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Chomsky writes: "Recent events trace a threatening trajectory, sufficiently so that it may be worthwhile to look ahead a few generations to the millennium anniversary of one of the great events in the establishment of civil and human rights ..."

Author, historian and  political commentator Noam Chomsky. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)
Author, historian and political commentator Noam Chomsky. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)

The Shredding of Our Fundamental Rights

By Noam Chomsky, AlterNet

19 July 2012


The Magna Carta - the charter of every self-respecting man - is being dismantled in front of our eyes.

This column is adapted from an address by Noam Chomsky on June 19 at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, as part of its 600th anniversary celebration.

ecent events trace a threatening trajectory, sufficiently so that it may be worthwhile to look ahead a few generations to the millennium anniversary of one of the great events in the establishment of civil and human rights: the issuance of Magna Carta, the charter of English liberties imposed on King John in 1215.

What we do right now, or fail to do, will determine what kind of world will greet that anniversary. It is not an attractive prospect - not least because the Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes.

The first scholarly edition of the Magna Carta was published in 1759 by the English jurist William Blackstone, whose work was a source for U.S. constitutional law. It was entitled "The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest," following earlier practice. Both charters are highly significant today.

The first, the Charter of Liberties, is widely recognized to be the cornerstone 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."

In 1679 the Charter was enriched by the Habeas Corpus Act, formally titled "an Act for the better securing the liberty of the subject, and for prevention of imprisonment beyond the seas." The modern harsher version is called "rendition" - imprisonment for the purpose of torture.

Along with much of English law, the Act was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, which affirms that "the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended" except in case of rebellion or invasion. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the rights guaranteed by this Act were "(c)onsidered by the Founders as the highest safeguard of liberty."

More specifically, the 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 Department of Justice has recently explained that these guarantees are satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch, as Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in The New York Times on May 29. Barack Obama, the constitutional lawyer in the White House, agreed. King John would have nodded with satisfaction.

The underlying principle of "presumption of innocence" has also been given an original interpretation. In the calculus of the president’s "kill list" of terrorists, "all military-age males in a strike zone" are in effect counted as combatants "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent," Becker and Shane summarized. Thus post-assassination determination of innocence now suffices to maintain the sacred principle.

This is the merest sample of the dismantling of "the charter of every self-respecting man."

The companion Charter of the Forest is perhaps even more pertinent today. It 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. The Forest was no wilderness. It was carefully nurtured, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations.

By the 17th century, the Charter of the Forest had fallen victim to the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality. No longer protected for cooperative care and use, the commons were restricted to what could not be privatized - a category that continues to shrink before our eyes.

Last month the World Bank ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with its case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining. Environmental protection would deprive the company of future profits, a crime under the rules of the investor rights regime mislabeled as "free trade."

This is only one example of struggles under way over much of the world, some with extreme violence, as in resource-rich eastern Congo, where millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cellphones and other uses, and of course ample profits.

The dismantling of the Charter of the Forest brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are conceived, captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential thesis in 1968 that "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all," the famous "tragedy of the commons": What is not privately owned will be destroyed by individual avarice.

The doctrine is not without challenge. Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user- managed commons.

But the 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, called "the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self" - a doctrine they bitterly condemned as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free people.

Huge efforts have been devoted since to inculcating the New Spirit of the Age. Major industries are dedicated to what political economist Thorstein Veblen called "fabricating wants" - directing people to "the superficial things" of life, like "fashionable consumption," in the words of Columbia University marketing professor Paul Nystrom.

That way people can be atomized, seeking personal gain alone and diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves, act in concert and challenge authority.

It’s unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the destruction of the commons: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster. Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are all too real and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come. The recent Rio+20 Conference is the latest effort. Its aspirations were meager, its outcome derisory.

In the lead in confronting the crisis, throughout the world, are indigenous communities. 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 its rich resources.

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. The summit 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.

The demand is ridiculed by sophisticated Westerners, but unless we can acquire some of the sensibility of the indigenous communities, they are likely to have the last laugh - a laugh of grim despair.

(Noam Chomsky's most recent book is "Occupy." Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.) your social media marketing partner


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-16 # ronnewmexico 2012-07-19 13:00
I don't first do we define indigenous communities before we state what all of them are demanding. Are the pacific islanders indigenous communities speaking the same of this thing as perhaps those natives represented by governments in oil producing places....?

Agreeing in general concept but seeing this as a fight not of them and us or us and them but for our very survival...a greater good or qualifying moral standard found in al indigenous communities...I expect not to long a search would find some not holding to that standard....

Bolivia, are these countries are they representing a indigenous view of things or a composite view of the peoples these governments represent.....I suspect so. That a leader be indigenous speaks not that the nation is representing such a view in total.

Human rights e rule of kings to kill their subjects without recourse of law being almost ancient quite overruled and found irrelevant.

And now by trade agreements being proposed..all individual nationality being subservient to corporate led free trade that....though environmental harm free and wage slavery be it not so free.....
+14 # BradFromSalem 2012-07-19 14:16
Perhaps if we restore the presumption of innocence concept and include the presumption of a commons in the same concept, it may go a long way to addressing your concerns.
+4 # Loupbouc 2012-07-19 17:45
How does "presumption of a commons" parallel the presumption of innocence? What would be a "presumption of a commons"? How would it function, in what context? What would be its effect, in what context?
+5 # BradFromSalem 2012-07-20 07:39
Presumption of commons just means that anything that we may want to consider allowing personal ownership upon, first consider the impact of making that belong to the commons. An example where this concept was placed into the Constitution as a compromise solution. The authority to define copyright law was expressly given to Congress. In short, the compromise was that society is better served when written knowledge belongs in the commons, but a period of exclusivity serves the purpose of encouraging individuals to create written material.
Our education system is (was) based on the commons. Free public education benefits all of society. The invention of the car is an interesting example where the whole is part of the commons, but the parts of a car are protected by patents. Just like copyrights, patents expire and place the invention into the commons.

As proof of my point that we assume the commons last instead of first, we keep expanding the period of copyright and patent protection where it would benefit society as a whole by reducing them. The presumption has now become that a copyright (especially) and patent should expire when the original holder can no longer make a profit from it. Backwards. The expiration date should be how long will it take to regain the investment. that is a rule of thumb and just a starting point. I am talking concept, not details.
-5 # Loupbouc 2012-07-20 13:44
You do not understand “presumption” — a rule that a legal decision-maker assume a certain outcome must occur unless the opponent adduces certain contrary proof. The concept does not fit public schools or copyright or use of a commons.

Neither public education nor a public school is a commons. The resources & benefits obtain from taxation. The beneficiaries are forced to receive benefits.

Copyright law does not create, suffer limit by, or occur in a commons. Copyright law provides property. If copyright is not obtained, still the text or photograph or film not a commons or subject to free common public use — unless the creator renders general publication. A non-copyrighted work's creator has a property that protects him from others' being enriched by use of his product. King v. Mister Maestro, Inc., 224 F. Supp. 101 (SD NY 1963); Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., 194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999).

Even a person's image or his not-for-profit enterprise's name is protected against common use or commercial appropriation — even if the person displays his image or uses his enterprise's name during public events during which he makes his words and image centers of public attraction. See King v. American Heritage Products, Inc., 508 F. Supp. 854 (ND Ga 1981) and various other courts' decisions discussed there.

The patent matter is similar. But, because RSN limits posting length, I shall not elaborate.
+6 # BradFromSalem 2012-07-20 20:47
Are you a lawyer? I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but I really think you may be nit-picking by defining concepts in terms of straight jacket definitions.

I may be using incorrect terminology and if this forum was a college thesis I would spend 5 hours making sure I got the exact phraseology and terminology. I am talking about the ideas that are the basis of formulating our laws. I really don't know the decisions that you quote, but whatever they mean, it is the RESULT of the assumption of private property before the commons.
-8 # Loupbouc 2012-07-20 21:06
You wrote: "I am talking about the ideas that are the basis of formulating our laws." Your "ideas" are legally, logically, analytically, and factually wrong.

Your "RESULT" reference is insensible, and likely nonsense.
+1 # BradFromSalem 2012-07-21 10:38
It may not make sense in the legal world, but I have just reread your original post. I stand with my statements ans add to it that since you refuse and/or are unable to view things outside of your lawyer frame of reference you will never comprehend what I am saying. We are not speaking a common language.
-7 # Loupbouc 2012-07-21 12:57
Your posts address matters that are necessarily legal. Example: Inalienable human rights do not exist. All rights are creatures of law — even commons use rights.

So, your language fails because it does not account for law — and also because of its bad diction, bad syntax, and illogic. Also, your "statements" are oblivious to necessary facts (including vitally relevant facts of pertinent events of law).
+2 # Loupbouc 2012-07-19 17:42
What are you trying to say? Even what are you trying to think? You post is word-salad.
+6 # soularddave 2012-07-19 19:48
Quoting ronnewmexico:
view of the peoples these governments represent.....

Not sure what you're saying, but it seems unlikely that these governments truly speak for the people. Does YOUR government truly reflect YOUR interests?
-19 # hobbesian 2012-07-19 14:09
So - isn't this, as we are told, just "free stuff"? That we'll all be better off without it?
-18 # RobertMStahl 2012-07-19 14:45
James Lovelock, the founder of the principle that the planet maintains a chemistry for Life tightly between the freezing and boiling point of water, 17 to 25 degrees C from the beginning of life until now with the sun heating up 30% during this thin band of such pseudo-delicate maintenance, states we have some time to figure things out. The oceans won't rise more than 2 feet per century. I wonder if the hopscotch table has been drawn. Now, all we need is feet.

Not to digress, Seabridge Gold Company has one of the largest finds of gold in history well inland of the Pacific Rim, bur their stock is so underrated it is not even to be believed, most of it waiting in approval for development. What is even more hilarious is what the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has done, putting this property, falsely, directly on the Pacific rim right next to a golf course, against where it states it is openly on the same page. See, The map does not concur with the facts.

Considering what Chavez has done to provide China with a major discovery the Las Cristinas mine another Canadian mining company had discovered, China is planning on replacing the dollar with the Renminbi, gold based in this modern war game of our time, maneuvering against the political landscape, even more insidious related to Seabridge's discovery. What I am saying is that propaganda is worse than what you say.
+4 # JetpackAngel 2012-07-19 14:45
So in other words, The Forest is like the office fridge: if it doesn't have a name on it, then people will do despicable things to other people in order to make the 'free stuff' THEIR stuff, even if it's a bottle of salad dressing somebody well-meaning colleague left in there so that everybody could have some.
+1 # Loupbouc 2012-07-19 17:51
You address Garrett Hardin’s argument, not Chomsky's. Do you apprehend Chomsky's position? If your do, what is your reaction?
+13 # motamanx 2012-07-19 14:48
I blame the drones. I blame the uninformed nerds in Las Vegas who control the drones. I blame Obama for continuing to employ drones as a means of foreign policy.
0 # Loupbouc 2012-07-19 17:51
You seem to be responding to another article written not by Chomsky.
-16 # MidwestTom 2012-07-19 15:43
China may save the world. The Muslims want to conquer the world by population. Americans seem uninterested in deterring family size. When the Chinese take over the world with their economic and military power, they will impose reproduction limits on everyone. Drugs will no longer be a problem because they simply kill drug dealers. The Chinese will simply purchase the bankrupt United States, and we will then have the safety net that they do now, which is none. World wide population will decline though.
+3 # Loupbouc 2012-07-19 17:56
+31 # anarchteacher 2012-07-19 17:28
In the past 10 years under Bush and Obama extra-Constitut ional elements of our government have cemented into place the "legal" framework to:

1) Detain U. S. citizens indefinitely without trial under the guise of enemy combatant status.

2) Assassinate U. S. citizens without trial and without due process under the law, including the very clear requirements of the treason clause.

3) Confiscate resources, including your private property, in the name of national security and preparedness.

4) Take control of or eliminate all communications networks including phone, radio, television, cell, internet, etc. in the name of national security.

5) Unleash a swarm of unmanned Predator Drones over our homes and towns to make mass surveillance of the public easier.

6) Capture, collate, and monitor the communications of millions of citizens without probable cause or a warrant under the FISA domestic spy bill.

7) Declare martial law without congressional oversight and embed active serving military amongst the populace in a law enforcement capacity. This includes the institution of Northcom, which is a standing military presence in the U.S. whose primary mission is to quell domestic dissent.

8) The institution of Gestapo-like checkpoints using TSA predators and invasive technology like porno body scanners has resulted in intimidating 'law enforcement' presence on a wide scale.
+5 # ronnewmexico 2012-07-19 18:27
I won't speak to the time of the cultural revolution and all that, but the chinese population control consists in the main now of taxes...additio nal if more than one child. As opposed to the US less tax is more children are we are right and they wrong or the inverse??

It is a totalitarian state indeed but that is not present at all levels and areas....there does exist a rule of law to which peoples are judged in a manner not familiar nor right for us but familiar and right in a way for them. Peoples are not simply killed for no reason bv the government more than in the US. Occasionally this happens in both places.

Absolutely true on the safety the 80's they removed what existed of their free medical care for the most part and social security does not even exist....the master plan however calls for its institution to instigate national internal consumption.... .as a result chinese must save inordinate amounts of their incomes and cannot then spend as we do at present.
Republicans in their interests of removing social security will quite to tbeir surprise remove the credit consumptive society of the US making it a save and spend one of pre FDR days...subseque ntly ruining the economy...but oh well.

China may become us and we china it seems.
Debt wise they own a least a trillion in US debt(treasuries ) by most countings.
0 # Fungib3 2012-07-22 09:36
Jetpakangel hit the mark. That it's not about laws. There are no laws. It's about doing undespicable things to indigenous people and their culture and livelihood to line the pockets of government officials and large corporations with their natural resources and money as a result of the greed that seems to have taken over the world.
+3 # Gere 2012-07-22 11:45
Last but not the least, Norm brought up another example of “the Commons”. He pointed not only to our local forests but our common atmosphere that up to recently included predictable weather patterns and climate. Tracking and then knowing what the climate is like over many years enabled US farmers to plan strategies for growing crops productively in hundreds of micro-climates. For decades our farmers have been the world’s backstop preventing the starvation of millions. That is because normal climate can be predicted enough to enable farmers to have more productive years than bad years. It has been more than a decade since thousands of respected scientists worldwide have shown irrefutable proof that the world’s use and abuse of fossil fuels led by the US is ending our predictable micro-climates. It is destroying what Dr. Chomsky has referred to another part of our “Commons” and what a little country like Bolivia is screaming about. Long ago we failed to live up to our initial endorsement of Kyoto – claiming that we do not take leadership unless China and India join. As this debacle continues we soon won’t be able to be concerned about our forest commons that die from beetles and then burn to the ground or the jungle habitats killed by drought, wind and floods, or even the loss of personal liberties. If accelerated climate change is allowed to continue unabated, “you ain’t seen nuthin yet”….
+1 # Gere 2012-07-22 14:12
Please pardon the misspelling of Noam's name in my previous comment.
+3 # tm7devils 2012-07-23 01:17
Heard Prof. Chomski when he talked in Tucson, AZ at UA...loved his thinking it now. He's one of the few fountains of critical thinking still breathing...QUI CK! Someone get some of his cells and clone him.
+2 # Kathymoi 2012-07-24 14:27
Major industries are dedicated to what political economist Thorstein Veblen called "fabricating wants" - directing people to "the superficial things" of life, like "fashionable consumption," ...
That way people can be...diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves, act in concert and challenge authority.
Sounds like a snap shot of our times.

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