Chomsky’s optimism of the will

Reading time 5 min.

The mood of excited anticipation in the crowd is one more usually associated with a pop concert than with a lecture by an octogenarian political philosopher. And yet the scenes outside London School of Economics’ (LSE) main lecture theatre, repeated days later at Imperial College, London and Queens University, Belfast, are testament to the enduring popularity of Professor Noam Chomsky in Europe at the end of 2009 on what some called his “final international speaking tour”. When tickets went on sale the LSE computer system crashed under weight of traffic and, on the night LSE’s 460-seater lecture theatre as well as two other halls screening a live video feed, are full to capacity.

A few weeks short of his 82nd birthday Chomsky, dubbed by the New York Times as “the worlds greatest living thinker” and reputedly one of the ten most cited authors of all time, has lost little of the intellectual vigour nor the fire in his belly that has made him one of most notable political analysts of our time. Over the course of ten days and speaking on the subject of “human rights in the new Millennium”, Chomsky covers familiar themes – US abuse of power through foreign policy and its misrepresentation through a compliant media – but his analysis remains fresh and relevant with a coherence that makes one wonder why it is not more mainstream. His central tenant which has remained intact for decades is that, rather than being underpinned by ethical considerations, American foreign policy is instead driven by a ruthless desire to protect US strategic interests and ensure the free flow of capital. Even with Barack Obama in the White House Chomsky believes American foreign policy will remain essentially the same. “There is basically no significant change in the fundamental traditional conception that we if can control Middle East energy resources, then we can control the world,” he says.

Chomsky describes the way in which the US attempts to maintain its global dominance as “the Mafia principle” whereby any challenge is brutally put down. “The Godfather does not tolerate ‘successful defiance’. It is too dangerous. It must therefore be stamped out so that others understand that disobedience is not an option,” he explains. Unlike the Mafia which is under constant threat from the law, the US puts itself outside of legal norms by exempting itself from international treaties. Not only does America repeatedly veto efforts at creating international human-rights regulations but the few conventions that Washington does ratify are accompanied by reservations rendering them inapplicable to the US. The Convention on the Rights of the Child for example, has been ratified by all countries apart from the US and Somalia. US reservations to the Genocide Convention mean that America has reserved the right to commit genocide and their failure to sign up to the UN Convention Against Torture has allowed the type of abuse recently exposed in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram airbase.

Chomsky’s speaking style has never been what could be described as rabble-rousing. Instead, he speaks in a croaky monotone that, like his writing-style is intricately factual and peppered with examples, quotations and looping digressions. Milica Petrovic, a twenty-three year old politics post-graduate, found his LSE speech “factual, impersonal and slightly boring. It was only when describing his experiences of activism that he was more engaging.” Indeed it is only when answering questions that Chomsky really comes into his own, enlivening his answers with reminiscences and anecdotes. Asked whether humanitarian intervention can ever be justified, Chomsky pointed out that throughout history leaders – including Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini – have sought to justify the use of force with talk of responsibility to protect suffering populations. However, whilst the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law, the Security Council is nevertheless permitted to use force under Chapter VII “to end massive human rights abuses, civil war, and violation of civil liberties”. Forceful action can however, only be carried out under Security Council authorisation. International law, Chomsky believes, is by no means perfect, but it is the best means we have of protecting human rights.

jpg_Chomsky_human_rights_LSE_1.jpgAnd it is this ability to see the positives combined with an abiding belief in the possibility of change and the potential of people to affect that change that prevents Chomsky’s world-view being depressing. Just as Chomsky, a professor of linguistics, believes humans share an innate set of linguistic principles, he also believes we share a universal moral grammar: a fixed set of principles that allow us to understand and respond to situations in a common way. It is this, above all else, that will save the human race from destroying itself. In his final lecture, Chomsky quotes Antonio Gramsci’s call for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” and urges his audience to get involved in activism and knowledge sharing.

Outside the lecture theatre Simon Shaw, a nineteen-year old economics undergraduate who describes himself as “political but not politically active” tells me that after hearing Chomsky he would like to get more engaged in activism. “Rather than just study the theory, I’d like to make a difference,” he says with enthusiasm. It is precisely young people like Simon that persuade Chomsky to continue his political speaking tours. Rather than speaking to big meetings in grand venues, he believes that change lies not with the fusty policy makers of today but the activists of tomorrow. Back in 1995, I had been just one those impressionable young activists. As a young graduate working for the human rights organisation, Liberty, I had volunteered to drive Chomsky from University College London, where he had an earlier speaking engagement, to Westminster Central Hall, where he was due to give the keynote speech at our conference. I arrived at the UCL, parked illegally outside the main entrance and hurried inside to look for the great man. I found him at the front of a lecture theatre surrounded by throng of eager students. Managing to push my way through the crowd I introduced myself and slowly ushered him out. When we finally got outside a traffic-warden was mid-way through writing me a parking ticket. “You can’t ticket me” I implored. “I’m picking up Noam Chomsky.” The warden looked at us blankly. “Professor Noam Chomsky” I explained, “The world’s greatest living thinker”. “Well if so intelligent,” replied the warden without missing a beat, “How come he’s parked on a double yellow line?” It was the only time I’ve seen Chomsky lost for words.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Stefan Simanowitz
A London-based writer, broadcaster and journalist, Stefan Simanowitz writes for publications in the UK and around the world including the: Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Washington Times, Global Post, Huffington Post, New Statesman, In These Times, New Internationalist, Prospect, Lancet,, Contemporary Review, Mail & Guardian. He has a background in policy, political strategy and international human rights law and has worked for the European Commission, Liberty and the ANC during South Africa’s first democratic election campaign. He has reported from mass graves in Somaliland and Indonesia, prisons in Cameroon and South Africa, refugee camps in the Sahara desert and he writes on all aspects of global politics. He also has an interest in culture and travel, writing reviews on music, literature, film and theatre and taking photographs to accompany his reviews and reportage.
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