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It's just about impossible to be neutral about the work of Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist who for three decades has moonlighted as the most prominent radical intellectual critic of American foreign policy. His admirers applaud his incisiveness and moral courage, as both author and activist, in exposing the imperialistic underpinnings of government, military and media policies in the Third World. His detractors (whose ranks include most of the media) dismiss him as being overly simplistic and conspiratorial, a knee-jerk "blame America firster" and utterly blind to the world's realities.
Chomsky is a well-spoken and oddly charismatic man, and while these qualities helped to make him such a provocative public figure, they offer special difficulties for would-be biographers. Robert F. Barsky's Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, the first-full length Chomsky life study, is far too partisan and awestruck by its subject. It lacks the subtle mix of empathy, critical detachment and fearlessness that commingle in the best biographies. Nonetheless, it's a well-researched and fact-filled introductory overview of Chomsky's multifaceted public career.
Barsky provides a detailed look at the milieu in which Chomsky's ideas were formed, beginning with his childhood in Philadelphia. Chomsky's father, a noted Hebrew scholar, inspired his fascination with language, while his mother's family exposed him to the rich culture of Jewish radicalism. Barsky also offers an informative account of Chomsky's adolescent education, including his initiation into academic linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and his discovery of the intellectual heroes who would shape his career, especially his role model, Bertrand Russell, whose portrait adorns Chomsky's office to this day.
Eschewing any exploration of Chomsky's emotional or private life (which Chomsky evidently declared off-limits), Barsky follows his emergence into the public limelight in the 1960s. Chomsky attained fame both as an MIT theorist of "Transformational-Generative Linguistics," a revolutionary approach to the discipline, and as hero of the New Left, relentlessly debunking American policies in Vietnam. Finally, Barsky traces the post-'60s trajectory of Chomsky's career: the refinement and growing international influence of his linguistic theories (lucidly outlined by Barsky) and his tireless involvement in campaigns against U.S. policy in Latin America, the Middle East and East Timor.
The book's narrative is, unfortunately, peppered with saintly descriptions more appropriate to a hagiography than a critical biography. "As he tackled the enormous job of fending off his attackers," Barsky writes in an all-too-characteristic passage, "Chomsky refused to put aside any of his projects. He gave conferences, wrote letters, completed his books. He was, and is, for generations of dissenters, a figure of enlightenment and inspiration." Such hyperbole is unnecessary: Chomsky, however one judges his political stances, is one of the bona fide examples in our time of that over-used honorific "the public intellectual." As such he's a figure who can stand, indeed deserves, a stronger and more substantially critical biographer, confidently willing to tackle both his strengths and flaws in their full measure. --Salon