Bill Ayers, former 1960s radical and now a professor of education, became a household name after last year’s presidential campaign. Less than a month before Election Day, he was clumsily referred to by Sarah Palin as one of the "terrorists" that Barack Obama was "palling around" with. In April, I spoke with Ayers about America’s wars, public education, the state of marriage, and more.
Gore: You recently spoke at the Human Rights Festival in Athens, Georgia. Do you see any big human rights issues that are as pressing now as the ones that you and many others were involved with over 40 years ago?
Ayers: I do. First of all, I think the human rights framework continues to be vital in a thousand different ways. If you go back and read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—I actually carry it around in my back pocket, I have for years—there are things like Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal with dignity and rights." That still has very important implications. Or, "Everyone has the right to a nationality."
Here’s another one: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution." That’s part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That’s not some radical idea that gay people have "imposed" on us; it’s right there from 1948. One of the overarching human rights issues is the full recognition and civil rights of GLBTQ people.
Another human rights issue is torture—not only by the U.S. abroad, but, for example, in Chicago, where the suspension of the death penalty several years ago was based on torture cases. That is, innocent men were tortured into confessions that put them on death row.
You have the Attorney General of the Justice Department writing memos just a couple years ago explaining why waterboarding is not torture, even though Japanese officials were tried for war crimes, one of which was waterboarding. But the Department of Justice issues an opinion that waterboarding is not torture, because as soon as you remove the gag from the person’s mouth, his or her mental suffering ends? Well, that’s just insane.
Another human rights issue is war and peace. People have a right to a peaceful existence and war destroys all human rights, yet we are a nation that is pretty much in a perpetual state of war. We’re fighting at least two wars now—some would argue three or four.
Speaking of war, it seems like Obama put the anti-war movement in an awkward position. He’s going to supposedly end the war in Iraq and pursue the "good war" in Afghanistan. What do you see the antiwar movement doing or what do you hope that it could do during an Obama presidency?
Chicago "Days of Rage" in 1969 (Ayers, right)
I don’t think anyone should be deluded. We have lots and lots of historical examples, like Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of this generation and the man who passed and was, in many ways, responsible for the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in the history of the country. But there are two things to remember about that. The civil rights movement brought the agenda to Johnson—it wasn’t the other way around. The civil rights movement provided the force, the energy and the moral framework for Johnson to do the right thing. So Johnson didn’t save the civil rights movement—the civil rights movement saved Johnson. There’s a lesson there for us today, which is, all the hope that Barack Obama will somehow do the right thing is misguided. With any luck, the peace movement, the justice movement can save his presidency, but it doesn’t work the other way around.
Secondly, Johnson burned up his presidency in war. All the effective things he might have done were destroyed in the furnace of Vietnam. That was his responsibility and that is his legacy.
In a "Democracy Now!" interview, you suggested that our educational system should try to "educate for initiative and courage," as well as "imagination and hope and possibility." What could President Obama do right now to improve our public education system?
The one thing he could do immediately is to work against No Child Left Behind. Another thing he should do is spend that stimulus money to rebuild the educational infrastructure in places like Chicago and rural Georgia. In Chicago there are school systems that educate kids at the rate of $30,000-$40,000 per kid per year and schools just a few miles down the road that spend less than $5,000 per kid per year. That’s a savage inequality.
A third thing he could do is to stop spending any money at all on test prep. Test preparation is not an education. Kids need access to the arts, sports, clubs, and games after school. Kids have had those things stripped away from them and they should be restored.
He should get the military out of the schools. Education is a civilian, not a military undertaking. The idea that Chicago, the most militarized school system in the country, has public high schools that are called "military schools," is an outrage in a democratic society. JROTC is proliferating like mad and the Department of Defense has JROTC and military high schools in its recruitment budget. When they say, "Well, it’s not really about recruitment," they’re lying. It’s completely about recruitment.
Notice these military schools are in poor communities. No one would dare put a military school in Winnetka—a rich Chicago suburb—there’s no way. But in the Chicago public schools, who’s going to resist? Parents bought into it because they’re led to believe there is no alternative or the argument is made again and again that kids will learn to be disciplined and orderly. But what could teach you more discipline than playing in an orchestra? Or being in a theater group? These require enormous discipline. But of course the only discipline that counts, in the mentality of the military, is military discipline. In other words: obedience, conformity, uniformity.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) re-formed in 2006. Have you been able to talk to the students involved?
I know a lot of the SDS chapters and have spoken at their campuses. I’m a huge supporter of multi-issue radical political organizing that connects the war with global warming or that connects civil rights with GLBTQ issues or that connects GLBTQ issues with the right to universal health care. I like multi-issue organizing and SDS does a lot of that.
New SDS in 2008—photo by Isis, DC Indymedia
But the other thing that I feel very strongly about is that none of us should be so dogmatic or so certain that we know this is good organizing and this isn’t. We should have an attitude of experimentalness and we should have an attitude of generosity. So I look at the formation of SDS as a hopeful sign.
The one thing I would say is that the movement we need today is a movement of organizers, not just a movement of people who feel that they take the right position; people who go out and talk to strangers, knock on doors, find ways to get into the public square in unique and new ways, not in old, tired ways, to engage the public in a conversation about the direction of the country. This is the moment of real opportunity because the rising expectations people are experiencing everywhere are coming into collision with the realities of the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, and more. I think that this is a moment when organizing is what we must do.
In the 1960s and 1970s, SDS and the Weatherpeople described America as being tainted by white and male privilege. Almost 40 years later, many on the left still consider that sentiment a pretty good description of the society we live in today. Would you agree with them?
I think the election of Obama was an important blow to white supremacy. I don’t think it was a fatal blow. You have to look at the poverty rates, for example. Children born into poverty, people arrested, and people involved in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly people of color.
The system of white supremacy has to be done away with, not this particular individual with a biased attitude. It’s the system that privileges people because of their race, their background, their gender, and this does still go on. Not uniformly, not universally. It never did. White supremacy is one of the founding principles of this country and it is not dead yet.
What about male supremacy?
Similarly, women still make significantly less than men for the same jobs and that’s astonishing 40 years after the modern feminist movement got underway. So that’s one way to measure male supremacy: access, recognition, and so on. But there are other measures as well. One of the things that all of these identity movements have to come to terms with—and the women’s movement is a classic example of this—is the question of access versus transformation. Is the goal of the women’s movement to have access so they can be as fully equal in the society that has injustice built right into it? If we had a woman president or a woman CEO of General Motors, would that be proof that women had made it? Or is a hope of the women’s movement to create a society based on certain feminist principles like cooperation, mutual recognition?
Same with the question of the gay movement. Is the idea that gays should be equal to everyone else in terms of rights? Well, that’s part of it. But some people would argue—and I think convincingly—that the real promise of the gay movement isn’t that you get to fight in the U.S. Army and go kill people or that you get to enter into this moribund institution called marriage, but rather that we create a society in which being queer is not something considered horrible or an anathema, but that we build a society where the recognition of people in their wild range of diversity is acceptable. That’s a different vision.
I don’t know if I heard you correctly, did you call marriage a morbid or a moribund institution?
Moribund. An institution that ought to be killed off. Think about it, if you’re married, you get rights that if you’re not married, you don’t get. One of my favorites, for example, is in Montana. You can pass your hunting license onto your spouse. If you’re not married you don’t have that right. But what’s the point of that? Why don’t we say instead: "We want universal health care, we want every human being to have the right to name who their heirs are. We need every human being to have a right to name the people they want at their bedside if they’re in a serious crisis or in a life-threatening situation."
Why are these things tied to marriage? What’s marriage got to do with it? Now if you want to get married and you belong to a temple or a church or an ashram or neighborhood or community of friends, go for it. Knock yourself out.
At this point, since we do have civil marriages, everyone ought to have a right to marry anyone they want. But if we did away with civil marriage altogether, did away with marriage, then you could get married in your religion or your cult or your neighborhood and nobody’d give a shit. A group of friends could come together and toss you up and down on a trampoline and throw rose petals at you, and God bless you all. I mean, people can make all kinds of decisions. Why marriage should be privileged above all others just strikes me as inhuman.
But you’re married, aren’t you?
Absolutely. All those rights, all those privileges that you get for being married. I don’t know if you know the circumstance of my getting married. When my wife [fellow Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn] was called before a grand jury to testify, she refused and was put in prison. We had three kids and we’d been together for years. But at that point, we were vulnerable in front of the law. So we got her a furlough for two days to get married so that we could provide protection for her and me if she were to go to prison. But why should we have to do that? Why shouldn’t I have the right to visit her without the nonsense of marriage?
Why, in The Weather Undergrounddocumentary, were you carrying a baseball bat on the streets of Chicago when you were retelling the story of the Days of Rage?
Because the filmmaker handed it to me. He thought it would be cute. I wasn’t thinking about it much. He said, "Would you mind walking around with this baseball bat?" and I said "Nah, I don’t mind."
Well, this event was out of control—you know, rioting—and here you are as an adult, talking about learning from your mistakes. Yet, you’ve got a baseball bat in your hand walking down the same street you smashed up 40 years ago. I just found that funny.
Yeah, it was ironic and I think that’s how they meant it. But, you know, the truth is that that was a militant demonstration at a certain moment in time. Nobody should be controlled by or living in the nostalgia of the 1960s—for good or bad. We’re in a new era. The 1960s is mostly myth and symbol. It didn’t happen the way the perceived wisdom tells us it happened. It was more complicated, more layered, more contradictory than any single narrative can tell you. So I think it’s kind of one of the great problems for young activists: living in the shadow of this mythological 1960s. Mythologically, we had the best music, the best demonstrations, the best sex. It’s not true. It’s so not true that it still astonishes me that people take that narrative seriously.
The other side of the narrative is: "Oh, they were out of control, they were domestic terrorists, they were crazy, they were horrible." That’s also not true. So I think that people have to get over the 1960s and move on to some sense that we have to reinvent—right here, right now—a movement for social change and social justice and peace that doesn’t rely on the mythology of the 1960s.
Just one example is the peace movement—we became a majority movement over time. The majority of Americans today also want peace also and are against the wars that we’re waging. So it’s not so different than it was back then. There is difference in terms of street mobilization, but let’s not romanticize that either because, remember, we didn’t end the war. That’s very important to remember: that we did not have the power to stop it. The war dragged on for seven years after the majority of the American people opposed it. And it dragged on in a vicious way—6,000 people a week being murdered—so the idea that the anti-war movement then was remarkably successful whereas the anti-war movement today is not is just a myth.
We have to find a new rhetoric of resistance, new ways to mobilize—that’s all true. But it’s not true that we should measure it against what happened 40 years ago.