A Letter to the Times Found Five Years Later…

September 26, 2006

September 15, 2001

To The Editors—

In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might
interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive
Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and
each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of
violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960’s
about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the
complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those
terrible times.
Smith’s angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a
love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about
regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I
never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me
found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a
thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce
of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder
of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that
while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we
didn’t do enough to stop the war.
Smith writes of me: “Even today, he ‘finds a certain eloquence to
bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.” This
fragment seems to support her “love affair with bombs” thesis, but it
is the opposite of what I wrote:

We’ll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician
had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each
describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom.
Boom. Poor Viet Nam.
Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we
understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should
we do about it? Bombs away.
There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a
safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a
deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial
eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of
indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground.
Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm.
Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and
throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three
million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a
body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or
counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated
by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each
was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the
earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away,
smudged out, lost forever.

I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility,
then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we
constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in
Asia.
Clearly I wrote and spoke about he export of violence and the
government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith
was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is
not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but
of deliberate distortion.
Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same
day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by
associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from
start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate
murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official
policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of
age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the
American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the
culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results form it.
We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an
unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people
in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering
in response.
All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the
heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or
it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have
suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the
necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The
lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more
urgent now than ever.

Bill Ayers
Chicago, IL


ISRAEL INVADES!!! (the NY public schools)

September 21, 2006

Outrageous.

Two years ago Joel Klein, Chancellor of the NY public schools, bowed
to a heated and disingenuous attack by a group of zealots against any
American academic who had the temerity to deviate from Israel’s
elaborate,self-aggrandizing, and thoroughly dishonest story of itself,
and announced that Rashid Khalidi, the esteemed historian from
Columbia University, would not be allowed to speak at school-sponsored
teacher development sessions. Klein in effect scuttled a program in
which Columbia provided, pro bono, academics from a range of
disciplines to engage with teachers in staff development activities.

Fast forward to September,2006—five years after 911. The New York
City Council’s education committee approved a curriculum that will
grant graduate credit to teachers who take a 30-hour course of study
on Israel, written by the pr department of the Israeli Consulate.
Consul General Aryeh Mekel understood the import of this unprecedented
initiative: “through the teachers a generation of leaders will be
educated to maintain the special relations between the US and
Israel….We are not bringing politics, but are exposing them to
Israel as we know it and as we would like people to know it.” But no
politics? Impossible.

Education is about asking questions, seeking the truth, challenging
dogma and convention, pursuing evidence, opening doors, upending
received wisdom. The City Council is promoting blatant propaganda,and
it should be resisted with the power of real education.


911—-Plus Five

September 12, 2006

I’m writing these words on September 12, 2006— the fifth
anniversary of the spectacular hijacking of the monstrous crimes of
September 11. That’s right, the hijacking of the hijackings, carried
out in plain sight by a different band of right-wing zealots just as
determined to impose their arid ideology on America and the world as
the thugs of 9-11. It’s a hijacking still underway, a work-in-progress
whose disastrous consequences are only partly apparent. But let’s
start at the beginning, and remember how we got into this fine mess.

The attacks of September 11 were— no doubt about it— pure
terrorism, indiscriminate slaughter, crimes against humanity carried
out by reactionary fanatics with fundamentalist fantasies dancing
wildly in their heads. And in the immediate aftermath Americans
experienced, of course, grief, confusion, compassion, solidarity, as
well as something else: uncharacteristic soul-searching, questioning,
and political openness, but not for long.

A headline in the Onion got it only partly right: “Unsure What to
Do, Entire Country Stares Dumbly at Hands.” Actually Cheney, Rumsfeld,
Ashcroft, and their gang knew exactly what to do, and they did it—
they pulled out their most ambitious plans to create a new American
empire, to remake the world to their liking, to suppress dissent, to
bail out the airlines by transferring $20 billion without safeguards
or benchmarks from public to private hands in a matter of days with a
single no-vote in the Senate, to scuttle aspects of the law that
checked their power, to deliver the country, in the words of Arthur
Miller, “into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free
floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle
of Missouri.” The ideologues filled up all the available space with
their fantastic interpretation of events, and they shouted down anyone
with the temerity to disagree, donning the mantle of patriotism to
defend their every move.

The “Boondocks” and Bill Maher came under steady attack, Susan
Sontag and Edward Said were told to shut up, give up their jobs, and
by implication to retreat to their caves with their terrorist
soul-mates. When mild-mannered, slightly right wing Stanley Fish
suggested that all the mantras of the day— we have seen the face of
evil, the clash of civilizations, we’re at war with international
terrorism— are inaccurate and unhelpful, failing for a lack of any
available mechanism for settling deep-seated disputes, he was targeted
as a destructive leech on the American way of life. Asked to apologize
for his post-modern devil work of forty years, he cracked wise,
telling me he could picture the headline: “Fish ironically announces
the death of post-modernism, millions cheer.”

The president said repeatedly that America was misunderstood in the
world, and that what we have here is mainly a failure to communicate.
He sounded like the sadistic warden of the prison plantation in “Cool
Hand Luke,” whose signature phrase is the focus of ridicule and
reversal. What’s clear in both cases is that a failure to communicate
is the very least of it.
The press rolled over, gave up any pretense of skepticism, and
became the idiot-chorus for the powerful. When the president looked
soulfully out from our TVs and implored every American child to send a
dollar for Afghan kids, no one asked how much money would be required
to feed those kids, or how the food was going to get there and by-pass
their parents. Starvation ahead. The so-called war on terror was
simply accepted on all sides, no one qualifying with the necessary,
“so-called.” No one asked whether a crime didn’t require a criminal
justice response and solution—perhaps a massive response, but within
the field of criminal justice nonetheless. No one in power asked what
the field of this war would be, or how we would know if we’d won. No
one demanded evidence or proof.

And here we are: international law shredded, torture defended,
citizens rounded up and held without honoring their Constitutional
rights, nationalism promoted relentlessly, disdain for human rights on
the rise, militarism ascendant in all aspects of the culture, the mass
media flat on its back, people nodding dully as we accede to an orange
alert and march in orderly lines through security checkpoints and
random searches, organized vote suppression and rampant fraud at the
polls, mass incarceration of Black men, war without end, and on and
on.

Five years after, we might stir ourselves to impeach the criminal
heading up this cabal, we might prepare for the criminal trials these
domestic hijackers deserve, and, at the very least, we might tell the
truth in the public square and thereby contribute to building a mass
movement for peace and justice.


Curiouser and Curiouser (this is the next go around to the immediately prior post)

September 7, 2006

CURIOUSER and CURIOUSER

Another go-round. The thinking gets twistier.
My son reminded me that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder of the
ACLU, was expelled from that organization because of her membership in
the CP. Others have sent me wonderful (and quite radical) statements
from John Dewey himself. A favorite anecdote: When Maxim Gorky was
in New York in 1905, he was refused lodging at several hotels because
he was traveling with a woman not his wife. The Deweys “invited the
couple to their home,” and hosted a reception for students “in honor
of the non-Mrs. Gorky.”

Dear Bill,

I take full responsibility for being the one who cannot invite you,
but you mistake me if you infer therefore that I think of education
ever as an apolitical endeavor. The politics of what we are doing
here is keenly felt. I embrace having our efforts identified with
radicalism, but I am opposed to the claim that violence should be part
of the solution. Civil disobedience means challenging and even
provoking authority, but it is conscientiously non violent. I am
sorry to be drawn into what seems like a very prissy judgment about
you and your past. It’s not about whether you have paid your debt to
society. My primary concern is that your celebrated recent book and
“I regret none of it stance” not become the banner for our School of
Education.
I’m sorry if our letter was either hurtful or annoying, since as you
say we had no need to inform you of our non-invitation. Perhaps it
will seem less self-important or weasely if you imagine [your friends]
holding my feet to the fire, making us explain our decision, and
certainly not taking the easier, silent course of action.

“Lauren”

Dear Lauren,

I admire your opposition “to the claim that violence should be part of
the solution”. I make no such claim myself, and believe, in fact, that
non-violent resistance is preferable whenever possible. Of course your
opposition puts you into direct conflict with your own government, the
greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as Martin Luther King, Jr.
noted more than once. We live in fact in a sewer of violence, often
exported, always rationalized and hidden through mystification and the
frenzied use of bread-and-circuses. If endorsing your opposition is
the oath that must be spoken in order to attend your conference or to
come to your School of Education—and I don’t think it should be—
consider the exclusions: both of your US Senators, the president and
his cabinet, the liberal head of the New School and the reactionary
front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination (both of whom
committed war crimes that they’ve refused to account for), military
recruiters, of course, and anyone not a pacifist, and, oh, don’t
forget Nelson Mandela— he wasn’t in prison all those years only for
civil disobedience.

I’ve never claimed that my actions were superior to yours, for
example— actually, I’m not sure what specifically you participated
in then or now, but I know folks who built counter-institutions,
organized in factories, emigrated to Africa or Europe to get away from
the madness for awhile, built communes and collectives, fought for a
peace-and-justice platform inside the Democratic Party, and a lot
else. I don’t think all of it was brilliant or perfect, of course, but
nor was it entirely stupid. I’ve said repeatedly that no one with eyes
even slightly open can reach the age of sixty and not have countless
regrets, and I have my share, but I can’t think of a single action I
took against the government and its murderous assault in Southeast
Asia that I regret. Perhaps you can point to something in particular
that you think I should regret, and then apologize for. I’d consider
it. But I certainly don’t denigrate non-violent resistance—I’ve
admired and participated in direct action for forty years, most
recently last week.

I’ve taught at UIC for twenty years, and I don’t think anyone here
considers either my presence or any of my writings emblematic. I’ve
given several commencement addresses— one at a school just down the
road from you— and countless lectures— two at your university—
and again, I doubt that anyone thought that I’d left a banner—
perhaps not even an impression. I can’t imagine what forces would have
to come together to make Fugitive Days “the banner” for your School of
Education. Is anyone proposing such a thing? It seems utterly
preposterous, but it raises a question: are all scholars and educators
who might attend your gathering being scrutinized by the same standard
to determine whether their writings might inadvertently become your
banner?

If I’m as radioactive as you seem to think— so contaminating that
simply being around me is a threat to the good people— maybe you
should spread the alarm to my dean, my university, my publishers, the
organizers of the dozens of events I’ve been asked to address in the
next several months. You won’t be the first, of course— you’ll be
joining a campaign already underway, fueled by David Horowitz, Sol
Stern, Chester Finn, and more.

Your choice to exclude me is neither here nor there, and I don’t take
it personally. Please don’t take my response personally either—I
really have no idea about your politics or your commitments or your
activities or your projects, and I’m willing to assume for now that in
your work and in your life you stand steadfastly for humanism,
progressivism, peace and justice.

Sincerely,
Bill


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