Saturday, 31 October 2009

Noam Chomsky in Belfast

Amnesty International was set up in 1961 an an international non-governmental organisation 'to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.'

There is an Amnesty International Annual Lecture as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's and this year the lecture was held on Friday 30 October in the Whitla Hall.  It was held in association with the Human Rights Centre at Queen's and the speaker was Professor Noam Chomsky, a professor in the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT in America.

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia to Jewish parents who had come to America from Eastern Europe and his father was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

He is a controversial political activist, who is shunned by the mainstream media in America.  His views are of the far-left and like his father before him he is a member of the revolutionary IWW, whose constitution states:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. ... Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth. ... Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system.' It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.

Chomsky  has stated that his 'personal visions are fairly traditional anarchist ones' and he has praised libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism.  In 2006 he wrote a book on anarchism entitled Chomsky on Anarchism, which was published by the anarchist book collective AK Press.  In spite of his Jewish background he is a strident critic of Israel.

The choice of such a prominent figure from the far-left as their speaker must say something about the politics of Amnesty International and maybe even the Human Rights Centre at Queen's.  For those who are not familiar with the HRC at Queen's, the director is Professor Brice Dickson, the first chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.


  1. I think the reason Chomsky was chosen is because much of his work focuses on human rights not because of his "politics". Since Amnesty International and the Human Rights Centre at Queen's are both concerned with human rights, this makes perfect sense.

    Labelling Chomsky as being "far left" is also inaccurate. If you think that corporate interests have far too little power in politics, then to you, yes he is "far left". If, as I think the majority of people think, that precisely the reverse is true, then he's barely left of centre.

  2. On the button there, Nicholas

  3. Thanks for deleting my comment on this Mr McCausland and the follow-up to it from someone at Amnesty International.

    Nice to see a man of government so committed to freedom of speech and democratic expression.

  4. Rosi - I think we will have to disagree on a number of matters including Noam Chomsky, Amnesty International and Israel.

  5. Hi Rosi, Some good points there but perhaps a more important issue here is what on Earth does Chomsky's father's political affiliations have to do with Chomsky?

    If Minister McCausland was invited to speak for Amnesty international and I didn't agree with it, I would not discuss his father's background because it's simply not relevant. If Chomsky's father had believed he was a shape-shifting lizard, would it have absolutely anything at all to do with Noam Chomsky's own beliefs?

    You say that there is nothing inaccurate in Mr McCausland labeling him far-left but more importantly, it is irrelevant what his political beliefs are. The meaning of left and right has virtually lost it's meaning in modern political discourse because both sides are subservient to corporate power. That's why over the past 50 years, whether a country has been under a "left" wing or a "right" wing government, real wages have decreased for the majority of the population, working rights have been destroyed and the gap between rich and poor has kept on growing.

    Dismissing someone as "far left" or "far right" is therefore a convenient way for those that don't agree with someone else's views to dismiss them and deflect attention away from the real sources of power i.e. the corporate community.

    What's more important is not whether a person is "left or right wing", it's whether they put human interests before those of profit. As far as I can see, the work of Chomsky and Amnesty International have consistently sought to do this and that is far more important than whatever their politics are.

    By the way Mr McCausland, thanks for deciding to reinstate my original comment on this post.

  6. Nicholas - I cannot recollect either removing or reinstating your original comment and if I did so it was by accident rather than design.
    As regards the content of your comments:
    1. I did not 'dismiss' Chomsky as being 'far-left', I described him as being 'far-left'.
    2. If I understand you correctly, you may want to dispense with the terms right and left, but the fact is that such terms are the normal language of politics.
    3. I believe passionately in the importance of human rights and human responsibilities but unfortunately human rights campaigns are often used by the unelected and unelectable, especially of the 'far left', to advance their political agenda in a way that they cannot do through the democratic process.

  7. Hi Nelson,
    I have an interesting video that followed Chomskys at Queens. Would you like me to send you the details, perhaps it would be of interest to follow your blog post.
    Kind regards,

  8. Nelson,

    In response to your points:

    1. Yes you "described" him as "far left" but everything you said around that description effectively "dismissed" him (and his father for some reason) as a left-wing loony.

    2. I don't think that the terms "left" and "right" should be abandoned but I think they should be used accurately to prevent Orwellian abuses of it such as you displayed by describing Chomsky as "far-left".

    3. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and activists such as Noam Chomsky stay out of the "democratic" process because they can see that it is decidedly undemocratic because it has been hopelessly corrupted by the influence of corporate power. "Politics is the shadow cast over big business" as John Dewey famously said. The "democratic" process is used precisely by those in power to destroy human-rights on a daily basis. The invasion of Iraq, the destruction of working rights and the government sponsored financial crisis being prime examples.

    Unlike you, I have much greater faith in the "unelected" and "unelectable" to defend human rights than the elected in government such as yourself who, whether you care to face it or not, are hopelessly devoted to furthering corporate interests rather than human rights.

  9. Nicholas - We have two very different views or perspectives on politics and that is clear. Therefore we are not going to agree on politics. However, to get back to my original post - I was not so much commenting on Noam Chomsky as commenting on Amnesty International and I have yet to get a response from them.

    As regards the 'unelected' and 'unelectable' activists, the reason some of them fall into that category, is certainly not for want of trying. Moreover, when anyone refers to their past electoral and political endeavours they and their colleagues often get quite irate. The human rights industry in Ulster is well-populated with people from the left, the far-left and Irish republicanism.

  10. Everyone in a liberal democracy - from politicians like yourself to activist organizations such as Amnesty International - claim they are in favor of furthering human rights. However, as with everything else in life, you judge people on their actions not their words.

    I don't know your personal political history but you work for government which means you are hopelessly compromised in how far you can pursue such aims. Amnesty International and Noam Chomsky on the other hand are not compromised by the same constraints - or even seek election to government - and therefore I have far greater confidence in what comes out of their mouths than yours on this issue.

    As regards those you have identified in the human rights "industry" in Ulster who seek to join government, I would also be suspicious of them. If they genuinely want to further human rights, then they would not be seeking election of any kind as they will rapidly find their hands tied.

    What they should be seeking is to establish alternative models and methods to traditional government if they are really concerned with creating a more humane society.

  11. Altogether, I can see a commonality between your points of view, Nelson an Nicholas.

    Each of you mistrusts those who would use the label 'human rights' as a pretext to pursue political ends, though for different (but overlapping) reasons. Nelson has alluded to the cynicism of a local 'human rights industry'. Nicholas has asserted his disillusionment with the lack of democratic power available to the ordinary citizens of a 'liberal democracy'.

    As Nelson is fond of saying, the two of you simply see the world differently and aren't likely to agree on politics. But why is this so? As an elected representative, Nelson is considerably more powerful than the typical citizen. We should note that the typical citizen, for whatever reason, is both 'unelected' and 'unelectable'. It is rational of Nelson to support a system of government which offers himself drastically more power than the ordinary citizen.

    In other words, it is rational of you, Nelson, to favor a political system which is unjust.

    It is equally rational for an ordinary citizen to be dissatisfied with such a political system. I would claim that most people, if challenged to think rationally, would conclude that a representational 'democracy' is in itself not a just political system. I think Nicholas would agree with this.

    A just political system would be one in which all individuals exercise commensurate power and take part equally in the governance of a community. To do this humanely would further require the installation of safeguards against abuses by majority blocs, the encouragement of principled consensus-building, and the limiting of polity sizes so that community members can know each other as individuals.

    These are 'traditional anarchist principles.' There's nothing terrifying about them. Chomsky supports this model of politics because of his sincere commitment to human rights.

    As Nicholas has argued, the assignation of terms like 'far-left' or 'far-right' are irrelevant in this discourse. There are those who favor authoritarian modes of governance in which power is concentrated in the hands of bureaucratic elites, and there are those who wish power to be shared equally by everyone, including the 'unelected and unelectable.' Given his distrust of statist authoritarianism, Chomsky is very far to the right, indeed.

    How shameful of Queen's University HRC, to endorse Noam Chomsky, such a notoriously high-profile figure of the far-right, not to mention his ultra-conservative associates at Amnesty International!


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