I’ve always wanted to own a tee-shirt inscribed with the words “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” That’s Noam Chomsky’s famous example of an utterance that any native English-speaker would recognize as absolutely grammatical even though it is utterly nonsensical. Back in the early ‘70s, when I was minoring in Linguistics at college, Chomsky was a rock star to those of us who were jazzed by the burgeoning new field now known as Cognitive Science (although it didn’t even have a name back then).
Even before he became notorious in academia for his vocal and early opposition to the Vietnam War, Chomsky – who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over 50 years now – had turned the stodgy field of Linguistics on its ear with such revolutionary publications as Syntactic Structures (1957). His theory of Transformational/Generative Grammar, positing that certain patterns of grammatical thinking are innate to all human brains, laid the groundwork both for much of our current understanding of language acquisition in children and for the development of modern computer languages. The so-called Chomsky Hierarchy is a system for classifying levels of grammar that is still used as a template by researchers in fields as diverse as calculus and artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and immunology, even philosophy.
There are a lot of good reasons why, amongst a very long list of honorary degrees and academic awards, Chomsky was voted the World’s Leading Living Public Intellectual in 2005 by the British magazine Prospect. For many who don’t particularly care about linguistic theory, he deserves a place in the pantheon simply on account of his dogged political activism – particularly with respect to keeping close tabs on the media and continually exposing the ways in which existing power structures protect their vested interests by controlling the flow of public information. His 1988 book, co-authored with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, along with the 1992 documentary film based on it, are widely regarded as classic treatments of the topic.
So it’s the thrill of a lifetime for this longtime Chomskyite to know that such a distinguished culture hero will be speaking right here in New Paltz this Sunday, December 4 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Lecture Center 100 on the SUNY campus. Making the event doubly delicious is the fact that Professor Chomsky’s lecture will pay tribute to another of the leading lights among progressive intellectuals of our time: his friend and Boston colleague, the recently deceased historian and political scientist Howard Zinn (1922-2010).
The brilliant son of uneducated Jewish immigrants, Zinn joined the Army Air Force during World War II to fight the Fascists as a bombardier. But return visits after the war to the towns that he had bombed made him aware that the government was covering up the truth about the massive civilian casualties that the air raids had caused. Thus began an awakening of political consciousness that was honed during the Civil Rights movement, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta and serving as an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His opposition to segregation got him fired from Spelman, and he went on to teach for 24 years at Boston University.
Like Chomsky, Zinn was among the first American academicians to take a very public stance against the Vietnam War. He went to Hanoi with Daniel Berrigan in 1968 to negotiate the release of three American prisoners of war and was deeply involved in the release of the Pentagon Papers. He also joined Chomsky in active opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But Zinn’s most influential achievement is undoubtedly his 1980 history textbook, A People’s History of the United States. It is used in schools all over America to supplement the standard curriculum with the experiences of those normally passed over by conventional texts “written by the winners”: working-class people, women, blacks, Native Americans.
Joining Noam Chomsky to honor the lasting legacy of Howard Zinn will be Anthony Arnove, a filmmaker and editor who worked closely with Zinn on The People Speak, a documentary that uses dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans derived from A People’s History. Presentations by Chomsky and Arnove will consider Zinn’s leading role in promoting peace and social justice in the contemporary world. A question-and-answer session will follow. Attendance is free and open to the public.
This event is sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-New Paltz and co-produced with Mark Rausher and the Rosendale Theatre Collective. For more information, call 257-3245.