Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think)
By now Peter McLaren must be taken as more than a mere run-of-the-academy professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s at the very least a phenomenon—a phenomenon whose meaning is wildly contested from every side. To some, he’s a singular intellectual, a quasi-heroic figure standing up for a radical vision of critical pedagogy against the forces of reaction (as well as the fakers on the Left), while to others he’s an over-wrought blow-hard spouting slogans without much substance. To the Mexican educators who created La Fundación Peter McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica he’s something of a divine inspiration, while to the right-wing UCLA alumni who organized a campaign to drive him from the campus he’s more than a communist threat—he’s Satan himself, and they are determined to eliminate his devilish presence and the sulfur that surrounds him. He’s the philosopher prince of a political movement to some—the McLarenites?—and to others, the CEO of “Peter McLaren, Inc.,” protecting his patents through a steady stream of books that seem to appear from the sky, as regular as rain. Even his book jacket photo polarizes: is that the Dark Prince leering mischievously into the camera, Andy Warhol on drugs, or a dashing rebel smiling beneficently as he prepares to smash the state? It depends, I suppose, on your angle of regard.
I’ve known Peter casually for years, and have always thought of him as working for the good of all—socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and all the rest. I remember his early book, Life in Schools, as a wonderfully engaging work connecting the everyday experiences of students and teachers with larger political and social contexts. But I began to consider the McLaren phenomenon only recently, when I was invited by the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Marxist-oriented think-tank in Venezuela, to give a series of talks in October 2006 on critical pedagogy for the 21st Century, where one of my stops was the Universidad Bolivariano de Venezuela (UBV) where I was to deliver a named lecture. To my surprise, my talk was the Peter McLaren Lecture. With my curiosity piqued, I picked up one of his 2005 books, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, for the airplane ride home. It was quite a ride.
Peter McLaren is surely one of the good guys—he despises the Bush regime, for example, asserts his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiments repeatedly in his writings, and envisions a future society built on the principle of justice and the practice of human development. He’s right, of course, that capitalism is a vicious and destructive world system, and that a major obstacle to fundamental change is a wide-spread belief in the “inevitability of capital.” He counters that fatalism with a hopeful slogan borrowed from the activist World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.” Slogans are, of course, an anemic alternative to concrete analysis and action—more on this later—but the sentiment is certainly a right one. I still think McLaren is on the right side of both history and humanity.
But we owe it to ourselves—no less than to McLaren—to judge his work by the standards he himself sets and the aims he establishes. Even hedged, McLaren sets lofty and ambitious goals: “Given the urgent times we live in,” he writes, “we need to ratchet up the struggle ahead” (p. 10). This is the “singular challenge” of his book, he claims—to intensify and focus—and here are the questions he will take up:
How can we liberate the use value of human beings from their subordination to exchange value? How can we convert what is least functional about ourselves as far as the abstract utilitarian logic of capitalist society is concerned—our self-realizing, sensuous, species-being—into our major instrument of self-definition? How can we make what we represent to capital—replaceable commodities—subordinate to who we have also become as critical social agents of history? How can we make critical self-reflexivity a demarcating principle of who we are and critical global citizenship the substance of what we want to become? How can we make the cultivation of a politics of hope and possibility a radical end in itself? How can we de-commodify our subjectivities? How can we materialize our self-activity as a revolutionary force and struggle for the self-determination of free and equal citizens in a just system of appropriation and distribution of social wealth? How can we make and remake our own nature within historically specific conventions of capitalist society such that we can make this self-activity a revolutionary force to dismantle capitalism itself and create the conditions for the development of our full human potential? How can we confront our “producers” (i.e., social relations of production, the corporate media, cultural formations and institutional structures) as an independent power? Capitalists and Conquerors has been written both to provide at least partial answers to these questions and to formulate new ones. (p. 10)
And that’s not all:
Capitalists and Conquerors is one particular foray into the politics of critical pedagogy…I have tried to make a case for including Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism—in critical educational studies…(p.11)
OK, McLaren announces his intention to “ratchet up the struggle ahead,”—I’m all for that—“provide at least partial answers” to a daunting list of questions, and add “Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism” to the politics of critical pedagogy. Onward! Let’s do it!
But that’s pretty much as far as it goes, opening shot and endpoint rolled into one. The rhetoric is intermittently at a fever pitch or impenetrable, but the path to ratcheting things up turns out to be overgrown and still tangled; none of the questions raised is illuminated (I still want to know how to de-commodify my subjectivity, how to materialize my self-activity), and the rare attempts to actually undertake a Marxist analysis of U.S. or global society are disturbingly off.
This last failure seems particularly egregious, for McLaren announces from every angle that he is a revolutionary Marxist, and that he has, or that he will, or that we must develop a Marxist analysis in order to move forward:
My concern over the last decade has been to introduce Marxist scholarship into the field of critical pedagogy, since it (sic) has been taken over by postmodernists who have been attempting to suture together in recent decades the ontological tear in the universe of ideas that was first created when history was split in two by the dialectical wave of Marx’s pen in the Communist Manifesto and the subsequent development of the communist movement in the mid-1800s…(p. 35)
My work in critical pedagogy… constitutes in one sense the performative register for class struggle. While it sets as its goal the decolonization of subjectivity, it also targets the material basis of capitalist social relations…(p. 57)
I’m persuaded that his intention is to persistently push a humanistic Marxism and the need for class analysis into the conversation, and I think that that could be a most welcome and beneficial thing. For all I know he’s made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire oeuvre—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis. Exhortation is not argument, performance is not enlightenment, and hectoring is a far cry from a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If proclamation itself is action—Peter’s self-definition as a Marxist with every breath, his assertion that changes in the relations of production are central to a humane future, and the naming of socialism as a long-term goal—and if urging others to pledge their allegiance to the cause is all there is to organizing and mobilizing, well, this book does the job. But for political analysis and political theory—or for serious consideration of the demands of political work on the ground—the book falls short and the shortfall is fatal. There quite simply is no there there.
One of the few attempts in this book to contribute to a concrete analysis gets it terribly wrong:
In stating this we need to include an important caveat that differentiates revolutionary critical pedagogy from those who invoke the well-worn race/class/gender triplet which can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. It is not. Race, class, and gender, while they invariably intersect and interact, are not co-primary. This “triplet” approximates what the “philosophers might call a category mistake.” On the surface the triplet may be convincing—some people are oppressed because of their race, some as a result of their gender, others because of their class—but this “is grossly misleading” for it is not that “some individuals manifest certain characteristics known as ‘class’ which then results in their oppression; on the contrary, to be a member of a social class just is to be oppressed” and in this regard class is “a wholly social category”… Furthermore, even though “class” is usually invoked as part of the aforementioned and much vaunted triptych, it is usually gutted of its practical, social dimension or treated solely as a cultural phenomenon—as just another form of “difference.” In these instances, class is transformed from an economic and indeed, social category to an exclusively cultural or discursive one or one in which class merely signifies a “subject position.” (p. 100)
This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction. Again, there’s nothing easy about contributing to a further understanding of the peculiar intersection of race and class, of hierarchies of color mapped onto relations to production—particularly the murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change—but there is an important and relevant conversation underway from W.E.B. DuBois to James and Grace Lee Boggs, from Audre Lorde to Robin D.G. Kelley, Angela Davis, and bell hooks that could be acknowledged and engaged. Race and gender, gender and class, class and race—a lot has been done and there’s a lot left to do, but smart white male lefties like Peter naming and then dismissing the “triplet” seems more than a little glib. It seems to point toward a limiting white blind-spot and a severely pinched vision of social justice.
In an aside, McLaren manages to both accept and deflect two weaknesses often associated with his work: “While some criticism is substantive—including a welcomed critique of the enciphered language of some academics and a challenge to radical educators to come up with concrete possibilities—much of it is small-minded and petty…” (p. 30). Note the “some academics”—Not me! Not me!—and the active “enciphering” to boot. There is, in fact, a self-conscious performativeness on almost every page:
Through policies of increasing its military-industrial-financial interest, it continues to purse its quivering bourgeois lips, bare its imperialist fangs, and suck the lifeblood from the open veins of South America and other regions of the globe. (p. 23)
Watered by the tears of the poor and cultivated by working-class labor, the dreams that sprout from the unmolested soil of capital are those engineered by the ruling class. (p. 20)
One thing seems certain: this is not language that invites dialogue. It lacks nuance, complexity, and what Toni Morrison calls the propulsive “midwifery properties” of language. It descends instead into the “looted language” of “the bottomed-out mind,” which Morrison nails as the “proud but calcified language of the academy.” It’s all a bit reminiscent of a piece of satire circulated years ago aimed at the pretentious writings of critical educationists—the satire provides a connect-the-dots formula for sounding like (insert your favorite theorist here) by simply combining three words in sequence: Column A plus Column B plus Column C. Column A is a long list of favored qualifiers (critically, ethically, culturally, politically, historically and so on); Column B includes transformative, emancipatory, informed, grounded, empowering and more; Column C is the subject (discourse, pedagogy, language, ideology). Add A and B and C randomly and you’ll get the idea: critically grounded theory; culturally emancipatory pedagogy. It works! But as others have noted, if this is liberatory education, why, after reading this, do I not feel free?
Because Peter McLaren fails here to claim authority on the page based on argument or example (and note that authority on the page must be earned in the writing, while authoritarianism on the page is always simply asserted) there’s way too much “I maintain,” “I contend,” and “I agree with,” followed by extensive quotes from favorite authors. One could argue that McLaren is a “popularizer” except that this goes in the opposite direction: accessible writers like Gore Vidal or Arundati Roy are rendered more obscure.
There’s too much repetition ( “The construction of a new vision of human sociality has never been more urgent”…again and again; and “but a new vision of human sociality is precisely what is not on offer by progressive educators…” followed by “What is not on offer is an alternative social vision…” seventy pages later); too much self referencing (“The recent advance of contemporary Marxist educational scholarship… critical theory…and a re-materialized critical pedagogy…”—each citing mostly himself); and metaphors that cry out to be blocked (“Skimming the surface of critical pedagogy like a hovercraft navigating a swamp”—Wait! That’s our pool you’re calling a swamp!). There’s no utterance here that requires a response—all we hear is the Thud! Thud! Thud! of domineering language.
The Schoolboys of Barbiana, a classic text from decades ago that is being re-released now along with a contemporary essay by Marvin Hoffman, was initially a writing project organized by an Italian priest who practiced an authentic critical pedagogy without the vaunted title. In the book, a group of poor youth provides a devastating critique of capitalist schooling in the form of letters to the teachers who’d failed them and pushed them out of school. One boy said: “Have something important to say, something useful…Know for whom you are writing…Eliminate every useless word.” Content; audience; style: that’s excellent advice for anyone aspiring to contribute in a genuine way to the struggle for a decent future for all.
And on to the “concrete possibilities” critical educators might offer:
Enter critical pedagogy.
Critical pedagogy is secured by the most fecund of revolutionary talismans: critique… Critical revolutionary pedagogy begins with the following questions: Do we know whose hands ground the capitalist lenses through which we comprehend the world and do we know from whence (sic) came the bloodstains on the lens grinder’s workbench? Whether we know the answers to such questions, they must be followed by a further question: How and why is this so? If we know the answers, what are they? If we don’t know, why is this so? If there are better questions to be asked, what are they? (p. 9)
Capitalist schools, authoritarian schools of every stripe, are, it’s true, in the business of obedience and conformity. They sort and judge, create hierarchies of winners and losers, train people for predetermined slots in a competitive society. They are not the least bit interested in human development, self-actualization, or self-realization, and they rely on that disturbing but common half-language of labels—behavior disordered, attention deficit disorder, learning disabled, problems with impulse control—to justify the cruelest treatment of the rebels and the delinquents, and ultimately of all the students. Capitalist schooling submerges human development in its single-minded drive for profit, while in democratic schools the ultimate aim of production is not the production of things but the production of free human beings associated in terms of equality, folks capable of changing their lives as well as changing the world. A contradiction at the heart of teaching here and now is that while the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power—every human being is of infinite and incalculable value—the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social life and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy nourishes and challenges free people to act freely in a free society—in history—to right wrongs, repair damage, correct errors, and oppose all unnecessary suffering, and therefore fails as an adjunct to capitalism, just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—ultimately the schools or the system must die.
Classrooms and schools for democracy and freedom recognize each student as an entire universe, each capable of becoming an author, artist, and activist in his or her own life—teachers in these classrooms assume that every student is an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery and surprise. And the best teachers are themselves unruly sparks, also on a voyage, also awakening to the new and moving and in solidarity with, not in service to their students.
The most important lesson I learned in the earliest days of my teaching came from the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in the early 1960s. These schools were premised on the idea that while the black people of Mississippi had been denied many things—decent facilities, forward-looking curriculum, fully trained teachers—the fundamental injury was the denial of the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives, how they got to where they were, and how things might be changed. The curriculum for these schools was a curriculum of questions, of inquiry and dialogue, a curriculum of posing problems: why are we, students and teachers, in the Freedom Movement? What do we want to change? This is an example of critical pedagogy at its best. It invites people to engage, to participate, to transform their lives, and to change their world.
At its core, an education for freedom demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges; remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance; refuse to be an acolyte to power or to anyone. You must change. All of this, then, demands a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, school and society, education and justice.
Just as every practice embodies a theory, every lofty pronouncement or controlling principle must be able to be brought to life on the ground, but there’s no evidence of it at all in Capitalists and Conquerors. Theory is not grounded; the ground is not theorized.
An additional note: the failure to do the work—theoretical or practical—leads to a deeper pessimism embedded in a proclaimed optimism. There’s a long whine echoing throughout, and to claim, as Peter does, that his work is “silenced” in the U.S. stretches credulity:
These days it is far from fashionable to be a radical educator…To identify your politics as Marxist…is to invite derision and ridicule from many quarters, including many on the Left. It is to open one’s work to all species of dyspeptic criticism, from crude hectoring to sophisticated Philippics. Charges range from being a naïve leftist to being stuck in a time warp, to being hooked on an antediluvian patriarch, to giving in to cheap sentimentality or romantic utopianism. Marxists are accused with (sic) assuming an untenable political position that enables them to wear the mantle of the revolutionary without having to get their hands dirty in the day-to-day struggles of rank-and-file teachers who occupy the front lines in the schools of our major urban centers… Critics often make assumptions that you are guilty of being terminally removed from the lives of teachers and students until proven otherwise…(p.30)
What else can I say?
I met Peter and one of his talented students and current co-authors, one of the “traveling critics,” on my most recent trip to Venezuela. We spent some time together, and he’s not the stereotype that either his friends or his enemies make him out to be; he’s a regular person, of course, after a couple of minutes. When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors, he directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics, and books. While I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it, nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I’ve said here.
I return to Life in Schools, a participatory and communal exercise in critical pedagogy in which he listened attentively, inquired actively, engaged an audience in big ideas grounded in the mud and muck of the world as he’d found it. I wish he’d take a deep cleansing breath now, clear his head of all that clutter, consider an audience and a community to engage that’s both larger and more eager to participate than he’d ever imagined. Now, get in dialogue with that community, start to think and write more clearly and with much more urgency. You know: from the people, to the people.
A Response by Peter McLaren: Performing Bill Ayers: Criticism as a Disappearing Act or Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Me a Book Review?
Posted By: Peter McLaren on February 8, 2007
Bill Ayers begins his caustic defense of his critique of Capitalists and Conquerors with a compliment that my response was “clever and entertaining and erudite” in the vain hope that it will make his charge—that I fail “utterly to engage the substantive issues” he raised—stick. But all it does is make his rebuttal stick in one’s craw like a lump of stale lard that accidentally fell into the soup. Here I am tempted to ask: What substantive issues does Ayers think he raised?
Bill Ayers calls his response to my rebuttal of his non-critique, “Continuing the Conversation”, which really is just a disingenuous cover intended to give Ayers unbridled license to repeat his original accusations. If you hear them enough times, you might just believe them (isn’t this the same strategy employed by a certain government administration of which we’re all too familiar?). In reality, Bill Ayers does not seem interested in conversation at all, unless it’s a one-sided conversation with himself. Even though he cut his bloviations mercifully short this time around, he still managed to outdo himself. I guess he still is the baddest dude in the neighborhood. And since he’s only given me until sunset to get out of town, forgive me if my response is a bit hurried (Hey, Slim, where can I find a good blacksmith to get my horse shoed in a hurry?).
Ayers claims that he teaches “good theory” and proudly lists his sacred pantheon of good theorists—“Freire and DuBois and Marx and Lebowitz and Luxemberg [sic] and Dewey and Boggs”. For all I know Ayers has relief sculptures of their likenesses in alto-rilievo style over the portal of his seminar room, and I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s a terrific classroom teacher). Yet when I happen to recall a personal conversation with Paulo Freire (the most precious gem in Ayers’ theoretical diadem?) in relation to a topic absolutely relevant to Ayers’s critique of Capitalists and Conquerors as employing the barren language of the academy (how Ayers could miss this obvious connection does little to give me confidence in his ability to critique the not-so-obvious) I am chided for evoking Freire’s name as a litmus test for the legitimacy of my work. Following Ayer’s logic, I guess it’s okay to teach Freire as an example of a good theorist, but only on the condition that you haven’t had the opportunity to dialogue with him in person, or if you have, that you don’t dare employ any “remembered conversation” with him in your work, even if it is completely relevant to the issue at hand (again, in this case, the “thud” of what Ayers calls my “domineering language”). After all, nobody wants to be tempted to touch Freire’s “sacred garment” (unless, perhaps, it has the magical ability to teleport Bill Ayers to a distant planet where he’s forced to read at least one book each by Northrop Frye and Hugh Kenner).
In his non-review of my book, Ayers approvingly recalled a satire of the language of “critical educationalists” circulated decades ago, a satire in which he obviously still takes gleeful comfort. In my response to his review, I mentioned that I, too, had seen the same satire. Similar questions to those raised by that satire so dear to Ayers were also raised at a four day event held in 1991 at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which I had the opportunity to pose my questions about academic language directly to Freire. In fact, all participants at this conference had the opportunity to speak with Freire and to listen to each other. The outcome of this conference and several other related conferences led to the publication of the book, Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, edited by Paulo Freire, with the assistance of James W. Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon and William T. Stokes. But then again, by following Ayers’ logic, I guess all those participants who attended this conference should do their best not to recall their conversations with Freire to help them clarify a point that might come up in discussions of their work. Because as helpful and relevant as these dialogues with Freire might be, you share them at the risk of being accused by Bill Ayers of inflating your academic credentials by associating yourself with the man whom Ayers regards as God’s chosen pedagogue. Note to Bill: Sorry, compañero, but if any of Freire’s conversations with me over the years continue to prove useful to expand upon a point, I’ll continue to share them. Let me put myself at risk of incurring your wrath again by reminding you of something Freire wrote that I think would be worth considering before embarking on your next “comradely” book review:
Unfortunately, as a group, we academics and politicians alike expend much of our energy on unjustifiable “fights” among ourselves, provoked by adjectival or, even worse, by purely adverbial differences. While we wear ourselves thin in petty “harangues,” in which personal vanities are displayed and egos are scratched and bruised, we weaken ourselves for the real battle: the struggle against our antagonists. (1995, p. x)
In his original review, Ayers writes: “When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors he [McLaren] directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics and books…[but]…nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I have said here.” However, in his recent response to my rebuttal, he writes: “McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors …” Note to Bill: While this acknowledgement might ruffle your feathers a bit, I have to confess that I didn’t summarize my theoretical position just to suit you. There is nothing in my rebuttal that wasn’t right there in Capitalists and Conquerors and in the additional material that I sent you.
Of course an author can always work harder at giving her arguments a crispness and clarity. But readers also have a responsibility. And while Ayers makes no sense at all in claiming that my discussion of race and class is “one of my few attempts…to contribute to a concrete analysis” in Capitalists and Conquerors, I would be remiss if I failed to thank him for appreciating the summary I provided of my position. Note to Bill: But Bill, if you want to know what led to the summary, then please take my advice and read the book.
This, of course, leads me to question the integrity of Ayers’ criticism of my theory. My sending through the mail more of my work to help him better contextualize and situate Capitalists and Conquerors within the tradition of Marxist educational theory is interpreted by Ayers as a concession I am making to his critique of my book. In point of fact, what I am conceding is my disappointment in discovering that Ayers does not appear to be familiar with even the most rudimentary theoretical perspectives found throughout Capitalists and Conquerors. Despite his claim to being the serious teacher of theory, Ayers offers no substantive critique of the theoretical arguments advanced in the book. Ayers criticizes the tone of my work and what he abhors as the rhetorical embellishments of my writing, and he criticizes my work for not delivering any solid application on the ground. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But how much can Ayers exploit his critique of my language as a basis for his critique of the theoretical arguments in the book? He offers no solid foundation from which to mount his critique. He thinks he can provide an abyss and somehow convince us that it’s a mountain.
According to Ayers, my work “does not advance good theory.” But Ayers does not reference any of the theoretical arguments or identify any of the problematics dealt with in the book. Note to Bill: Okay, Bill, let’s start with some basic questions. Share with me, if you will, the limitations of my theory of capitalist globalization? Where have Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale and I gone wrong in our evaluation of Paul Willis’s work on class consciousness? What are the shortcomings of the theory that Glenn Rikowski, Paula Allman (arguably two of the most accomplished Marxist educational theorists writing today) and I have advanced on Marx’s labor-capital relation and its consequences for Marxist educational theory? Was there something wrong in our extended discussion of internal relations in Marxist dialectics? What are the problems with the theoretical advances Donna Houston and I put forward about ecosocialism and critical pedagogy? How can my essay with Gregory Martin on imperialism and war be improved? How effective were the arguments made in my essay with Nathalia Jaramillo on the topic of Christian fundamentalism, imperialism, fascism, and globalization? These are the topics of my book. Note to Bill: Read the titles. Better still, read the chapters. If you had answered these questions, even some of them, then your review would have repaid readers with some substantive contribution to the discussion of critical pedagogy.
I enjoy learning from my critics. That’s how we all grow, from a good, solid (and honest) critique of our work. But Ayers keeps his theoretical tools in his toolkit and pretends to be performing micro-surgery with them. While I am sure he does a good job of teaching his assortment of theorists to his students, he exhibits no theoretical grasp whatsoever of the debates taken up in Capitalists and Conquerors. If Ayers had provided any substantive theoretical discussion pertinent to the themes of my book or to the problematics that my co-authors and I were addressing I might take him seriously. His defense of his original critique does little more than hoist him by his own petard.
Ayers criticizes the performativity of my prose, and the rhetorical embellishments of my writing. And while I found nothing remotely illuminating in his critique of my language, at least it was a fair criticism. But if Ayers wants to criticize the arguments advanced in the book, then he needs to exhibit at least some familiarity with the theory that informs them. At the very least he needs to know what the arguments are about. For all I know, Ayers might have an impressive grasp of ecosocialism, neoliberal globalization, and Marx’s labor theory of value but his critique not only fails to engage these theories, it makes no mention of them. Note to Bill: I’ll defend my theory as soon as you are able to provide a credible critique of it. This is not to say you are not a consummate theorist. I have no idea. But how is anybody to judge what to make of your claims about my book when you don’t even address its basic theoretical/political premises and tensions? Or even the basic themes? That’s not to say watching you perform Bill Ayers isn’t entertaining. It certainly is. But it does get tiresome. Reading the same belabored points the second time around, no matter how self righteously you flog them, is a bit like getting whacked in the head with an iron frying pan. It wakes you up for a split second before your lights go out. And I prefer to stay alert. There’s too much work to be done (as I’m sure you know).
What was most pathetic about Ayers’ recent commentary was his gesture of admitting to a mistake about ignoring my co-authors then yanking his admission away in the same breath. Here Ayers admits he made a mistake, but no, not really. He suggests that if you want to fault somebody, fault the publishers who didn’t list the co-authors on the cover, and you can blame the library, too, who didn’t list the co-authors either. Note to Bill: I happen to have Capitalists and Conquerors right here beside me on my cluttered and coffee-stained desk. Get your copy (even if you have to hold your nose as you retrieve it from the trash can) and read the table of contents. All six of the co-authors are listed under their respective chapters. Now, Bill, turn to the first page of each chapter. The co-authors are all listed there. Not, mind you, by being identified by a tiny asterisk with names spelled in a tiny font and placed at the bottom of the title page or hidden away in the notes section. In the case of Capitalists and Conquerors, the co-authors’ names are right there at the beginning of each chapter, and in relatively large typeface. True, you quote my single-authored chapters, but the point is that you are reviewing an entire text. Bill, I would have had more respect for your gesture if you didn’t try to pass the blame along to the publisher and the library but swallowed your mistake whole, even if the effort temporarily affected your vocal chords. Speaking of vocal chords, here you sound more like the whiny, high-pitched Mr. Bill character of Saturday Night Live fame than Bill Ayers the famed radical educator.
Critics very often are able to make a stronger case for their assessment of a work on the second try (by qualifying their initial analysis and providing a more nuanced reading) but in this case Ayers’ attempt at defending his critique devolves from the ridiculous to the pitiful. The hole that Ayers initially dug for himself only gets deeper in his alleged attempt at “continuing the conversation”. And he wants me to revel with him in the muck. Note to Bill: Forgive me if I take a pass.
I am not interested in “continuing the conversation” with Bill Ayers if that means interviewing yourself, knee-deep in disingenuousness, with a coxcomb pulled down over your ears. I am much more interested in dialogue than conversation (and you’d think Ayers would know the difference). And for that, I’m afraid, I will have to go elsewhere. And yes, onwards.
I don’t know what plans Bill has made for the week, but I’m off to The Factory to crank out some prints of Campbell Soup cans. Just promise me, Bill, you won’t become an art critic.
Continuing the Conversation: Ayers Replies
Posted By: Bill Ayers on February 6, 2007
Peter McLaren’s response to my review of Capitalists and Conquerors—alternately clever and entertaining and erudite, always interesting—fails utterly to engage the substantive issues I raised. For example, he launches a spirited defense of theory and philosophy as “important tools to help us understand the world and sharpen our praxis,” because, he speculates, I’m “apparently disturbed” by a book of theory. But I’m not disturbed by a book of theory, I’m in favor of theoretical discussion and debate, and I never criticized theorizing or the importance of philosophy. I did criticize Capitalists and Conquerors for failing to deliver on its promise to develop concrete strategies toward a socialist alternative, or to go beyond exhortation and proclamation, or to engage any of the lengthy list of questions it posits at the start, and that criticism remains unanswered. Good theory is essential—every year I teach Freire and DuBois and Marx and Gramsci and Lebowitz and Luxemberg and Dewey and Boggs, as well as their critics—but Capitalists and Conquerors does not advance good theory.
Again, McLaren defends the language of dialectics, and a dialectical approach to writing and teaching. But I never attacked dialectical thinking or writing, nor did I say that Capitalists and Conquerors was “too academic” or “too theoretical.” I said Capitalists and Conquerors was infused with a showy language of posing and performance, that it was a lot of glitter without the gold. I offered a couple of examples—out of hundreds I might have chosen—of sentences and paragraphs that huffed and puffed and went exactly nowhere. And I concluded that it was not a language that invited dialogue or development.
McLaren defends his self-described “engaging, somewhat experimental style” by citing a conversation with Paulo Freire, whom he describes as “my mentor.” In a remembered conversation McLaren cites Freire’s defense, in general, of McLaren’s work. The relevance to my critique of Capitalists and Conquerors eludes me, except to say, in effect, “I touched the sacred garment, believe me.”
McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors, where he brushes aside any serious engagement, referring to “the well-worn race/class/gender triplet,” and “the much vaunted triptych.” He notes that if I’d read more of his work I would “know better than to make such a glib and opportunistic claim.” Perhaps. But my criticism was not about McLaren’s work in general; it was, rather, about Capitalists and Conquerors specifically. Again, he appears to concede the point.
Finally, the pop-psychologizing and silly attribution of motives aside, I did indeed fail to mention the co-authors who worked on various chapters with McLaren. My mistake. On the other hand, the cover of the book, the title page, the listing in the library make the same omission, so perhaps that criticism should more productively be taken up with the publisher. The text that I quote is similarly first-person singular—”my concern”, “my work”, “I have tried”, and so on.
So, yes, onward.