Bill Ayers was a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago until 2010, and he has published several books on pedagogy, including Teaching Toward Freedom (2010) and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (2001). Before becoming a teacher, he was best known for his antiwar and civil rights activism in the Sixties and Seventies as co-founder of the Weather Underground, an activist group that bombed a series of public buildings—something he recounts and reflects on in his memoir Fugitive Days (2010). Ayers’s name came up notoriously during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Barack Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists” for having served on a charity board with Ayers and having conducted a fund-raiser at his home. Ayers was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and now lives with his partner Bernardine Dohrn—also a former Weatherman—in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, where the editors of The Point met with him last September.
The Point: In one of your education books you write that “school is both mirror and window: it shows us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is menial.” What do you think the current educational system in America can tell us about American society?
Bill Ayers: Well, my point there is that all school systems reflect the societies that they exist in. An ancient agrarian society would teach people how to do animal husbandry and agriculture; a kingdom would teach fealty; a religious state would teach, you know, piety. And so my basic argument is that in a democracy, you would expect the schools to reflect some of the fundamental values of democracy—for example, that we are all the sovereign, that each one of us is of incalculable value. And it’s astonishing if you stop and think about it. Here’s a nation founded on the idea that all human beings are equal, and we spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out how we’re not equal, how we’re different, how we’re not really part of the same polity or society. And my argument is that if you start from the premise that every human being is of incalculable value, and go from there, then the schools should look quite different from the way they do now, because what we see now is a market model of education.
Look at a place like Chicago. My kids went to Lab School; Barack Obama’s kids went to Lab School; Arne Duncan, the Secretary of education, spent twelve years at the Lab School, and his wife taught there. What they find at the Lab School is small classes, capped at fifteen; they find a well-respected and unionized teacher core; they find a well-resourced classroom and a curriculum based at least in part on kids formulating their own questions and pursuing those questions to their outer limits. So that’s a kind of education: it’s for the Obama kids, for my kids, it’s for you guys. But what about the kids on the West Side of Chicago, or in Oakland, where my son Malik teaches? He has forty kids in a class. Public school, bilingual, math-science middle school, and forty kids in a class. Well, there’s a difference, and the difference leads to hugely different outcomes which are not particularly mysterious. So if school is mirror and window, what we see when we’re looking at American schools is not at the highest level of what we would hope for in a truly democratic society, or in a society that respected and honored everyone.
TP: I don’t know if you saw the movie Waiting for Superman—
BA: I picketed…
TP: Some of the reformers in that movie present themselves as wanting to give kids on the West Side of Chicago a better classroom experience, wanting to ensure that they have better teachers. So I’m interested to hear what your response to it was. Obviously, a lot of liberals didn’t like the movie.
BA: I hope you’re not calling me a liberal. I’m not a liberal.
TP: OK, sorry… A lot of people on the Left—
BA: I’m not on the Left, but, ok, I get where you’re going. You know, as in so many things in our culture, it all depends on how you frame the issue. So when a political candidate gets up during the presidential election or the Senate elections and says, “We need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom,” every one of us around this table would nod, somewhat dully, without much thought. I mean, what am I going to say? “No, my granddaughter deserves a lazy, incompetent teacher—leave her where she is because my granddaughter wants her”? You just framed the issue in a way that I can’t disagree—but if I got to the microphone first, and said, “Every kid in a public school in this country deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, courageous, hardworking, well-paid, well-rested teacher,” you’d agree with that too. So who’s framing these issues?
And this school reform debate couldn’t be more dishonest. It’s the most dishonest thing I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been an educator, which is since 1965. There was actually a profile of Arne Duncan in the New Yorker [“Class Warrior,” February 2010] that broke it down perfectly. Early in the article the author says there are really two camps in the school reform debate: there are the radical reformers who want to crush the unions, create charters, get vouchers, and you know, clear away all the deadwood. And then there are the status quo people, who love the union and love the cause of education. Well, you just narrowed the horizons of my imagination dramatically—and, frankly, I can’t find myself. I know some people who are radical reformers, lots of them in fact, but one of the things that’s dishonest about that framing is that the leaders of this so-called reform movement, every one of them went to a private school, every one of them. Michelle Rhee, Bloomberg, Gates, Zuckerberg—they all went to private universities, and they would never send their kids to the schools they’re engineering, never. They would never send their kids to a school that didn’t have art; they would never send their kids to a school that didn’t have sports and after-school activities and a chess club and all the other things that make for an educated person, so why do we even listen to them when they say that the black kids on the West Side need uniforms, that they need to march in a row, that they need to drill a skill until they drop—as if that’s the measure of an educated person in a democracy?
TP: But some of the schools featured in the movie were having a lot of success, relative to where the kids would have ended up otherwise. Is there no place for some of those reforms?
BA: Well, the problem with the Waiting for Superman thing—and again, I’m willing to concede that many of these people are well-intentioned—is that it’s based on a vision of education that is narrow and anemic. Frankly I think that freedom and education, they’re linked, they’re almost the same thing; you can’t be free if you’re not enlightened. So yes, we want to push education, we want to push a certain kind of education. But Waiting for Superman, instead of thinking of education as either a human right or a lifelong journey, presents education as a series of gates that can be narrowly defined and easily tested. And if you read any, any, any of the articles about reform, in about the twentieth paragraph it says, Of course, there aren’t any results to show this stuff has worked. This stuff doesn’t work. So OK, you know, privatize the schools, but there’s no evidence that charter schools are better than the neighborhood schools, so the problem with Superman—
TP: That wasn’t the argument in the movie, though. The movie doesn’t say we should privatize the schools.
BA: The argument of the movie is about lazy, incompetent teachers, which is one of the clichés of the moment. It is based on hating the unions and bureaucracy. So we have Geoff Canada—who I used to know quite well and who I like a lot—as a model of a great educator. But what does Geoff Canada have that other reformers don’t have? Well, he has millions and millions and millions of dollars! And even at his school, they’re not doing exactly what they’re promising to do. And you’ve probably noticed, if you’ve been paying attention to the news at all this summer, that we have a major cheating scandal in Atlanta, a major cheating scandal in Connecticut, now a major cheating scandal looking backward in Washington, D.C.—when Michelle Rhee ran the system. How come? Well, because you’ve incentivized cheating. you’ve said: we’re going to judge teachers by how they’ve done on a test score.
TP: On the narrow point, though, of the tenure issue that they raise in the movie, that they really hammer on in the movie, of its being so hard for a principal to fire teachers…
BA: Number one it’s not true. Number two, do you know how many people who graduate with teaching certificates continue after five years? It’s less than 50 percent. If that were true of law or medicine, there would be an absolute scandal. You mean I went to law school, and I come out and half of us are not going to practice law? That’s ridiculous, we went to law school for fuck’s sake! Teachers don’t stay in teaching. Why? Because there are too many kids, too few resources, too little respect, because it’s a killing profession, because it grinds you down. And the idea that we can’t get rid of them! We’re getting rid of too many of them. We can’t keep teachers.
TP: But we’re not necessarily getting rid of the right ones…
BA: But that’s not true. We’re getting rid of all of them. We need to pay them better, we need to keep them longer, and what we see now is this kind of parade of short-timers, like Teach for America—which is one of the great frauds. The fact is that Teach for America started off saying, “We’re going to change the face of teaching,” and now it says, “We’re going to get a group of smart kids interested in a lifelong commitment to education.” So, you know, two-thirds of those kids leave after three years. My wife is a law professor and half of her incoming class is Teach for America grads; it’s a nice resume builder. I don’t know if you guys did Teach for America, but why not? everybody does it. But it doesn’t actually help in the schools that it claims to be helping. Those kids need experienced teachers; and everybody has to be inexperienced before they’re experienced. That’s just in the nature of life, but you don’t actually want to throw thirty first-year teachers into the poorest school in Chicago and think they’re going to do anything—they’re not.
TP: You talk in Teaching Toward Freedom about the so-called Great Virtues. Which virtues should be taught today, and how can they be taught?
BA: In a democracy the kinds of virtues we want to foreground are things like curiosity, imagination, initiative, courage, human solidarity, entrepreneurship. And the kind of values that we are not that interested in, although they have a place, are obedience and conformity. But frankly our schools are all about obedience and conformity. If you’re obedient, and you conform, and you land right in the middle of the pack, and you’re not a noisemaker or a troublemaker, and you’re not a genius because most of us aren’t, nobody will bother you. You’ll just pass through. And that is a catastrophe in a democracy. It doesn’t allow us to create people who are able to run their own affairs. Democracy requires us to be in charge of ourselves, collectively and individually.
TP: What do you think solidarity is? And how is it that education can actually nourish this virtue?
BA: Solidarity to me means fellow feeling. I don’t mean it in the Marxist sense of class solidarity. What I mean is that if we simply open our eyes it becomes obvious that we were born into a going world, and the world is going because human beings have done two things: they’ve worked together to accomplish things and they’ve worked individually to accomplish things. And it’s that dialectic between individual initiative and human solidarity that makes the thing go, and we want to be part of both of those things. You want to be a distinct individual, so that there will never be another one like you, but it’s also true that you’re sharing the planet for a brief instant with a whole bunch of people—and the older you get the more you see this. This feeling is solidarity. Now how do we nourish it in school? This is always the problem with school: you need to create an environment where people can see and experience and feel the values that you think are important. We don’t do that enough.
TP: What do you think is the connection between the work you’ve done as an educator and the activism that you did in the Sixties? Which do you consider to be more revolutionary?
BA: I don’t see them as separate at all. I’ve never even wondered about it, and the reason is that to me, although life is filled with contradiction—I’m a walking mass of contradictions, as you are, if you face yourself—at the same time there’s also a coherence to the life that one lives. These breaks are a creation of media fantasies. I have certain things that I try to live up to and I often fail—that’s it. I’m still an activist, and I still get arrested; I’m actually miserable that I can’t go to the White House tomorrow and get arrested with the environmentalists. I was very fortunate as a young man to live in a period when social movements were really defining the landscape. Even though they were minority movements, they were defining for me. And I was very lucky to participate in those, but I don’t think that just because we’re living in a period of relative quiet, the things one does are less important. You can’t choose when to live, but you can always choose how to live, within certain parameters.
So I lived at a time when the civil rights movement was defining. The black freedom movement was defining the political, moral, social landscape; I was lucky to be a part of that. The war in Vietnam was an atrocity of unspeakable proportions. Six thousand people per week for ten years were murdered by our government. So a World Trade Center every week, against people who just were living in their land. That’s an atrocity. And during the atrocity, I tried to do everything I could to stop it. I look at the media creation of the Weatherman, the idea that there were the good antiwar people and there were the crazies; it never broke down like that when we were living it. Everyone in the antiwar movement knew people like John McCain were committing war crimes everyday. And I wasn’t. So the idea that I have to account for everything I did in opposing the war, while John McCain gets to run for President, when he actually did commit war crimes, actually did kill innocents… When John Kerry was 23 years old he told the U.S. Senate that we commit war crimes every day, not as a matter of choice, but as a matter of policy. That’s what Kerry said, but when he ran for President, instead of embracing that smart, thoughtful, courageous statement, he ran from it. And they tailed after him and beat the crap out of him. But what he said was true. Anyone over 50 knows that it was true. And everyone under 50 didn’t care.
TP: Do you have any sympathy for someone like McCain? I imagine he would think of himself as someone who was brought up to serve his country, not himself, and to serve it even if it is in the wrong, so long as that’s the democratic decision that’s been arrived at.
BA: Sure, and that’s exactly what the German soldiers said in World War II . It was rejected by the World Court, and by every international body. You still have a responsibility. In fact, if you read international law, you have a responsibility, no matter what, to say, No, I won’t kill that person who’s kneeling in front of me even if I’ve been ordered to do it—to say, No, I’ll go to jail instead. I have nothing but sympathy for the people in that situation, from John McCain to Bob Kerrey. But I’m also sympathetic to people like my brother, who are the actual war heroes from Vietnam. My brother deserted, and that’s what a hero would do. An individual hero would desert and take the consequences. I honor the Vietnam vets who were against the war more than I honor those who swallowed hard and did what they were told.
There’s one other phrase you used that I would challenge—and that is “serving my country.” The problem with that phrase is that in our country today, national service is equated with military service, and I don’t buy that. So when I’m at the airport last week, and the United representative says, “We’d like to invite all the military people in the gate area to board first, and thank you for your service,” I wanted to go tear the microphone out. I wanted to say, “If there are any teachers and nurses in the gate area, let’s have you board first and thank you for your service.” The non-thinking knee-jerk reaction that says service means military service is a good indication that we live in a militaristic, garrison state. And we don’t feel it that way, because we’re relatively free, sitting around this table saying anything we want, publishing The Point, and nobody gives a shit.
And that’s all good. But the problem is that the way autocratic, authoritarian power comes to us will not be with a Nazi insignia and an armband. It will be quite different, and we have to be attentive to it. And one way is to be attentive to language.
TP: What was the impetus behind the split off from the SDS initially by the group that you were part of?
BA: SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was a student group that formed in the early Sixties around a document that Tom Hayden wrote, The Port Huron Statement. It’s still a document worth reading, but SDS grew beyond its imaginations in a very short time, and the movement as a whole—the black freedom movement, the antiwar movement, the student movement—exploded in the early-mid Sixties. There were several splits in the movement, and I was involved in a couple of terrible splits within the student movement, and the impetus was that we couldn’t tolerate the difference of views around certain key questions. So when SDS split and became the Weathermen and the Revolutionary Youth Movement II —arcane esoteric references—the split began with the fact that Vietnam had entered the critical stage.
I’d spent the three years from 1965-68 demonstrating, petitioning, organizing, going door-to-door, getting arrested, getting beaten up, mobilizing people, to try to end this atrocity. In 1965, maybe 15 percent of Americans opposed the war; by 1968, maybe 65 percent opposed the war. How did that happen? Well, you guys are old enough to have seen it happen again in Iraq, in a way. Three years—that’s about what the American people have tolerance for when it comes to foreign wars. We don’t want to think of ourselves as a war-like nation. By ’68, a majority of people were opposed to the war. Part of it was the antiwar activism of people like me and others, but a much bigger part of it was the black freedom movement, which was defining the political landscape. Large segments of the black freedom movement turned against the war; Ali said I won’t go fight in the white man’s army, no Viet Cong ever called me “nigger.” And that shook the country up. Martin Luther King gave that famous speech April 4th, 1967 in which he said we were on the wrong side of the world revolution, and that the war was illegal and immoral, and he was hated for that; he had lower approval ratings than George Bush did when he left the presidency. But even bigger than the black freedom movement was vets coming home and saying we are aggressors, we’re committing war crimes, it’s a catastrophe. When the vets told the truth about the war, the country was shaken to the core, so the majority came to oppose the war.
Then Lyndon Johnson announced at the end of April 1968 that he wouldn’t run for President. In Ann Arbor, where I was the leader of SDS, we spilled out of our apartments spontaneously and rallied around the town until we ended up at the university president’s home chanting and celebrating and trampling his rose bushes. And he came out, and we each had a bullhorn—he was the president of the University and I was the president of SDS—and I said something in my bullhorn like “Fuck you motherfucker!” or something, and he said something in his bullhorn like “Congratulations, you’ve won a great victory, now the war will end.” And everyone in that place at that moment believed it. Five days later King was dead. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was dead. And two months after that Kissinger emerged from the swamp he was living in—I think it was Harvard—and he had a secret plan to end the war, which really meant a plan to expand the war.
So here we are in 1968, 1969. The war we had spent three years of our lives ending is not only not going to end, but is going to expand. And every week it goes on, 6,000 people are murdered needlessly. Johnson knows it’s wrong, Humphrey knows it’s wrong, Nixon knows it’s wrong. But no one is going to get us out. So what do you do?
At that point the movement split, and it split based on a lot of things that are arcane and esoteric to talk about today, but that mattered enormously to us at the time. For example how militant should we be? How much should we risk? There was a large segment within SDS called Progressive Labor, and Progressive Labor’s line on the Vietnamese was that if they go to Paris for peace talks they’re selling out. And we (as the leadership of SDS) would say, you mean you want to fight the Vietnamese revolution to the last Vietnamese life? Is that what you’re saying? They shouldn’t negotiate with the enemy, with the bourgeois? What are you talking about? So we would have those kind of fights. Today they don’t seem to have consequences but to us they did have consequences. Progressive Labor had taken control of the SDS convention and we, the leadership, walked out.
Was it smart? Was it wise? No. In fact, when people ask if I have any regrets what they typically mean is whether I regret the tactics I used or regret saying extreme things. And of course you can regret that stuff a little. But the only deep regret I have from that period is that we were unnecessarily dogmatic and sectarian. We didn’t have the wisdom to overcome our own dogma. Dogma, as I write in Fugitive Days, is living in the well-lit prison of a single good idea. And we were very dogmatic. I regret that enormously—turning against friends, splitting when we didn’t have to split. And again, if we’re talking about big regrets, I regret that we didn’t end the war, that the war was ended by the Vietnamese.
We didn’t accomplish the goals of the black freedom movement either, so in the two most straightforward goals that we had, we failed. We didn’t even succeed on the littlest thing. We convinced people, but we didn’t win.
TP: There’s a quote in Fugitive Days where you talk about your girlfriend at the time, Diana, meeting with some Vietnamese on a boat coming from Cuba. And you report her making this observation: “Diana would tell me later that the Vietnamese were only mildly interested in our willingness to die for their cause, and much more animated about how we plan to reach our Republican parents, something we hadn’t thought about at all.” Is the question of how to convince your Republican parents something you’ve given more thought to since then?
BA: What I think is important about that quote—and it’s important for political people today, organizers, young people, dissidents—is that the standard by which you judge yourself is: Am I learning? Am I teaching? Am I reaching beyond the comfort of smoking a joint in my dorm room, where I have all the great ideas and I’m fucking brilliant, you know? In other words, reaching my Republican parents is a metaphor for: Am I leaving my comfort zone and finding a vocabulary to talk to people whom I might influence? But in no way do I mean that somehow our tactics alienated people and made them go to the other side, because I don’t believe that for a minute. I don’t think there’s any evidence of it. The idea that people said to themselves, “I used to be against the Vietnam War, but those goddamn Weatherman, I’m now for the war”—I don’t think that ever happened, and I don’t think it would happen.
TP: So you don’t agree with, for instance, Todd Gitlin, who says in the Weather Underground documentary that the Weather Underground was a gift to the government, since it allowed it to portray the antiwar movement as extreme and criminal. Do you take an responsibility for the backlash against (broadly speaking) left-wing causes since the war?
BA: Describe more, because I think Todd is dead wrong.
TP: Well, Nixon appealed to the silent majority, and there has been this strand of conservative politics since the Sixties that perpetuates itself by raising up the specter of violent left-wing protesters, and aims to convince people who may have been more progressive before to go over to a different kind of politics.
BA: So do you think that dialectic works all the time?
TP: It may.
BA: So, for example, where people used to be in the Tea Party, then they said, you know, Timothy McVeigh so turns me off that I’m going to actually go marry a black person? I don’t see politics playing out that way. An American Muslim sees 9/11 and says, You know, fuck that, I’m going to be a Jew? I don’t think so.
TP: What about, as an example, the protest over tuition fees in England? You know for universities they’re raising the tuition fees; there was a huge movement, tons of people descended on London for these marches, and it was known well in advance that it was going to be a massive protest. Then a few people turned up with their own agenda and started smashing shops, and they got all the news. One person attacked Prince Charles in his car, and he got all the news.
BA: Did they get to Prince Charles?
TP: They got to his car, and they threw an egg at it or something. I’m not sure that they actually got him. He got away. But there was a sense in which the people in the student movement felt betrayed by the anarchists, in that particular case anyway. Because their own story was ruined.
BA: Sure. I don’t doubt that there were people in the movement who felt betrayed—and I think when you’re in the midst of a movement, these kinds of debates actually matter a lot. As I said earlier, I think the standard by which any activist should judge her or his actions is a pedagogical standard: Did I teach? Did I learn? If I didn’t teach and I didn’t learn, then I did the wrong thing, even if I felt self-righteous and wonderful. And I think you can apply that standard to the Weatherman, and ask, Well, how did it go?
And that’s not an easy question to answer. In fact it’s an impossible question to answer a priori, which is the problem. If we all knew ahead of time how we were going to answer the question, then we wouldn’t need to do it. But the fact is, you know, I go to the University of Michigan, I’m caught up in the civil rights movement; I’m caught up in the antiwar movement; and everything I did for those five years leading up to going underground, first my fraternity brothers and my family, and later other people, said, That’s going to turn everybody off.
Don’t get arrested picketing the draft board, that’s going to turn everybody off; don’t go on that freedom riot, that’s going to turn everybody off; you’re just making publicity for them. Go read the history of the civil rights movement: everything that we ever did was criticized by somebody who said we shouldn’t have done it that way.
And King is the classic example. We’ve now made him a saint, and we have a narrative about him that smooths off all the rough edges. The truth is King was always pushing ahead in terms of tactics—you know, ‘63 in Birmingham, King was told: Stop it! You can’t have children get arrested, that’s ridiculous. You’re going to lose all your white support. When he came out against the war, the deluge that he got on his head was huge, because people said, You’re losing everything, stick to your issue! He got a letter from President Johnson saying, Stick to your issue, nigger. So what I’m saying is you can’t know a priori.
TP: Well you know, Gandhi gives what is basically an a priori argument in favor
BA: Yeah, and Gandhi answered a question that no Western pacifist would answer. He was asked by the Guardian, right after World War II , what about the Jews of Germany? What should they have done? You know what his answer was? It was consistent. Beautiful thing, it was consistent. The answer was, they should have lined up en masse and committed suicide. That’s consistent, it’s logical, but it’s morally disgusting. And if you want to read a great, great essay on Gandhi, read George Orwell on Gandhi. He’s the one that drags up that quote. Gandhi is a great example of someone who loved humanity, but wasn’t all that into people.
And there are a lot of people who love people, but don’t like humanity, and somehow the struggle for all us is to figure out how to not just love humanity abstractly, while being a monster—and abstract loving of humanity always leads to monstrosities—but to love particular people in particular ways. But also to note that loving this particular child, my three sons, my two grandchildren, my partner, to love them in a particular way, you can use that as a template to generalize, and to say, other people also love their children, and why can’t I see that? And why can’t I act on that in a political way?
TP: In Fugitive Days, you write about how you expected a bigger working-class presence at the Days of Rage demonstrations in 1969. And given all the efforts that you guys made not just there, but over the years, to win over the working class and to bring them into your struggle, why do you think the working class didn’t rally in the way that you expected? And why do so many working-class Americans continue to vote conservative?
BA: Well, you’ll have to read your Tom Frank for that.
TP: So you agree with his—
BA: To some extent. Well, first of all I think that we have to be careful with terms like the working class, obviously. When Marx wrote about the working class he was writing about something much more bounded than we’re talking about. The truth is that the antiwar movement was powered by the working class. The students were the ones that got the media and so forth, but it was the soldiers on the ground who really energized the antiwar movement in the late Sixties. Whether or not the working class came to Chicago in 1969 in the Days of Rage is not a measure of their commitment to stopping the war or to seeing life in certain way. There were very few of us who were there, and those of us that were had an illusion about ourselves. I think I say in the book that there was one moment when J. Edgar Hoover and us had the same distorted lens about who we were—“a real threat,” you know? He thought so and we thought so and we were buddies in that regard. Good work!
Organizing the working class in England or the U.S. or any other advanced capitalist country has been a daunting challenge. One question is: Who is the working class today, and how has it changed? Where are we in that? I don’t have a knee-jerk kind of 1930s thing about we must build the unions and that’s the way to the future. I’m writing this book right now called Pallin’ Around, and the subtitle is: “Talking to the Tea Party.” And frankly I find talking to the Tea Party exhilarating, I love it.
We agree on some things and disagree on other things. I’ll give you just one example. I spoke at the University of Georgia, and a whole contingent of Tea Party people in Hell’s Angels regalia came in and sat in the front and scowled at me while I gave my talk. And afterwards the head of the group got to the microphone and said, I’m surprised that I agree with almost everything you said, but I’m worried that you’re a big government guy. And I said, I’m not a big government guy, I’m worried you’re a big government guy. And he says, I’m not a big—how can you say that? I say, Well let’s agree then, we’ll cut the Pentagon to nothing. Let’s just eliminate the Pentagon. He says, Well not the Pentagon. Exactly. So who’s the big government guy? These labels are nonsense. And the Tea Party, if you want to call them working class, you know, a working-class insurgency from below, they are a mass of contradictions; they don’t have a single consistent viewpoint; but part of their impulse is to be wary of government. I’m wary of government. Part of their impulse is to dislike and be worried about the rich. I’m that way too. So I don’t find them to be as atrocious as most people do, as your liberals do. I’m not a liberal.
TP: You keep mentioning that you are not a liberal. What is it about liberalism that you—well, what is liberalism according to you?
BA: I’m not sure I can define it better than you guys can. There are things about classic liberalism that obviously I’m drawn to and I bet all of you are as well. Those are things like liberty, freedom, the Bill of Rights. But the reason that I reject the label is that I grew up cutting my teeth against the liberals. I wasn’t part of John Kennedy’s vision of the world, or Lyndon Johnson’s. I thought of them as anti-Communist imperial monsters. Now in my view, if you were to line up the Presidents in the order of who made the greatest accomplishments, you’d put Lyndon Johnson in that arena with both Roosevelts probably, and Lincoln and so on. But the idea that Lyndon Johnson was operating as a free agent and coming up with these ideas on his own is nonsense. Johnson was responding to a black freedom movement that was tearing the country open and he did what he had to do as a conservative politician. But I see Johnson as the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of the Dominican Republic and so on. So I’m not a liberal in that sense, because i think of liberals as part of that establishment. I’m anti-establishment. So all the labels, the reason that I keep joking and rejecting this idea that I’m liberal, well partly that’s because I think of myself as a radical, and by that I mean, not even in the terms of Left-Right that you might imagine—but someone who wants to go to the root of problems.
TP: In terms of going to the root of problems, and speaking of presidents, where would you place Obama? Have you been surprised or disappointed by anything in his presidency?
BA: Not surprised and not disappointed. Everyone who knew Obama from being in Hyde Park knew he was the smartest guy in any room he walked into; a decent, compassionate, lovely person; pragmatic, middle-of-the-road and ambitious. After I had known him for a while, I remember saying to my partner, “You know, this guy is really ambitious, I think he wants to be Mayor of Chicago.” That was the limit of my imagination. But Obama doesn’t disappoint me, because all during the campaign he said, I’m a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road, compromising politician. The Right said, He’s lying, he’s a socialist who pals around with terrorists, he’s a secret Muslim and blah blah blah. That was their line. The liberals all said, He’s winking at me, I can feel him winking in my direction. He wasn’t winking. He said exactly who he was and he’s lived that out perfectly.
So you can be disappointed but only if you thought he was something that he said he wasn’t! Every politician—FDR, Lyndon Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama—they’re all conservative by nature. They are part of the big thing and they’re moving in a very constrained world. Agitators, organizers, activists, intellectuals aren’t bound by those rules. We’re not trying to figure out, how do I thread this particular needle? We’re actually saying, here’s a principle that I’d like to arc toward. That’s a very different role in life. I didn’t expect Obama to go to the root of things. I didn’t expect him to have a principled position on anything. I mean, just pay some moderate attention to the guy. He’s running for Senate and he’s saying, I’m not for gay marriage because I’m a Christian. Jump off a bridge! I mean what the hell are you talking about? You know, I mean, what’s he doing now? He’s evolving. Evolving? Well, evolve for Christ’s sake! And this is a guy—the whole gay community, and the whole environmental community and all these other people said, he’s our guy.
If you listen to the debate, he and McCain said the same thing about gay rights. The exact same thing. McCain seemed to be winking to the Right, and Obama seemed to be winking to the Left. Neither one of them—if McCain had been elected we’d still be where we are on gay rights. Did Obama do anything on gay rights that McCain wouldn’t have done?
TP: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? That wouldn’t have been different?
BA: Maybe. But even there, Obama’s generals, his Pentagon, they’re telling him what to do. And the force for gay rights is inevitable. And you can say Obama will help us, and maybe he will, but only if we have something on the ground that will make him help us. Frankly, the gay movement on the ground has been one of the great propulsive things that has made politicians do what they do. Mayor Daley for twenty years riding in an open car in the gay parade—what was that about? Do you think he’s—I mean, he’s a fucking Catholic, he’s all tied in with the Catholic hierarchy, what was that about? Well, that’s about being a politician who feels the pressure from below. He didn’t come to it on his own. He came to it because he had to come to it. And the great example, the killer example in history, is of course Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator. Read his speeches. Read the debates. Wendell Phillips called him “the great slaver from Illinois.” Frederick Douglass ran a primary campaign against him the second time around, in 1864. They hated him. Why’d they hate him? Because he said things like “I believe in white supremacy.” That’s what Lincoln said. “The white man will always be above the black man. I don’t want them to run for office, or have political rights, or vote. I want them to go back to Africa.” That was Lincoln. Oh really? He said that? Yeah, read his speeches. And it was Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips—these were the people who made abolition real. Now, none of you guys is in favor of slavery, right?
TP: No. Well, we’re still evolving.
BA: I’m evolving on that issue too! But the funny thing is—and this is why it’s worth mentioning Lincoln—that if we lived in 1840, it would have been a question that every one of us would have had to think about, and most of us would have, on a daily basis, gone along with it. And even if we thought it was repulsive, we’d say, John Brown’s a fucking idiot. He’s going to make people pro-slavery. Isn’t he? Didn’t he? It turns out he wasn’t and he didn’t. One of Thoreau’s greatest pieces was “In Defense of Captain John Brown,” and W.E.B. DuBois’ greatest book was called John Brown. Nobody reads it, but it was a great book. And to this day, people, black people, Dick Gregory, Tavis Smiley, go every June 4th to John Brown’s farm. Why? John Brown’s a crazy person, he’s a religious fanatic, an idiot, a dogmatist, a nut. Except that he moved history in a way that Lincoln didn’t.
So no, I’m not disappointed in Obama. He said who he is; he’s doing what he said he would do. But I do think his strategy for re-election is so misguided. He’s counting on the Republicans to self-destruct, and they might, you know, but they might not. So he might be a one-term president.
TP: You became personally involved in the 2008 campaign season…
BA: My involvement was to shut the fuck up.
TP: But what did you make of the enthusiasm surrounding the Obama campaign? A lot of people I was around who were your age compared it to the Sixties, but obviously there were some important differences too.
BA: Well, huge differences, and I—look, I was down in Grant Park the night that he was elected, were you?
BA: I think I saw you, were you the one I saw? And I broke into tears four times, I burst into tears four times. Why? Well, partly there was a sense of palpable relief that George Bush was leaving and that the Republicans had slipped back and that was a wonderful feeling. Something about the fact that an African American had, given the long sad history of our country, now become President—that was also exhilarating. Something about seeing a million people—I was the last person to leave Grant Park that night, and I found the place where I was beaten bloody forty years earlier and dragged to jail and that made me cry. When the family came out, that made me cry, and the reason I had a hard time leaving Grant Park was that to see a million people like that, feeling the way that million people felt, was so exhilarating. It wasn’t Obama per se; it was the feeling on the ground; it was seeing an old black woman in a wheelchair being wheeled by her son waving a big American flag, and then seeing a guy with his baby in his arms saying, “I didn’t want her to miss tonight! I wanted to be able to tell her!” And to see all these people, a Hispanic cop dancing with an old white woman, wow! I mean, that’s the world I want to live in, and because it’s the world I want to live in, I had a hard time leaving.
And I knew that the sun would rise, and all hell would break loose, and shit would come back. But I’m that way, and I’m that way a lot, and of course Bernardine always criticizes me. I cried at Avatar, I was sobbing. And she said, “That’s the biggest fucking cliché,” and I’m like, “Yes, but I want to live on the blue planet!” I really did feel that way.
But I don’t buy that it was an exciting thing because it was the most interesting or most exciting political moment. It wasn’t political in the way I think of politics. It was the Democratic Party, it was the Presidential election. We elected a president; we didn’t elect a king. So all the speculation in the next three months—people camped out at his house, and wondering who’s coming to visit, who’s going to be the Secretary of State—that all struck me as inane and stupid. Because of all the things I said before. It’s not Lyndon Johnson who makes the black freedom movement; it’s the black freedom movement who makes Lyndon Johnson. The question isn’t: Is Obama going to save us in 2008? The question is: Can we save his presidency? And the answer so far has been no. Because you know, so far, we have not got a movement on the ground that has any seriousness or sustainability around war, even though the American people hate war. We just watched this budget debacle right? Seventy-three percent of Americans want to tax the rich. Why can’t the politicians respond to that? Because they are the rich. And they are beholden to the rich. It’s a captured system.
TP: So why isn’t there that activist pressure then? Because you make the argument that politicians don’t want to change, they’re forced to.
BA: Politicians are conservative by nature. So where’s the activism? Nobody knows. And anyone who thinks they know, like Todd Gitlin, has their head up their ass. Nobody knows. The day before every revolution that’s ever happened, that revolution was impossible. The day before Rosa Parks, that was impossible. The day after, it was inevitable. And that’s in the nature of social change. So you can analyze what didn’t work, but it’s very hard to predict what will work. And all that means to me is that people who have a vision of a better world have a responsibility to open their eyes, to pay attention, to act on what the moment demands, and to be humble about that action. And I know that’s a little jarring, coming from a Weatherman, but what I mean by being humble is doubting if your action did anything. So you have to open your eyes, act and doubt. And then you have to repeat for a lifetime.
What will create the next upheaval? I don’t know, but let’s look at two things real quickly: the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the Sixties and the Arab Spring starting in Tunisia and Cairo. What they had in common was people who were told, and who believed inside themselves, that they were a certain way, and the society at large believed it. There was always resistance and there was always a counter-narrative, but we were told all through the early twentieth century that black people in the South don’t want an education, they don’t want to vote, they’re simple people, they don’t want this, they don’t want that. And it was the people themselves, through their own self-activity, who changed their conception of themselves, and then changed the world.
So, that’s where activism is so important. In Cairo, these young men hanging around in the street, we’re told these guys are lazy, they’re uneducated, they don’t care, they don’t have any political instincts—just like the working class in America, apparently—and then suddenly what the hell happened? What was that? They changed the world by changing themselves. Now is that over? No. Is the civil rights movement over? No. These movements have not accomplished what they set out to accomplish. And part of the reason they haven’t is that what they wanted to accomplish kept expanding. So that’s in the nature of activism as well. Do you get defeated? Yes. That’s the nature of it.
So I don’t know why there’s not more activism today. I do think that your generation is twenty times smarter than our generation ever was, but the problem with being smart like you guys is that it can lead you really easily to being cynical, and cynicism is actually a pacifying attitude; in cynicism you’re smarter than everyone else, so it’s easy to say, Fuck, look at that. And that’s interesting, but it’s not the same as actually being an agent for change. I think that you’re smarter than we were, but we had two things: one is, in our naïveté we believed we could change the world. And number two, we believed that another world was possible. And once that belief took hold of some critical mass, a tiny minority nonetheless, but a critical mass of people, then the world did change.1
TP: Do you think you have wisdom now that you didn’t have as a younger man? If so, what have you learned?
BA: Me? I would be reluctant to say that I have wisdom now. That sounds like an old person and I’m only 66. I don’t think of myself in those terms; I don’t think of myself as a graybeard who people should come and ask things. I think of myself as a teacher. I’ve always thought of myself as somebody who’s more in the mode of organizing an environment where we can learn, creating the conditions where we can learn. So I don’t feel like I know stuff that I have to transmit. I wrote my first book when I was 45 years old, and to my great surprise I really liked it. Well, like is the wrong word because I suffer with it like everybody else—putting words on the page is painful. But part of the reason I keep writing is because I don’t think I’ve figured it out. I always think there’s another thing to say and I think of writing as dialogical, just as I think of teaching. To me the great pedagogical gesture is not teaching; the great pedagogical gesture is learning and then speaking, and then listening and then speaking; it’s a dialogue.
TP: I wasn’t trying to say that now you’re wise whereas once you weren’t, but what is it that you’ve learned, insofar as you have learned?
BA: Certainly for me and Bernardine, learning to be more mutual, more giving, less taking, is something you learn over time. It’s not something you necessarily know automatically. Still, I think the measure of whether you are wise is whether you think you’re still learning. If you think you know stuff, that’s the absolute path to dogma and dogma is the end of thought in my mind. And having been in a dogmatic organization, I feel like I’ve taken a live virus and survived, so I really am allergic to that kind of “now I know” stuff, you know?
TP: Has being a father changed your politics in any way?
BA: Completely, absolutely—and I recommend it. It changes you in so many ways to be a parent, and I think being a teacher and loving your students changes you also. I am a very hands-on parent, a very engaged and involved parent. I hate separation, so I’m always migrating to wherever my kids are, and they tolerate me. But I was a teacher for about ten years before I had my first kid, and I always told parents, This separation problem you’re having is really more your problem than her problem, blah blah blah, and I knew everything. And then I had my own kid and sent him off and then—ugh, it was excruciating. And I think a little humility as a parent or a teacher is important. You have to know that you don’t know, and one of the things you also have to accept as a parent is that your kid from day one knows things that you will never know. The kid is the master of his or her own life. So I’m thinking of my eldest granddaughter when she was born, seven years ago. I was at the birth, I don’t know why I got invited—my parents are the last people I would invite, you know?—but I watched the birth, and then minutes after the baby was born, she was put on her mother’s breast, right? So the question I have often asked my students since then is: Who was the teacher and who was the student at that moment? And the answer is a dialectical answer, the answer is both/and. The idea that the mother knew about nursing because she could hold the baby, and had read the La Leche League propaganda, she knew something! But the baby knew something that the mother didn’t know. How about here? No? Not so much? How about there? When? When should we do this? Well, you tell me. And the dialogue begins, so the baby is five minutes old, and there’s a dialogue. That’s the humility you have to learn if you’re going to be a great parent or a great teacher; you listen before you tell.
TP: How do you see from your standpoint the social and political world changing since you were younger?
BA: Oh there’s so much, I mean, you guys are just getting the tail end of this. So much has changed, and so much is changing so rapidly. I lived almost my whole life at the peak of oil, at the peak of capitalism, at the peak of technological innovation, at the peak of privilege, and it’s going downhill—and it’s not going this way just because of the financial crisis or the economic downturn. We’re living at the end of the American empire. All empires are ugly, but as Randy Newman said, “The end of empire is messy at best, and this one is ending like all the rest.” That doesn’t mean the Chinese empire is going to be nice—it’s not going to be nice. But the American empire has exhausted itself. I think the struggle we’re seeing in the schools is education at the end of empire, and what that means is all the militarism in the schools, all the military metaphors and so on. Times have never been better for the most privileged of the privileged. And never worse for the large masses. So I see the United States engaged now in three wars, maybe four, depending on how you count them. I think that we’re moving toward being a permanent war state. We’re on a military footing at all times—and again we don’t feel it at this table because it’s not crushing us yet, but we will feel it, because that’s the catastrophe that we’re facing. Can we pull out of it? Yes. But like these arrests at the White House right now, these people are the heralds that are telling us that all is not well. All’s well, says the town crier, and these people are saying, No, it’s not! And we ought to listen to that.