Our democratic gadfly

Noam Chomsky
October 3, 1997

Noam Chomsky may be a great man, but his books have cost me a fortune over the years. In my office at work is a shelf full of his studies in linguistics; at home I have an even larger shelf crammed with his political writings. The questions that any biography of Chomsky must address are simple: first, how can anyone be so prolific in two such different areas? Second, how can he be so good at both of them?

Robert F. Barsky illuminates both questions in this detailed and perceptive survey of Chomsky's life and work. The answer in both cases goes back to Chomsky's unusual education. After attending a progressive primary school which encouraged "free and unstructured exploration, rather than imposed curricula", Chomsky spent much of his spare time as a teenager talking with radical Jewish intellectuals about Palestine, socialism and much else. At university he pursued the same interests, and it was by chance that he was sidetracked into studying linguistics because of his friendship with one of these figures, Zellig Harris. Barsky provides many new insights into this stage of Chomsky's life, particularly the role of Avukah, a leftwing Zionist group in which Harris was prominent.

By the early 1950s Chomsky's political principles were clear: his baseline was a commitment to human freedom, and a refusal to accept limitations on that freedom from state institutions, private corporations, or any other concentration of power. The book shows how the direction of Chomsky's activism since that time follows logically from these principles. Anyone who consistently argues from such a starting point is bound to make enemies, and it has needed great self-confidence for Chomsky to sustain his commitment in the face of the angry and often deceitful attacks that Barsky documents.

At the same time Chomsky was also working out the broad principles behind his generative analysis of language. Barsky shows clearly how these principles emerged in opposition to the structuralist linguistics and behaviourist psychology which dominated the scene then. Just as with the politics, the fundamental decisions Chomsky made early on about language have underpinned everything that came later. The same self-confidence that sustains Chomsky's political activities has been essential in his academic work, where the attacks have often been just as vitriolic.

In his assessment of Chomsky's status, Barsky moves on to less certain ground. He repeats the claims often made in the linguistic literature about Chomsky's enormous influence, drawing on statistics which show that Chomsky is the most cited living person. At the same time Barsky describes him as "marginalised" in the political sphere, one of a small number of isolated dissenting voices who challenge prevailing ways of thinking. In fact, the opposite is probably true in both cases. No one stops to ask how many of the academic citations are based on a genuine understanding of his work, nor how many are favourable. Generative grammar continues to be a minority interest within linguistics, regarded with hostility or simply ignored by many in the field. This is even more true of Chomsky's supposed influence on other domains such as psychology and philosophy. Chomsky has often surprised interviewers by his apparent modesty in this respect, but he is simply being realistic.

As for being out of the political mainstream, this is obviously true insofar as Chomsky's libertarian socialist convictions are not among those that are routinely found in leading newspapers or on television. Move out of elite circles, however, and such opinions are widespread. One of Chomsky's basic arguments is that industrialised countries in the western world combine democratic forms with a variety of mechanisms to keep the majority passive and powerless. Many people would agree: indeed, in a recent interview, Chomsky states that his views are "as old as the hillsI straight out of mainstream American tradition". In addition, Chomsky regularly acknowledges his debt to thousands of unsung activists who work hard, often at great personal cost, to end injustice and build a better world. In the respects that count, he is certainly not marginalised.

The book concentrates mostly on politics, and does not say enough about linguistics to make a sound introduction to generative grammar. Otherwise, however, Barsky's book paints an accurate picture of a remarkable human being. Chomsky is unshakeable on basic principles, sceptical about everything else, courageous and often very amusing. Future generations will regard his essential ideas as common sense; the fact that it takes outstanding personal qualities to maintain them publicly today is a sad comment on our society.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Author - Robert F. Barsky
ISBN - 0 262 02418 7
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 237

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