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The Great Charter. Its Fate, and Ours.

23 July 2012

Summary:  The past decade has seen us stripped of civil liberties dating back to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, and won through centuries of struggle since then.  As the Founders feared might happen.  Today Noam Chomsky explains how this happened and what it means for us. The next few years might be decisive; America’s future lies in our hands.

The Great Charter, Its Fate, and Ours

By Noam Chomsky. Originally published at TomDispatch. Reposted with their generous permission.

The tomb of Magna Carta

Contents

  1. Introduction by Tom Englehardt
  2. Destroying the Commons. How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1)  Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

This week the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit against CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and two top special operations forces commanders for “violating the Constitution and international law” in the drone assassination of three American citizens in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman (though no one claims he had anything whatsoever to do with terror campaigns).  The suit is based on the Constitution’s promise of “due process” (“[N]or shall any person… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), which to the untutored eye of this non-lawyer clearly seems to involve “law.”

Attorney General Eric Holder evidently thinks otherwise and has explained his reasoning when it comes to the right of the Obama administration to order such deaths: “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”  If you’re not inside the National Security Complex, it may be just a tad hard to grasp how “due process” could mean a secret process of review in the White House presided over by a president with a “kill list” (whose legal justification, laid out by the Justice Department, cannot be made public).  And yet that is, as far as we can tell, indeed the claim.

It will be a surprise if this case goes far.  The government is almost certain to bring to bear the usual not-quite-state-secrets-act to squelch it, with its lawyers undoubtedly claiming that any such trial could reveal damaging secrets about our expanding drone wars.  Of course, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and more rarely Somalia are regularly in the news, and have been proudly cited or even boasted about by officials from the president on down, yet they remain somehow “covert” and unmentionable when it suits the administration.  And since just about anything the National Security Complex does evidently now qualifies for classified status, secrecy is increasingly the convenient excuse for just about anything.

In the case of our drone wars, “covert” clearly has little to do with secrecy in any normal sense and a lot to do with lack of accountability to anyone not involved in choosing those to be killed or launching the attacks.  One thing is clear: whatever the ACLU and others do, we now live in a post-legal America, a world in which no act (other than whistleblowing), however illegal, within the national security state can be successfully prosecuted in court.  This has clearly been part of a process by which, since 2001, American liberties have been turned in for “safety.”  Something did change after 9/11 (when “everything” was supposed to have changed) and in a speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, reproduced below in full, Noam Chomsky backs up a few centuries to lay out a vivid history of just how this happened.

(2)  Destroying the Commons. How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta
By Noam Chomsky
This is the full text of a speech he gave recently at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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Down the road only a few generations, the millennium of Magna Carta, one of the great events in the establishment of civil and human rights, will arrive.  Whether it will be celebrated, mourned, or ignored is not at all clear.

That should be a matter of serious immediate concern.  What we do right now, or fail to do, will determine what kind of world will greet that event.  It is not an attractive prospect if present tendencies persist — not least, because the Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes.

The first scholarly edition of Magna Carta was published by the eminent jurist William Blackstone.  It was not an easy task.  There was no good text available.  As he wrote, “the body of the charter has been unfortunately gnawn by rats” — a comment that carries grim symbolism today, as we take up the task the rats left unfinished.

Blackstone’s edition actually includes two charters.  It was entitled The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest.  The first, the Charter of Liberties, is widely recognized to be the foundation of the fundamental rights of the English-speaking peoples — or as Winston Churchill put it more expansively, “the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land.” Churchill was referring specifically to the reaffirmation of the Charter by Parliament in the Petition of Right, imploring King Charles to recognize that the law is sovereign, not the King.  Charles agreed briefly, but soon violated his pledge, setting the stage for the murderous Civil War.

After a bitter conflict between King and Parliament, the power of royalty in the person of Charles II was restored.  In defeat, Magna Carta was not forgotten.  One of the leaders of Parliament, Henry Vane, was beheaded.  On the scaffold, he tried to read a speech denouncing the sentence as a violation of Magna Carta, but was drowned out by trumpets to ensure that such scandalous words would not be heard by the cheering crowds.  His major crime had been to draft a petition calling the people “the original of all just power” in civil society — not the King, not even God.  That was the position that had been strongly advocated by Roger Williams, the founder of the first free society in what is now the state of Rhode Island.  His heretical views influenced Milton and Locke, though Williams went much farther, founding the modern doctrine of separation of church and state, still much contested even in the liberal democracies.

As often is the case, apparent defeat nevertheless carried the struggle for freedom and rights forward.  Shortly after Vane’s execution, King Charles granted a Royal Charter to the Rhode Island plantations, declaring that “the form of government is Democratical,” and furthermore that the government could affirm freedom of conscience for Papists, atheists, Jews, Turks — even Quakers, one of the most feared and brutalized of the many sects that were appearing in those turbulent days.  All of this was astonishing in the climate of the times.

A few years later, the Charter of Liberties was enriched by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, formally entitled “an Act for the better securing the liberty of the subject, and for prevention of imprisonment beyond the seas.” The U.S. Constitution, borrowing from English common law, affirms that “the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended” except in case of rebellion or invasion.  In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the rights guaranteed by this Act were “[c]onsidered by the Founders [of the American Republic] as the highest safeguard of liberty.” All of these words should resonate today.

The Second Charter and the Commons

The significance of the companion charter, the Charter of the Forest, is no less profound and perhaps even more pertinent today — as explored in depth by Peter Linebaugh in his richly documented and stimulating history of Magna Carta and its later trajectory.  The Charter of the Forest demanded protection of the commons from external power.  The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life.  The forest was no primitive wilderness.  It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations — practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world.

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization.  The Robin Hood myths capture the essence of its concerns (and it is not too surprising that the popular TV series of the 1950s, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” was written anonymously by Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for leftist convictions).  By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world, some involving extreme violence, as in the Eastern Congo, where millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cell phones and other uses, and of course ample profits.

The rise of capitalist practice and morality brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are treated, and also of how they are conceived.  The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential argument that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all,” the famous “tragedy of the commons”: what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice.

An international counterpart was the concept of terra nullius, employed to justify the expulsion of indigenous populations in the settler-colonial societies of the Anglosphere, or their “extermination,” as the founding fathers of the American Republic described what they were doing, sometimes with remorse, after the fact.  According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness.  And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use.

In reality, the colonists knew better and there were elaborate procedures of purchase and ratification by crown and parliament, later annulled by force when the evil creatures resisted extermination.  The doctrine is often attributed to John Locke, but that is dubious.  As a colonial administrator, he understood what was happening, and there is no basis for the attribution in his writings, as contemporary scholarship has shown convincingly, notably the work of the Australian scholar Paul Corcoran.  (It was in Australia, in fact, that the doctrine has been most brutally employed.)

The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge.  The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins.  But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self.”

Like peasants and workers in England before them, American workers denounced this New Spirit, which was being imposed upon them, regarding it as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free men and women.  And I stress women; among those most active and vocal in condemning the destruction of the rights and dignity of free people by the capitalist industrial system were the “factory girls,” young women from the farms.  They, too, were driven into the regime of supervised and controlled wage labor, which was regarded at the time as different from chattel slavery only in that it was temporary.  That stand was considered so natural that it became a slogan of the Republican Party, and a banner under which northern workers carried arms during the American Civil War.

Controlling the Desire for Democracy

That was 150 years ago — in England earlier.  Huge efforts have been devoted since to inculcating the New Spirit of the Age.  Major industries are devoted to the task: public relations, advertising, marketing generally, all of which add up to a very large component of the Gross Domestic Product.  They are dedicated to what the great political economist Thorstein Veblen called “fabricating wants.” In the words of business leaders themselves, the task is to direct people to “the superficial things” of life, like “fashionable consumption.” That way people can be atomized, separated from one another, seeking personal gain alone, diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves and challenge authority.

The process of shaping opinion, attitudes, and perceptions was termed the “engineering of consent” by one of the founders of the modern public relations industry, Edward Bernays.  He was a respected Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy progressive, much like his contemporary, journalist Walter Lippmann, the most prominent public intellectual of twentieth century America, who praised “the manufacture of consent” as a “new art” in the practice of democracy.

Both recognized that the public must be “put in its place,” marginalized and controlled — for their own interests of course.  They were too “stupid and ignorant” to be allowed to run their own affairs.  That task was to be left to the “intelligent minority,” who must be protected from “the trampling and the roar of [the] bewildered herd,” the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” — the “rascal multitude” as they were termed by their seventeenth century predecessors.  The role of the general population was to be “spectators,” not “participants in action,” in a properly functioning democratic society.

And the spectators must not be allowed to see too much.  President Obama has set new standards in safeguarding this principle.  He has, in fact, punished more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined, a real achievement for an administration that came to office promising transparency. WikiLeaks is only the most famous case, with British cooperation.

Among the many topics that are not the business of the bewildered herd is foreign affairs.  Anyone who has studied declassified secret documents will have discovered that, to a large extent, their classification was meant to protect public officials from public scrutiny.  Domestically, the rabble should not hear the advice given by the courts to major corporations: that they should devote some highly visible efforts to good works, so that an “aroused public” will not discover the enormous benefits provided to them by the nanny state.  More generally the U.S. public should not learn that “state policies are overwhelmingly regressive, thus reinforcing and expanding social inequality,” though designed in ways that lead “people to think that the government helps only the undeserving poor, allowing politicians to mobilize and exploit anti-government rhetoric and values even as they continue to funnel support to their better-off constituents” — I’m quoting from the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, not from some radical rag.

Over time, as societies became freer and the resort to state violence more constrained, the urge to devise sophisticated methods of control of attitudes and opinion has only grown.  It is natural that the immense PR industry should have been created in the most free of societies, the United States and Great Britain.  The first modern propaganda agency was the British Ministry of Information a century ago, which secretly defined its task as “to direct the thought of most of the world” — primarily progressive American intellectuals, who had to be mobilized to come to the aid of Britain during World War I.

Its U.S. counterpart, the Committee on Public Information, was formed by Woodrow Wilson to drive a pacifist population to violent hatred of all things German — with remarkable success.  American commercial advertising deeply impressed others.  Goebbels admired it and adapted it to Nazi propaganda, all too successfully.  The Bolshevik leaders tried as well, but their efforts were clumsy and ineffective.

A primary domestic task has always been “to keep [the public] from our throats,” as essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson described the concerns of political leaders when the threat of democracy was becoming harder to suppress in the mid-nineteenth century.  More recently, the activism of the 1960s elicited elite concerns about “excessive democracy,” and calls for measures to impose “more moderation” in democracy.

One particular concern was to introduce better controls over the institutions “responsible for the indoctrination of the young”: the schools, the universities, the churches, which were seen as failing that essential task.  I’m quoting reactions from the left-liberal end of the mainstream spectrum, the liberal internationalists who later staffed the Carter administration, and their counterparts in other industrial societies.  The right wing was much harsher.  One of many manifestations of this urge has been the sharp rise in college tuition, not on economic grounds, as is easily shown.  The device does, however, trap and control young people by debt, often for the rest of their lives, thus contributing to more effective indoctrination.

The Three-Fifths People

Pursuing these important topics further, we see that the destruction of the Charter of the Forest, and its obliteration from memory, relates rather closely to the continuing efforts to constrain the promise of the Charter of Liberties.  The “New Spirit of the Age” cannot tolerate the pre-capitalist conception of the Forest as the shared endowment of the community at large, cared for communally for its own use and for future generations, protected from privatization, from transfer to the hands of private power for service to wealth, not needs.  Inculcating the New Spirit is an essential prerequisite for achieving this end, and for preventing the Charter of Liberties from being misused to enable free citizens to determine their own fate.

Popular struggles to bring about a freer and more just society have been resisted by violence and repression, and massive efforts to control opinion and attitudes.  Over time, however, they have met with considerable success, even though there is a long way to go and there is often regression.  Right now, in fact.

The most famous part of the Charter of Liberties is Article 39, which declares that “no free man” shall be punished in any way, “nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

Through many years of struggle, the principle has come to hold more broadly.  The U.S. Constitution provides that no “person [shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law [and] a speedy and public trial” by peers.  The basic principle is “presumption of innocence” — what legal historians describe as “the seed of contemporary Anglo-American freedom,” referring to Article 39; and with the Nuremberg Tribunal in mind, a “particularly American brand of legalism: punishment only for those who could be proved to be guilty through a fair trial with a panoply of procedural protections” — even if their guilt for some of the worst crimes in history is not in doubt.

The founders of course did not intend the term “person” to apply to all persons. Native Americans were not persons.  Their rights were virtually nil.  Women were scarcely persons.  Wives were understood to be “covered” under the civil identity of their husbands in much the same way as children were subject to their parents.  Blackstone’s principles held that “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.” Women are thus the property of their fathers or husbands.  These principles remain up to very recent years.  Until a Supreme Court decision of 1975, women did not even have a legal right to serve on juries.  They were not peers.  Just two weeks ago, Republican opposition blocked the Fairness Paycheck Act guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work.  And it goes far beyond.

Slaves, of course, were not persons.  They were in fact three-fifths human under the Constitution, so as to grant their owners greater voting power.  Protection of slavery was no slight concern to the founders: it was one factor leading to the American revolution.  In the 1772 Somerset case, Lord Mansfield determined that slavery is so “odious” that it cannot be tolerated in England, though it continued in British possessions for many years.  American slave-owners could see the handwriting on the wall if the colonies remained under British rule.  And it should be recalled that the slave states, including Virginia, had the greatest power and influence in the colonies.  One can easily appreciate Dr. Johnson’s famous quip that “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”

Post-Civil War amendments extended the concept person to African-Americans, ending slavery.  In theory, at least.  After about a decade of relative freedom, a condition akin to slavery was reintroduced by a North-South compact permitting the effective criminalization of black life.  A black male standing on a street corner could be arrested for vagrancy, or for attempted rape if accused of looking at a white woman the wrong way.  And once imprisoned he had few chances of ever escaping the system of “slavery by another name,” the term used by then-Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon in an arresting study.

This new version of the “peculiar institution” provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution, with a perfect work force for the steel industry and mining, along with agricultural production in the famous chain gangs: docile, obedient, no strikes, and no need for employers even to sustain their workers, an improvement over slavery.  The system lasted in large measure until World War II, when free labor was needed for war production.

The postwar boom offered employment.  A black man could get a job in a unionized auto plant, earn a decent salary, buy a house, and maybe send his children to college.  That lasted for about 20 years, until the 1970s, when the economy was radically redesigned on newly dominant neoliberal principles, with rapid growth of financialization and the offshoring of production.  The black population, now largely superfluous, has been recriminalized.

Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, incarceration in the U.S. was within the spectrum of industrial societies.  By now it is far beyond others.  It targets primarily black males, increasingly also black women and Hispanics, largely guilty of victimless crimes under the fraudulent “drug wars.” Meanwhile, the wealth of African-American families has been virtually obliterated by the latest financial crisis, in no small measure thanks to criminal behavior of financial institutions, with impunity for the perpetrators, now richer than ever.

Looking over the history of African-Americans from the first arrival of slaves almost 500 years ago to the present, they have enjoyed the status of authentic persons for only a few decades.  There is a long way to go to realize the promise of Magna Carta.

Sacred Persons and Undone Process

The post-Civil War fourteenth amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory.  At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations.  In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the fourteenth amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability.  Their rights by now far transcend those of mere humans.  Under the “free trade agreements,” Pacific Rim can, for example, sue El Salvador for seeking to protect the environment; individuals cannot do the same.  General Motors can claim national rights in Mexico.  There is no need to dwell on what would happen if a Mexican demanded national rights in the United States.

Domestically, recent Supreme Court rulings greatly enhance the already enormous political power of corporations and the super-rich, striking further blows against the tottering relics of functioning political democracy.

Meanwhile Magna Carta is under more direct assault.  Recall the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which barred “imprisonment beyond the seas,” and certainly the far more vicious procedure of imprisonment abroad for the purpose of torture — what is now more politely called “rendition,” as when Tony Blair rendered Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, now a leader of the rebellion, to the mercies of Qaddafi; or when U.S. authorities deported Canadian citizen Maher Arar to his native Syria, for imprisonment and torture, only later conceding that there was never any case against him.  And many others, often through Shannon Airport, leading to courageous protests in Ireland.

The concept of due process has been extended under the Obama administration’s international assassination campaign in a way that renders this core element of the Charter of Liberties (and the Constitution) null and void.  The Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch alone.  The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed.  King John might have nodded with satisfaction.

The issue arose after the presidentially ordered assassination-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting jihad in speech, writing, and unspecified actions.  A headline in the New York Times captured the general elite reaction when he was murdered in a drone attack, along with the usual collateral damage.  It read: “The West celebrates a cleric’s death.” Some eyebrows were lifted, however, because he was an American citizen, which raised questions about due process — considered irrelevant when non-citizens are murdered at the whim of the chief executive.  And irrelevant for citizens, too, under Obama administration due-process legal innovations.

Presumption of innocence has also been given a new and useful interpretation.  As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” So post-assassination determination of innocence maintains the sacred principle of presumption of innocence.

It would be ungracious to recall the Geneva Conventions, the foundation of modern humanitarian law: they bar “the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

The most famous recent case of executive assassination was Osama bin Laden, murdered after he was apprehended by 79 Navy seals, defenseless, accompanied only by his wife, his body reportedly dumped at sea without autopsy.  Whatever one thinks of him, he was a suspect and nothing more than that.  Even the FBI agreed.

Celebration in this case was overwhelming, but there were a few questions raised about the bland rejection of the principle of presumption of innocence, particularly when trial was hardly impossible.  These were met with harsh condemnations.  The most interesting was by a respected left-liberal political commentator, Matthew Yglesias, who explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the U.S. should obey international law or other conditions that we righteously demand of the weak.

Only tactical objections can be raised to aggression, assassination, cyberwar, or other actions that the Holy State undertakes in the service of mankind.  If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional Western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as “silly,” Yglesias explains — incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.

Executive Terrorist Lists

Perhaps the most striking assault on the foundations of traditional liberties is a little-known case brought to the Supreme Court by the Obama administration, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  The Project was condemned for providing “material assistance” to the guerrilla organization PKK, which has fought for Kurdish rights in Turkey for many years and is listed as a terrorist group by the state executive.  The “material assistance” was legal advice.  The wording of the ruling would appear to apply quite broadly, for example, to discussions and research inquiry, even advice to the PKK to keep to nonviolent means.  Again, there was a marginal fringe of criticism, but even those accepted the legitimacy of the state terrorist list — arbitrary decisions by the executive, with no recourse.

The record of the terrorist list is of some interest.  For example, in 1988 the Reagan administration declared Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to be one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups,” so that Reagan could continue his support for the Apartheid regime and its murderous depredations in South Africa and in neighboring countries, as part of his “war on terror.” Twenty years later Mandela was finally removed from the terrorist list, and can now travel to the U.S. without a special waiver.

Another interesting case is Saddam Hussein, removed from the terrorist list in 1982 so that the Reagan administration could provide him with support for his invasion of Iran.  The support continued well after the war ended.  In 1989, President Bush I even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production — more information that must be kept from the eyes of the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders.”

One of the ugliest examples of the use of the terrorist list has to do with the tortured people of Somalia.  Immediately after September 11th, the United States closed down the Somali charitable network Al-Barakaat on grounds that it was financing terror. This achievement was hailed one of the great successes of the “war on terror.” In contrast, Washington’s withdrawal of its charges as without merit a year later aroused little notice.

Al-Barakaat was responsible for about half the $500 million in remittances to Somalia, “more than it earns from any other economic sector and 10 times the amount of foreign aid [Somalia] receives” a U.N. review determined.  The charity also ran major businesses in Somalia, all destroyed.  The leading academic scholar of Bush’s “financial war on terror,” Ibrahim Warde, concludes that apart from devastating the economy, this frivolous attack on a very fragile society “may have played a role in the rise… of Islamic fundamentalists,” another familiar consequence of the “war on terror.”

The very idea that the state should have the authority to make such judgments is a serious offense against the Charter of Liberties, as is the fact that it is considered uncontentious.  If the Charter’s fall from grace continues on the path of the past few years, the future of rights and liberties looks dim.

Who Will Have the Last Laugh?

A few final words on the fate of the Charter of the Forest.  Its goal was to protect the source of sustenance for the population, the commons, from external power — in the early days, royalty; over the years, enclosures and other forms of privatization by predatory corporations and the state authorities who cooperate with them, have only accelerated and are properly rewarded.  The damage is very broad.

If we listen to voices from the South today we can learn that “the conversion of public goods into private property through the privatization of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one way neoliberal institutions remove the fragile threads that hold African nations together.  Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities, and a nation.  This is one of the benefits that structural adjustment programmes inflicted on the continent — the enthronement of corruption.” I’m quoting Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in his searing expose of the ravaging of Africa’s wealth, To Cook a Continent, the latest phase of the Western torture of Africa.

Torture that has always been planned at the highest level, it should be recognized.  At the end of World War II, the U.S. held a position of unprecedented global power.  Not surprisingly, careful and sophisticated plans were developed about how to organize the world.  Each region was assigned its “function” by State Department planners, headed by the distinguished diplomat George Kennan.  He determined that the U.S. had no special interest in Africa, so it should be handed over to Europe to “exploit” — his word — for its reconstruction.  In the light of history, one might have imagined a different relation between Europe and Africa, but there is no indication that that was ever considered.

More recently, the U.S. has recognized that it, too, must join the game of exploiting Africa, along with new entries like China, which is busily at work compiling one of the worst records in destruction of the environment and oppression of the hapless victims.

It should be unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the predatory obsessions that are producing calamities all over the world: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.  Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are serious, if not awesome, and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come.  There are some efforts to face reality, but they are far too minimal. The recent Rio+20 Conference opened with meager aspirations and derisory outcomes.

Meanwhile, power concentrations are charging in the opposite direction, led by the richest and most powerful country in world history.  Congressional Republicans are dismantling the limited environmental protections initiated by Richard Nixon, who would be something of a dangerous radical in today’s political scene.  The major business lobbies openly announce their propaganda campaigns to convince the public that there is no need for undue concern — with some effect, as polls show.

The media cooperate by not even reporting the increasingly dire forecasts of international agencies and even the U.S. Department of Energy.  The standard presentation is a debate between alarmists and skeptics: on one side virtually all qualified scientists, on the other a few holdouts.  Not part of the debate are a very large number of experts, including the climate change program at MIT among others, who criticize the scientific consensus because it is too conservative and cautious, arguing that the truth when it comes to climate change is far more dire.  Not surprisingly, the public is confused.

In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama hailed the bright prospects of a century of energy self-sufficiency, thanks to new technologies that permit extraction of hydrocarbons from Canadian tar sands, shale, and other previously inaccessible sources.  Others agree.  The Financial Times forecasts a century of energy independence for the U.S.  The report does mention the destructive local impact of the new methods.  Unasked in these optimistic forecasts is the question what kind of a world will survive the rapacious onslaught.

In the lead in confronting the crisis throughout the world are indigenous communities, those who have always upheld the Charter of the Forests.  The strongest stand has been taken by the one country they govern, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and for centuries a victim of western destruction of the rich resources of one of the most advanced of the developed societies in the hemisphere, pre-Columbus.

After the ignominious collapse of the Copenhagen global climate change summit in 2009, Bolivia organized a People’s Summit with 35,000 participants from 140 countries — not just representatives of governments, but also civil society and activists.  It produced a People’s Agreement, which called for very sharp reduction in emissions, and a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.  That is a key demand of indigenous communities all over the world.  It is ridiculed by sophisticated westerners, but unless we can acquire some of their sensibility, they are likely to have the last laugh — a laugh of grim despair.

Copyright 2012 Noam Chomsky

(3)  About the author

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, most recently, Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and Occupy.

His web site is http://www.chomsky.info. To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky discusses the recent shredding of the principles of the Magna Carta, click here or download it to your iPod here.

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To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky discusses the recent shredding of the principles of the Magna Carta, click here or download it to your iPod here.

(4)  For more information:  Lessons and even advice from the past

  1. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  2. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  3. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
  4. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009
  5. A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 2010 — by Edmond Burke
  6. We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past, 23 October 2010
  7. George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation, 22 January 2012
  8. Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning., 21 April 2012
  9. Rome speaks to us. Their example can inspire us to avoid their fate., 22 April 2012
  10. We’re drifting towards tyranny, again. Jefferson describes our first brush with tyranny., 28 April 2012
  11. Are we following in the footsteps of Athens? Let’s leave the path before we come to the same end., 3 May 2012

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Maurice Brown permalink
    23 July 2012 6:11 am

    I appreciate your publication of Chomsky’s beautifully written speech at St Andrews. His views and concerns are vivid and cogent. The fact that you published the article begs the question: “Where are the contrary arguments and who are worthy champions of those views?”

    I would nominate Speaker Newt Gingrich as one such champion, who could bring a conservative perspective to the same historical facts, mentioned by Chomsky and, perhaps, add some of his own. :-)

    I also ask: “Is it appropriate for Fabius Maximus (FM) to present the counter arguments?”

    If Yes, then there is a powerful opportunity to debate and assess the arguments, online.

    Many Thsnks

    Like

    • 23 July 2012 6:14 am

      Why don’t you present the counter arguments? Or direct us to sources doing so!

      Ask not what I can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for us.

      Like

    • Maurice Brown permalink
      23 July 2012 7:03 am

      Why? – I know that I am not in FM’s league. But, I am an analyst by trade, so I could do some research and draft a counter argument, provided FM doesn’t crucify me and hold me up to ridicule.
      :-)

      The questions I would attempt to answer are: “What issues derive from Chomsky’s St Andrews’ speech? How may they apply to our lives in the English-Speaking world (USA, Canada, in particular)? What risks/ challenges are there to individual and societal well-being? Where are the opportunities?”

      Do you think this is a feasible mandate, to complete in less than a week and to report on six pages or less? If not, then we will have to cut it back in scope.

      Let me know what you suggest and then I get on it this week.

      Like

    • Unna permalink
      23 July 2012 7:13 am

      Newt Gingrich? Wasn’t he the one during the recent primary campaign who proposed ignoring Supreme Court decisions? Yes, that’s a wonderful idea. Let’s bring in Newt, a true champion of “conservative” principals – whatever that might mean these days. Of course, in the present case, Newt would presumably be arguing in support of Obama and Holder. The trashing of the US constitution does indeed make strange bedfellows.

      Like

    • Maurice Brown permalink
      23 July 2012 7:33 am

      Well, Speaker Gingrich does have academic credentials. i don’t know if he proposed ignoring decisions of the court. That sounds a bit extreme. But, as an historian, didn’t he assist freddie mac and fsnnie fae in planning their future? :-)
      He is obviously adept at being a “strange bedfellow”. He claims to be good at finding bi-partisan solutions. Plus he needs the work. :-)

      Like

    • Unna permalink
      23 July 2012 3:13 pm

      Gingrich Says He Would Arrest Judges With Capitol Police Or U.S. Marshals“, Sam Stein, Huffington Post, 18 December 2011

      Can the President Ignore Supreme Court Rulings?“, Lyle Denniston, Huffington Post, 18 October 2011

      For me, Newt’s position-comments are more a sign of the times. Casual disregard for legality in many areas. A willingness to unencumber the executive with legal process.

      Like

    • 23 July 2012 11:57 pm

      I’ve often wondered if great men arise in strong societies, whereas they’re often ruined in weak and corrupt societies. That might account for the great success of the Founding generation, and the large numbers of Newt Gingrich’s in ours.

      Like

  2. Unna permalink
    23 July 2012 7:02 am

    Let’s make pretend I’m a local prosecutor. During some chit chat over coffee with the narcs we decide to eliminate a particular subject, thereby providing him his full non judicial due process rights in the small matter of the deprivation of his life. No man, no problem. Oh, wait, that was Stalin. We’re talking about which country again?

    The legal ability of the executive power to order the death of a person through a non judicial secret administrative process is one of the ultimate powers of any dictatorship – along with the defacto unilateral power to go to war (check) and to arrest and hold national security suspects with out recourse to the right of habeas corpus (check). When Holder offered this explanation of what process was due in order for the executive authority to kill an American citizen, the result should have been the immediate impeachment of Holder and Obama.

    Question. Where are the politicians, the bar associations, the law schools etc? Has the “fuhrer principal” now been accepted and become incorporated into American constitutional jurisprudence?

    Like

    • 24 July 2012 12:04 am

      The ethics of American prosecutors are generally awful. Perhaps in most jurisdictions prosecutors routinely and shamelessly violate due process by hiding exculpatory evidence from the defense, prosecuting defendants without strong evidence of their guilt, suborning perjury by the police, etc. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule when a district attorney takes swift and decisive action against subordinates for serious breaches of prosecutorial ethics, as the DA in Oklahoma City recently did to two subordinates after one of their convictions was vacated on appeal because they had withheld exculpatory evidence. Similarly, Dallas County DA Craig Watkins is as far as I know in a class of his own for systematically reviewing his office’s old cases for evidence of wrongful convictions. In a nation with many exonerees, some of them posthumously exonerated after being executed, and a much larger number of wrongfully convicted prisoners who have yet to be exonerated, he shouldn’t be alone in that work.

      Bar association ethical standards often amount to dead letters in the US. Unethical practice is very common, especially on the part of prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys, but very rarely punished. Mike Nifong was an exception. He might well still be barred today had he railroaded obscure, indigent defendants instead of ones who retained excellent counsel in a case that received intense national coverage.

      Legal education in the US is badly broken. Many attorneys regard it as something of a joke and a scam because it has so little bearing on legal practice. For an idea of the character that law schools seek in their faculty hires, consider that John Yoo, of the Bush torture memos, teaches at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, one of the most prestigious law schools in the land. As far as I can tell, law school faculty are encouraged to advance any position, no matter how specious or evil, in the name of debate.

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 12:34 am

      I agree on all points!

      Here are some posts about on aspect of our broken legal machinery: America’s shameful criminal justice system

      1. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice System — Excerpts from The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz
      2. More about the collapse of the American Criminal Justice System – Studies and reports about our shameful system.
      3. Final thoughts about the American Criminal Justice System, 21 September 2011

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 12:44 am

      As to our politicians: as a class they’re too venal, mendacious, demagogic and vicious for words. Congress set a very appropriate precedent by impeaching Richard Nixon for serious official crimes, then reversed that precedent with the Clinton impeachment, in which it turned the procedure into a laughingstock to be used frivolously against one’s opponents when resentful of their success and popularity. Congress has compounded its offense since then by making no effort to impeach Bush II or Obama for their serious official crimes.

      Of course, as Fabius often reminds us, we’re Congress’ electors, so we have to look in the mirror. Judging by whom we elect, we suck. That’s a blunt statement, but I’m afraid it’s true.

      One problem is that many decent people sit out elections, leaving them in the hands of the depraved. This is exacerbated by closed primaries in many states, so I hold out some hope that structural reforms can ameliorate the problem.

      Still, there’s a deep spiritual sickness in this country, manifested not only by open depravity from the fringes but also by the unwillingness of decent people to rebuke their fellows for being depraved. This is driven by a perverse, superficial sense of decency. One example that comes to mind is the donnybrook over the HPV vaccine, in which outraged parents scream, in effect, that Gardasil will turn their daughters into dirty sluts. The depravity of wanting one’s own child to suffer preventible disease as punishment for sexual impurity should be self-evident, but most of the counterpoints that I read dodged the matter of these parents being malicious and authoritarian.

      Another institution that deserves heaping blame is the news media, especially television news and talk radio. Much of our “news” is the work of amoral, mercenary propagandists. Alert individuals can readily see this, but much of the citizenry is anything but alert, which is exactly as our masters want it.

      Like

    • Unna permalink
      24 July 2012 12:59 am

      I thought with the legal profession, it was just a public relations issue. Who could have known…?

      Like

  3. 23 July 2012 11:33 am

    The author would have had more sway with me if he had not suggested that Osama Bin Laden was defenseless. According to all the sources I read, he pulled a gun on the men who raided the compound. Thus, he was killed as a suspect (not uncommon in similar cases).

    Like

    • Pluto permalink
      23 July 2012 12:22 pm

      I believe your argument is specious. Time magazine reported that the US government had already decided that they were not going to bring Bin Laden back alive, that he was too dangerous to the troops and to the US to be allowed to live. Pulling a pistol on heavily armed men at night who are wearing night vision equipment and body armor when you have neither is not a very creditable threat, it is just asking to be killed rather than being captured.

      Like

    • 23 July 2012 1:06 pm

      “All the sources” you read are government sources. The government has released several stories, all to some degree contradictory, all designed to make the raid look good.

      We don’t know what happened during the raid. All we do know is that government stories about such events, from Jessica Lynch’s heroic defense to bin Laden’s execution, are written by people who lie to us as SOP.

      Like

    • Pluto permalink
      24 July 2012 4:37 pm

      “We don’t know what happened during the raid.”

      Taking that statement to its logical extreme suggests that Bin Laden might still be alive and locked up somewhere. All we know for certain (if we trust Pakistani government officials) is that Bin Laden is no longer in the compound that was raided.

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 5:09 pm

      Pluto,

      I think that’s an illogical extreme. If he was alive, Bin Laden could humiliate the US at any time.

      Like

    • Pluto permalink
      24 July 2012 6:42 pm

      What you say is true but the potential intel that could be gathered from him might be viewed as being worth the risk. Plus these decision-makers are increasingly confident of their ability to deflect criticism.

      For the record, I agree with you that Bin Laden is probably dead but it is an interesting concept.

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 7:21 pm

      That’s out-of-the-box creative thinking — that we might be holding bin Laden captive, but announce that we’ve killed him.

      So what happens next? We announce that he’s alive in a prison somewhere? Perhaps put him on trial? Turn him over tot he Saudi’s for trial (as in The Sum of All Fears). Or quietly execute him?

      I’ll stick with my guess that he’s still dead, like Franco.

      Like

  4. Thomas More permalink
    24 July 2012 2:54 am

    More evidence that the most elemental fundamentals of civil society and the rule of law are now vanished from America, as gone and forgotten as in the throne room of some barbarian chieftain who orders his courtiers impaled for sneezing in his presence:

    Why the WikiLeaks Grand Jury is So Dangerous: Members of Congress Now Want to Prosecute New York Times Journalists Too“, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 23 July 2012.

    The “crime” for which members of congress want to arrest, try and convict New York Times journalists, by the way, is the heinous transgression of informing the public about the existence of a secret kill list which the president of the united states can draw up to murder American citizens without even charging them with having commited a crime.

    The time is coming, and soon, when websites like this one will be branded “material aid and support to terrorists” and shut down, and its authors and/or readers kidnapped and held in secret prisons under the NDAA as “potential enemy combatants.

    Like

  5. 24 July 2012 8:57 pm

    My thoughts while reading this were:

    1. Wow. Noam Chomsky is more lucid, more circumspect, more strategic in his thinking, and more relevant, than I have ever seen him. And:

    2. Given our dumbed down, reductionist state of national being, I believe a simple mantra that can countervail against the blatant propaganda that passes for public discourse now is:

    People! Ideas! Hardware! In that order!

    Quite literally, words to live (survive) by. Hope to see it (or equivalent) spray painted on overpasses soon, else we are all going down.

    Like

  6. 31 August 2012 7:04 am

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    Like

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