopes of the poor victims of these disasters. In some of the most satisfying parts of the documentary, the Yes Men actually travel to India and the most down-and-out neighborhoods of New Orleans to verify that far from being made distraught by their actions, the victims instead of course heartily approved of anyone calling attention to their plight. They got the joke.
Why the outrage at satire? Is it simply a reaction to being taken in by a con artist? Or is it an instinctive rush to defend the status quo, and attack anyone who challenges it? Or is it chagrin that jokers like the Yes Men sometimes do a more effective job of reporting the news than respectable journalists?
We saw a similar reaction in some quarters last week when Jon Stewart lacerated CNBC for touting the stocks of many of the companies that crashed and burned last fall. People like Joe Scarborough immediately began to question Jon Stewart's credentials to address the serious subject of financial reporting. Lighten up, Joe. Jon Stewart doesn't have to be a certified expert on the financial markets to do the important job that he is doing. I was worried that Jon Stewart wouldn't have a job at all after the election, but I shouldn't have worried. We always need satirists, and we should treasure them.