Corporate watchdogs, poker aficionados and concerned citizens will all have reason to delight in The Ruckus Society's newest bid to expose the ''War Profiteers'' who benefit from combat at the expense of Iraqis and Americans alike, engagingly rendered on a harmless-looking set of playing cards.
Their tone is humorous, but make no mistake: these cards are an essential weapon. Their faux-camouflage finish makes them perfect for stealth viewing on the bus or at work. And while you may never actually come face-to-face with the enemy, they ensure that you'll be well armed.
They're an inspired spoof of the ''Iraq's Most Wanted'' deck, which was issued to coalition troops in April by the U.S. Defense Department and included photos and descriptions of individuals integral to Saddam Hussein's regime. Soon the flag-buying segment of the American public had another product to covet, and sales skyrocketed.
Ruckus is a well-respected progressive organization that specializes in training others in the latest in activism tools from internet organizing to rope climbing but its latest project is homegrown. The deck focuses on the multitude of incestuous relationships between oil, gas, military and defense corporations, government officials, and media groups, the conflicts of interest they evoke, and their lucrative involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The ''shadow governments'' of world policy top this stacked deck, with the WTO, IMF and World Bank as the ace of spades, clubs and diamonds, respectively. Henry Kissinger (''Architect of Evil'') reigns as the Queen of Hearts, with Dick Cheney as his King, and humorous photos of Tom Ridge and Donald Rumsfeld accompany enlightening facts about their political careers. Players can learn how Monsanto and Lockheed Martin are in bed together and how deep Bechtel and ExxonMobil's special interests go. And there's only one ''Jerk'' (Joker) in this deck ''Petty Dictator'' George W. Bush.
The scheme was born under typical circumstances for Ruckus. Mojgone Azemun, the group's training director, first approached fellow activist and graphic designer Innosanto Nagara about the project at a ChevronTexaco civil disobedience action in mid-April. She pitched it in the time it took for him to get arrested.
''He disappeared for a couple of days after that,'' recalls Azemun. ''But he got out and asked me, 'Remember that idea? Let's do it.''' Together they spawned a plan for a different way to educate the public about corporate abuses, one that would probably not result in anyone's arrest.
As it happened, fellow activists Pratap Chatterjee and Jeff Conant of the Hesperian Foundation had been planning the same project. They fused their creative efforts and individual expertise with those of Gopal Dayaneni, a trainer with Ruckus; John Sellers, Ruckus' executive director, and others. Some worked nights and weekends, staying up till 2 AM; they found a local unionized print broker, used recycled paper with soy-based inks. The cards went from concept to product in less than four weeks.
But they weren't the only ones with a good idea. Several similar-minded spoof decks emerged in the meantime, including one from Gatt.org with pictures of officials they recommended be ''removed from power'' to ensure real world peace; sarcastic ''Republican Chickenhawk'' cards (officials and pundits who have avoided serving their country); Greenpeace's ''Nuclear Solitaire Game;'' far-out ''Psychedelic Republicans;'' and from the right, ''The Deck of Weasels,'' taking jabs at The Dixie Chicks, Hans Blix, Jacques Chirac and others.
Ruckus is keeping the cards' price down in the interest of selling as many as possible through the War Profiteers website, www.warprofiteers.com, for a $10 donation to the nonprofit.
The site also acts as a portal to other activist organizations, divided up by suit (e.g. hearts for government officials ''because they love you''). It's no coincidence that many of the ''profiteers'' are associated with institutions that activists have been focusing on. And clicking on a card online reveals extra intelligence on companies and officials.
Compiling that information was an important part of the project for Azemun. As they were working, ''I was finally being educated about the players that some people only hear about. Take Sam Nunn, for instance. A lot of people recognize his name from Congress, but now he has positions on three or four executive boards,'' she explained.
The cards also give crucial attention to influential but lesser-known right-wing groups, such as editor William Kristol's Project for a New American Century, or the Grace News Network, a Christian media group that was handpicked by the Bush administration to produce Arabic TV news for Iraq.
Early response to the cards has been overwhelming. Ruckus is printing 10,000 decks due to the volume of orders; the website gets 3,000 hits a day, many of which are from different countries in Europe. They've heard from art galleries, magicians, high school history teachers, and even a California woman who ordered several decks for her poker club. Democracy Now's Amy Goodman cracked up as she read them out on the air.
In short, they've become the perfect ''culture jamming'' tool. ''We should be putting our messages on vectors of culture to exploit our message, the same way Pepsi does with hip-hop,'' said Azemun. Ruckus may create a new international deck featuring Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai and other figures complicit in the exploitation of the Iraq war.
There's also talk of sending them to members of Congress. Chatterjee, a journalist who created the text for the military and defense-themed cards, calls them ''a good political education tool for youth'' that could have a dual use in the 2004 elections. At a recent peace conference in Indonesia, he passed along several decks to activists from Afghanistan and Iraq ''To see if they caught any of the criminals.''
The cards' sly, comic flavor does not detract from the seriousness of the issues they're concerned with. ''If you can poke fun at something, it's no longer taboo to talk about,'' Sellers asserts. He says it was important to him that there be humor, which was almost too easy to do: ''These are the best straight guys in the world.''
At the same time, remarks Nagara, ''I don't see global capitalism capitulating to humor. Ultimately, we're going to have to get people organized on a much larger scale.''
While the deck can be used to play any cardgame, from ''bullshit'' to bridge, there is an obvious candidate.
''I've been using them to play War with my friends,'' said Dayaneni, who compiled the information on the oil, gas and energy companies. ''Once in a while you have to stop and say, 'Wait a minute: Paul Wolfowitz is an 8 and [Boeing CEO] Philip Condit's a 9? Let's reconsider this.' It makes you think.'''
Julia Scott is a San Francisco-based freelence writer and Associate Editor with Independent Arts and Media.
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