By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I’m met at the airport by Dan Ollman — Bonanno’s being interviewed for NPR, and Bichlbaum’s at a local cybercafe drafting a press release. The plan for that morning had been to converge on the Medford courthouse, where a mediation process over attempts to convert the partially burned Siskiyou wilderness region into tree farms was scheduled to begin. Perhaps sensing the potential for disruption, the powers that be had pulled a double whammy — first the hearing had a last-minute change of venue to Eugene, and then Republican junior Senator Gordon Smith had announced that if the environmental activists failed to make acceptable concessions, he would attach a rider to must-pass legislation (Florida hurricane relief, probably) that would remove the discussion from the courts.
The Yes Men, on their way to Medford when the announcement was made, had improvised a Healthy Forestry Award and appeared at Senator Smith’s office to make a presentation. The senator was not at his desk, but nearby they found a boatful of Republicans attending a Boy Scout fund-raiser. Smokey was again a hit, earning an endorsement from Oregon’s Reagan-era governor, Victor Atiyeh, who said Smokey’s pro–global warming discourse was “preaching to the choir.” With further opportunities for guerrilla theater unforthcoming, the Yes Men had to fall back on their second virtual line of offense — sending out 60,000 e-mail press releases announcing Smith’s prize and unveiling Smokey as the first among a new generation of woodsy mascots.
After the Republican switcheroos, the Yes Men learned that the planned Sacramento leg of their press junket had been consolidated with the following day’s San Francisco events — the entire operation has been a test of the group’s improvisational aplomb — so once the video shoot wraps, we pile into the van and head south for the city by the bay. We finally hit our hotel beds around 4 a.m., and are back in action around 10. The next few days are to include numerous media interviews, some cakes for RNC-donor visitations, and a preview screening of the documentary at UC Berkeley. But first it’s time to visit Castro Street to unveil another nouveau Republican mascot — “Diversity Compassion Orangutan, an orange primate with a great deal of street cred, and symbolizing the acceptance of this administration for the rainbow of tastes and practices that makes up our great country.” Diversity Compassion Orangutan, a.k.a. Mike Bonanno in a suit of foam rubber, gold lamé and fun fur, valiantly attempts to get locals to sign a petition annulling their same-sex marriages and encouraging them to download ANUL@home software to dedicate their home computer to calculating every permutational potential same-sex marriage in America and pre-emptively annulling each one. I put on my blue suit and a “Yes, Bush Can!” name tag. I am “Ruben Lesar.”
Unsurprisingly, the proposal is met with some hostility. What is surprising is how few recognize the situation as satirical. Isn’t this the home of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which pioneered this sort of jape? But somehow America’s most progressive sample population is as blind to faux Republican absurdity as the Republicans themselves are, and even less welcoming. Ninety percent of Diversity Compassion Orangutan’s contacts brush by him without comment. Others offer terse capsule observations. “Fuck Bush!” opine several. “You’ve got big balls coming here!” screams one gentleman. An hour inside an orangutan suit is plenty, and as Bonanno sheds its layers, the mood is slightly dispirited. “Why couldn’t we get anyone to interact?” asks Bichlbaum.Mike (A.K.A. Diversity Compassion Orangutan) and Andy, left, in San Francsico trying to get locals to annul their same-sex marriages.
“I think people just don’t like signing petitions,” offers Katy, a local 15-year-old Yesette sporting an “I MKarl Rove” T-shirt. Other theories are put forward — the pitch was too convoluted, the community too isolated from the possibility of actual Republican engagement. “Maybe Diversity Compassion Orangutan should have just hugged people to show them they’re welcome in the Big Tent, and then tell them the conditions later,” I offer. The Yes Men nod. “That’s good. We’ll try that tomorrow.” I’m beaming. For an embedded reporter, it’s like surviving the first Scud attack. I’ve got the right stuff. I’m part of the team.
On the drive to Berkeley, Mike reports that the Diversity Compassion Orangutan costume has somehow destroyed all sensation in his right index finger. The frustration of the Castro adventure has dissipated, though — Yes Men events are experimental in nature, so there’s no real failure. McLuhanesque probes into the Matrix-like zone between media representation and subjective experiential reality, their “failures” are often more valuable than their “successes,” rendering more profitable and surprising information than would a seamless hoax.
A case in point is the final, anticlimactic intervention chronicled in The Yes Men movie. We arrive at the Shattuck Cinema just in time and huddle in the back. I’ve only seen a screener tape, by myself, and though confident in the authority of my professional opinion, I’m reassured that the audience finds The Yes Men as riotously funny and righteously kick-ass as I do. But their enthusiastic outbursts taper off as the film winds down during the final episode in which the Yes Men travel to Sydney, where, as their alter egos, they announce the dissolution of the WTO because they finally recognized that they were hurting poor people instead of helping them.
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