Sing About the Dark Times: Bill Ayers Interview

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Every year Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn spend a couple months residing in Northern California. Their modest cabin tucked behind the Redwood Curtain has been a perfect place to escape the media frenzy stirred up during the 2008 campaign, when former Republican VP candidate turned failed reality TV star, Sarah Palin, teamed up with Fox News in accusing Obama of "paling around with terrorists". The charges levied at Obama were drummed up due to his time serving on a school board with Ayers. The title of "terrorist" given to Ayers now longtime educator, author, and community activist sprung from when he and Dohrn were leaders of the Weather Underground, a 1960's anti-war movement that, through property destruction and threats, got the couple a firm place on the F.B.I's top ten most wanted list. A week before the Occupy movement began I joined Ayers and Dohrn for dinner. After helping Dohrn pick out a few books for her grandchildren at Northtown Books, we walked the couple blocks to the Plaza Grill where Bill had a table waiting for us. We ordered a few appetizers to split and found ourselves talking about James Baldwin."I almost met him," says Ayers. "I was at a Nina Simone concert. She was late, and the crowd was wasted. Then I heard this familiar voice come over the PA. It was James Baldwin. He got up to the mic and said, 'I want you to stay calm. No matter how far you've come, I assure you Ms. Simone has traveled farther.' I then went to the restroom, and there he was standing next to me at the urinal. I really wanted to talk to him, but you know... urinal etiquette."

Across the room an older gentlemen waved to me and started walking our way. "Who's that?" asked Ayers.

As the man got closer I shook his hand, "Bill Ayers, meet California Assemblyman Wes Chesbro." Chesbro gave me a bemused look and then turned to Bill.

Bill reached out his hand, "Honor to meet you. This really is the place to be."

"So it is. Nice to meet you as well." Chesbro replied, before being surrounded by a group of people each wielding drink number two, three or so in hand as they swarmed.

We sat back down. Ayers and I then spent the next couple hours conversing about education, fame, the future of activism and historical amnesia. Here are some of the highlights:

Do you have any books in the works?

Berne and I are working on one together called What If. The idea is to take ten modest proposals, and one immodest proposal, and reframe them. For example, we have one chapter called "Abolish the Prisons."  The title is of course provocative, to help get the conversation started. But the argument goes that prisons are not in the long-term interest of our economic state, they're degrading our society. Mass incarceration is simply not sustainable. In the book we will tackle issues such as taxing the rich and the spending of the Pentagon.

The immodest proposal is to build a social movement that is unstoppable. One that demands we rein in our mad carnival consumption and these wars. And that we rethink work, security, and heath care.

In fact, the way we look at work and jobs is a great example. If you frame the need for jobs as a necessary evil -- it's wrong. Work is a way to be a human. MLK said you should not think of work in the way we have been thinking of it -- as just a means producing something. I agree. We should be at a 20hr work week and also be planting community gardens, doing social justice, being more involved with our children's education; we should be more involved with our families.

The second book I'm working on is more of a memoir. It's going to be called Paling Around: My Time with the Tea Party.

I'm using a lot of my experiences of the past few years with the Tea Party, like what you saw at Northtown Books when I was here last year.  (The Tea Party protested his book signing. During the Q & A they came inside and participated in what was a rather defusing and pleasant exchange. Quite a thing to see during a time of heated rhetoric.) Iâ'm convinced that on many issues

I'm in the mainstream, and have always been in the mainstream. My ideas are not radical or hard to grasp. They want to cut spending. I agree. When they say they want smaller government, I say, ok let's get rid of the Pentagon! I actually did this once at an event. A libertarian leaning Tea Partier agreed, and then his buddy turned to him and was like, "What, you believe that?" I told them well, here you go; here's a conversation that needs to be had.

If you frame an issue properly, whether it's dealing with queer rights, the environment, or unemployment, it helps start necessary conversations. I reject the idea that we're all thinking so completely differently. If I can't speak to them as humans with shared interests in a better future, then shame on me.

Do you have any criticisms of the left? 

I have several problems with the left. That's part of why I want to write those proposals. The left's approach has often stopped conversation when we should be encouraging it. The defensive crouch, as if we are being overwhelmed by everybody, that our ideas are so different than the majority, has got to go. Instead of developing politics of hope we've become defensive and developed the politics of despair. There are many things that many of us want to see change. So I'm critical of pessimism and cynicism as political tools. The world as is, is standing right next to the world that could be. It's not that precious, it's much closer than we think.

There's also a problem of overcoming historical amnesia. The Tea Party seems to not understand the basic tenets of history. For example, the Boston Tea Party, there own namesake. It was an issue of representation. The Tea Party of today has representation, much more than their actual numbers should warrant.

Yeah. That (historical amnesia) has always been a problem in America. And it can be found on both sides. Sixties nostalgia, which is prevalent today, is bullshit. Those who promote the nostalgia don't understand what has propped up the economy. The credit industry, the debt crisis, the housing crisis all took advantage of the women's movement. When we were kids one breadwinner earned what it now takes two or more to earn. The economy was then, over the next couple decades, propped up by credit, propped up by the tech-bubble, propped up by the housing bubble. But now we're in decline. That's why the education debate is the way it is.  I mean what are you going to do with an educated population? You've got to create jobs for that base. It takes more to appeal to the innovators; they don't want to be laborers. Now that we're in decline people get locked into the system through debt.

I mean, I don't know about your situation, but you're young, 90% of you are in debt up to your ears. We didn't have the debt your generation has. It's something the powerful know keeps people subdued. When I went to college I was an out of state student and it still only cost me $350 a semester. When I graduated I didn't have any debt. I was free. There is more pressure for your generation to have a college degree, and with it comes massive debt.

Debt is quite a problem. So is academic inflation. Turning education into a business has also lowered the quality. Colleges want to push as many people through as possible and are churning out students ill prepared and equipped to be anything more than baristas. Don't get me wrong education is important, and there's nothing I dislike more than a bad barista, they're often the first people I see in the morning. But it's getting harder to see the value of the higher educational system with the focus shifted to the illusion of monetary rewards rather than knowledge.

Do you think the so called "powerful" have learned from history? Have they learned from the sixties, a time many of our current political leaders and yourself lived through?

Yes. The powerful people learned the lessons of the sixties very well. The military learned two lessons from Vietnam. You can't fight a war through invasion and occupation with a citizen army. You have to have a professional army or a mercenary army. Which, ironically, ending the citizen army was one of the Weather Underground's demands. A draft will also not be successful now. But that's fine, because the government doesn't want just anybody able to say what they see on the battlefield. That's because they did, and they will.

Along that line they also learned to never allow an American journalist on the battlefield. I can't believe the press allows this, but a triumphant military tends to get the press to join in with the patriotic jingoistic bullshit, an imperial army in defeat brings out the truth.

The other thing those in power learned is that they don't want social movements, they want NGOs. NGO's are subject to much more political control and are thus constrained.

If a movement were to start today, what advice would you give them?

Part of the mythology, this nostalgia of the sixties, is that we knew what we were doing and that everyone was active. The main thing I remember when being a regional traveler for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) is that every campus I went to, I would find the two or three politicos and the would tell me that nothing could happen here, "this place is fucking dead."  It was like that everywhere. It didn't matter if I went to Paul State, Michigan, Columbia -- they would tell me it's not as good as Paris -- well, fuck Paris! There's a cynicism that's built in that stops people from making those first little steps. We've got to get over that.

Take the issue of queer rights, go back even a decade, people would say it will never win this, or it will never win that, but it did. It's still got a long way to go, but it can be done. The tactics have got to change. With the Internet comes new methods. Folks like Dan Savage use humor. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are also activists. They also help me keep sane. Stewart hits hard, but he's an equal opportunity player.

Jon Stewart definitely holds a mirror up to politicians by playing clips of their previous public statements next to their current ones. I don't think Stewart's audience is as diverse as an effective grass roots movement should be. But The Daily Show is comedy show; I don't think they should be expected to get people to change anything more than their pants after laughing too hard. 

What about building community? To me that seems like a necessary part of activism. 

You also need community. You don't build a movement without a shared sense of community. You sing together. I remember when we stopped singing and we started screaming. When the anger overcomes, it's not healthy. Bertolt Brecht wrote in a poem: "in the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, in the dark times there will be singing. Singing about the dark times."

It's always the worst of times and the best of times.

I think what we'll see at the end of empire are schools becoming a more central part of the community. Community education. When I talk about teaching, which I do a lot, you can't justify teaching in institutional terms. Teaching and learning are linked. Nothing confines learning to the classroom. What were MLK or Malcolm X, but teachers? There pedagogy was in the streets. Civil Rights movement was an educational movement. Now we teach about the civil rights movement in the classroom. Such a way of thinking about teaching, as something that can only happen in the classroom, is really odd.

(A woman approached Bill and started telling him about how she's a fan. He graciously listened to her stories of the sixties. After a few minutes she returned to her table.)

So what is it like to have been underground, then to have a normal career as a professor, and now, after the 2008 campaign, be recognized everywhere you go?

There was a wonderful moment where, 30 years ago, Kurt Douglas was acting in England with Sir John Gielgud, a great Shakespearian actor.  Douglas was in mid-career when he said, "I think I've finally got to the point in my career where the criticism doesn't devastate me." Gielgud said, "now if you can get to a place where the praise doesn't seduce you, you will be right where you want to be."

That stuck with me.

The Internet hasn't been too kind to you. I try to follow the rule of not reading the comment section on articles I've written, but sometimes I find myself there. If it over whelms me I can always say, hey, they said worse things about Ayers.

That's funny. I try not to look at those things. During the election, more often than not, people approached me with hostility and negativity. It has since died down a bit. It's an odd form of celebrity, even in a culture that's so obsessed with celebrity. Look at things like the rise of reality TV. People like Paris Hilton. She's a celebrity for being a celebrity. I've learned that you just can't take this life too seriously, just like you can't take celebrity too seriously.

Well, I've go to get you to the your reading. Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Deric, it's always pleasure.