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Noam Chomsky is a worried man

Noam Chomsky is a worried man.

The war in Afghanistan? Yes.

Crisis in the Middle East? Of course.

Species survival in light of the threats of environmental catastrophe and nuclear weapons? Aren't we all?

All that too, but, as I drive him round Belfast, he confides that he’s worried he could lose his driving licence.

Once upon a time, public transport was good enough to get him from home to his office at MIT. These days, since the US automobile lobby got its way, he suggests, the trains have disappeared, and he needs a car to make the journey.

Now the Massachusetts state legislature is considering a bill that would force all those aged 75 and over to pass physical and mental tests if they want to hold on to their driving licences. (A clear-cut case of age discrimination surely?)

Chomsky, 81 next month, may be physically slower than when he was when last in Northern Ireland in 1993, but – on the evidence of this year’s Amnesty International Annual Lecture – his mental acuity shows no sign of slackening.

The lecture is wide-ranging in scope, but no less focussed in its lines of attack, no less compelling in its arguments.

A sample.

On Obama, that Nobel Peace Prize and the US-UK ‘special relationship’:

Chomsky quotes a senior Kennedy advisor at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, who  “defined the ‘special relationship’ succinctly: Britain will “act as our lieutenant (the fashionable word is partner).”
… in public, [Obama] approaches allies as “partners.” If released, the internal record may well reveal that in private the partners are expected to be lieutenants.  The Nobel committee’s choice reflects the preference of European elites for the Kennedy-Obama posture.”

On the Copenhagen conference on climate change:

“…it is becoming steadily more unlikely that decisions will be reached that are at all commensurate with the severity of the crisis.  One reason is the unwillingness of the rich countries to provide adequate assistance to the developing world, and to control their own destructive reliance on fossil fuels…  The estimated costs seem huge, but placing them in context reveals them to be a tiny fraction of GDP.  The stakes are enormous, and the prospects dim, unless an aroused public compels the political leadership to take urgent action.”

On nuclear weapons proliferation:

“…there are immediate actions that can be undertaken to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.  One important step is the establishment of nuclear-free weapons zones (NFWZs).  There are now six such zones.
… Despite the obstructionism of the US and its British lieutenant, establishment of NWFZs can be a valuable step, nowhere more than in the Middle East. […] A Middle East NWFZ would cover Israel, Iran, and any US forces operating in the region.  With adequate verification, which is not impossible, it would mitigate and perhaps eliminate current tensions over Iran, which threaten to explode into a major war.   But it is not on the agenda.  It is dismissed by the US government and both political parties, and is barely mentioned in mainstream discussion.  In the West, Israel’s nuclear weapons are not considered a threat, just as our own are not.”

On US military spending:

“US military expenditures almost match the rest of the world combined, and the US military is far more advanced technologically.  Nonpartisan budget and security monitors report that the Obama “administration’s request for $538 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal 2010 and its stated intention to maintain a high level of funding in the coming years put the president on track to spend more on defense, in real dollars, than any other president has in one term of office since World War II. And that's not counting the additional $130 billion the administration is requesting to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, with even more war spending slated for future years.” ”

On South America and the US:

“On a brighter note, South America is moving towards integration and authentic independence for the first time since the arrival of the European explorers.  One consequence is that the US has been expelled from its military bases, most recently from the Manta base in Ecuador.  But Washington is reacting.  It has recently arranged to use seven new military bases in Colombia, as well as two naval bases in Panama, and presumably intends to maintain the Palmerola base in Honduras, which played a central role in Reagan’s terrorist wars.  The US Fourth Fleet, which was disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador.  Its responsibility covers the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters.”

On the arms trade:

“Under Bush, the US became by far the world’s largest supplier of arms and military training, more than double its nearest competitor, Russia, mostly to the Middle East.  These US programs played a role in 20 of the world's 27 major wars in 2007, the last year for which figures are available.  In its annual session a year ago, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for regulation of the arms trade.  The US voted against it, but was not alone: it was joined by Zimbabwe.”

On poverty:

“South America … [is] beginning to address the profound internal problems of societies traditionally dominated by a small wealthy Europeanized elite, isolated from the sea of human misery around them.  They are at least beginning to address what Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan calls “the unheard truth”: that “poverty is the world’s worst human rights crisis,… this generation’s greatest struggle.” …  UN agencies announced that the number of people facing hunger passed 1 billion, and is rapidly increasing, while the rich countries sharply reduce their contributions for food aid because of the need to support the big banks.
… Even the richest country in the world is suffering from these plagues.  In the US, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences reveals, one of six people live in poverty, almost 20% of those 65 or older.  Food stamp assistance is currently at an all-time high of about 36 million.”

It was by no mean’s all depressing though. Chomsky’s prescription for solving the world’s ills: activism.

“Thanks to the activism of the ‘60s and its aftermath, the country has become more civilized in many dimensions: rights of minorities and of women, concern for rights of future generations (the environmental movement), and much else.  That includes opposition to aggression: contrary to many illusions, the opposition to the Iraq war has been far greater than at comparable stages of the Vietnam war, and more effective in constraining imperial violence…”
“…an organized public can achieve a great deal … don’t ridicule, organize.”


Amnesty International will be making the full lecture available online, including the fascinating Q&A session which followed, chaired by the BBC’s William Crawley, as well as an interview with Noam Chomsky carried out the following day. 

You can watch out for this by following Amnesty International in Northern Ireland on Twitter and Facebook. More photos from the Lecture here.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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