Capitalism lecture interrupted to present facts

By Mike Tudoreanu

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Brian Canova/Collegian

There have been several articles in the Daily Collegian this week about the protesters from the Occupy UMass movement and the Labor Studies department who interrupted a lecture promoting global capitalism last Thursday. I believe the coverage has been very one-sided, failing to mention what the protesters said and the reason they were there.

They interrupted the lecture for the purpose of presenting facts. They did not jeer, hiss or use profanity (although the other side did). They did not try to stop the lecture from happening. The speaker, Andrew Bernstein, said everything he wanted to say. Occupy UMass decided to disrupt his lecture not merely because they disagreed with his opinions, but because he was making blatantly false claims about history and economic policy – such as giving credit to capitalism for the success of state-driven economies and blaming “non-capitalism” or “socialism” for what happens in countries with strong corporations and weak governments.

Bernstein’s main argument was that wealthy countries are wealthy because they are capitalist, and poor countries are poor because they are non-capitalist. But he never once explained how he decided which countries were more capitalist than others. What he said was that capitalism requires low taxes, no state ownership of companies, no redistribution of wealth, and a lack of government regulation of the economy. Then he implied that rich countries have these features, and poor countries don’t.

In reality, the opposite is usually true. For example, following Bernstein’s own definition, the poor countries in Latin America are far more capitalist than the rich countries in Europe, and Mexico is more capitalist than the U.S. In addition, some of the countries that Bernstein offered as examples of successful capitalism – such as Japan and South Korea after World War Two – have government-controlled economies with guaranteed lifetime employment and universal health care. Meanwhile, the poor countries in Africa that Bernstein called “non-capitalist” were conquered and ruled by European capitalists for almost a hundred years starting in the 19th century, and today most of their governments allow large corporations to do as they please. Workers in these so-called “non-capitalist” countries produce many of the goods sold by Western corporations.

The Occupy protesters came in with carefully prepared facts and figures to counter Bernstein’s misinformation, and they shouted these facts every time he made a claim that was false. The only reason the “mic checks” were so frequent was because he could not go more than a few minutes before saying something untrue.

Bernstein claimed capitalism in Hong Kong generated prosperity for all, so the protesters stood up and read a summary of a Financial Times article about poverty in Hong Kong. There are 100,000 people living with their entire families in cubicle-sized apartments that barely leave enough room for bunk beds. Some of the poorest must sleep in cages with mesh walls and ceilings too low to stand up. Over a million people live on just a few hundred dollars per month, and thousands have to pick through the garbage to find food.

Bernstein claimed there have been no famines in capitalist countries, so the protesters read some facts about the Irish potato famine. In the early 19th century, British capitalists owned most of the land in Ireland and used it to grow profitable cash crops. This left so little land for the Irish to grow their food that they had to use it all for potatoes. Nothing else would grow in large enough quantities. So when a potato disease arrived and the potato crops failed, almost a quarter of Ireland’s population died of hunger.

Bernstein claimed that capitalism goes hand in hand with freedom and individual rights, so protesters were prepared with a long list of dictators supported by powerful capitalist countries and their corporations.

Bernstein talked about economic growth as if it meant the same as a rise in living standards, so protesters pointed out that it is possible for an economy to grow while most people are getting poorer. Just because a country’s average wealth is increasing, it does not necessarily mean that the majority of people benefit.

Bernstein claimed capitalism ended child labor and slavery, so protesters reminded him that both those things were ended by legislation passed by governments under pressure from progressive social movements.

The list goes on. The Occupy protesters did not interrupt the lecture with insults or slogans, but with facts and information. The only profanity came from the other side, with one audience member telling the protesters to “shut the f$%# up” and calling a female protester “b$%#h.”

We all have a right to our own opinions, but apparently we do not have a right to our own facts. Suppose there was an invited speaker who claimed that Britain and France fought on opposite sides in the first World War. Or suppose another speaker claimed that the Native Americans prospered and increased their population after the Europeans arrived. Or, for that matter, suppose we invited an anti-capitalist speaker who said that most bankers are sexual predators. These are not matters of opinion. These are lies. Many of Bernstein’s claims were just as false.

We can debate whether capitalism is good or bad. But some things are not up for debate. Japan has an interventionist state. Hong Kong is horribly afflicted with poverty. The Irish potato famine did happen. If a speaker defends his views on capitalism (or anything else) by denying inconvenient facts, then he or she has moved out of the realm of opinion and into the realm of lies. And when a person repeatedly lies during a lecture, then protesters have every right to disrespect him and interrupt his talk to present the facts.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]