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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

“…people came up and shook our hands, accepted the golden skeleton keychains we were giving out, and the free trial software for balancing money versus death.” —Igor Vamos ’90

Igor Vamos and the Yes Men stage a campaign prank

The Provocateur

Igor Vamos ’90

Igor Vamos is exhausted. The day before our meet-up in Brooklyn, the cofounder of the group of activist pranksters known as the Yes Men spent the day standing chest-deep in a mud puddle outside Albany, wearing a business suit. “I drove by the puddle and there was a Hummer stuck in it,” Vamos says. “I thought it would be a good place for us to narrate our new movie.”

How to Fix the World will be the second film to chronicle the antics of the Yes Men, which started up somewhat accidentally in 2000, when Vamos (whose Yes Men handle is “Mike Bonanno”) and his buddy Andy Bichlbaum (also a pseudonym) created a parodic website, gatt.org, to highlight what they viewed as the neoliberal depredations of the World Trade Organization. Soon, invitations and correspondence meant for the real WTO started showing up in their inbox. “If people had read the website, it would have been obvious it was a fake,” Vamos says. “It was totally ridiculous.”

Sensing a brilliant opportunity for countercultural mischief, the pair accepted an invitation to speak at an international trade law conference in Salzburg, Austria. When Bichlbaum, wearing a borrowed suit, presented what they imagined were patently absurd policy recommendations (among them that citizens should be allowed to sell their votes to the highest bidder), they expected to be outed and hauled off to jail. But to their surprise, the audience took the satire to be a legitimate presentation. “Whatever we said was still acceptable,” Vamos says. “It wasn’t outside the realm of what they might expect from the WTO.”

Since that first satirical stunt, the Yes Men (www.theyesmen.org) have escalated to ever more daring hijinks. More often than not, their high-powered audiences take their immodest proposals in stride. In 2005, posing as Dow Chemical spokesmen at a banking conference, they introduced a golden skeleton mascot—“Gilda”—to illustrate the proposition that any risk is acceptable, including that of catastrophes like Bhopal, as long as it ultimately generates profits. “Afterward, people came up and shook our hands, accepted the golden skeleton keychains we were giving out, and the free trial software for balancing money versus death,” Vamos says. “One guy used the word ‘refreshing.’”

Vamos works days as an assistant professor of integrated electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. He acknowledges that it’s difficult to measure the concrete effects of Yes Men actions beyond the number of news stories they generate, although he does think they have contributed something to the groundswell of public opinion against WTO policies and focused attention on the victims of Bhopal and Hurricane Katrina. “We do things this way because we have fun at it,” he says. “It’s definitely not the best thing we could be doing, but we’re kind of good at it.”

The thinker

Solveig Singleton ’87

Solveig Singleton came to college a passionate leftist— not an unusual cast of mind for a first-year Reed student. But somewhat less predictably, she left Reed a committed free-market libertarian, a shift in orientation that she calls “the epitome of weird.”

“I came to Reed with certain questions, and as I heard the answers I was still unsatisfied. But as I moved forward in politics and began to work on cutting-edge issues, I found it more helpful to set aside ideology and just kind of look at things like a curious animal, and see what works and what doesn’t.” —Solveig Singleton ’87

Weird or not, the political and economic theories Singleton explored with fellow Reed contrarians (and through writing a philosophy thesis on John Locke) have stuck with her through a decade of policy work for a series of libertarian foundations and think tanks. After getting a J.D. from Cornell, she landed at the Cato Institute working on privacy and free speech issues, and has since worked for several organizations that promote classically liberal ideals of limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. Her current gig, as an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation, has her researching and writing about copyright and patent law.

But Singleton says it has always been curiosity, not ideology, that has motivated her. “For me it was a personal journey,” she says. “I came to Reed with certain questions, and as I heard the answers I was still unsatisfied. But as I moved forward in politics and began to work on cutting-edge issues, I found it more helpful to set aside ideology and just kind of look at things like a curious animal, and see what works and what doesn’t.” That’s an easier stance to assume in her current area of specialty, intellectual property, than when she was churning out policy papers on privacy rights and the USA Patriot Act.

“The Patriot Act was just awful,” she says. “There would be new drafts of legislation coming off the Hill every day, and every day one would have to pore over this hundred-page document, type up an analysis, and send it back to staffers on the Hill. Then the anthrax thing hit and the Hill was evacuated—where were the staffers? Where were the congressmen? Nobody knew.”

Eventually, she burned out on privacy issues, convinced that the civil libertarians with whom she was allied needed to think more creatively about how to protect individual rights in a post-9/11 world. Singleton thinks things will have to get worse before they get better. “By and large the law enforcement side now gets pretty much what they want in terms of information,” she says, “and they haven’t the faintest idea what to do with it. And the civil libertarians are left being upset, which isn’t a very good place for either side to be. I think eventually bad things will start to happen. And then we’ll start thinking about the problem again.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2008