Bill Ayers, former 60s 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 the “terrorists” that Barack Obama was “palling around” with. Mr. Ayers, who will be in Athens, GA on May 3 to speak at the annual Human Rights Festival, took a break from his work to converse with me over the phone about America’s wars, public education, the state of marriage, and much more.
Jeff Gore: Seeing as you’re coming to Athens to speak at the Human Rights Festival, do you see any big human rights issues now that are as pressing as the ones that you and many others were involved with over forty years ago?
Bill Ayers: I do. First of all, I think the human rights framework continues to be vital and enlivening in a thousand different ways. I think if you go back and read the [United Nations’] Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it still – I actually carry it around in my back pocket, I have for years, I’m just reaching for it – literally you open it up and 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, here’s one: “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one should be arbitrarily deprived of 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, you know, crazy radical idea that a bunch of gay people have imposed on us; it’s right there from 1948. So one of the overarching human rights issues of right now for us here in the United States is the full recognition and full civil rights of GLBTQ people…that’s a huge issue.
Another human rights issue is the issue of torture…incidentally, torture not only [by] the US abroad, but torture, for example, in Chicago, where – you may not know this – the suspension of the death penalty in Chicago several years ago was based on torture cases. That is, innocent men were tortured into confessions that put them on death row.
So we’ve slipped in a terrible, terrible way in this country…you have the Attorney General of the Justice Department writing memos just a couple years ago explaining why waterboarding is not torture, even though [after WWII,] Japanese officials were tried for war crimes, one of [which] was waterboarding. But here you have the Department of Justice issuing an opinion that waterboarding is not torture, because as soon as you remove the gag from the person’s mouth, his mental suffering ends – well that’s just insane.
Then of course, another human rights issue that’s overarching and quite relevant is the issue of 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…
JG: Speaking of war, it seems like Obama put the antiwar 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?
BA: Well I don’t think anyone should be deluded, I think that we have lots and lots of historical examples, for example Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of this generation and the man who passed, and really was responsible in many ways for, the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in the history of the country.
But there’s two things to remember about that. One is that Lyndon Johnson was never a member of the Black Freedom movement; that the civil rights movement brought the agenda to Johnson – it wasn’t the other way around. Or another way of saying that is: the civil rights movement provided the force and 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, in many ways, saved Johnson.
There’s a lesson there for us today, which is, all the hope that Barack Obama will somehow do the right thing for us is misguided. With any luck, the peace movement, the justice movement can save his presidency, but it doesn’t work the other way around – we don’t have kings to save us, that’s not how it works. So to me the injunction is to get busy and build a movement.
But 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 then, is his legacy. So none of us who are anti-war in temperament or activism should be resting easy at this moment. All of us should be naming this moment as a moment of rising expectations and real possibilities, but also a moment of danger and dread. And we should get busy and rebuild the antiwar movement – which we can, and we must.
JG: 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.” Could you put that in more concrete terms – or for example, could you propose something that President Obama could do right now to improve our public education system?
BA: Absolutely. The one thing he could do immediately is to work against No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind should be left behind. That’s something that the Obama administration should do.
Another thing it should do is it should spend that stimulus money to rebuild the educational infrastructure in places like Chicago and places like rural Georgia. Why is that? Well because we have in this democracy, where we assume that all people are equal, and we build social policy around that assumption. We have – for example, in Chicago – school systems that educate kids at the rate 30-40 thousand dollars per kid per year, and schools standing just a few miles down the road that spend less than five thousand dollars per kid per year. That’s a savage inequality in a country that thinks of itself as a democracy. So that’s a second thing that he could do right away.
A third thing that he could do is to stop spending any money at all on test prep. In other words, he should dry up that beast…test preparation is not an education, and the kids who need access to the arts, sports, to clubs and games and after-school – those kids have had those things stripped away from them in the last eight years, and those should be restored.
OK, and I’m going on until you stop me – you should get the military out of the schools. Education is a civilian, and not a military undertaking. And the idea that Chicago, the most militarized school system in the country, has whole schools designated “military schools” – public high schools that are called “military schools” are an outrage in a democratic society. The fact that JROTC is proliferating like mad, and not to make any mistake about it: the Department of Defense has JROTC and military high schools in its recruitment budget. So when they say “Well, it’s not really about recruitment,” they’re lying. It’s completely about recruitment.
…Notice where these military schools are. They’re in poor communities. No one would dare put a military school in Winnetka – the rich Chicago suburb – there’s no way. But in the Chicago public schools, who’s going to resist?
And parents are bought into 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 learn to be 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 – and these are not the qualities we need in a democracy. You know, I could go on for hours, I’d better stop right there.
JG: As you know, Students for a Democratic Society reformed in 2006. Have you been able to talk to the students involved with this, and perhaps gauge if they’re headed in the right direction?
BA: Yes, I know the SDS kids in the Chicago area…I know a lot of the SDS chapters and I’ve spoken at their campuses. I’m a huge supporter of multi-issue radical political organizing. In other words, organizing that connects the war with [global] warming, for example, or that connects civil rights with GLBTQ issues, or that connects GLBTQ issues with the right to universal health care. And on and on. So I like multi-issue organizing, SDS does a lot of that.
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….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 deep collision with the realities of the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, and more, so I think that this is a moment when organizing is what we must do.
JG: Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, SDS and the Weathermen described America as being tainted by white and male privilege. Almost forty 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?
BA: Well look, I think the election of Obama was a significant blow to white supremacy – and an important blow to white supremacy. I don’t think it was a fatal blow. And if you think white supremacy has kind of gone [by the wayside], I think you have to look again. You have to look at the poverty rates, for example. Children born into poverty: overwhelmingly children of color. Or people arrested, and people who are involved in the criminal justice system: overwhelmingly people of color.
So yeah, I think white supremacy still exists. I think a lot of indicators still show that it exists, and the system of white supremacy is what has to be done away with, not this particular individual with a biased attitude, but it’s the system that privileges people because of their race, their background, their gender, and this does still go on, absolutely. Not uniformly, not universally – it never did. But I think that white supremacy is one of the founding principles of this country and it is not dead yet.
JG: What about male supremacy?
BA: Similarly, women still make significantly less than men for the same jobs, and that’s astonishing forty 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 such a classic example of this – is the question of access versus transformation. Is the goal of the women’s movement, for example, historically, is it to have access so they can be as fully equal in the society that has injustice built right into it? Is the goal, that if we had a woman president or a woman CEO of General Motors, would that be proof that women had made it?
Or is 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, persuasively – 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 as something that we build a society where the recognition of people in their wild range of diversity is acceptable, and that we don’t have problems with it. That’s a different vision.
JG: I don’t know if I heard you correctly, did you call marriage a morbid or a moribund institution?
BA: Moribund. M-o-r-i-b-u-n-d. A dead institution. An institution that ought to be killed off…think about it, if you’re married, you get 1500 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, so if you’re not married you don’t have that right. I know that’s silly, isn’t it?
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…”
The point is: 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 oughta 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 kind of decisions. Why marriage should be privileged above all others just strikes me as inhuman.
JG: But you’re married, aren’t you?
BA: Absolutely. All those rights, all those privileges that you get for married…and I don’t know if you know the circumstance of my getting married. Do you know?
JG: I don’t.
BA: …I had three kids, my wife [fellow Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn] was called before a grand jury to testify, she refused, she was put in prison. And at that moment, we had three kids and we’d been together for years and years and years….but at that point, we were vulnerable and fragile in front of the law. So we got her a furlough for two days to get married – so that we could provide some protection for her and me if she were to go off to prison.
But why should we have to do that? Why shouldn’t I have the right to visit her and so on and so on without the nonsense of marriage?
JG: Even beyond marriage, I recall that the Weathermen had a slogan of “Smash Monogamy…”
BA: It’s a great slogan.
JG: [Laughs] But you’ve been with the same woman for what, thirty years now?
JG: Forty! So would that be proof that you’ve…gotten over that slogan?
BA: No, I’ve never gotten over it. I think that…[laughs] You know, I mean it was a silly, outrageous, theater of the absurd kind of political theater kind of slogan. It had no literal meaning. But the metaphoric meaning is right.
And that is, the idea that — well first of all, smash marriage — but even the idea of this institutionalized deadening kind of relationship where you become a habit rather than a choice. Rather than saying we’re together for forty years and every morning I get up and say “Gee, I wonder if we should be together today? Yes, I think we should.” That’s a choice. The other way of doing it is a habit: “Ah shit, gotta be here, because: what the hell.” You know? So the metaphor is a good one and the metaphor is a challenge to the idea that human relationships naturally fall into these boundaries of exclusivity.
JG: Why, in the Weather Underground documentary, were you carrying a baseball bat on the streets of Chicago when you were retelling the story of the Days of Rage?
BA: Because the filmmaker handed it to me. He brought it and handed to me, and I hadn’t taken my meds that morning…nah I’m just kidding, I don’t take meds – he 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.” So I think he thought it was cute, and what do I care?
JG: Well here’s this event that was out of control– you know, rioting – and here you are as an adult, talking about learning from your mistakes…and yet you’ve got a baseball bat in your hand walking down the same street you smashed up forty years ago. I just found that funny.
BA: Yeah, it was ironic and I think that’s how the [filmmakers] 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 60s – for good or bad. We’re in a new era; the 60s is mostly myth and symbol, it didn’t happen the way the kind of perceived wisdom tells us it happened. It was both more complicated, more layered, more contradictory than any single narrative can tell you.
So I think that it’s kind of one of the great problems for young activists: living in the shadow of this mythological 60s. When mythologically, we had the best music, the best demonstrations, the best sex…it’s not true. It’s so flatly not true that it still astonishes me that people take that narrative seriously.
Or 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 60s 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 60s…we have to make the movement right now.
And just one example is that, you know, the peace movement – we became a majority movement over time. But the majority of Americans today 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. And the war dragged on for seven years after the majority of the American people opposed it. And it dragged on in a vicious way – six thousand 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. It’s just untrue.
Now, we have to find a new rhetoric of resistance; we have to find new ways to mobilize…that’s all true. But it’s not true that we should measure it against what happened forty or fifty years ago.