Political pranksters the Yes Men are among the most insightful activists of our time, and few films skewer the logic of America’s corporate culture better than their 2009 masterpiece, The Yes Men Fix the World.
I show the film toward the end of my introductory US history classes, following lessons on the Reagan Revolution (via the Moral Majority, Phyllis Schlafly, ALEC, the Business Roundtable, and the Heritage Foundation) and the impacts of “free trade” globalization through NAFTA and the WTO. The Yes Men help bring these issues together, and they appeal to students from across the political spectrum. Not only are they funny, they are also willing to pick fights with the powerful—in both the public and private sectors. Perhaps most importantly, the Yes Men also expose a fundamental contradiction in modern American ideology: If hitting is wrong when kindergarteners do it, why do we applaud and reward Dow Chemical and Halliburton for doing worse?
The Yes Men Fix the World concludes with a brilliant vignette in which the Yes Men and their friends publish and distribute their own edition of the New York Times. Rather than reflecting on bleak current events, the issue boasts future articles that could be—“All the News We Hope to Print.”
When I show the film in class (usually skipping the bit on Exxon, in order to trim the length to one hour), I break students into pairs or small groups and ask them to brainstorm a few headlines that they would like to read in their local or campus newspaper in five or ten years. I ask them to consider some of the issues that we have studied in recent weeks, and I usually throw out a few to get the ball rolling—“Free Tuition For All,” “Tax on Credit Card Companies to Pay Off All Tuition Debts,” that type of thing.
The film is already a conversation starter, and it ends with energy, so students are generally happy to talk to about it. After giving them five minutes or so, I bring the class back together and ask for some of their headlines. Occasionally, I have to massage them a bit—“No More Pollution” becomes “100% Renewable Energy Policy Now In Effect.” After we have ten or so up on the board, I pick a couple that I feel the most comfortable with and ask students, “If we want to read this headline in ten years, what headlines do we need to read in one year, or in three years?”
For our city to switch entirely to renewable energy, perhaps we would first need headlines about a protest movement bringing climate change to the forefront, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, courts overturning voter repression laws, and the election of new city council members.
Before college tuition becomes free, we might first need to see a national student movement to establish that demand, surging youth voter turnout to cost politicians key elections, and students across the country to go on tuition and debt strike—or to start new “freedom” colleges.
The punch line, of course, is that headlines do not just happen. People (like us) will have to turn these hopes into realities, just as they have throughout history.
Students’ suggestions are often politically diverse, and I have no problem explaining how any given agenda could be realized. The Yes Men may want to see a different world than some students do, after all, and that is fine with me. I do confront misinformation, however, either directly or by re-focusing the discussion onto the specific issues that we have studied (keeping our focus local also helps avoid partisan pitfalls). The key is to keep the conversation on the future—to avoid getting bogged down in the latest political distractions.
For me, one of the key challenges in teaching history is finding an appropriate level of historical imagination and empathy—enough to establish a human connection with subjects, but to discourage “I wish I could have lived through such and such decade” tropes. I think a similar problem exists in imagining the future. How do we envision the world that the next generation will inherit, without resorting to hover boards, colonies on Mars, or the Zombie Apocalypse? This exercise, often one of the last in my classes, helps us move in that direction.
I firmly believe in the importance of understanding history, but not because “history repeats itself.” It absolutely does not. However, if we are doing it right, knowing where we are, and how we got here, should help us figure out where we want to go and how to get there.
Alas, we’ll have to fix the world ourselves, but the Yes Men can help us get started.
The Yes Men Fix the World is widely available on DVD and on the web (in many places for free). The latest Yes Men film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, makes its film festival debut this month.
Dawson Barrett is an Assistant Professor of US History at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Teenage Rebels: Stories of Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow” (Microcosm Publishing, 2015).