The Yes Men target World Economic Forum
In a series of diabolically stupid video manipulations, a cabal of anti-poverty filmmakers have performed an elaborate slander of the World Economic Forum, showing its “leading lights” taking a dramatic departure from the litany of meaningless pledges they usually make at the annual gathering in the Swiss resort town.
In response, WEF spokesperson Adrian Monck could barely contain himself. “The only defense to satire is common sense!” he sputtered, before racing back into the WEF war room to deal with the burgeoning crisis.
Fortunately for the WEF, few media outlets picked up on the WEF’s fantastic but fictional approach to world poverty (“World Leaders Pledge Strategy to End Poverty Now”). Instead, the media was dominated by coverage of a real WEF press release warning of “Over Regulation of the Financial Sector” (sic).
The Yes Men are culture-jamming activists who practice “identity correction.” They pose as powerful leaders and create fake websites as a way to strip corporations of all their PRspeak and expose the heart of corruption.
Think of this as a form of protest Americans (and their media) actually pay attention to. Pickets and rallies are all well and good, but TYM are theater, and America loves to be entertained.
Arguably the most famous example of the group’s work occurred when Andy Bichlbaum appeared on BBC World (on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster) as “Jude Finisterra”, a Dow Chemical spokesman. Bichlbaum Finisterra declared Dow was prepared to right the wrongs of the past by compensating the victims and cleaning up the mess in Bhopal. Dow would do this, Finisterra explained, by sending $12 billion for medical care, clean up, and research into the hazards of other Dow products.
By the time the media played catch-up and discredited the story, Dow’s stock had declined by $2 billion.
Now, TYM have their eyes on poverty, namely the World Economic Forum, the group of fat cat leaders that annually gathers in Davos to “sort out the world’s problems.” These meet-and-greets of the world’s rich and privileged have been heavily criticized for being Kabuki theater. Critics charge that WEF is actually
a business forum where the richest businesses can easily negotiate deals with one another and lobby the world’s most powerful politicians, and that the aim is profit-making rather than solving economic problems like poverty. It has also been criticized as an elitist forum for circumventing democratic politics, and for encouraging non-transparent, secretive decision-making.
The Leaders makes lots of promises about ending poverty and global warming, little happens, and then protesters, who are rightfully angry, smash a McDonald’s window, which does nothing in the long-term.
As part of their patented “identity correction,” TYM created a fake website for WEF that makes several radical promises:
- The global guarantee of food, drinking water, shelter, healthcare, education, as basic human rights that must be provided free to all.
- An end to private monopoly ownership over natural resources, with a minimum 51% local communal ownership in corporations that control such resources. The termination of intellectual property rights on pharmaceutical drugs.
- A total redistribution of idle lands to landless farmers and the imposition of a 50% cap on arable land devoted to products for export per country, with the creation of a worldwide subsidy for organic agriculture.
To name only three. The entire list of “pledges” is here. Go read them. It’s sad that this is just satire. And that is why TYM have been criticized in the past for giving victims false hope, but in such criticism we see the skewed priorities of the world. Critics should instead level their harsh words at Dow for killing thousands of people and failing to clean up the abandoned UCIL plant, which continues to leak and poison the groundwater of thousands more.
The big crime is not the false hope. The big crime is that the hope is false. The real scandal is that corporations, and these powerful elites, do not face the same level of accountability as the poor majority. They can continue to merrily bankrupt countries, go to war, and ruin the environment, and yet there is no serious regulation. There are no trials.
The WEF has since put out a totally 100% real press release hilariously titled, “Over Regulation of the Financial Sector,” in which the rich cry crocodile tears about poor countries being unable to develop their burgeoning economies. The truth (which doesn’t appear to matter here) is that developing countries need protectionist regulations to ensure the free market doesn’t ruin their local economies, outsource food production, and create widespread poverty. Neo-liberal economic policies have failed to provide for the majority, and have in fact severely destabilized numerous countries.
Satire can be more profound, and certainly more entertaining, than reciting facts. That’s why people love The Daily Show. It’s why everyone still remembers Jonathan Swift proposing the poor feed their babies to the rich when a hundred Irish essayists were probably issuing very serious grievances about poverty in Ireland at the same time. The funny sticks while the flowery and the heavy drop off.
The only weakness of satire (in my opinion) is that the really good stuff tickles people into complacency. Laughing is a complicated thing, and the study of it actually has a name: Gelotology. Scientists know very little about why we laugh, since humor appears to occur deep in our subconscious. However, scientists do know humans (and our ape cousins) laugh because it feels good. We laugh to bond with other people, and to not feel alone.
Laughing at really good satire helps to alleviate anxiety about the state of the world, but that anxiety is important. Releasing rage and fear by watching TYM or Jon Stewart do their thing is the entertainment form of a food coma. Unless satire ends with a call to arms, it’s the progressive version of masturbation — an explosion of pleasure followed by the strong urge for a nap.
TYM have brought us another pleasant explosion. They found a good, deserving target, and as usual, executed their shot perfectly. Now, the baton rests upon the ground, untouched. It’s not enough to chuckle at satire. There has to be a step afterwards. The protest does not end with the punchline.
Laughter is good, but the anger has to come back, and it has to be channelled into the fight against poverty, since WEF seems incapable of leading the way, primarily because the forum is made up of the businesses that will suffer under new regulations.
Recently, Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva received a hero’s welcome at the World Social Forum (an alternative to WEF) when he said he intended to scold the leaders and bankers at WEF for their years of praise for the free market policies that were to blame for the worldwide financial crunch. The ten thousand people in attendance cheered wildly.
That’s some serious populist talk, and just as it feels good to laugh at TYM, it feels good to applaud Lula, but there’s got to be massive grassroots efforts for meaningful reform to actually happen. The leaders are not going to do this on their own. For example, in order to motivate The Leaders to reduce emissions it will take acts of civil disobedience by ordinary Americans as Chris Hedges wrote.
This movement cannot consist of the occasional brave individual like Tim DeChristopher, the courageous Utah student who bested the Bush administration’s final nefarious attempt to auction off pieces of Utah’s red-rock desert for oil and gas development by posing as a bidder. It will take a million DeChristophers.
But this will happen eventually. Social unrest is on the rise in China, Europe, and Africa, to name only a few places. The key will be to organize the poor people into some kind of movement. Otherwise, our stellar media will most certainly report on any revolts like chaotic food shortages as the act of looters, those animal-like savages to be observed with casual indifference on television screens.
Satirists like TYM hold a magnifying glass to these very real problems. But it’s not enough to look. It is the job of activists to act.