Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 26 Jun 03 16:44
Joining us in Inkwell today is former Weatherman Bill Ayers, who'll be spending the next couple weeks here talking about his book, "Fugitive Days." These days, Bill is the father of three grown children and lives in Chicago with his partner, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bernardine's 91-year-old mother, Dorothy. He has written several books about the intellectual and moral demands of teaching, and the challenges facing families, children and youth, including "To Teach" (Teachers College Press) and "A Kind and Just Parent" (Beacon Press). He teaches in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is Distinguished Professor and Senior University Scholar. Leading the conversation with Ayers is Andy Klein, an LA-based film critic, currently writing for the new CityBeat and ValleyBeat weeklies. He is, not coincidentally, the cohost of The WELL's <movies.> conference and its two spawn, <video.> and <videovault.>. Who would ever guess that, long before he focused his energy on the likes of "Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle" and "Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakno," he got his journalistic start in 1969, working for Liberation News Service, which at the time was sort of the AP of the underground press? Mostly he collated and stapled but occasionally was let loose on the typewriters. (For those who follow such things and have long memories, this was during what might be called the "hard politics" phase of LNS, about a year after the politics/drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll split colorfully, if not altogether accurately, chronicled in Ray Mungo's "Famous Long Ago.") He did a bunch of other stuff identified with the late sixties (which actually, in this context, means 1967-1975) and wishes there were still a coherent left in the U.S. nowadays, when the situation is arguably more dire. Welcome, Bill and Andy.
Andy Klein (saiyuk) Thu 26 Jun 03 22:01
<scribbled by saiyuk Fri 27 Jun 03 10:20>
excessively heterosexual (saiyuk) Fri 27 Jun 03 02:12
Hi, Bill. I'm a little embarrassed that I gave Cynthia so much biographical data that my paragraph ended up as lengthy as it did, since -- of course -- we're here to talk about you and your book and its subject: the direction that your life took over the course of several decades, but particularly during the sixties and early seventies. I'll leave it to you to describe things in more detail, but your story strikes me as one of the extremer versions of a fairly common (though by no means universal) "sixties" experience. That is, starting from a privileged background, always feeling restless and out-of-place with the expected educational/career trajectory, and becoming engaged in politics because of the Vietnam War. But your new trajectory led to an escalation in your sense of what constituted social struggle -- in a direction and to a degree that not many of us experienced. Which is to say: A lot of us were heading in that direction, but not many of us ended up in Weatherman. Do you want to talk about that transformation? And how your view of it has changed over the last thirty-odd years?
Bill Ayers (billayers) Fri 27 Jun 03 14:26
Hello---The thing that's easy to forget and yet somehow today utterly urgent to remember is that our government was engaged in a brutal war against a small Asian nation 10,000 miles away,and with all the familiar Orwellian rhetoric of democracy and freedom and progress in place, it was slaughtering 2000 people a day in our names.How to stop it?By 1968 we had moved from a tiny opposition---I was arrested in a draft board in 1965 with 38 others while several hundred fellow citizens called for our heads---to a majority of the American people asking their government to stop the war.What to do?Each day,in spite of the popular will here and there,2000 would be thrown into the furnace of death.And for how long?Now we know that 3,000,000 would die needlessly--an absolute horror but nonetheless finite--not,say 300,000,000,but that's hindsight.So we had to choose in the dark.Some of my friends chose to organize within the Democratic Party,others to work in factories and build a left opposition there,still others to leave the country.I chose to build a capacity to survive what I thougt was an impending American facism---the imperial project was already visiting a facist-like state of affairs in Indochina,Africa,parts of Latin America as well as the ghettos of our cites---to resist,make the cost of empire higher,fight back,and,yes,a bit immodestly,make a reolution that could prevent future wars,bring about racial and economic justice,restore some balance to the world.I was determined,despairing sometimes,hopeful other times,and a bit over the top....But then,who had it figured out right?And have that person write and tell us what to do now in this gathering darkness...
excessively heterosexual (saiyuk) Fri 27 Jun 03 15:20
I guess what I'm getting at is the different varieties of regret or even just of reevaluation: that is, I think there are things you wish you had done differently. When you look back, do you feel regret that you may have exercised bad decision-making? Or feel that, given the information you had, the decision was right, but the information was incomplete or false? Or regrets over things that might have been the best decisions at the time, in terms of the percentages, but didn't work out anyway? Okay, an analogy: a mountain village is going to be wiped out by the plague; you have the vaccine, and there are two ways to get to the village. You can take the long path around the base of the mountain, but by the time you arrive, many people will have died...even a small chance that everyone will have. There is a dangerous rocky ledge around the upper part of the mountain that will take far less time to traverse: if you can make it around the ledge, very few people, maybe noone, will die. But the best mountain guide tells you that there is a 20% chance the ledge will give out. Given the odds and the possible benefits, you decide to risk the ledge. But the 20% chance defeats you. This is that 1 out of 5 times where you lose. (Or maybe the mountain guide wasn't right about those odds.) You wish you had made the other choice; but you don't necessarily think it was the illogical choice, given what you had to work with. What I'm dancing around here is: The book is haunted by one central event -- which I will leave it to you to explain. I have no doubt that you wish you had a time machine to go back and prevent it. But do you now think the logic that led up to the tragedy was a wrong path? Or a reasonable path that turned out badly?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 27 Jun 03 16:56
(sorry for the interruption, but I wanted to note that people who aren't WELL members can join the conversation by sending their questions or comments to <email@example.com> )
Harry Henderson (hrh) Fri 27 Jun 03 23:24
Just checking in. Bill, yours is a very evocative book that brought back a lot of memories of the times -- although I'm about 6 years younger than you and was just on the fringe of things. I was the only student in my Catholic High School to be a member of SDS, and I helped start a small underground paper. I was asked here by Cynthia because I've written a reference book on terrorism (for Facts on File). I certainly don't claim to be an expert on Weather-things though. One question to throw in the pot is this: from your experience and that of your friends and colleagues, what would you tell people today who (from various ideological angles) are in the process of deciding that drastic actions are necessary against perceived oppressors? Or to be a bit more provocative: what are the ethics of radical action? You make a distinction between what you participated in and terrorism, but most mainstream experts in the field would classify it as terrorism -- the use of violence by a non-govermental group to achieve a political or social end. (The same action by a government is classified as "state terrorism" by the way -- and Noam Chomsky in particular has quite a critique of conventional thinking about terrorism.)
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 28 Jun 03 06:30
Good question, Harry. I'm looking forward to following along here. I was but a lad in the era in question, but it's clear to me that it had profound effects on my outlook. The numbers of Vietnamese dead were really brought home to me by a piece at MOMA a bit over ten years ago. It was called "The Other VietNam Memorial," at a time when Maya Lin's memorial was still pretty new. It was metal, and very tall -- at least twenty feet, I think. It had lots of metal blades, each also very tall, sticking out of it. As I entered the room, trying to "get" it, I thought that it looked like a machine part, maybe part of a turbine or something. So, I'm thinking, maybe it's some war machinery? The comment is on all the unexploded ordinance left behind? And I get closer and closer and can see something's inscribed on the blades. That they're panels with writing on them, and there are like a couple levels of them high and a goodly number, at least fifteen and maybe thirty, around the thing. When I get close, I see they move, so you can survey them. And I see what they say. Le Duc Tho. Nguyen Phong. And so on and so on and so on and so on. Name after name after name. Unfthomably many. My mind still draws up short reflecting on it.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 28 Jun 03 10:01
Bill Ayers (billayers) Sun 29 Jun 03 17:19
Your image from MOMA is haunting and exactly the point---a radical lesson:every human life is of value,each an entire universe to be treated with a measure of reverance and awe...I was taken with the profiles of grief in the NY Times after the catastrophe of Sept.11,and I read them religiously every morning as a kind of ritual.And then our government,inevitably it seems,lashed out and started killing nameless,numberless others.They each had a mother and a father also,they had likes and dislikes,friends and their own little quirky ways of living and being,but of course they won't show up in the Times.So then I stopped reading the profiles---they had become a segregated and exclusive space....On radical action:I guess I think that in a world so violent and oppressive to so many,a world so dramatically out of balance and in desperate need of repair,there must be a lot that each of us can find to do.History is not something that happened and now sits on a shelf somewhere....It's happening now and no one knows the future.But for sure tomorrow depends on what we do or don't do today,so we ought to all get busy.The problems,the horrors,the challenges are deep.We live in the headquarters of an aggressive and violent empire,a country built on stolen land and stolen labor,a country out of balance and desperately denying any wrongdoing.There is work to be done,work that involves remaking ourselves and our culture in order to free the planet.....The questions we face are huge ehical and political and strategic questions,not little tactical ones.But I must object to a definition of terrorism that is both too large and too small.The use of violence by a non-govt.group....both lets the main perpetrators of terror thruout history off the hook,and conflates the actions of Bin Laden with the Berrigans,the Brownshirts with John Brown and Nat Turner,the Klan with the African National Congress.A firmer definition,which applies to all groups,is the killing of innocents to achieve a political end.We still have to figure out the question of a just cause,but terrorism is never really defensible,and in my book I try to show a group of young people flirting with the idea of answering official terror with a terror of our own,never pulling it off and finally renouncing it as an option....
excessively heterosexual (saiyuk) Mon 30 Jun 03 04:30
Bill, had you been itching to write this book for a long time?
Bill Ayers (billayers) Mon 30 Jun 03 13:45
earlier you asked if i thought we had taken a reasonable path or the wrong path. i guess the book tries to answer that question by showing what it felt like to make choices basically in the dark not knowing how things would turn out. of course i'd give anything to take back march 6th 1970 and to play it differently. but that's not the way life is. i'd also liek the war in viet nam to have ended in 1968 or to have never begun, etc. etc. we were not wrong to oppose the war in viet nam and the murder of leaders of the black mvmt. with every fiber of our being. of course we were young, impulsive, desperate, sometimes off the track, so next time i hope we are wiser, more incisive, more sophisticated, and more effective. yes, i've thought about writing this book for 25 years. but it took some time for me to feel that i had a bit of perspective and enough experience to capture the complexity on the page. i dont know whether i succeded or not. but i decided that it was now or never. because i had reached an age where i could remember enough but clearly i was forgetting more and more.
Harry Henderson (hrh) Mon 30 Jun 03 14:04
This reader thinks you did succeed in putting us in your shoes and feeling the passions and wrenching events of the time. I did have some trouble with your prefatory ambiguity that seemed to be suggesting that what I would be reading was in some essence true but not necessarily factual. In a way this is true of all memory and of all history (and your theme of memory is also well done, I think.) But it means that when one tries to grapple with the ethics of some concrete decision we don't really know whether we should treat it as a sort of case study based on history, contains something factual, or is perhaps a sort of parable. But I would imagine that in part you had to introduce this ambiguity for legal reasons. Similarly, you understandably don't write in any detail about the extent of your involvement in the later bombings, if any. Having read a lot about various aspects of terrorism, I think reading your book did give me a more nuanced view of the subject. (I've already mentioned Chomsky's critique of the traditional definitions). If I understand correctly, most of you saw the bombings as symbolic acts and you used multiple channels to give warning beforehand. As far as I know no one was ever hurt, and the property damage was minimal to moderate. This is different from, for example, Ted Kaczynski, who certainly had symbolism in mind, but also wanted to inflict maximum pain on individual persons. One consequence of 911 is that any future group that tried to do what your group did would not have any control of its "message" and would be massively crushed. How you lived and made your decisions is still important, even if the tactics are no longer relevant. One more -- your theme and description of "going under" (underground) was also very well done. It related to a theme I've always been interested in real life and in fiction--the existence of parallel worlds. In effect, you didn't go somewhere that was hidden: you created a parallel world that had the same people and things as the mainstream world, but a different context. You hid by changing context. I wonder if you ever had the opportunity to compare notes with any FBI or CIA veterans about your "tradecraft" in those days. It sounds to me like they would have respected it on a professional level.
from JESSE STANIFORTH (tnf) Mon 30 Jun 03 15:11
Jesse Staniforth writes: Bill, I'm a 25 year old writer in Montreal, politically active and radical, but not myopically-- I have a life outside my politics, whereas many others I know do not. For years I was a "student" of the 60s-- starting with books by Hoffman and Rubin as a teenager, I worked my way into learning about the radical movements, their victories and their failures. I was always fascinated with Weatherman/WUO for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its yin-yang of confidence/arrogance, of carpe-diem action coupled with support for the kind of brutality I found repulsive. What I'm wondering if you could address is the relationship between a middle class upbringing and a militaristic, "revolutionary" approach to social change. Because, in spite of criticisms (like those of Ward Churchill) that have called pacifism the apathetic refuge of privileged leftists, it has often seemed to me that the violence of groups like Weatherman/WUO was connected somehow to a feeling among their privileged membership that they needed to prove themselves committed to the cause beyond the shadow of a doubt. Do you think that was the case for you, for Ms. Dohrn, or for others you knew? On a related note, do you think it is possible to argue that the obsession with violent change shared by many privileged activists to this day comes from a misunderstanding of how social change works? It has been my opinion that for those raised in comfort, it is not easy to see the hard truth that social change rarely happens quickly or entertainingly, and when it does it costs the lives of many underprivileged people. As exciting and seemingly convenient as radical violent change appears on the surface, its underside is the blood of the working classes, an issue, in my opinion, that militants quietly sidestep. I've always doubted that those calling for "class war" would fight such a war, believing instead that they would stand back to watch the poor fight and die before taking up the reins of power at the conclusion of such hostilities. Do you agree with any of these points? Have your experiences taught you similarly or otherwise? While I've read that Mark Rudd has articulated similar sentiments, have your years taught you differently? Thank you, Jesse Staniforth Montreal, PQ
Bill Ayers (billayers) Mon 30 Jun 03 18:28
Harry -- the ambiguity was not a legal expression but an attempt to be real about the complexity and ambiguity of life as it is lived. I admit that beginning a memoir with the phrase "memory is a motherfucker, I myslef remember nothing" is throwing down a bit of a gauntlet to the reader. Is he going to tell the truth, or not? The fact is, I do tell the truth as I experienced it and understand it. But I don't make many claims that my experience is all experience. the actions of the WUO were mainly a form of intense, armed education. They weren't about inflicting pain on people, but rather showing the nature of the system, and its vulnerability. Again, in the book I don't portray our actions or our work as in any sense the work of a vanguard, or the only resistance worth doing. Jesse -- I want to think about a longer response to several of your points, but just a quick take.... I am not sure what "brutality" you are referring to in regard to the WUO. I don't think I had or have an obsession with violent change. I certainly grew up in privilege but most of my associates and comrades did not. Bernardine for example, was very much the product of a striving lower middle class jewish immigrant family.... Hmmm The real problem with most of the discussion about violence is that the powerful, the rulers, have what appears to be a monopoly on violence and they use it not just occasionaly, but daily, constantly. And moreover, violence is built into the structures and the culture that we live in. It is invisible to us and yet if you stop and take a look around you will see that violence is at the heart of so many social relationships including occupier/occupied, police/community, worker/boss, school/children, men/women, or even just the toys we market for our kids, the entertainment we consume and on and on....
from JESSE STANIFORTH (tnf) Mon 30 Jun 03 22:06
Jesse Staniforth wrrites: Bill, Thank you very much for your prompt reply. Almost instantly upon rereading my initial post I regretted the use of the word "brutality," because the things that I was thinking of were isolated incidents-- namely Ms. Dohrn's famous comments on the Manson killings, and the Days of Rage demonstration in Chicago. Both these things, with the benefit of 34 years of hindsight, appear particularly senseless in their violence, especially given their consequences, which I have only read to be negative (born 7 years after the fact, all I know of this is from reading about it). Likewise, in using that word I was thinking in terms of the bomb that killed Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins, which I understand was a shrapnel bomb destined for a gathering of military personnel and their families. I should make clear that I understand and respect that the majority of the violent actions undertaken by WUO were against buildings and symbols, and that human beings related to the targets were given warnings prior to these attacks. My apologies for assuming a privileged background for members of WUO. I was under the impression that most participants were from middle-to-upper-middle class backgrounds. That said, however, I'm still interested in your comments on violence in the service of social change. It is certainly true that violence is a central structure governing most social relationships. When the laws of the land and the policy of the state are grounded in brutal force, it seems natural that eventually all other relationships will align themselves with some kind of violence. I agree that it is essential to oppose this violence and work to minimize it whenever possible. What I wonder, however, is whether violence can be used challenge such a pervasive culture of violence. Given your perspective, do you believe that symbolic violence can be used to affect positive change? Similarly, do you feel you can empathize with the reasoning of those like Mark Rudd who have concluded that the inherent violence in our society can only be opposed through non-violent resistance? I agree so incredibly strongly with you that, as you said, "every human life is of value ... to be treated with a measure of reverence and awe." I wonder do you find it difficult to apply that standard to the politicians, corporate owners, military, and police whose actions form the core of the violence we oppose? Thanks again.
Bill Ayers (billayers) Tue 1 Jul 03 08:11
Hey Jesse---Thanx for responding...The thing about institutionalized violence is precisely that we are all participating whether we want to or not.I have enormous respect in most cases for those who choose in a principled way to participate by laying their bodies on the machinery of violence as an act of resistance and on the side of humanity,progress,dignity,democracy,and justice.MLK of course comes to mind as a direct action warrior,a pacifist to be sure but one who wrestled with the world and was neither settled nor satisfied.But few who claim the mantle of nonviolence ever push themselves to test its meaning in action---don't be one of them.Further most who urge only nonviolence---and remember Nixon Bush,and all the rest lecture the opposition on the value of peaceful protest,but I'm not referring to them here---cannot answer the question,But what about the Jews of Europe?Ghandi actually did answer,and what he said was consistent but entirely unacceptable to me and I suspect to most people:they should he instructed commit mass suicide in the millions.Similarly what should the African slaves in the US have done?Sit-in?Was Tubman justified in carrying a pistol?What should a principled person do?Slavery was legal,normal,acceptable to most citizens....It was also violent to the core whether it ever brke out visibly or not.A hundred years from now---if we survive which is an open and an urgent question--people will note the deaths of children in Guatemala as a result of US policies as normal,legal,and violent exterminations,quietly executed.What will you and I do?I consider myself an unviolent person---violence scares me,upsets me,and makes me sick.But I can't escape so easily and simply decry violence as I sip my latte,because I choose to live with my eyes open.I see it everywhere and I participate one way or another.Pretending to be neutral on a moving train is delusional and deadly.... Social change is difficult,complex,tough---but I don't see why you raise the question of how long it takes since that's unknowable.The American rev.was pretty quick,the South African struggle longer---both incidentally geared toward justice and democracy and with armed struggle as a central component not because of obsession or delusion but because it seemed a component to victory over determined and violent foes.In any case King consistently railed against the go-slowers.No one knows the future---neither the triumphalist Bushites nor the vulgar Marxists---but what we do or don't do will help determine what's in play.Get busy...
Bill Ayers (billayers) Tue 1 Jul 03 08:19
I don't think the challenges we face are tactical.Mostly they're political and pedagogical.We need to learn and teach constantly,test our ideas in practice,talk to our neighbors and coworkers,hear their hopes and fears and participate as concerned and sometimes outraged citizens.The new American empire spells grief for the people of the world and for us.We should mobilize,educate,agitate,act,doubt,free our imaginations and act again.Always learning,always acting in order to learn and change more...
Bill Ayers (billayers) Tue 1 Jul 03 08:28
Oh---I don't find it difficult to think of the right wing terrorists running the country as fully human....too easy to say they're monsters or nonhuman which allows us to dehumanize them and in the process ourselves.There were slave owners who loved their children,paid their bills and were kind to their fellows,and Nazis who were personally nice.This makes them complicated like everyone,but neither moral nor worthy of our hesitation in ridding the world of the system they support..
Bill Ayers (billayers) Tue 1 Jul 03 08:51
Harry---see the new film called The Weather Undergrond by Sam Green reviewed recently in the NY Times.An old FBI brownshoe is interviewed and confirms your suspicion...
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 1 Jul 03 09:21
Bill, thank you for the opportunity to electronically converse and debate these still-lingering questions from the '60s. One thought that came up over and over for me as I read "Fugitive Days" isn't very original, but: In certain ways the political situation in the U.S. today parallels the situation in the mid-60s, so why hasn't resistance to Bush Administration policies reached critical mass? What separates the left now from the left then? Colleges and universities continue to be hotbeds of far-left thinking and protest, yet I don't see, yet, an effective coalition to sway the mind of the Big Middle. Given your '60s experiences and your wisdom now brought by age and reflection, why do you think that is?
Bill Ayers (billayers) Tue 1 Jul 03 12:18
you are absolutely right that the parallels are fantastic and close. i think there is a mass opposition to the bush policies, reflected most dramatically on feb. 15, 2003 when millions of people mobilized before the trigger was even pulled, to say to to war, the bullying of american power, and the threat of a new imperialism run completely off the track. how to sustain that opposition, how to mobilize it, how to direct it and lead it -- these are huge questions that we will only find the answers to as we struggle to transform ourselves and our cultural expressions forms and institutions, and as we struggle to contend for power. in the 60s all the mvmts were influenced by and in a sense led by the great upheaval of african american citizens for civil and human rights. further, working class kids drafted into the imperial army returned home and told horrifying stories about what they were asked to do in vietnam. a third factor was that a large number of us who saw the end to war and empire as our vocation set out to organize our fellow citizens to knock on doors, to circulate petitions, to mobilize everyone we could to petition our government. today the government is not in our hands even a little, but the lesson we can draw is that it could be and it should be and we better get busy.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 2 Jul 03 09:12
I think the difference is that the people in power are less suspectible to any kind of pressure at all, and they have become less and less accountable in a number of ways (most notably by concentration of media ownership). The arising of a large and well-funded gang of disinformation-spewing pundits -- not just in the right-owned press but also masqueradng as private citizens gathering signatures annd sending letters to the editor -- has served to push dissent from the other side right off the page.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 2 Jul 03 11:20
Hmmm. All that, maybe, but also the loss of interest, I think, in politics by Boomers, at least to a degree, who back in the Reagan era began to reach the time in their lives when family finances rather than world peace became the at-home primary concern. When income and expenses occupy your time and effort, I think the tendency is to become more conservative, because it's easier for the Big Middle to feel comfortable with the status quo rather than in a time of change, at least in terms of money. Bill, is this trend reflected at all in your own family's life or in the lives of your peer-group friends?
Bill Ayers (billayers) Wed 2 Jul 03 16:22
Dave---The concentratoon of media,etc.is surely worrisome,but the media never embraced a left perspective.The NY Times was prowar thru 1968,Walter Kronkite called the facist General Ky the George Washington of Vietnam...It's true that a few honest reporters broke thru in time and one lesson the imperialists learned was don't let citizens including reporters near the front...they might say anything,even the truth. This calls for a new era of pamphleteering,a reblossoming of an ancient art form,and your doing it right now...So is Zinn,Roy,Chomsky and others...
Bill Ayers (billayers) Wed 2 Jul 03 16:27
Steve,there is adeep distrust of politics among the young as well,and for good reason.Somehow we must find creative ways to bring the best of the social left---decentralized,issue oriented,activist--into combinations that link issues toward a deeper and more sustained engagement and understanding of power and the possibility of transformation.But how?
Members: Enter the conference to participate