Avram Noam Chomsky is demonstrably the world’s most famous and influential intellectual. Author of seventy books and over a thousand articles, Chomsky also happens to be the most cited living person on earth and on the short list of the most cited figures of all time. Possessed of an extremely formidable intellect, a fanatical work ethic, and an equally fanatical devotion to the truth, Chomsky has had an enormous impact on the field of modern linguistics and perhaps an even greater influence on international politics. His many, exhaustively researched, and utterly convincing critiques of the hypocrisy and deception that underlie much of American foreign (and domestic) policy have made Chomsky an internationally renowned spokesman for the libertarian Left while earning him the undying enmity of the American political and media establishment. Too articulate and well versed to be effectively debated by rightist commentators, Chomsky has been systematically denied access to the mainstream media in his own country: a desperate stratagem employed by his enemies that attests Chomsky’s power and prestige as a voice of dissent.
While considerable commentary has been produced on Chomsky’s linguistic theories and political views, very little has been written about his life and background. There are good reasons for this state of affairs. Apart from his high-profile role as a political activist, Noam Chomsky the man is an intensely private individual who has always sought to keep the focus on the issues he raises, not on himself as a person. Probably some of Chomsky’s reticence is a matter of innate temperament, but he also deplores self-aggrandizement and personality cults for personal and political reasons, as ethically unseemly and as symptomatic of the kind of selfish individualism that tends to characterize corporate capitalist culture at its worst. Another factor working against the would-be biographer is that to a great extent Chomsky’s intellectual and political work is his life—not the kind of thing that makes for scintillating biography.
Robert F. Barsky has understood the special requisites and difficulties posed by his subject and has, accordingly, written a purely intellectual biography. (Readers seeking intimate or merely revealing details about Noam Chomsky’s personality, private life, habits, or personal relationships will be sadly disappointed.) Inevitably free of the gossip and more personalized content that typifies conventional biographies, Barsky’s narrative is rather dry but not necessarily dull. From an intellectual standpoint, Chomsky’s has been a life of enormous risk-taking, adventure, discovery, and controversy. It might even be characterized as heroic.
Chomsky’s father, Dr. William (Zev) Chomsky, was a brilliant scholar of Hebrew grammar and a committed exponent of education that fosters independent thinking and social consciousness. His mother, Elsi, was equally gifted in intellect and more politically oriented than her husband. It is abundantly clear, from Barsky’s account, that Chomsky inherited his father’s interest in linguistics, his mother’s leftism, and, collectively, his parents’ brains, moral seriousness, and social and political awareness. Another formative influence was, of course, his family’s intense involvement in Jewish cultural and political life. Barsky also cites the time and milieu as shaping forces. Growing up Jewish in a predominantly Irish- Catholic and German neighborhood in Philadelphia during the Great Depression, Chomsky had ample opportunity to develop a social conscience.
Chomsky’s social conscience manifested itself early. Incredibly, he published his first article—an editorial in his school’s newspaper on the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War—when he was only ten years old. Even at that early age, Chomsky was already fully engaged with current events and quite capable of sophisticated political analysis. Fervently anti-authoritarian, temperamentally predisposed to sympathize with the underdog, he supported the Spanish anarchists in their struggle with Francisco Franco’s fascists on the right and Stalin’s despotic minions on the left.
In the years immediately following, Chomsky’s left- libertarian sympathies were further augmented by life experiences and his reading. Having emerged from the relatively nurturing and sheltered environment of a private country day school, young Chomsky was shocked and dismayed by the conformist rigidity he encountered at Central High School in Philadelphia. He soon regarded high school as a hierarchical institution that promoted...
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