DATE September 27, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sebastian Mallaby discusses "The World's Banker," a
profile of James Wolfensohn
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Anti-globalization protesters have taken to the streets in recent years
condemning international financial institutions, like the World Trade
Organization, as tools of multinational corporations. But some activists have
come to feel differently about James Wolfensohn, the charismatic and
controversial man who took over as president of the World Bank in 1995.
Wolfensohn championed the cause of debt relief for Third World nations,
condemned the corruption of authoritarian regimes and opened a dialogue with
activist groups. But he's also made enemies inside and outside the bank.
Wolfensohn's turbulent ride at the World Bank is the subject of a book by my
guest, Sebastian Mallaby.
Mallaby is a columnist for The Washington Post, who's covered world
development problems for years. He's written most recently about foreign
policy issues in the presidential campaign. His book about James Wolfensohn
is called "The World's Banker." The World Bank lends hundreds of billions of
dollars for projects in developing countries. I asked Mallaby how it funds
Mr. SEBASTIAN MALLABY (Author, "The World's Banker"): Well, it does it partly
by borrowing the money itself on Wall Street and elsewhere and then on lending
it to poorer countries, who might have trouble borrowing the money directly
themselves, and that was the original conception. When the World Bank was set
up in 1944 when the Second World War was still going on, the concept was that
poor countries or even at that time sort of war-torn Europe, which needed to
be reconstructed after the war, would not have the credit worthiness to borrow
on the capital markets. So you would need a development bank to get in the
middle, to be the borrower on Wall Street and then on-lend to the poor
But there's a second way it channels money as well, and that is by getting
donations from a wide range of richer governments, who every three years put
money into its kitty. And then that subsidizes the World Bank to lend at a
very charitable rate, which is effectively three-quarters grants to the very
poor countries who couldn't afford to borrow on the commercial terms.
DAVIES: Now what was the bank's image in the developing world and among these
non-profit activists organizations who follow it? What was the bank's
reputation when Wolfensohn took over in the mid-'90s?
Mr. MALLABY: Well, that's right. Jim Wolfensohn came to the World Bank in
1995, and just one year before there'd been the 50th anniversary of the World
Bank's founding, which was marked in Madrid, Spain, at the annual meetings of
the World Bank, which turned into what--although we didn't have the word then,
the `anti-globalization movement.' But effectively that's what hit the World
Bank in Madrid that year. There were huge street protests all across Madrid
and the Old Town. People were handing out fake dollar bills saying, you know,
`World Frankenstein,' and, you know, `This bill can be redeemed for
So we had--you know, we're familiar now with the Seattle anti-globalization
protests, which then spread to the World Bank in 2000 and to other targets,
like the World Trade Organization and G7 summit, and that was in 1999-2000.
But before that, five years earlier, the World Bank had come under the same
kind of attack, and that was the background against which Jim Wolfensohn took
over. And his tenure over the last nine years has been a sort of case study
in the question: Can a big, international organization like the World Bank or
any of the other big ones--can it make peace with these activists out there in
the streets who, for one reason or another, don't like it?
DAVIES: Give us an example of the kind of project which earned the activists'
Mr. MALLABY: Well, there were a couple of classic cases in the early '80s.
One was Polaner Estee(ph), which was a development project in Amazonia in
Brazil, where the World Bank supported a project to sort of build roads into
the Amazon and develop it. And although there were various protections built
in--there were kind of wildlife reserves and so forth--it was implemented
badly and caused enormous amounts of environmental destruction in the Amazon.
And that really motivated environmental movements, particularly in the United
States, to get active, to go out there, take evidence, take photographs and
come back to Washington with the evidence that the World Bank was harming the
people that it was supposed to be helping.
DAVIES: Now I gather that the previous president, Louis Preston, had a
reputation for ignoring this criticism, and their letters would go unanswered.
And he never deigned to have any interaction. Give us a sense of Jim
Wolfensohn and sort of, you know, the personality and history he brought to
the job and how that might have been different from previous presidents.
Mr. MALLABY: Well, that's right. I mean, there was a bit of a--you know, one
of the themes that comes up in my book is the way that the World Bank
shifts--mirror shifts in the broader society and politics and in thinking.
And so just as in 1992 the United States experienced an election in which sort
of a patrician East Coast, slightly buttoned-down figure of George Bush Sr.
lost the election to a kind of charismatic, communicator who felt everybody's
pain, Bill Clinton, in the same way the World Bank went through a similar
transition in 1995 when Lou Preston, who was very much in the George Bush Sr.
meld of a kind of tight-lipped, bad communicator, stumbled over his words,
hated the bully pulpit, gave way to this sort of person who wanted to be loved
by everybody, Jim Wolfensohn, who is a natural communicator and loved nothing
better than, you know, going off to a village in Africa and sitting under a
tree in a village, with a village chief, and discussing life with him. And so
this was an entirely new style of leadership which really shook the World Bank
DAVIES: Your book focuses mostly on how effectively he and the World Bank
coped with these issues. But he's an interesting character in himself. I
mean, he was a concert cellist and an Olympic fencer. Just tell us a little
bit about his history.
Mr. MALLABY: Well, that's right. He grew up in relative obscurity in
Australia and made it via the city of London, where he worked in banking in
the 1960s and '70s, to Wall Street, where he not only led the bailout of the
Chrysler car company at the end of the 1970s, but then founded his own firm,
which went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. And he himself amassed
a fortune of whatever, $100 million.
And then he was also, as you say, an accomplished musician. He took up the
cello when he was nearly 40, but he still played on the stage of Carnegie Hall
on his 50th birthday with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and did it again on his 60th
birthday and his 70th birthday, which I went to last year. And so he has this
amazing musical accomplishment.
He also represented his country, Australia, in the Olympics in 1956 and
continued to be an amazing sportsman thereafter. And he really is one of the
most extraordinary networkers. He has a golden Rolodex which spans the world
and ranges from in Hollywood, you know, people like Harrison Ford to, on the
other side of the world, the Dalai Lama. The network is quite extraordinary.
DAVIES: So he uses that network, in effect, to lobby for this job, lobby
President Clinton, and gets it in 1995. He begins with a trip to Africa.
Tell us about that first trip that Jim Wolfensohn took to Africa, who he met
with, the importance of the kind of the steps he took on that trip.
Mr. MALLABY: Well, he set off almost immediately after becoming president of
the World Bank, and most people were telling him, `No, no, you shouldn't go
out into the field immediately. You need to spend some time at headquarters
kind of understanding the organization.' But he made it clear that the
clients of the World Bank, the poor countries that borrowing from it, actually
mattered to him more than whatever was going on within his headquarters.
So he went off, and the first country he went to was Mali, an incredibly poor
country in the Sahara. And rather than just meeting with the president and
the prime minister, which he did do, he also went off to a village and sat
under a tree with the village chief and, you know, ate the local nuts that he
was given and was saluted by some muskets firing in the sky. And he sort of
drank in the whole color of the occasion. He went to, you know, slums and
talked to people that he met there. And he clearly just reacted wonderfully
to the hospitality of the people he met. He connected with them on a human
level. And that did transform the image of the world bank, which had been
seen as a sort of, you know, hard-faced, steely-eyed debt collector for a long
time in Africa, and it showed that this was a World Bank that wanted to reach
out and to be different and to really help people to understand their problems
and not to just dictate that they should, you know, close their budget
deficits or control inflation.
DAVIES: One of the things that he learned in Mali was the importance of the
country directors for the World Bank to be live in and be involved with the
countries that they were directing assistance to. And you write a good bit
about Uganda and how it was regarded in some respects as a success story of a
different kind of development, maybe one in which World Bankers listened more
closely to and learned from the priorities of that country. Tell us about
Uganda and what it tells us about development.
Mr. MALLABY: Well, yes, Uganda is a fascinating story. I mean, we've heard
of development successes in east Asia. We know that the Asian tigers have
made an amazing leap out of poverty in the last generation. But what's
perhaps less known is that a country in the heart of Africa, Uganda, cut the
poverty rate by 40 percent in the 1990s. And so if you ask the question,
well, how did that happen and what did the World Bank contribute, you know,
you can certainly find things that the World Bank did. The World Bank had
technical experts who went and gave good advice and certain key points which
enabled the Ugandan government to do its job better.
But really the key to putting Uganda on the right track was that there
happened to be this extraordinary character who I wrote about a fair bit in my
book who was a sort of Ugandan technocrat, a sort of enormous guy, well over
six foot tall, you know, big, strong and booming voice, hard-drinking
character who just told the foreigners who came to give advice to Uganda--you
know, if he didn't agree with it, he just told them to get lost. And he drove
the agenda; he owned the agenda. He didn't let foreign aid donors tell him
what to do. And that get...
DAVIES: Now his name was Emanuel--tell us the pronunciation.
Mr. MALLABY: Yes. He's called--he has a long name. He's called Emanuel
Tumisini Mutobini(ph). And his position at first was that he was sort of a
chief technocrat, not a government minister, but the sort of top guy or civil
servant underneath him in one of the two or three economics ministries. And
when Museveni, President Museveni, took power in Uganda in 1986, initially
pursued a rather sort of classic status program of nationalizing things and
directing prices from the capital and so on. And this guy, Emanuel Tumisini
Mutobini, said to him, `Mr. President, your plan is going to fail completely,
so I'm going to ignore what you're telling me. I'm going to go create my own
economic plan which will work. And when you realize that your one is no good,
you can come to me and I'll have the plan ready.'
And because indeed the president's plan did fail totally within about 12
months and he did turn to this technocrat who, from then on, you know, his
word was always listened to, and so therefore he had the political backing of
the president to drive a program of reform of things like liberalizing coffee
prices, which allowed poor farmers who grew coffee suddenly to actually get
the benefits of their crops, rather than having it siphoned off by an
inefficient government marketing board which, you know, pocketed most of the
profits. He did reforms like this, and it did cut poverty in Uganda by 40
percent. And the lesson for the international community, for the donors and,
I think, for, you know, American foreign aid policy, too, is that development
really works. Countries really lift themselves out of poverty when the
government in place wants to do it. You can't force them to do it from the
DAVIES: My guest is Sebastian Mallaby. His new book is "The World's Banker:
A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of
Nations." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is Sebastian Mallaby. His book is "The World's Banker." It
profiles the efforts of James Wolfensohn to reform the World Bank.
You know, one of the critiques of the World Bank is that it is essentially run
by the large developing nations, principally the United States, and the view
is that their governments are heavily influenced by multinational corporate
interests, and that therefore the World Bank is essentially an agent of
international corporations. To what extent are decisions about development
projects by the World Bank, do you believe, influenced by specific corporate
interests, say, a company that wants to mine aluminum or expand coffee
production and maybe they get the World Bank to build the railroad or the
highway they need to open a new market?
Mr. MALLABY: Yes, you're right, that is a common perception. I mean, I think
in general, you know, blaming the World Bank for sort of entrenching global
poverty by citing the corporations is a bit like, you know, blaming the Red
Cross for starting World War I. I mean, the World Bank really is trying to
reduce poverty, not entrench it. And the people who go and work there are
extremely qualified people who could have gone to work for somebody else,
Goldman Sachs or McKinsey or some other high-flying job. But they actually
want to get into a C-130 aircraft and fly into a war zone in Bosnia to help
reconstruction there, or they want to go to Africa and get a well into a
village or help out with malnutrition in Southeast Asia. I mean, they--you
know, that's why they do this job.
But you're right that this question of corporate interest comes up a lot. And
I went to Chad, this big landlocked country in central Africa bordering on
Sudan, where you now have this genocide going on, and I looked in detail at
one example where the World Bank was arguably in cahoots with big corporate
DAVIES: This was the oil pipeline, right? Yeah.
Mr. MALLABY: Yeah, that's right. You know, Exxon, ExxonMobil, was building
or developing oil in southern Chad and needed to build a big pipeline to go
through--which would go through a rain forest where pygmies were still living.
And there was obviously great environmental sensitivity as well as social
sensitivity about the indigenous people there. And the World Bank was backing
this project, and so a lot of groups like the Environmental Defense Fund got
extremely upset and protested the bank again and accused the bank of all kinds
of nefarious conspiracy with ExxonMobil. And it's true that ExxonMobil--I
mean, it's a profit-making corporation; it's not, you know, out to save the
world. Its incentive is basically just to get the oil out and make some
money. And so this is sort of a test case of the point you're raising.
But the fact is that the bank's influence on that project was to insist that
ExxonMobil do a 19-volume environmental and social impact study to figure out
precisely how to make this pipeline in a way that would not disrupt the
wildlife as it went through, that would not disrupt the indigenous people that
it went through, that would be sensitive to biodiversity and so on. And they
implement--they oversaw the implementation of this and the building of this
pipeline in a way which was much better than it would have been without the
World Bank's involvement.
DAVIES: One of the things that James Wolfensohn did was, in October of 1996,
he denounced what he called the `cancer of corruption' in Third World
development. You've made the point that one of the things that Wolfensohn and
others have learned is that the World Bank can help a country when it's
determined and committed to help itself. This raised the issue of how you
deal with a country steeped in corruption. What was the significance of the
president of the World Bank taking this issue on?
Mr. MALLABY: Well, he really shattered a taboo with that speech in 1996
because, before then, the World Bank's view had been that it couldn't denounce
corruption in developing countries because that would be political and its
mandate, its charter, was basically supposed to be an economic and banking
institution, not a political one. But what happened is that during the
1980s, when the World Bank essentially focused on getting economic policy
right, on allowing prices to dictate where resources flowed, balancing
budgets, killing hyperinflation, a decade or more of that did not really lift
most of the poor world out of poverty. It didn't work in Africa. You needed
to do more than just the economics. You had to think about the politics,
because if the political institutions were rotten and corrupt, then nobody
could invest and you wouldn't get growth and you wouldn't get anywhere.
And Wolfensohn saw this. He sort of saw it instinctively, and it went back to
early trips he'd made as a young businessman to Nigeria in 1960, where he
tried to invest in Nigeria and was immediately confronted with ministers, who
demanded bribes from him. And he was actually briefly detained by the police
in the '60s and accused of being a spy in Nigeria because, for one reason or
another, he had put his foot wrong.
So he understood that if you want development, you need to have countries
where people can come and invest and not have their money stolen, and that
means dealing with corruption. So he put that on the table. And, you know, I
know people at the World Bank who were advising him before, you know, `You
can't say this.' And he would say, `I'm the president of the World Bank.
I'll say what I want.' And he was quite right.
DAVIES: Wolfensohn has been at the bank now for several years. He's in his
70s. What do you think his priorities and lasting impact will be?
Mr. MALLABY: I think the lasting impact of Wolfensohn's tenure will be to
transform the bank into an institution that is more keen to listen to people
in the poor world, not to dictate development policy to them but, rather, to
ask them what they regard as their priorities. And to support that sort of
stance, he has decentralized the bank. So he's moved people out of
headquarters in Washington and located them in the field, so that they're
close to the client. And he's instituted a policy of reaching out to
non-governmental groups as well as people in government and trying to get
input from all sides about what the right development policy ought to be. So
it's a more open World Bank and a less, sort of, ideological one.
DAVIES: And what are the major project or projects on the World Bank's agenda
Mr. MALLABY: I think the major thing on the bank's agenda for the next five
to 10 years is to figure out a way of playing this middleman position between,
on the one hand, the poor countries that want to borrow from the bank and, on
the other hand, the rich governments in the North and, also, the rich
non-governmental groups, the activist groups on the environment and other
things like that, which want to use the bank to press their agenda for the
developing world, their agenda on the environment, their agenda on the rights
of indigenous peoples, which aren't actually always the same as what the
majority of people living in the poor world want. And so there's this sort of
tension: Is the World Bank going to be the secretariat for the North's
ambitions, or is it sort of going to be a service organization for the world's
DAVIES: Well, Sebastian Mallaby, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MALLABY: Thank you.
DAVIES: Writer Sebastian Mallaby. His new book is "The World Banker."
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, "The Yes Men," how to amuse yourself if you're bored,
smart and politically motivated." We meet Mike Bonanno, who joined his
friends in a worldwide prank to impersonate members of the World Trade
Organization. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Visa for Avalon,"
a political allegory from the '60s that's just been republished.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mike Bonanno discusses his opinions of the World Trade
Organization and new movie, "The Yes Men"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest, Mike Bonanno, is among the anti-globalization activists who believe
most international trade policies aimed at boosting the profits of
multinational corporations at the expense of people in the Third World.
Bonanno and some friends created a Web site spoofing the World Trade
Organization, but a surprising number of people mistook it for the official WTO
site and e-mailed invitations to send them as representatives of the World
Trade Organization to conference. Mike Bonanno and his friend Andy Bichlbaum
accepted the invitations and began attending meetings as WTO representatives
presenting bizarre ideas on international development and trade.
The group filmed their protest pranks, and the result is "Yes Men," a movie in
theaters this week, and also a companion book. I spoke to Mike Bonanno last
Mike Bonanno, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MIKE BONANNO ("The Yes Men"): Thank you.
DAVIES: Before you got involved with The Yes Men, you were involved in a
project called the Barbie Liberation Army?
Mr. BONANNO: It's the Barbie Liberation Organization. In 1993, me and a
group of friends got together and started giving surgery to Teen Talk Barbie
dolls and Talking GI Joes, swapping their voice boxes, so the Barbies said
things like, `Dead men tell no lies,' and the GI Joes said, `I love to shop
with you.' And we put them back on store shelves just in time for Christmas
as a comment on gender stereotyping in children's toys.
DAVIES: How many did you do?
Mr. BONANNO: We did about 300 dolls, and we sent them out to different people
all over the country, who placed them back on store shelves in a program we
called shopgiving. And, of course, the idea there is that it's the opposite
of shoplifting, and with shopgiving everybody benefits because you're
returning an improved product to the store, and they get to sell it twice.
And it's a lot less radical than Santa Claus because Santa Claus, of course,
breaks into houses to deliver the presents.
DAVIES: And there you are actually bearing gifts. Now your partner in The
Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum, was also famous for a stunt involving the computer
game "SimCity." Explain that.
Mr. BONANNO: That's right. He was working for Maxis, the computer game
company that makes "SimCity." And he was working on a game called
"SimCopter." And while he was there, sort of bored at word programming, he
decided to add a lot of extra content to the game. So among the things that
he added were a huge number of kissing boys in swim trunks that would come out
at a certain time. They were--it was an Easter egg. So when the egg hatched,
everybody was treated to some unusual content in the game. And it was hailed
as a great gay activist stunt.
DAVIES: Did both of you manage to avoid lawsuit and prosecution?
Mr. BONANNO: Well, there was no lawsuit or prosecution for either of us,
although, of course, Andy was fired from Maxis.
DAVIES: What a surprise, yeah. Hm. Well, so in your current endeavor, in
"The Yes Men," you end up getting invited to impersonate the World Trade
Organization. How did that happen?
Mr. BONANNO: Well, we set up a Web site at the domain gatt.org. And GATT
is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the predecessor to the World
Trade Organization. And some people coming to the Web site in 1999 didn't
realize that it wasn't the actual WTO Web site. Even though the satire was,
we thought, fairly clear and it was put up in support of the 1999 Seattle
protests and had a lot of links there to events happening in the protest,
there were still people who didn't recognize that it was a fake Web site. And
they sent us e-mail asking us obscure trade questions, which we tried to
answer as honestly and accurately as we could, given our limited knowledge of
But we found that after a while people thought so highly of us and thought
that we were the WTO with such, I guess, clarity and conviction that they
started inviting us to attend their conferences, fully thinking that we were
the World Trade Organization. And we thought about it, and we were sort of
faced with an ethical dilemma. You know, `What do we do?' And we decided the
only ethical thing we could possibly do is go and represent the World Trade
Organization more honestly than they represent themselves.
DAVIES: So you and Andy went to a Conference on Tariffs and Trade in
Salzburg, Austria, right? And your partner, he takes on the name of Dr.--was
Mr. BONANNO: Yeah. We got that name from the Vienna phone book. We asked a
friend in Vienna to...
Mr. BONANNO: ...leaf through the phone book and point out a name. And Dr.
Andreas Bichlbauer was what we got out of it.
DAVIES: All right. So you guys put on suits, and you're in front of this
Conference on Tariffs and Trade. Everybody thinks that you're actually from
the World Trade Organization. What was your message at that presentation?
Mr. BONANNO: Well, we thought that we would really send up WTO policies, and
we suggested things like, for example, outlawing the siesta in Spain or the
long lunch in Italy because they get in the way of work. And this is in
keeping with WTO logic, the idea of the free market solving a lot of problems
and the idea of harmonization, sort of like synchronizing business hours and
things so that, you know, we're more efficient globally. We also suggested
opening a free market in democracy by allowing corporations to sell votes to
the highest bidder. And the shocking thing about all this is that we went
there fully expecting to either be booed off stage, arrested or have some kind
of weird Austrian, you know, legal situation. But as it turned out, the
audience sat there and listened and nodded politely and accepted every
horrible thing that the WTO had to say.
DAVIES: Let's hear a clip from the film that involves an occasion where The
Yes Men actually got onto a cable television program representing the WTO.
Set this up for us.
Mr. BONANNO: All right. Well, in the--let's see, it was in the summer of
2001, we got an invitation from CNBC "Marketwrap Europe" to go on live
television and debate an anti-globalization activist just before the G8 Summit
meeting in Genoa. And so Andy ended up going into a studio in Paris, and he
was linked up live with a studio in London, where they had the international
chairman of Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, and an activist from the
World Development Movement whose name was Barry Coates. And when he ends up
being confronted with this crazy World Trade Organization representative,
Granwyth Hulatberi, which is the fake name that Andy came up with for the
occasion, you find that he's, like, completely shocked and in disbelief that
the WTO representative would speak so honestly about the directions and goals
of the WTO.
DAVIES: OK. So let's hear this clip.
(Soundbite of "The Yes Men")
Unidentified Man #1: I think Barry as well as all the other protesters are
simply, in a word, focused too much on reality and on facts and figures. And
I think I would have to say that this is a long-term problem that comes down
to a problem of education. We have to find a way to convince perhaps not the
protesters but the protesters' children to follow thinkers like Milton
Friedman and Darwin and so on rather than what the protesters have been reared
on: Trotsky and Robespierre and Abbie Hoffman. And I think that putting--the
direction of education being put into private hands, concentration of
resources in the private sector, will naturally lead to this result. And
we'll see the protesters' children being reared with an entirely different set
DAVIES: So you decided to get more outlandish, and I--this probably reaches
its apogee at the textile conference in Finland, right? What happened there?
Mr. BONANNO: Yeah. Well, you know, we decided that we needed something a
little more visual, something that would just hit people over the head, where
they just couldn't avoid seeing our vision of what the WTO. And so we had a
golden suit made with a three-foot-long golden phallus, on the tip of which
was a television monitor that we said was the `employee visualization
appendage.' And the whole premise of this suit was that it was a management
leisure suit and that a manager, no matter where they were in the world, could
administer electric shocks to workers in sweatshops in the Third World. And
this took care of what we called the `remote management problem.'
We talked about the history of textiles because this was a textile conference
and how, basically, you know, 150 years ago we had slavery, and slavery was a
very effective way of managing a work force and keeping costs down. But,
unfortunately, this thing called the Civil War happened, which got in the way
of the natural evolution of slavery into what we have now, which is actually a
much more efficient system, much cheaper than slavery. And there's only this
one problem, which is that managers can't be right there near the workers.
And at the apex of the lecture I grab Andy's business suit, which is a
breakaway business suit. I tear it off, and then he pulls these rip cords.
And this three-foot-long golden phallus inflates, and he explains its purpose.
And to our great shock and dismay, nobody found anything wrong with that.
DAVIES: Do you think people tacitly agreed with this, or did they think,
`These people are just kooks. Why ask a question?'
Mr. BONANNO: I'm sure there were a few people in the audience who thought we
were kooks, but there were equal numbers who tacitly agreed. And the reason
we know that is that afterward we went to great lengths to try to raise
people's ire. Afterward, you know, we were invited to the banquet. Andy, I
think, who was called Hank Hardy Unruh in that context--Hank Hardy Unruh
became like the star of the conference because he had done this theatrical
thing, and everybody kind of loved the theatrics of it. And people didn't see
a problem with it. There was one woman we talked to who said that she
objected to the shape of the device, and she objected to the shape of the
device because it was a phallus. And Andy said, `Well, what if we change it
around a little bit?' And he gestured around his chest as if to, you know,
make a different kind of employee visualization appendage. And she said,
`Yeah, that would be fine.'
DAVIES: (Laughs) Mike Bonanno. He's part of the protest prankster group The
Yes Men. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is Mike Bonanno. He's one of The Yes Men, the protest
group that went around impersonating representatives of the World Trade
Now you finally get some reaction when you go to a--appear before a bunch of
students. And as I recall, this presentation was a computer presentation of
the idea of recycling human waste into sort of degraded hamburgers to feed the
population of the Third World. And let's hear a clip of this. Tell us a
little bit about what happens here.
Mr. BONANNO: Well, it's interesting. Unlike all the audiences of experts
that we talked to earlier, these students had a lot less education and a lot
less indoctrination into these ideas of why the free market is necessarily
good. And we were relieved, finally, after years of doing this to speak to
the student group and to have them react to the horrible things that the WTO
was saying almost immediately. And they started throwing their hamburgers at
us. It kind of erupted into, you know, bedlam by the end of the lecture.
DAVIES: OK. So let's hear a clip here where one of the students, I believe,
challenges Andy on one of his assumptions. Let's hear this.
(Soundbite of "The Yes Men")
Unidentified Man #2: It seems you guys--like, the WTO is kind of lacking kind
of like a human element, you know? Like, if you saw--have you ever seen
Mr. ANDY BICHLBAUM: In pictures, yes.
(Soundbite of audience yelling)
Unidentified Man #2: OK. So tell me, if you saw somebody starving to death,
you would probably think a lot--you know, like that would kind of hit you in a
sensitive, you know, place to say, like, `Oh, well, you know, maybe markets
and money and this and that don't really mean as much, and actually, like,
feeding people means a little bit more,' you know?
Mr. BICHLBAUM: Yeah. Well, it is true that there's a personal side of it
that--I have to say, in the WTO there are questions that we have about this as
human beings. But we're not as subject--we have a kind of firmer grasp on
theory. We are able, fortunately, to simply direct world trade in a much more
theoretical way in collaboration with our colleagues at the largest
corporations. So, you know, yes, probably if I went to these countries, I'd
be--I'd feel--I'd think about things a little differently perhaps. But at the
same time I don't think I would forget all my schooling. I don't think I
would forget, you know, all these theories and so on. So perhaps one day I'll
DAVIES: That was Andy Bichlbaum in the film "Yes Men." His partner, Mike
Bonanno, is my guest today on FRESH AIR. Their book--they have a new film,
also a companion book called "Yes Men."
Well, Mike Bonanno, in a nutshell, what is your case against the World Trade
Mr. BONANNO: The World Trade Organization is a bad idea at its core. Its
DNA, its core idea, is that it will help businesses do business. And in order
to do that, they work on opening markets, on freeing trade. Now we're looking
at what's happened in the last 30 years, and everybody agrees that poverty
has, in fact, increased in the world; that what we have seen, and during this
period when markets have been opened more than anytime previously in history,
is a greater income gap, more disparity between rich and poor. And all of
this, you know, leads one to see very clearly that these WTO policies do not
Now if we're going to have an organization that's out there that's about an
international body, why not have one whose goals are to help people or to help
put business in the service of the needs of the poor, the needs of the
environment, rather than to help businesses do business? The logic of it is
fundamentally absurd. It's a bit like--you know, we're all familiar with the
absurdity of the idea of Reagan trickle-down economics, the idea that if you
help the rich, if you give tax cuts to the rich, somehow the poor are going to
benefit. It didn't work with Reaganomics, and it's not working on a global
scale with the policies of the WTO.
It's very common for the WTO to say that they're a fundamentally democratic
organization, but that is not the case at all. What they're doing, in fact,
is undermining democracies all over the world because what they do is create
rules that allow corporations to do what they want, no matter what the will of
the citizens are. And that's our biggest problem.
DAVIES: But aren't there economists who point out, for example, though, that
while there may be examples of abuse and exploitation, that opening of China,
for example, to markets in foreign investments has pulled 100 million people
out of poverty in that country? I mean, do you see no role for markets and
corporations in the developing world?
Mr. BONANNO: There's definitely a role for markets, and in many cases free
markets do work. But it does not work as a blanket policy, and it doesn't
work as a matter of faith or a matter of chorus. And, unfortunately, that is
typically what happens with the WTO. Also, China has been very protectionist
over the years. They got to a point where they could be competitive, and they
still don't allow companies to go in and buy up, simply purchase, all of the
rights to certain things in the country. So to say that the free market is
operating in China is a fallacy as well, to use as an example of a success
story. They've been very protectionist, and it's worked for them.
DAVIES: You know, in doing this, you do something that most activists never
do, which is to actually have face-to-face contact with--well, for lack of a
better word--the enemy, I mean the people who represent the policies and
institutions you're condemning. And I'm wondering, when you're setting up
these meetings and actually attending these conferences, I'm sure you meet
lots of nice, seemingly well-meaning people. And I wonder, does it ever
undermine, you know, your faith, your commitment to the principles of your
Mr. BONANNO: Well, I think we're constantly faced with trying not to make the
brunt of the joke the people who are in the audience. That's not what we're
trying to do. We have found that the people that we're talking to are
typically very intelligent, very interesting, personable. It's just that it's
part of a system that's corrupt, a system that's a problem. And sometimes
their faith in that system, and their unshakable faith, is the problem.
Generally speaking, we sit down with them and eat lunch or something. We have
a good time. You know, they're like--they could be us; we could be them.
And, in fact, in the last event that we did in--when we went to Sydney,
Australia, and disbanded the WTO--we announced that the WTO was closing its
doors, and we were replacing it with something better, the Trade Regulation
Organization, that would put the needs of people ahead of the needs of
business. We got an overwhelming show of support, even from conservative
people who were there--and it was an accounting conference. And they said,
`You know, enough is enough. We agree with you. It's very bold for you to do
this, for you to admit that you were wrong, and to take a new path.' And in
the luncheon afterward they came up with amazing ideas for how to rebuild a
Trade Regulation Organization that served the needs of people. And one of the
simple ideas to start out with was locating the headquarters in a Third World
country, so that it was easier for the poorest nations to keep an office there
and to have a year-round presence because, strangely enough, the poorest
nations can't actually afford to keep a year-round presence in Geneva.
Mr. BONANNO: So there were some simple ideas that were great.
DAVIES: I wonder how much--I mean, part of what you do is protest, and part
of it is performance. How much are you motivated by, you know, the thrill of
being a showman, and how much of it is just effecting social change?
Mr. BONANNO: Well, I think we're motivated by both. We enjoy the mischief.
You know, we enjoy the play part of it. You know, we sort of joke
sometimes--I mean, we're both, like, pushing middle age, but we like to act
like we're, you know, 14.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BONANNO: But it's--you know, I think that also, you know, we like to
pursue these political goals at the same time, and we'd like to see a better
world, you know, in our lifetime. And so that's--you know, these things are
not mutually exclusive; they can go together.
DAVIES: Mike Bonanno. The movie about his prankster protest group, "The Yes
Men," will be in theaters this week.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a political allegory from the '60s about the
loss of civil liberties. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Paris Press' reprint of "Visa for Avalon"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Paris Press is a small, non-profit publishing house that reprints the
neglected work of women writers, famous and not so famous. Their latest
offering is an almost 40-year-old political allegory about the loss of civil
liberties called "Visa for Avalon." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
In these jittery times when questions of national security dominate the
presidential race, Paris Press has decided the moment is right for a
rediscovery of a political allegory called "Visa for Avalon." The book was
first published in 1965, and it was written by an Englishwoman named Annie
Winifred Ellerman, who adopted the pen name Bryher. By now I thought that
feminist critics had exhumed even the most minute mummified remains of any
literary woman who'd been covered over by the sands of time. But Bryher's
corpus and life story are worth bringing to light.
In an essay appended to "Visa for Avalon," Bryher's biographer, Susan McCabe,
tells readers that in 1914 the young Bryher was captivated by the innovations
of Imagist poetry. And so she sought out the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, or
H.D. The two began a lifelong relationship, raising H.D.'s infant daughter in
a two-mommy family. Along the way Bryher also entered into two heterosexual
marriages of convenience. With her first husband, she founded a publishing
company in Paris that printed the work of out-there writers, such as Gertrude
Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway and Marianne Moore. She
also helped Sylvia Beach to fund the legendary Shakespeare & Company Bookshop
Poet Ezra Pound has been credited with being the intellectual benefactor of
the modernist literary movement. But McCabe makes a pithy, convincing case
for Bryher's central role. In the late 1930s, Bryher, who was then living in
Switzerland, became active in politics. She sheltered and procured visas for
over 100 German intellectuals, many of them Jews fleeing the Nazis. One
refugee whom she supported but ultimately couldn't save was the philosopher
Walter Benjamin, who, in despair, committed suicide at the Franco-Spanish
border when he was prevented from crossing.
Throughout the adventures of her life, which also included forays into
psychoanalysis and avant-garde filmmaking with Paul Robeson, Bryher kept
writing. In addition to "Visa for Avalon," she churned out historical novels,
memoirs, poetry and coming-of-age tales. All but the latter have been out of
print for nearly 30 years. "Visa for Avalon" is a short allegory about the
devastating cost of political apathy. To be frank, I think its appeal is more
that of a literary curiosity than of a call to action. But one thing Bryher's
tale has going for it, aesthetically speaking, is a keen sense of suspense.
Allegory is the forum writers reach for when they want to drum in a message.
Consequently many political allegories feel static; Orwell's "Animal Farm" and
Huxley's "Brave New World" come to mind, as does Shirley Jackson's "The
Lottery," my personal nominee for the `I Get It Already Award' in message
But "Visa for Avalon" is a bit of a nail-biter. It's set in a no-name country
that looks a lot like England, where a totalitarian movement claiming to be
working for the betterment of the common citizenry is about to sweep away
individual rights. In her vivid descriptions of the green jacketed
movement(ph) sympathizers, Bryher seems indebted to 1950s' anti-Communist
sci-fi movies as well as to her Imagist poetic origins. She describes one
unthinking victim of the movement's championing of cheap, mass-produced good
as wearing a cap made of `white linoleum with an edging of coral beads.' Most
of the citizens here have resolutely stuck their heads in the sand. But on
the eve of a general strike, six thinly drawn characters, including a retired
businessman, a secretary and a simple farm woman, decide to make a frantic try
for the last remaining exit visas for Avalon, a country rumored to be off the
coast from which no traveler has ever returned. Overcoming roadblocks, mobs,
sadistic bureaucrats and forces of nature, her characters push forward to
Avalon, where society perhaps is more enlightened--or not.
The indeterminacy of Bryher's ending is one of the subtler aspects of this
lively story. As someone who helped refugees escape Hitler, Bryher certainly
knew that there's a time when it's wiser to flee into the unfamiliar than to
stand and fight a known evil. But "Visa for Avalon" is certain about one
thing: There's never a time to stop thinking, stop questioning. The
alternative to inform skepticism is a brain covered with linoleum.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Visa for Avalon" published by Paris Press.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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