Saturday, November 7, 2009

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Chomsky is right about the decline in human rights, but I doubt they can be resurrected in the service of progressive politics
By Bernard Keenan, Guardian News & Media Ltd
Published: 00:00 November 7, 2009

Invited to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) last week to address the question of human rights in the 21st century, Noam Chomsky began with a simple answer â€" easy, there aren't any. In the bleak hour that followed, Chomsky listed example after example. He detailed the many ways in which powerful states are currently ignoring, if not actively undermining, the values laid down in various international human rights treaties.

The statistics are hard to deny. While trillions of dollars have gone to rescuing collapsed markets in order to ensure that the bankers can still pay themselves bonuses, Amnesty International has recently reported the financial crisis has had a catastrophic impact on the world's poorest people. In the US, meanwhile, the recent health care debate has focused on or not health care should be rationed by the state, or by individual wealth as is currently the case. While liberal commentators may have universally condemned the actions of the Bush administration following September 11, 2001, Chomsky barely raised an eyebrow, pointing out that the use of torture overseas by US agencies has a long history. To him, human rights seem like a forgotten dream in the face of such lesser reported facts. Like the American philosopher John Dewey, Chomsky's fundamental faith in democratic ideals leads him to believe that people would not tolerate such injustices, if only they were able to hear about them.

It's one thing to list the violations of human rights around the world, but it's quite another to claim people would care about them, if only they knew. Here in the UK we know that the Conservative party has pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act when in government, and that this may well be a popular move. Meanwhile a fringe party of the far right gains momentum and the left cannot decide if it should be exposed or censored (incidentally, Chomsky categorically states that it should not).

So what arguments can be put forward against the erosion of rights? What basis do we have to assert that human beings have basic entitlements? These are serious political questions. If poverty is the biggest threat to global stability, then there is a particular challenge in explaining why so-called ‘rights' to economic and social entitlements should be considered ‘rights' at all. In an age when progressive politics is in disarray, split between a stubborn attachment to authoritarian Marxist economics; straightforward capitulation to bankrupted neoliberalism, or just slumped in a detached post-modern inertia; it is hard to find a simple answer to the question of why we should defend something as quaint as human rights.

Chomsky's rhetorical approach is to refer to positive legal documents â€" the various UN human rights conventions that Western states have signed up to, claimed to believe in, and then violated at every opportunity â€" as a means of highlighting the hypocrisy of Western states' actions. But the value of this as a philosophical position is negligible.

So where his talk in London last week was most instructive was while he was taking questions from the floor. As the director of the LSE looked on nervously, Chomsky described the radical changes he had witnessed. He pointed out that in his experience human rights and civil liberties have always been advanced by an aroused and organised public, refusing to remain subordinated to the interests of the powerful and taking direct actions to resist power.

Even more fundamental to Chomsky's political philosophy is a belief in a shared moral understanding between human beings. His conviction that there is a scientific, empirical basis for how humans make moral judgements flies in the face of contemporary philosophy and economics. Postmodernism, identity politics, deconstruction, the idea that everything in the world is different â€" all of this, Chomsky asserts, has got to go.

It's impossible to argue against Chomsky's empirical examples of just how bad the state of human rights is in the world today. But it's an entirely different thing to accept his argument that scientific certainties about universal rights, and wrongs, can be resurrected in the service of progressive politics â€" ultimately acting as an organising principle. It's a question that this generation, sooner or later, will have to confront.

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posted by u2r2h at 10:57 AM


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