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Thursday, January 30, 2003

A profile of Noam Chomsky I wrote for Ceasefire, but which was ultimately unused...

Who the hell is he anyway?: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a name frequently bandied around in “leftist” circles, such as those involved in the production of Ceasefire. He is regarded as an inspiration by many and is even listed as one of the ten most cited writers in the humanities (beating out Hegel and Cicero and trailing only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and Freud) and is the only one still alive. But who exactly is he?

Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He began his education at Oak Lane Country Day School and Central High School, Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received a Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however most of the research for this had been done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since then he has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He married Carol Schatz in 1949 and the couple have two children.

Chomsky originally made his reputation in linguistics. He learned some of the historical principles of linguistics from his father, William, a Russian emigrant and Hebrew scholar. Indeed Chomsky did some of the early research for his Masters on the modern spoken Hebrew language. His achievements in the field include his work on generative grammar. Reportedly it was his interest in politics which steered him towards a graduate study in linguistics as a result of sympathy with the political views of Zelig Harris, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

It is his interest and efforts in politics for which Chomsky is best known. He identifies himself as a Libertarian Socialist (“Libertarian socialism is just anarchism - the socialist variety of anarchism,” he explains) and believes that his political tendencies are the result of “the radical Jewish community in New York.” He entered the political forum in 1965 when he began speaking out against the Vietnam War (remember the major anti-war protests came some years later) and has not left it since.

He has written prodigiously, penning books such as Fateful Triangle, Pirates and Emperors, American Power and the New Mandarins and Deterring Democracy and articles for the likes of the New Statesman, Z-Magazine and The Guardian, while continuing to publish linguistics works. He has also travelled extensively, visiting some of the countries which have been the targets of US interventionism. He visited the Occupied Territories during the first Intifada and, last year, appeared in court in Turkey to support Fatih Tas who was being tried under the country’s “anti-terrorism” laws for publishing one of Chomsky’s books.

The New York Times Book Review said, “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive.” However Chomsky is quick to point out that “the next sentence is: ‘Since that's the case, how can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?’ And they never quote that part. But in fact if it wasn't for that second sentence I would begin to think that I'm doing something wrong.” This suggests a paradox; a man who is influential, well respected and widely read yet reviled by the guardians of elite culture. Of course, he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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