Last Thursday night’s event at the New York Public Library got a whole lot funnier when about 50 people staged a laugh-in against Mexican businessman Carlos Slim.
Famous (but not infamous enough) for being the world’s richest man, Slim was at the library to speak about his interest and recent investment in the free online courses of the Kahn Academy, yet his voice was drowned out by waves of laughter for the first 30 minutes of the event. Finally, a man rose and explained the joke to the befuddled audience.
“Carlos Slim, your charity is laughable,” activist Stan Williams declared. “But your monopolies are no laughing matter. You’re price-gouging your consumers and exploiting the Mexican people!”
Slim was attempting to recast himself as a philanthropist while stealing billions through his nearly complete control of Mexico’s telecommunications system. With the punchline delivered, the group then began marching around the room playing the Imperial Death March on plastic kazoos.
The action was organized by the coalition Two Countries One Voice and a cohort of New York City activists, including the Yes Men and, for full disclosure, me.
The idea for a laugh-in was inspired by an action in India in which hundreds gathered for a multi-day occupation outside of a then-governor’s office. The crowd had one goal: to laugh away the governor’s power to scare and control them. Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men explained that even uttering the governor’s name sparked uproarious laughter across the encampment.
“He didn’t immediately leave office,” Bichlbaum said. But when the next round of elections came, the governor was voted out.
The laugh-in against Carlos Slim deployed a similar atmosphere of levity to tackle serious issues: the fact that one man could be worth more than $70 billion dollars (more than half the GDP of his entire country), and a system in which charity is presented as the solution for mass poverty and systemic inequality.
Slim’s apparent generosity follows in a long tradition; charity has long been the way that the world’s top monopolists have cleansed their image, and it’s often used as the justification for why we should permit staggering wealth accumulation. In fact, the very location of the protest — the New York Public Library — is a monument to the robber-baron economic system of an earlier era. In the early 1900s, the Carnegie family provided millions in donations — today the equivalent of about a zillion dollars — for the creation of public libraries across New York. Sounds great, but it’s perhaps worth remembering that the Carnegies amassed their inconceivable wealth by crushing unions and exploiting workers as the expanded their steel and railroad empires. In one particularly flattering instance, known as the Homestead Strike of 1892, Carnegie quashed a workers’ protest by calling in thousands of men from the mercenary army Pinkerton first to fill the workers’ jobs and then to kill them. In order to shed themselves of these reputations, they funneled millions in dirty money into building libraries and public spaces — named, unsurprisingly, in their honor.
By investing in online free educational initiatives, Carlos Slim is playing a similar game, simply with less marble. With the increasing privatization of natural resources, educational systems and government operations (Slim’s telecommunications monopoly was sold to him by the Mexican government), the idea of public space is increasingly moving into the virtual plane. Hence Slim’s interest in free online education, and his desire to speak at an iconic educational institution alongside Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy.
While online learning initiatives have their own murky implications for the future of public education, the laugh-in wasn’t a protest against Khan Academy. Rather, it was exposing the absurdity of Carlos Slim’s attempt to cleanse his image through charitable donations. According to Two Countries One Voice, the monopolist has effectively amassed his wealth by ratcheting up the prices for cell phone communications across Mexico, overcharging to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
We think the all-too-common idea that people like Slim are a force for good in the world is pretty funny — and we bet more people will catch on to the joke soon enough.