Bill Ayers interview
With the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements there seems to be a distinct parallel between what is happening now and what was happening in the 60’s: the summer of ’68, world uprisings, the Civil Rights movement, the general malaise with the establishment. What is your take on Occupy?
1). It’s tempting to make comparisons, but I resist. Humanity plunges forward, circumstances shift, unpredictable upheaval and fickle fate allow us to redraw the maps of the known world. What’s consistent is this: people find ways to resist what they find unjust and unacceptable—not everyone all the time, not neatly nor universally, certainly not predictably. And our responsibility—personally, collectively, generationally—also remains the same: to make a concrete analysis of real conditions, to open our eyes to the world around us, to act on whatever the known demands. We are fortunate to live at a moment when hope and history rhyme, and when a participatory, popular movement for justice and peace is in-the-making.
Occupy is an expression of hope and an invitation to pay attention at this unique and expectant moment. It’s an opening, not a destination. People naming the obstacles to their full humanity, people in motion, people growing and changing and teaching and learning are people who can storm the heavens and accomplish the previously unthinkable.
And Occupy has already won, that is, the movement has changed the frame, redefined the discussion, and introduced a range of new ideas into the public square, for example: We are the 99%! Like every other movement in history, it was “impossible” the day before it burst onto the scene, and yet it seemed suddenly “inevitable” the day after.
The response of the powerful follows an age-old, exhausted and predictable script: ignore them, ridicule them, try to co-opt them, and beat the shit out of them—and all four responses are still in-play. The wonder of the movement is its ability to see these moves for what they are, and to hold tight to their independent vision, unique approach, and this precious thing. 99%!
As American culture has evolved over the past 100 years it has gone through
some abrupt shifts in ideology. Perspectives changed dramatically through
the mid-20th century and yet we are now seeing a kind of cultural stagnation
in which there is a growing resistance to change. The concept of America as
the “melting pot” has been thrown out the window and now immigration, class warfare and economic inequality are political campaign points. Why do you think there is such a growing market for the “us vs. them” fear mongering we are seeing in today’s political theater?
2). I fear you’re looking at history through rose-colored glasses. There has always been resistance to change, class warfare, nativist and jingoistic attitudes, and hatred of immigrants. And at any given moment, things can indeed feel slow and stagnating in spite of the fact that chaos, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium, dynamism, zip and zing are churning just out of sight. Look again.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century there has been a constant
attack on the educational systems of the US, particularly from the far
Right. As states like Texas continue to rewrite the history books, attempt
to introduce fundamentalist ideologies into schools, and challenge
scientific research and facts with moral and ethical concepts based on
religious belief how do you see this affecting the future of America’s
3). It’s generous to call anything coming from the Right concerning the school battles “moral and ethical concepts.” These moves are ideology, unvarnished and unchained.
The noisy proponents of market competition in public education have managed to push their ideology onto the agenda by the force of their wealth, certainly not because of any moral persuasion, or even the results that their schemes have produced. But the project continues, because it is dogma: faith-based and fact-free. We need to challenge the freight train with evidence and argument, and most important, with a vision consistent with our deepest democratic dreams.
Education in a democracy must be distinct from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy, but how? Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matters, so those things don’t differentiate education in a democracy from any other. What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, a foundational belief in the infinite and incalculable value of every human being. The implication of this for education is enormous: the fullest development of all, I believe, is the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all. Education is where we decide whether we love the world enough to invite young people in as full participants and constructors and creators; and whether we love our children enough to give them the tools not only to participate but also to change all that they find before them. Democracy, after all, is geared toward participation and engagement, and it’s based on that common faith: every human being is a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force, and each one is also a piece of the many. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights, each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens and residents who can participate fully in public life. Democratic teaching encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy is characteristically eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world. Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making; much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run. Educators, students, and parents press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, qualified and generously compensated teachers.
It seems that as education plays less and less of a role in the life of
people in America, particularly in the south, people are turning toward the
media to inform themselves. With much of the current media controlled by
corporations whose bottom line is profit, disinformation has become a
selling point. How does this affect political change? What ways can people
educate themselves in order to be informed without falling victim to the
“filter bubble” of being told what you want to hear?
4). No whining, no nostalgia…when was the Golden Age in education? When 10% graduated high school, or when racial segregation was legal? When was the media free and smart?
The reality is that everyone at all times must search for the truth from multiple sources, including first-hand participation, in an environment of mystification and lies and stupidity. Every movement has had its underground press. We must open our eyes and reinvent a media for our own uses and for our own time. Today our access to the world is unprecedented, and the capacity to speak up and speak out exceptional. Look at your own efforts right here, right now, just this.
SDS was a movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with the state of
affairs on the mid 1960s, as it evolved it became focused on the Vietnam War
and the US’s continued presence there, as well as on the Civil Rights
movement. Do you see parallels between SDS and the Occupy movement? Do you see distinct differences?
5). SDS was part of the “New Left.” We were defining ourselves as participatory and peace and justice-oriented, as well as an opening of a public space for the expression of a million grievances and our wildest dreams. We were in opposition to capitalism and the political establishment, but also to the “Old Left” of Stalinism and centralized and organizational dogma. This was a great strength, but also a weakness: we were no longer shackled with the dead hand of the Communist Party, but we cut ourselves off from the best experiences of a generation of activists. Occupy is powered by an anarchist impulse—it rejects Stalinism, but also the idea of charismatic leaders defining the direction of the struggle. Again, this is a great strength with its own challenges.
In the way that youth culture got behind the Civil Rights movement in the
60’s the current Occupy movement is focused on Economic Rights. Do you think there is a valid comparison to be made between the US involvement in Vietnam and the way in which corporations are waging economic war on free speech and constitutional rights now? Are Economic Rights as pertinent as Civil Rights?
6). No. Yes.
Much of the current Occupy movement has been a passive protest movement that attempts to avoid violence, yet these protestors have been met with an
increasingly militarize police force that seems bent on violent
interactions. What do you think the role of authority is in shaping the
relationship between the protestor’s actions and the police actions?
7). I wouldn’t call the movement “passive.” Sitting in your chair, hip and cynical, sucking on a pipe and doing nothing is passive. Power is based on violence no matter how calm things appear; when effectively challenged it always bears its teeth.
Outside of the US there has been a wide ranging series of uprisings,
particularly the in Middle East. Governments like Tunisia and Egypt have
been fully overthrown/removed and the politicians/dictators are currently
being brought to justice. While this is happening at the same time as
Occupy, the approach and the scope of those involved in the Arab Spring
uprising are radically different and much more popular, with tens of
thousands of people taking over Tahir Square, as opposed to low thousands at
most in the US. Do you feel the situations outside the US are so different
that they provoke a larger response or is it that American’s themselves are
less likely to go to the streets in order to affect change?
8). The Arab Spring is still in play, and it has not fully accomplished anything. Stay posted. Occupy is also in-the-making, a work-in-progress, and surely an off-spring of the events abroad. Remember too that Tunisia was more than that famous self-immolation. Wikileaks released documents that enraged the Tunisians. The US continues to imprison and torture Bradley Manning who initially leaked the papers.
Before Tahrir Square, those kids were seen as crummy, passive, stupid, uninvolved, apolitical, and irrelevant. No more. They changed themselves/they began to change the world. It can happen anywhere, anytime, and it’s always thus: look at Mississippi in 1963, South Africa in 1985, Tianenman Square in 1989, and on and on.