Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Activism, Anarchism, and Power: Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Linguist and Political Activist; 3/22/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Noam, welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Philadelphia, in 1928. I stayed there until I went through undergraduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, then went on to Harvard for a couple of a years in a research fellowship, and graduate school. When I was done with that, went over to MIT, and I've been in Boston ever since, around Boston since about 1950.

Your parents both were Hebrew grammarians and taught Hebrew school?

My father was, professionally, a Hebrew scholar, and worked with Hebrew grammar. And my mother was a Hebrew teacher. My father sort of ran the Hebrew school system in the city of Philadelphia, and my mother taught in it. He taught in Hebrew College later. There's a Graduate University of Jewish Studies, Dropsie College, which he taught in. But they were all part of what amounted to kind of a Hebrew ghetto, Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia -- not a physical ghetto, it was scattered around the city, but cultural ghetto.

Was Hebrew the language spoken at home?

No, it was in the background. So, for example, by the time I was, eight or nine, on Friday evenings my father and I would read Hebrew literature together.

How do you think your parents shaped your perspectives on the world?

Those are always very hard questions, because it's a combination of influence and resistance, which is difficult to sort out. Undoubtedly, the background shaped the kinds of interests and tendencies and directions that I pursued. But it was independent. More direct influences actually came from other parts of the family. My parents were immigrants, and they happened to end up in Philadelphia, but my mother from New York and my father from Baltimore. When he came over in 1913, for whatever reason, his family went to Baltimore, and my mother's family from another part of the pale of settlement came to New York. And they were two different families -- there was the New York family and the Baltimore family, and we were in the middle in Philadelphia, so we naturally went up and back; they were close by.

The families were totally different. The Baltimore family was ultra-orthodox. In fact, my father told me that they had become more orthodox when they got here than they even were in the shtetl (town) in the Ukraine where they came from. In general, there was a tendency among some sectors of immigrants to intensify the cultural tradition, probably as a way of identifying themselves in a strange environment, I suppose. So that was that family.

The other part of the family, my mother's, was mainly Jewish working class -- very radical. The Jewish element had disappeared. This is 1930s, so they were part of the ferment of radical activism that was going on in the thirties in all sorts of ways. Of all of them, the one that actually did influence me a great deal was an uncle -- an uncle by marriage; he married my aunt -- who was an extremely interesting person. He came into the family when I was about seven or eight and became a big influence. He had grown up in New York, also from an immigrant family. But he had grown up in a poor area of New York. In fact, he himself never went past fourth grade -- on the streets, you know, and this criminal background, and all [the things that were] going on in the underclass ghettos in New York. He happened to have a physical deformity, so he was able to get a newsstand under a compensation program that was run in the 1930s for people with disabilities. He had a newsstand on 72nd Street in New York; lived nearby in a little apartment. I spent a lot of time there.

That newsstand became an intellectual center for émigrés from Europe, lots of Germans and other émigrés were coming. He wasn't a very educated person, formally; like I said, he never went past fourth grade, but maybe the most educated person I've ever met. Self-educated. Without going through the whole story, he ended up being a lay analyst in a Riverside Drive apartment in New York. But the newsstand itself was a very lively, intellectual center -- professors of this and that arguing all night. And working at the newsstand was a lot of fun.

So the newspapers and events of the world, mixed up with ideas. Almost like a coffee house without the coffee, I guess.

Yes, the newspapers were kind of like an artifact. So, for example, I went for years thinking that there's a newspaper called Newsinmira. And the reason is, as people came out of the subway station and raced passed the newsstand, they would say "Newsinmira," what I heard that way, and I gave them two tabloids, which I later discovered were the News and the Mirror. And I noticed that as soon as they picked up the "Newsinmira," the first thing they opened to was the sports page. So this is an eight-year-old picture of the world. There were newspapers there, but that wasn't all there was -- that was kind of like the background of the discussions that were going on.

Through him and through other influences, I got myself involved in the ongoing thirties radicalism, and was very much part of the Hebrew-based, Zionist-oriented -- this is Palestine, pre-Israel -- Palestine-oriented life. And that was a good part of my life. I became a Hebrew teacher myself, a Zionist youth leader, combining it with the radical activism in various ways. Actually, that's the way I got into linguistics.

Formative influences, as I understand it, in this period for you, are reading George Orwell, and also, in terms of events, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War. Tell us a little about that.

It came the other way. Orwell's great book, in my opinion, his greatest book, Homage to Catalonia, I think was first published in 1937, but it was suppressed -- a couple hundred copies published, both in England and the United States; it was essentially suppressed. The reason was it was very anticommunist, and in those days that didn't sell. During the Second World War, it was totally suppressed because you couldn't [criticize] "Uncle Joe." So it didn't sell, what he was doing. His book finally reached the public -- this is from memory, so maybe the dates are wrong -- but I think it was around 1947 or '48, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, and it was presented as a Cold War document at that time. I mean, Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it. And that's when I found Homage to Catalonia. But I had been interested in the Spanish Civil War long before.

You actually wrote, your first essay was as a ten-year-old ...

... On the Spanish Civil War.

What did you say then, and what do you think now about how that event and your response to it influenced you?

Well, the article was ... you know, like you said, I was ten years old. I'm sure I would not want to read it today. I remember what it was about because I remember what struck me. This was right after the fall of Barcelona, the Fascist forces had conquered Barcelona, and that was essentially the end of the Spanish Civil War. And the article was about the spread of fascism around Europe. So it started off by talking about Munich and Barcelona, and the spread of the Nazi power, fascist power, which was extremely frightening.

Just to add a little word of personal background, we happened to be, for most of my childhood, the only Jewish family in a mostly Irish and German Catholic neighborhood, sort of a lower middle-class neighborhood, which was very anti-Semitic, and quite pro-Nazi. It's obvious why the Irish would be: they hated the British; it's not surprising the Germans were [anti-Semitic]. I can remember beer parties when Paris fell. And the sense of the threat of this black cloud spreading over Europe was very frightening. I could pick up my mother's attitudes, particularly; she was terrified by it.

It was also in my personal life, because I saw the streets. Interesting; for some reason which I do not understand to this day, my brother and I never talked to our parents about it. I don't think they knew that we were living in an anti-Semitic neighborhood. But on the streets, you know, you go out and play ball with kids, or try to walk to the bus or something, it was a constant threat. It was just the kind of thing you didn't talk to your parents about, and knew for some reason, you didn't talk to them. To the day of their death they didn't know. But there was this combination of the knowing that this cloud was spreading over the world, and picking up, particularly, my mother's attitudes, very upset about it -- my father too, but more constrained -- and knowing from the uncles and aunts some of the background, and living it in the streets in my own daily life, that made it very real.

Anyhow, by the late thirties, I did become quite interested in Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, where all of this was being fought out at the time. It was right before the World War broke out, but a kind of microcosm was going on in Spain. By the time I was old enough to get on a train by myself, like around ten or eleven, I would go to New York for a weekend and stay with my aunt and uncle, and hang around at anarchist bookstores down around Union Square and Fourth Avenue, There were little bookstores with émigrés, really interesting people. To my mind they looked about ninety; they were maybe in their forties or something, who were very interested in young people. They wanted young people to come along, so they spent a lot of attention. Talking to these people was a real education.

And out of that, when I wrote the article, it was with that background. It was long before I heard of Orwell.

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