Thoughts on the Notorious Bill Ayers

Bill Ayers today
Bill Ayers today

I want to share with you my feelings about the whole noteriety around Bill Ayers and his thinking on democratic education, especially after being referred to during the fall election campaign and then being more recently featured in the Huffington Post article, talking very eloquently about democratizing our education system. But it is hard for me to get at my strong feelings about it without a lot of context of where we are now and where I am coming from, which says alot about my whole “lefty parent” thing and the tension between the leftist milieu I grew up in and my left-handed outside-the-box view of it. So this will take more than a few paragraphs to try to convey what I feel.

I agree my democratic educator comrades that democratic education (I’ll refer to it as DE) needs to be a widespread grassroots movement, but one important way to introduce it to many people is by finding it a voice, an acknowledged speaking position, in the media discussion on education. Currently the discussion in mainstream media (and I tend to include HP on the left side of that mainstream spectrum since Arianna Huffington and her other HP contributors show up on the cable news panels) appears to be between test-and-sanction conservatives and fully-fund-NCLB liberals, as if that is the spectrum of educational thought in America. In our competitive cultural paradigm we are used to two sides to an issue, pro and con, and it is hard for conventional wisdom and news content formatting to think in terms of a third position.

But all of us who are pushing for profound alternatives to our conventional, instructional one-size-fits-all education system, represent that third point of view. And in the two-sided conventional thinking in the culture and reflected in the media, our position has to somehow outdo one of the “big two”, or convince people fixated on a linear spectrum to imagine a two-dimensional triangle instead, to have a voice at the table.

So setting that context I get to Ayers, and I should start by confessing my biases. I was a fourteen-year-old radical wannabe in 1969 when leftist radicalism became the thing in my way political, berkleyesque hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan. My classmate Keith Hefner was a radical youth-rights activist. I took a modern Russian history class my senior year in high school, taught by an out communist, where we studied bolshevism and anarchism. My mom’s best friend (and my guru of sorts) Mary Jane Shoultz had friends in the Weather Underground that I had the occasion to meet. My mom took me to parties where I met Daniel Ellsberg and Jane Fonda. My friend Armen’s older brother was the Minister of Education for a local radical leftist group called the “White Panthers” (patterned after the Black Panthers but no way white-supremist). You might remember John Sinclair, who was the leader of the group who went to prison for Marijuana possession during those years.

Ayers back then
Ayers back then

This was my milieu… heady stuff for a young teenager looking for a set of values to hang my personhood on. My friends and I went to the University of Michigan graduate library and perused books in the backwaters of the stacks by Bakunin, Kropotkin and other Russian anarchists. We shared fantasies of being part of a leftist revolution in America, insurgents at the barricades in our hometown, taking over the schools, the newspaper, city hall, etc.

So from reading about Ayers on Wikipedia, he spent time in Ann Arbor and elsewhere and seemed to come out of the same sort of milieu and could easily have been not unlike one of my friends’ older brothers. What upsets me about him is that even though he speaks eloquently about the best of that radical thought and says the Weather Underground (I’ll abreviate as WU) was guilty of going too far, he still seems ego-involved in his notoriety and unwilling to really acknowledge that some of the WU bombings could have killed people and that in retrospect that was over the edge. A true warrior for any good cause is first and foremost humble, and I don’t see that in Ayers.

It also particularly disturbed me that, according to Wikipedia, his girlfriend in WU at one point (before Dorn) was killed building a nail bomb. I looked at the “Anarchist’s Cookbook” myself, including the section on how to build nail bombs as part of my wannabe fantasies. If the WU was committed to not killing people, particularly innocent bystanders, why were they building nail bombs? I would like to see Ayers be “repentant” for at least that.

If Ayers could “repent” as it were, he could be a powerful spokesperson for all that flower power, transform society radicalism of the 1960s, reasserting itself in a more pragmatic community organizing context at the beginning of the 21st century. He could galvanize all us baby-boomer former radicals, non-conformists, wannabes, etc. to join a movement for profound change through transforming the way we look at education in this country. But Ayers is unbowed, no true humble people’s warrior, and in my mind, regrettably less than useless.

So as one of my democratic educator comrades says… screw Ayers. He’s getting his fifteen minutes and at least he is saying things that people need to hear about DE, but he is not needed as a spokesperson. Regrettably, I agree. I just hope that the egoism in him I sense does not lead him to trying to get regular gigs on HP or the cable news panels as the voice of 1960s radicalism revisited and that third educational position. Because he is total tabloid radical-chic fodder right now, and Huffington and company and the Keith Obermmans of the media loves that sort of stuff.

To any of you who might be reading this post, I would be curious on your thoughts on what I said about Ayers and whether you share my wish for that third voice to emerge in the media.

7 replies on “Thoughts on the Notorious Bill Ayers”

  1. David… Thanks for sharing your letter to Bill Ayers. In it you say, “But what are your ideas for reaching Barack and the rest of those who elected him? I.e. those who either believe the myths of American exceptionalism or believe that “realism” means not challenging it.”

    So are you calling him to step up and play a more leadership role in the movement to transform education? Or something else?

  2. I was 19 in 1969, in college, marched against the war (Milwaukee, NY, Boston, Washington DC), attended meetings of a non-violent SDS group at Marquette University, believed that “the movement” could bring about positive change politically, culturally, etc. I know the territory, too.

    I agree that it was wrong to commit acts of violence (bombings, etc) but this is as a result of my value system and personal decisions. I never, even at my most angry moments, considered building a bomb to make my point.

    However, I think it is presumptuous in the extreme to call on Ayers to “repent,” in order that he become “our” spokesman. He has made his choices, and from all I can tell is a committed individual true to the politics (though thankfully not the methods) that he embraced back then. If he chooses to write pieces for Huffington Post from time to time, so be it. His recent post on Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education was excellent. Let the chips fall where they will as far as the right-wing media’s demonizing. Unfortunate, but unavoidable.

  3. Presumptuous to call on Ayers to “repent”… maybe so. He just “pushed my buttons” I guess, evoking strong feelings in me from my past as I described in my post and also capturing the frustration of trying to get a more democratic view of education out there in the larger discussion in the media about education. Ayers was speak more to that point of view.

    Anyway… I shared my feelings and am over Ayers now. I hope he has had his last fifteen minutes of fame and he can go back to doing good community organizing work in Chicago at the grassroots level and avoid being tabloid fodder any more.

    So thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m curious how you found out about my blog?

  4. Fair enough. My buttons get pushed regularly living in a culture of militarism at the end of a long tenure of conservative governance. I confess, that I am considerably less optimistic than you appear to be when it comes to bringing about change.

    I think it was through a post on Classroom 2.0 on Ning.

  5. Tom… I guess I have always had a fairly optimistic outlook on life for as far back in my youth as I can remember. I have more recently encountered the new-age idea that you “create your own reality”, and based on my own life’s experience, I think there is merit there. I will need to say more about that in a post at some point.

    Anyway… thanks for responding and keep up the good fight!

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