LINGUIST List 8.764

Wed May 21 1997

Disc: Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>


  1. Robert Barsky, Re: Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent
  2. Robert Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Message 1: Re: Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent

Date: Wed, 21 May 1997 10:07:40 -0400 (EDT)
From: Robert Barsky <>
Subject: Re: Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent

 Paul M. Postal and Geoffrey K. Pullum raise issues which Pullum discussed
 in his review of my book for 'Nature', so I'll speak to both reviews.

 Feargal Murphy's review of my 'Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent' was
 a fair and accurate description of the book. For instance, he carefully
 noted that "The first section of the book - dealing with the milieu that
 formed Chomsky - covers Chomsky's family and his education (both formal and
 informal)." He then points out some of the central themes; for example, he
 accurately reports that: "A theme that runs through the book is that
 Chomsky's family was Zionist and that Chomsky has retained the Zionism of
 his youth -- the Zionism of Asher Ginsburg, pen name Ahad Ha-am -- but that
 this is quite a different kind of Zionism to the kind most often encountered
 today." He further notes that I devoted a lot of space to discussing the
 fact that Chomsky spends a lot of time working towards "improving and
 enhancing" the world, in part by "striving towards the creation of a 'good
 society'". And he accurately recalls that a significant amount of effort is
 made to describe the milieus that inform Chomsky's work, both politically
 and philosophically. In short, Murphy read statements of mine in the
 beginning of the book, statements such as: "My premise is that Chomsky's
 ideas, and in particular his political ideas, cannot be fully understood
 without some knowledge of the organizations, movements, groups, and
 individuals with whom he has had contact, either through study or
 discussion" (5). Or "But while his linguistic work has been reasonably well
 covered (despite the weaknesses of many historical studies), there is only a
 relatively small quantity of commentary available on Chomsky's political
 background and his contribution to political theory" (5-6). To put it
 another way, Murphy understood what the book was about. Pullum clearly did
 not. His diatribe in 'Nature', in which he notes with surprise that I didn't
 fully explore all of the avenues regarding Chomsky's linguistic work,
 reflects the fact that Pullum had decided in advance what the book was about
 and how it should be written, and then failed to face the challenge of
 actually reading it. For example, one would never have guessed from reading
 Pullum's review that the table of contents contains the following chapter

1. Family, Hebrew School, Grade School
2. Zellig Harris, Avukah, and Hashomer Hatzair
3. Humboldt and the Cartesian Tradition
4. The Intellectual, the University, and the State
5. The Intellectual as Commissar.

 In the entire 'Nature' review Pullum never mentions Zellig Harris, Avukah
 or Hashomer Hatzair. Nor does he mention the discussion of the intellectual,
 the university and the state. He doesn't mention any of the names which are
 mentioned repeatedly throughout the book, such as Bertrand Russell, Rudolph
 Rocker, George Orwell, or Karl Korsch. He doesn't mention anarchism,
 anarchosyndicalism, council communism, soviets or the League for Arab-Jewish
 Cooperation. All he provides is the following glib paragraph on Chomsky's
 politics: "Chomsky's political life dominates Barsky's perspective. Vastly
 more is said about Chomsky's links to radical leftist groups and Jewish
 political organizations that about his academic work." Indeed. I had said
 from the beginning that the emphasis would be upon Chomsky's links to
 radical leftist groups and Jewish political organizations. So why was Pullum
 so surprised? It would appear as though he was hoping for a biography which
 centred on the linguistics, and when he didn't get one, he simply attacked
 what he did get. Evidence of this is in Pullum's critique of the political
 discussion in the book. He notes that I didn't mention Chomsky's visit to
 Hanoi, and I failed to mention whether Chomsky had ever been to Montreal.
 His choice of areas to critique speaks for itself. And then? It's back to
 the fact that the book doesn't adequately discuss the linguistics, and to
 major concerns such as questioning Chomsky's memory about when the
 department, which Chomsky himself co-founded, was started up. I have worked
 extensively in the field of refugee studies, and am always exasperated when
 decisions are rendered against claimants because they failed to mention,
 say, the fact that the organization to which they belong has an office in
 Washington. Some adjudicators don't listen to what the claimant has been
 through, they simply listen for whatever it is that they decided want to
 hear. And when they don't get it? They get even by discounting the
 credibility of the whole story.

 Pullum seems to want to tell all of us what to do and how to think.
 For instance, he begins a paragraph with the cryptic statement that
 "Chomsky omits mention of Joan Bresnan -- a major opponent of GS who was
 hired during 1974-75 with Chomsky's strong support". What does this mean?
 Chomsky never failed to mention her; on page 192 he is cited as recalling
 that "Joan Bresnan, who was brought in at my personal initiative, over lots
 of objections from younger faculty members who didn't agree), decided to
 leave for Stanford." What Pullum means is that Bresnan did not figure in
 Chomsky's discussion about GS. He must have noticed that the 'linguistics
 wars' discussion only goes on for a few pages, that I was really only
 interested in noting the broad contours of this discussion and then offering
 Chomsky's own reaction to it. I never pretended that this book was about the
 'linguistic wars' and, once again, Pullum never sought to find out what the
 book was about (and of course he doesn't mention the fact that and that I
 did cite from R.A. Harris's book, and included another on the same 'wars' by
 Geoffrey Huck/John A. Goldsmith in my bibliography for those who were
 interested in looking further). Since it was a biography, most of the major
 events in Chomsky's life were at least mentioned; but the emphasis was upon
 the political and in particular the heretofore neglected early political

 I find the present reaction to the book, which includes the
 participation of Postal, an improvement over the 'Nature' review in that it
 at least offers some valuable information. They wish to question Chomsky's
 views about these wars which, they accurately note, are briefly set out in
 my book. But even here we find them both conjecturing about Chomsky's own
 description of his life when they suggest that "Chomsky did not let his
 anti-war speaking engagements crowd out the battle against GS" by noting
 that Chomsky sent (as is his custom) long and detailed replies "within the
 central period of the dispute." What does this prove? That Chomsky is
 extremely devoted and diligent. But it certainly doesn't disprove Murphy's
 statement, derived from Chomsky's own description of his own life, that
 "Chomsky was at this time simply very busy with other issues like the
 Vietnam War." Here again we see this strange tendency: Pullum wants the book
 to be written his way, and here Postal and Pullum want to tell Chomsky about
 his own thoughts. This is extremely unnerving. 

 Postal and Pullum would have us read other books about GS and the
 'linguistic wars'. So be it. Now they have Chomsky's views about one of the
 most well-known of the lot, 'The Linguistics Wars'. They also know that
 Chomsky considers that R.A. Harris's book often describes the relationship
 between the personalities involved with the debate, and the debate itself. I
 didn't try to mediate this discussion, or even cover all of the bases. But I
 did enjoy Harris's book, and the Huck/Goldsmith book as well, and I was
 anxious to learn the other side of the story. Reading these books, and the
 Otero volumes, and your own comments, provide many angles to complicated
 issues. Now readers can make up their own minds. But I'm certainly not going
 to chastize those interested in the linguistics wars because they don't
 mention Chomsky's early milieus, even though I think that these early
 milieus help us better understand something fundamental about the very
 decent and very serious thinker that is Noam Chomsky. My own question is,
 why would readers interested in the life of somebody as politically
 conscious and active wish to ignore his political work? Why would anyone
 even remotely familiar with Chomsky's work be so
 surprised by, and resistant to, the fact that I would concentrate more
 heavily upon his political approach and his values, rather than upon his
 academic work, especially in light of the volumes of work about Chomskyan
 linguistics that has been published previously?


Robert F. Barsky

>> Robert F. Barsky, Assistant Professor
>> Department of English
>> University of Western Ontario
>> London (Ontario)
>> Canada N6A 3K7
>> phone (519) 661-2111 extension 5825: fax (519) 661-3776
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Message 2: Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Date: Wed, 21 May 1997 10:07:48 -0400 (EDT)
From: Robert Barsky <>
Subject: Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

[Editor's note: the following is a letter from Robert Barsky to Feargal
Murphy in response to his review of Barsky's biography of Chomsky. Prof.
Barsky has asked us to post this message to the list, as it serves as
a response to Murphy's review and makes a correction to some information
contained in that review-- AC]

Dear Feargal Murphy,

 I found your review of 'Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent' to be an extremely
good description of the book, and also of the kinds of motivations I had in
writing it. There is one error, which has also appeared in both the
'Manchester Guardian' and the 'Sunday Observer Review', which must be noted:
the film 'Manufacting Consent' was produced by Mark Achbar and Peter
Wintonick (p. 70).

You raise the issue of references, which is important. As you point out,
the book was intended to be an accessible introduction to the complex work
of a very complex individual. In the original version (which, incidentally,
was called 'Noam Chomsky and His Milieus' and which concentrated solely upon
the early political environment that influenced or 'formed' Chomsky) I had a
multitude of footnotes and references. It was decided that the
bibliographical and some of the contextual information was available
elsewhere (esp. the Otero 4 volume collection), and that it would be better
to concentrate upon introducing, or re-introducing, NC to people who may
have very little knowledge of his many projects and, moreover, of his early
milieus. As you suggest, the website version of the book, at, is a remarkable place from which one
can connect with the many worlds that inform, and are informed by, Chomsky's
writings and actions.

Again, I found your assessment most enjoyable.


Robert Barsky

Robert F. Barsky, Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Western Ontario
London (Ontario)
Canada N6A 3K7
phone (519) 661-2111 extension 5825: fax (519) 661-3776
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue