Noam Chomsky’s Bio
All the deets on your favorite critic’s personal life.
|Name||Avram Noam Chomsky|
|Nickname||The Wordsmith, The Grammarian, The Academy's Favorite Dissident, A Political Pistol, Enemy of the State (By Choice)|
|Home town||I was born in Philly to a father who had basically fled the Nazis and a mother from Belarus. Mom and Dad raised me and my brother, David, in a very Jewish household. At home, there were constant discussions swirling about the war, Zionism, and socialism. It was an intellectually lively place, if I do say so myself.|
Work & Education
|Occupation||I've been at MIT since the game Scrabble was invented—a significant event for someone so into language, but if you don't know, that was in 1955. I have held all sorts of endowed professorships, but allow me just to humbly submit that I put that university on the map.|
When I'm not teaching courses on analytic philosophy, universal grammar, and my own self-named concepts (you get to do this when you are at my level; i.e., the Chomsky hierarchy and the Chomsky–Schützenberger theorem), I'm daydreaming about words and sentences.
Now, I'm no armchair intellectual. I hit the streets at the slightest indication of government corruption, which means I'm out of the office a lot.
My extensive list of publications includes books on linguistics (naturally), critiques of capitalism (those greedy banker pigs are going down!), the media (and we're not talking about TMZ), modern Hebrew, foreign policy (Cambodia, the Middle East), human rights, venal US interventions, terrorism, rogue states, 9/11…
You get the point. I'm busy—but call me. Maybe. I'm not one for returning email in a matter of minutes. I like to be out there, in touch with the people.
|Education||It all started in elementary school at a charming little institution called Oak Lane Country Day School. I was writing for the school rag by age 10, honing my craft on such topics as fascism in the Spanish Civil War.|
Half a century later, I cited this research I conducted as a 4th grader as having had "an enormous impact my political and moral consciousness," helping me gain an early understanding of "deeply felt needs and ideals of dispossessed masses".
Anyway, long story short, I was seriously precocious. By the time I hit high school, I was questioning authority—big shocker, I know—but my teachers just didn't nurture my love of libertarian anarchism. So, I decided to study Marxism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and Leninism on my own.
I was already setting the world on fire as an undergraduate with my theory that inherent (as opposed to experiential) qualities apply across all languages, making them inter-related and constrained by what I called "universal grammar." Look, humans aren't born blank slates, mere empty vessels waiting to be filled to the brim with ideas of language and morality; some qualities of human nature just don't vary no matter what culture you are looking at.
The New Yorker got it right in this description:
Chomsky sees himself, correctly, as continuing a conversation that goes back to Plato, especially the Meno dialogue, in which a slave boy is revealed by Socrates to know truths about geometry that he hadn't realized he knew. Plato's question was whether any of what we know about the world is innate as opposed to acquired through experience.
I started getting hot and heavy on the political scene while I was in graduate school, taking every opportunity to shine a klieg light on the hypocrisies and oppressions of American foreign policy. Cough cough imperialism cough cough. But that wasn't my only gig at the time.
While promoting my idea that the US is a terrorist state, I picked up a PhD at Harvard (natch), writing a dissertation that would later become the blockbuster book Syntactic Structures.
|Political views||Newsflash: I'm not afraid to voice offensive and radical opinions. Insert that A in a circle symbolizing anarchy here, because I love me some anarchy—but I'm not an anarchist per se. I'm a "derivative fellow traveler [of anarchism]."|
For more information on that subject, see my 2006 book appropriately titled Chomsky on Anarchism, a poolside read in which I discuss my ideas about collective action and being pluralistic—in other words, accepting that there is no one right way to effect political change. Mom and Dad were Roosevelt Democrats, but there were plenty of socialists buzzing around the family hive, so I was exposed to a range of faiths and opinions early on. And I like the sound of all that buzzing.
I've got a real stew of opinions just within myself, so allow me to provide a sampler of some of my, um, unconventional political ideas. I have maximum respect for revolutionary anarchists and big red heart Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, who themselves were inspired by principles of revolution and the Enlightenment.
But I also think that governments owe their people certain rights and, in turn, that people need to fulfill certain civic duties. I have been known to change my mind and contradict myself, but that's what thinking people do… constantly question. And revise, revise, revise.
People call me a lefty and a dissident, but that's way over simplified. I'm pretty much a pacifist, dedicated to free-speech rights, and vigorously opposed to the death penalty. I love America and I hate America.
I hate to disillusion you, Dear Reader, but I believe a lot of those politicians Americans love—ahem, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy —were, in fact, mass murderers functioning in the name of democracy. Now that I have your attention…
One of my basic premises is that terrorism and power go hand in hand: the more powerful a government is, the more likely it is to be involved in terrorism. I can only dip my big toe into the deep pool of the duplicity that is U.S. foreign policy. I mean, the U.S. was an ally of Augusto Pinochet during the Dirty War, which is like joining forces with the bogeyman and Hitler, all rolled into one.
Sadly, that's just one example of American political transgressions and can easily get lost among the innumerable examples of imperialist oppression, the "State-Corporate Complex," backroom capitalist deals, and the overeager assassination of foreign leaders perpetrated by our so-called great nation.
Like I said after Osama bin Laden was smote by the hand of justice: "We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic."
At the core, I am suspicious of anything and everything powerful. Authority is inherently shady: big business, corrupt central governments, corporate media—there's a hearty triumvirate of evil right there. Oh, and I can't stand the military-industrial complex, so I'm happy to hold court about Vietnam and U.S.-Israeli bullyism, or just rap out about war in general.
With the media, in particular, I get very excited by propaganda, coercion, and ideological oppression. We're talking some serious mind-melding here—what I call "manufacturing consent":
In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of the dominant elite.
At a more grassroots level, I always vote in elections. Obviously, I don't do that because I've fallen in love with any of the candidates (you should know me better than that by now). But there is usually some specific homicidal maniac I'm obliged to keep out of office.
Oh, and don't forget: I also believe in being part of the community, and in community action. If you don't keep an eye out, pretty soon everything is going to be privatized and the government won't have to do anything for its citizens. So, you matter. What you do matters.
|Religious views||I was raised by two Jewish intellectuals. So our dinnertimes were full of discussions of Zionism and other issues relating to Jewish politics and languages. (No Yiddish was uttered in that house… Dad was a purist.)|
I grew up in the United States, but was a teenager when war was being waged against the Nazis on the other side of the pond. And, in case you've forgotten or weren't around to see those days, anti-Semitism was not confined to the borders of the Third Reich. We had us some homegrown anti-Semitism in the good ole U.S. of A.—and I experienced it firsthand.
Now, don't get me wrong: I love Jesus. He was one of the first public intellectuals to spread the Word of pacifism, sympathize with the poor, and speak Truth. But do I think Jesus is our savior and that he died for our sins? Hell, no!
We can either make this simple or complex: I'm technically an atheist, but not even really willing to hammer out what that means.
In fact, I'm just not interested in defining much of anything about religion. Because as I said in one interview, "When we talk about religion, we mean a particular form of religion, the form that ended up dominating Western society. But if you take a look at other societies in the world, their religious beliefs are very different."
Furthermore, Western civilization and Christianity are no picnics. I mean, have you read the Bible? Talk about genocide. The Story of Noah? "Thatʼs beyond genocide—you donʼt know how to describe [God]. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth?"
Activities & Interests
Hating on stuff
Sentences (words, too, but sentences even more)
Ruining government officials' days
Anarchy (within limits)
Being really really smart about everything
Making radical Facebook pages
|Dislikes||U.S. foreign policy|
Every American politician ever pretty much, I just despise some more than others
The "war on drugs"
Fascism and most so-called Democracies
People who aren't rational
The death penalty
Killing in general
|Interests||Being a contrarian|
Getting in a good verbal spar
Cranking out books
Taking part in peace walks that doesn't always remain peaceful
Receiving honorary degrees… so much easier than the whole coursework-dissertation-defense route, am I right?
|Groups||Linguists Against American Political Deception|
The Mind-Changers-Not-Hypocrites Club
The Libertarian Socialists
Industrial Workers of the World
Radical Humanists Unite!
Down with the World Trade Organization (WTO)
Don't JUST Hate, Participate
Intellectuals Against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)