Friday, 3 July 2009

Unorthodox reflections of a revolutionary

An interview with pedagogue Bill Ayers, the black President’s “terrorist” friend

On my way to the “Kala Kathoumena” coffee shop, in the old city of Nicosia, I was wondering how a terrorist looks like. I had an appointment with Bill Ayers, whose radical organisation, in the 60’s, had accomplished what the terrorist mullahs failed to accomplish on 9/11: to bomb the US Capitol. During the presidential race that preceded Obama’s election, the 64 year old education theorist and Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois of Chicago had come under fierce attack from the American Right. They called him a “state enemy”, an “unrepentant terrorist” and “Obama’s political mentor”. During the Vietnam war, when Ayers was 25, he co-founded a legendary revolutionary organisation, the “Weather Underground”, which acted in the broader context of the anti-war movement, and Ayers was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. The militant action of the radical organisation, which included the bombing of empty government buildings as well as several banks, was characterised by the US government as “domestic terrorism”. As soon as I met Ayers, from the very moment I shook hands with him, it was apparent to me that this was a case of a charismatic and multi-dimensional man, with inexhaustible faith in, and profound love for, the humankind, and whose fiery yet eloquent spirit can enrapture, inspire and win over a disbelieving intellectual, as much as an illiterate worker. The questionnaire I had meticulously prepared for the purposes of the interview seemed oddly unnecessary. I set it aside and let the conversation take its course…

You say, a teacher’s message is this: “You can change your life -whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, another world is possible.”
For all of my life as a teacher –that is, since 1965 - I’ve been saying that the reason why teaching is so powerful and dynamic, so intellectually challenging and so ethically interesting, is precisely because the message of teaching is that you can change! You can change in an individual way, but if you take that message one step further, you can say that you can also change the world. I ‘ve taught everywhere; I ‘ve taught in juvenile detention systems, I ‘ve taught in prisons. When you’re a teacher in prison, you are up against the harsh reality, but you’re still saying to these guys that no matter what you’ve done, you can change. You can create another world. And if we unite together, we can change not only our own lives but we can change the world. This is the message of teaching, this is the message of community organising: a profoundly democratic message. And that’s what draws me back to teaching again and again.

But how can one determine democracy? You can have a participatory democracy, or an abstract notion of democracy, wherein citizens are kept at distance and distracted from the decision-making processes and the public sphere. Or there’s the “democratisation” that the West is trying to transfer to other countries, such as Iraq, for example.
The “democratisation” of Iraq was a lie on which the US have been permitted to wage a war. There was never any intention to bring democracy to Iraq. In fact my joke always was… I don’t know if you know what an Electoral College is… In the US, we don’t have a popular vote, we have what is called an Electoral College and it’s retrograde, it goes back to the Civil War, it goes back to protecting White Power… In the year 2000, George Bush lost the popular election but he won the electoral college. The vacuum of democracy is evident here. So, what my joke always was: I hope when they export democracy to Iraq, they take the Electoral College with them and get it out of the US. But, what you are referring to is hugely important. I grew up in the student movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the core of our values was participatory democracy, direct, local democracy and our ideal was, the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions and our basic slogan was “Let the people decide!”. We were very big in creating what is called a democratic culture. What we meant by that was that formal democracy can and is undermined everyday by, for example, militarism, by corporatism, by consumerism, by racism. These things undermine the culture of democracy. So we were arguing and are still advocating, is that a culture of democracy is much more than the forms. So you can click an election ballot and call yourself a democracy, or you can see the requirements of being a citizen is full participation every day: that you wake up in the morning asking yourself “how can I participate in the civic life today”, not how do I every four years push a button. That’s not democracy except in form. So yes, I make a strong distinction between formal democracy and engaged citizenship. Formal democracy is often a sham used to undermine participatory democracy.

You also advocate that education can never be neutral, that it always has a politics, an ethics, a value. Some people may object this stance. For example, here in Cyprus, we have a private, English-speaking school that has recently decided upon dealing with the challenges for an intercultural and integrated education. The English School’s board has been since under attack by various groups and individuals, for having a politics and not being neutral.
Education can never be neutral. Education always either serves the status quo or change. It always serves either the way things are, or the way things could be. So, even though you can’t always see what the politics of a particular system or school or classroom are, they are always there. It’s a myth that you can be neutral, and most of the people who cry for neutrality are actually crying to keep the status quo intact, as it is. So in the US, when I was young, the great upheaval was: Don’t teach politics. And what they meant by that was don’t teach about racial equality. Just leave politics out of it. Racial inequality was the standard, it was the given. So if you were to bring in something as unsavory as politics, you were bringing in the idea of multiculturalism. But we brought it in and we won. It’s the same with the question of women. Should women be equal? If you brought that in, you were bringing in politics, because the things are is just neutral – don’t raise that question, that’s for the church or for the family to figure out. The current situation is about gay people; if you are willing as a teacher to say gay people have full rights like everyone else, you are accused of being political. But to assume that we don’t talk about that, well, that ‘s a politics too, if you know what I mean. You can’t get out of being political by saying I am not raising that controversial question, because the controversial question is already posed everyday by the social realities themselves.

So, you are suggesting that formal education and schools may well function as an ideological state apparatus. In which case does education reinforce the existing power structures or the status quo and in which case does it challenge them?
Well, most governments and most educational systems -and this is a contradiction right at the heart of education- want people to be obedient and conforming. And that is true across the borders: true of the Soviet Union, true in communist China, it’s true of the US, it’s true of apartheid Africa. What they want is citizens who go along. But education is never that project. Education is always about asking queer questions, it’s always about searching through evidence and arguments, in order to have a mind of your own, which should be dynamic and in motion itself. That’s why education “feels uncomfortable” in schools. Schools are one thing, education is quite another thing; they coexist but they are not the same. I argue again and again back in the US for education to find its way outside and beyond schools. Schools are institutions that want you to go along and be quiet, to stand in line. Education is never like that, education is disobedient, education is unruly…

“Education is unruly”. Unruly is also the activist… Can the street educate us?
Oh yes, absolutely! The workplace and the street are important forms of education. In fact, one of my reference points again and again for my own life, is the Freedom Schools in the 1960’s in the south of the United States. The Civil Rights Movement was going through a down period, a low, and a young volunteer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), named Charles Cobb, brought a proposal in which he said, the black people of Mississippi have been denied many things: decent facilities, full trained teachers, forward-looking curriculum. But the fundamental injury is that they have been denied the right to think for themselves, about the circumstances of their lives, how they got here and how can they be different. This led to the creation of a Freedom School curriculum, which I was very fortunate to be part of in the 1960’s. it was a curriculum of questions, it wasn’t a curriculum of answers. And the questions were things like, “why are you and I in the Freedom Movement”, “what do we hope to accomplish”, “what do we want, that we don’t have”, “what does the majority culture have, that we don’t”, “what do we want to keep”… and it went on like that for 26 pages, just question after question. That’s curriculum of questioning, that’s a curriculum for citizenship, that’s a curriculum for democracy. And the Freedom Schools did not exist in classrooms, they existed in community centers, back yards, plantations… And to show how revolutionary that was -and it was very revolutionary- three teachers of the Freedom Schools, the martyrs of Mississippi Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, were kidnapped and by Ku Klux Klan fanatics. So Freedom Schools were revolutionary then and Freedom Schools are still revolutionary. To ask the question “how did I get here”, “how could it be different”, those are revolutionary questions.

Education is revolution then…
Absolutely! At its best, education is revolutionary. It can be revolutionary in that it can take any individual from the kind of sleepiness or the anesthetized condition of not knowing where you are. It can wake you up and that’s why most of us can look back in our lives and say, “oh, there’s a moment when somebody woke me up, a book, a teacher”. That’s why we fall in love with our teachers, because they remind us that another world is possible. And it’s exciting, it’s thrilling. It’s not the person itself that draws you, it’s what that person is doing to you, what they are making you think. So I think that, yes, education can be revolutionary in that sense and then, collectively, when all of us feel for example that, we can’t go forward unless we change the circumstances of our lives, then education is revolutionary in a social sense.

And how does social justice fit in all this?
Well again, that’s a struggle, it’s a point of conflict. In a democracy, education is always about - at least theoretically- adhering to a principle, a recognition: that every human being is of incalculable and immeasurable value. And that together as a community, we have to strive for fairness, for equity, for freedom for all. That means that education and democracy is always tilting towards social justice. In other words, the full development of each single one of us is only possible with the collective development of all of us. So the full development of all is the condition for the full development of each. And that’s a profoundly social justice statement.

Speaking about human development and social justice, let us move to Latin America and specifically to Hugo Chavez. Do you think the paradigm of the Bolivarian Revolution challenges or falsifies the whole “End of History” narrative?
Oh, absolutely. I think Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis is demonstratively false, even as it was written it was demonstratively false. Every generation believes that it’s reached the end of History. If you live long enough you realize it. One of the messages of every power, of every elite is to say, “this is it, doesn’t get any better than this, there is no other possibility”. And then, what revolutionaries always do, is say “no, another world is possible” and they always bring that into the public square. So the idea that History has ended, meaning the defeat of class conflict, is so provably, demonstrably false in the world that we live in. We live in a world of profound inequities and disparities, and those inequities and disparities lead the social conflict again and again. So it is true that, for example in the US or in Great Britain, the export of class conflict and of the working class has been underway for a long time. But we have a gigantic proletariat that is in any minute going to organize itself and rise up and demand equity and fairness and a piece of the world, and that will going to change everything. So I think, Chavez is one example. And the other thing to say about Chavez that is interesting to me, is that, Venezuela is not a country with either a proletariat, nor a peasantry. So you have neither of the 20th century models of what would be the engine…

You do have the oligarchies and the poor though. And intense internal imperialism.
You do have the poor - Absolutely, you do have these kinds of contradictions -no doubt about it, but you don’t have either of the engines of social change that were demonstrated in the 20th century. And yet -speaking of something that neither you or I could predict- here comes a charismatic military leader (and I have inherent distrust in military leaders, I don’t trust them and I don’t trust strong men, my politics make me skeptical right away). You have the poor, you have many many factions of political parties and organizations, none of which can get along, none of which know how to talk to one another. And along comes a charismatic intellectual military man. And by the way [laughs] he’s fuelled with espresso, I ‘ve seen him up close and the guy drinks about 24 espressos a day, he never sleeps.. But he was influenced by books, by ideas. All of us danced to somebody’s ideas. And Chavez was influenced by books by ideas and by his background as an indigenous person, as a person from a poor family… And suddenly he was in a position to make a change. And suddenly all these factions, all these left-wing parties, all these trade-unionists, found it in their interest to begin to talk to one another. And out of chaos came this unity that said “with Chavez, we can move the society forward”. The exciting thing about the Bolivarian Revolution is reading the Constitution. I don’t know if you read it, but to me, this is a brilliant example of a 21st century articulation of what’s possible for humanity. And the parts about education are brilliant, because they basically say something that is far beyond from what we say in the United States. That education should be something not that we do early in life in order to finish and get a job. In the US, why is education a K-12 or a K-16 affair, where you get finished and then go work for the rest of your life? Why isn’t education for life? The idea that education is for the young is so false and yet that’s what we do in the United States. But in Venezuela, education is for everyone. And my own experience there -I ‘ve been to Venezuela several times- of looking at the Education Circles in the factories or the towns or the villages, to see all people who are illiterate to come together and re-name the world, it’s so exciting. It’s a model to me -coming out of the 3rd world, of what we can aspire to in a place like the US. Real education, popular education, participatory education.

Why then is Venezuela widely represented like such an immense threat to the world social order, or to the Washington Consensus?
Absolute power finds anything threatening. When you are aspiring to absolute power, any questioning, any challenge has to be put down. I was in Venezuela several times reading the New York Times, accounts of what was going on. It was like an Alice in Wonderland world, through a looking glass because the NYT had Chavez painted as this monster, suppressing the media. I was staying in a hotel where the right-wing newspapers would be delivered to my door. So the idea that somehow freedom of the press didn’t exist is ridiculous. So that’s one answer. Another answer, a more telling answer, is that, there were those of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, who would say “why is Vietnam a threat to the US?”. In Vietnam we don’t have any military interest, we don’t have any economic interest, so why? Are we going to spent 10 years, three million deaths, billions of dollars suppressing this revolution? And Chomsky’s answer was “Because the idea will spread”. The idea will spread and ideas are power. What we have to understand instinctively, is that we oppose the power of force with the power of ideas, and the power of people thinking differently. That is the threat Chavez represents. What if you thought differently about economics, about the role of education and about questions of social equity. What if you thought differently? Then the project of the US would be imperiled...

You said something that Obama keeps repeating, that the might of our nation lies not in the force of our guns, but in the force of our ideas…I believe ideas are a good counterforce to guns, but I worry that the US’ sense of itself and its ideas is arrogant and misguided. As you yourself said earlier, what kind of democracy do we want to export? It’s an abstract statement and Obama could mean many things by it, but it is true that ideas have power. It’s why for example, in the US the Conservatives have spent an enormous amount of time in the last 20 years attacking kindergarten to 12th grade education and are now attacking the universities. They are saying that the universities are hotbeds of left-wing thinking. It’s not true, from my perspective. But anything that offers an alternative perspective is threatening to them. So, that is what Chavez represents: a different way of considering lots and lots of questions, and certainly the role of the US in the South is one of those things. I think he has provided an interesting counterweight around development in the surrounding countries and so on. A good example is health care. I mean, the idea that the US has a good health-care and that we should be proud of it is so crazy, and yet if you are in America- 70% of us don’t have passports, we don’t know any better- we guess that, wow, we must have a very good health care system, even though if you’re sick you don’t get care and so on.

Let us return to Obama: he said that the might of our nation lies not in the force of our guns, but in the force of our ideas… Nonetheless, in Afghanistan he keeps sending more troops, even though extreme poverty, hunger and complete lack of social policies are far more serious threats to the country’s population than the Taliban…A couple of things you made me think of by putting it this way: one is that, Obama’s statement is a hopeful one. But it has to be matched by action. The fact that the US spends a trillion dollars a years on military and is happy to use violence to solve its international problems, is happy to invade and occupy countries, this is what has to end, it’s not rhetoric about ideas over guns. It’s actual action to stop the use of weapons and violence to resolve political conflicts. Take the question of Taliban and Afghanistan. After 9/11, it’s true that the US has suffered a terrorist action within its own territory. 3.000 people were killed, it was a terrible crime against humanity, a pure act of terrorism carried out by a retrograde, crypto-fascist group of religious fanatics- that is all true. But after 9/11, there was a great debate in the US about what had happened and that debate was repressed by the powerful voices. One side of the debate as it went forward, which I agreed with, was that even though we had suffered a crime against humanity, as a nation, the response to a crime is a criminal justice response. It’s a police response. If someone gets killed in Chicago, the police gather evidence, look for the perpetrator and put that person on trial. There’s no war involved, it’s a criminal justice matter. Because the war metaphor won the debate inside the US, we went on a WoT. But there’s no monolith called terror. Terror is a tactic. So a war against terror is like a war against nervousness. How do you defeat it, how do you know where it is? A tactic can’t be defeated by a war…

There’s also the problem of defining terrorism. Like Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar argue in “Perilous Power”, even the US government has trouble defining terrorism, because the term may refer to them in some cases.
That’s exactly my point. If you think of a stable definition of terrorism, which I think is important, and you recognize terrorism as a tactic that is used by religious fanatics, political factions, crazy people, governments, states, then you can see in the history of the 20th century, that the most violence that’s been done by terrorism has been done by states. State terrorism is the most prevalent of all. The most spectacular, is things like the World Trade Center, where 3000 people were murdered and that’s unforgivable. But, the number was 3000 lives - meanwhile, the US has killed over 3million in a terrorist war against Vietnam. So how do you measure these things? WoT is the wrong metaphor. After the crime against humanity of 9/11, there should have been a criminal justice response which might have meant calling up military force. But it would have been to seek the perpetrator, it wouldn’t have been to invade countries and overthrow governments. So overthrowing the Taliban even was in itself an aggressive act, it had no meaning vis-à-vis 9/11. They never pursued Bin Laden’s group, they didn’t pursue it aggressively or eagerly. Instead, they’ve opened up a war. How many countries will be invaded when Bush announces a WoT? Nobody knew. How long it will go on? Nobody knows. Will terrorism ever be eliminated? No. That means it’s a war forever. It’s a clash of fundamentalisms, so in that regard, we have to say “no, we do not want a WoT, a war on tactic. What we want is to lower the levels of violence. And that means the US who has in many ways a world monopoly on violence -we spent a trillion dollars a year on violence and the rest of the world spends a trillion. So a country with 4.6% of the world’s population spends half of the military budget of the world. We have a responsibility, if Obama’s words are to be taken seriously, to lessen our nuclear arsenal, to eliminate ultimately our nuclear arsenal, to lessen our weapon systems, to stop exporting hand guns to every country in the world, to stop exporting smart arms to every conflict in the world. We have to take seriously that it’s our responsibility to move in that direction. And yes, it seems to me that if we want it to really be a nation among nations, we would not only resolve questions like healthcare in our own country, but we would export healthcare to other countries instead of violence. We ‘d be exporting books, not weapons. But that’s not what we do, and it’s not in our genetic make-up. So we have to change our history, because our history in these matters is very bad.

Let us discuss Obama’s historic speech in Cairo. To an impressive degree, Obama’s rhetoric has managed to challenge Bush’s manicheanism, along with the absurd representation of the world’s Muslims as a monolithical, one-dimentional community. Do you think Obama’s speech grants the Arab world the “permission to narrate”?
I like the reference to “Permission to Narrate”, I assume you are talking about the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said. Yes, I think that’s exactly what the speech does. You have to remember the bar is so low because we had George Bush for 8 years. So we are used to an absolute idiot, a person who had never left the US before he was president. He didn’t even have a passport; it’s astonishing if you think about it. But that is so typical of the people of the US. National Geographic did a survey of 18-25 year old American kids. They gave them a blank world map: 80% could find Iraq, 80% couldn’t find Israel or Palestine, 40% couldn’t find Great Britain and 10% couldn’t find the US. It’s astonishing but yet typical that Americans don’t know geography, don’t know history, don’t know language, because we are the center of the universe, even though we’re only 4.6% of the world’s people. My joke always was, you shouldn’t be allowed to bomb a country you can’t find on a map! Having said all that, it seems to me that the speech was hugely significant, because Obama indicated through that speech a willingness to change the narrative. Changing the narrative is a lot of what politics is about. I know for a fact that Obama understands the Palestinian situation. And for him to say in that speech that the Palestinians have suffered for 60 years, that dates their suffering at 1948. No American president has ever said that. For him to say you need to stop the settlements was huge, even though it’s a small step. There is so much more to do, but it was still a step, in the last two decades no US president would say that. Now, what’s more important, is what we do as an international citizenry, as progressive forces, as a movement within the US. What do we do to change that narrative so that more is possible, so that the permission to narrate spreads and deepens. Another thing through which Obama showed his political skill, once again, is, he goes to Cairo, he speaks to the Arab world, and then he puts a tiny little finger in the eye of Israel and given that that’s very difficult to do inside the US, he rushes to Buchenwald (Holocaust Memorial) 24 hours later. By doing that and by going there with Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, Obama inoculated himself against the inevitable firestorm of criticism that the Israeli lobby would bring forward, as the frontpages were dominated by Obama and Wiesel at Buchenwald. It was a politically savvy message.

Let us go back in time, to the “Weather Underground”. It’s been described as a domestic terrorist organisation. Yet you argue that the Weathermen had a moral stance. How’s that?
I don’t think we were terrorists, I think we debated terrorism. When the war went on and we were determined to stop the war, we did in fact debate what direction to go and terrorism was one direction we debated. We did discuss it and we rejected it. In fact the bomb that killed my girlfriend and my two comrades, in March 6, 1970, was to be put in a dance at a military base. That would have been a terrorist act but it never went off. That was hotly debated and after our friends had been killed, the organisation was not resolved in what direction we were taking - we weren’t even underground at the time. That act forced a huge revaluation and conversation amongst us, and we argued that terrorism was never defensible and that politically it is almost always counter-productive. And you could see the counter-productiveness of it in places like Vietnam. The Vietnamese were never convinced that the Americans were right or good because they were killing them. Likewise, the Palestinians, as much as the Israelis, keep saying we’re going to pound them into the ground until they see the way we see - it’s never going to work. It’s politically backwards and morally indefensible. So we chose a different path and we were not terrorists but saboteurs with a political mission and an ethical mission, in that we wanted to end the war as well as the system that created these wars.

But do you claim to have had the authorship of this moral mission? How could you claim that what you did was ethical and not arbitrary? How could this “moral mission” be checked?
Checking such things is very difficult and that is true not only of illegal work, it’s also true of legal work. But I have had this standard for several years and it’s extremely valuable: that you can to be constantly in touch with large masses of people, that you have to have a dialogue. You can’t just go out on your own and do what you want, you must be in dialogue. The responsibility of an activist or a citizen is to open one’s eyes. To see more of the world than you can see when you are half asleep, and then to act. You make your best judgement, you act as well as you can. And then, you must rethink. You can’t just act and act. You must act and rethink and then act and rethink. And in rethinking you must have a pedagogical standard: did I teach people and did I learn? That is the pedagogical gesture. Ordinary people saw what we were doing and understood it. Yes, the Head of the Senate condemned us, calling us communist and all kinds of names. And many newspapers were writing against us. But ordinary people saw what we were doing and they understood it. If you get paralysed because everything is so ambiguous, then you can’t act and you’re paralysed. So you need to act with imperfect knowledge but then you have a responsibility to rethink. And that rethinking involves exactly what you are talking about, trying to be connected with a base of people, so that you are not acting completely on your own. And the Weather Underground was the same. The Republican portrayal of us during the presidential race was that we were somehow a wild group of nutcases. But the fact is that we were underground for 11 years and never arrested. How did that happen? We were recognised in the street every week, people saw me, I mean I lived mostly in the open. Nobody wanted us arrested. We were leaving in a sea of like minded people. We weren’t as crazy as it now may seem. If we were that crazy, why weren’t we turned in, there were hundreds of us. We were living relatively openly, going to cafes and movies and living in apartments and people recognised us and didn’t turn us is. Why? Because people were opposed to the war and didn’t think we were so outside the pale as to be their enemy. We were not their enemy.

Looking back, are you proud of the action of, and the “critique” posed by, the “Weather Underground”?
When we were underground, a movie was made about us by a famous film-maker named Emile de Antonio. We had negotiated with him and he came to our hideout and interviewed us and made a movie called “Underground”. Several years later, I was with some young activists who were looking at the film and wanted to talk about it. So I watched the film with them – I hadn’t seen it for 20 years. I found it interesting that, on the one hand, I found the rhetoric and the posturing kind of macho, embarrassing. On the other hand, the politics, I agreed with completely. So, I wouldn’t stand up now in the way I stood up then and I wouldn’t act the way I acted and throw my head around in the way I did in the film. But, I didn’t disagree with the politics. I found the politics to be accurate. Now, four decades later, our world has changed and our politics need to change too, obviously. But our critique was based on two fundamental truths: The first is that the US is a country that was founded on, and fuelled by, White Supremacy, and that we threw ourselves into the fight against White Supremacy. The second truth is that, the US’ position in the world has been not to be a nation among nations but rather to be an imperial power, and as such, the US’ imperial project is indefensible and the primary responsibility of opposing it belongs to the American people. As citizens of this imperial power, we felt a very personal responsibility to oppose the massacres going on in Vietnam, in Laos and in other places.

** Ayers was invited in Cyprus by the School of Education of Frederick University, which, in collaboration with the Institute for Eurodemocracy Glafcos Clerides, organized the lecture Rethinking Democracy, Justice and Education in the Age of Obama with William Ayers. The speech took place on Wednesday, June 17 2009, Frederick University, Nicosia.


  1. Thanks for publishing this. Bill's views and actions have the lives of millions of people - you'd never know it from his humble and genuine demeanor. We usually expect people in politics to be sly and manipulative; Bill is a breath of fresh air. And Liberation.