The Distinguished Professor, or More Comic Relief From the University

Until Barack Obama’s campaign really got going and Obama himself–a cipher in search of the White House–began to attract the normal scrutiny any presidential candidate in this country attracts, Bill Ayers had not had much of a public profile for decades–not since the late sixties and early 1970s when his activities setting bombs and engaging other radical activities as one of the leaders of the Weather Underground made headlines. True, every now and then his name would pop up above the usual news chatter–on September 11, 2001, for example, when, as luck would have it, The New York Times ran one of those friendly, nostalgia-laced profiles of former radicals. Readers could sip their coffee that morning while turning to the Arts section and Dinitia Smith’s coy valentine: ”I don’t regret setting bombs,” Bill Ayers said. ”I feel we didn’t do enough.” Then they could turn on their televisions and watch as the World Trade Towers collapsed after someone else took over where Bill Ayers and his friends left off in their efforts to “smash bourgeois society.”


Ayers quickly disappeared again from the radar screen. He wasn’t idle–far from it–but, hey, the 1960s seemed so long ago and radical Islam, the eocnomy, the war in Iraq, immigration–so many other issues clamored for the public’s attention. In so far as anyone thought about Bill Ayers, he thought correctly that he was a dangerous radical. But mostly people just didn’t think about him.

Until, that is, his alliance with Barack Obama became an issue. What’s happened over the last months is that the radical activist has emerged reborn as an “educational reformer.” That, anyway, is the epithet the Times decided to employ in its most recent piece on Ayers, an anodyne effort to diffuse the growing chatter about the political and spiritual filiations between Ayers and Barack Obama that appeared on October 3.

Language is a marvelous thing, for you can easily use it to lie while telling the truth. Consider the phrase “educational rerformer.” What does it conjure up? Earnest but boring do-gooders, mostly: Robert Maynard Hutchins, maybe, or John Dewey. But most revolutionaries are also “educational reformer”–look at the career of Robespierre, of Stalin, of Pol Pot–and it is into this later category that Bill Ayers belongs. As Sol Stern, commenting in City Journal on this latest effort by the Times to paint things white, noted:

Calling Bill Ayers a school reformer is a bit like calling Joseph Stalin an agricultural reformer. (If you find the metaphor strained, consider that Walter Duranty, the infamous New York Times reporter covering the Soviet Union in the 1930s, did, in fact, depict Stalin as a great land reformer who created happy, productive collective farms.) For instance, at a November 2006 education forum in Caracas, Venezuela, with President Hugo Chávez at his side, Ayers proclaimed his support for “the profound educational reforms under way here in Venezuela under the leadership of President Chávez. We share the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution. . . . I look forward to seeing how you continue to overcome the failings of capitalist education as you seek to create something truly new and deeply humane.”


Ayers turned to the educational system for the same reason that revolutionaries turn to the family: the hand the rocks the cradle rules the world: and the hand that controls the schools shapes the future.

Stern’s piece provides a useful corrective to the Times‘s whitewash. It reminds us of how radical Ayers’s “reforms” are meant to be, and it also touches here and there on his radical past. When he learned that the government decided not to prosecute him for his spate of bombings, for example, he crowed: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.” (It was great in that it decided not to prosecute him: otherwise, he recently said, the idea that America is a great country “makes me want to puke.”)

I think that the subject of Bill Ayers’s relationship with Barack Obama is a matter of great public interest, not least because were Obama to be elected Ayers would be the unofficial architect of Obama’s educational platform. (At least, I assume it would be unofficial. But who knows, perhaps Obama would nominate Ayers to be Secretary of Education.) The Obama camp has been deeply reticient about exactly how close the two were. It is clear from the work of Stanley Kurtz (e.g., here) and Andrew McCarthy (e.g., here) that the idea that, as Obama put it, Ayers was just “a guy in the neighborhood,” no one special in his life, is simply not true.

But I suspect that the public still does not have a good grasp of who Ayers was and is. Everyone now knows he is an unrepentant bomber who wished he had “done more.” But what, really, was the Weather Underground all about? And what was Bill Ayers’s role in it? The best capsule answers to those questions is to be found in chapter 2 of Peter Collier’s and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation : “The Rise and Fall of the Weather Underground,” which shows in gripping detail how Ayers and his colleagues planned and executed their “long march through the institutions.” Given the place of Ayers’s sentiments and ideas in the constellation of Obama’s thought, you should regard it as a civic duty to read the book.


Meanwhile, while you contemplate Collier and Horowitz’s description of Ayers’s various efforts to “smash monogamy” through group sex and overthrow capitalist society by infiltrating and overturning its institutions, you might also want to contemplate this communiqué from the redoubts of the American university, to wit, a petition making the rounds, dated September 24, 2008 and issued by “Friends and supporters of Bill Ayers,” opposing the “demonization” of the “Distinguished Professor” William Ayers. Really, you cannot make these things up. It reads, in part:

Support Bill Ayers – 3247 Current Endorsements –

Dear friends and colleagues in the field of education,

It seems that the character assassination and slander of Bill Ayers and other people who have known Obama is not about to let up. While an important concern is the dishonesty of this campaign and the slanderous McCarthyism they are using to attack Obama, we also feel an obligation to support our friend and colleague Bill Ayers. Many, many educators have reached out, asking what they could do, seeking a way to weigh in against fear and intimidation. Many of us have been talking and we agree that this one gesture, a joint statement signed by hundreds of hard-working educators, would be a great first step. Such a statement may be distributed through press releases or ads in the future. . . .

We write to support our colleague Professor William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is currently under determined and sustained political attack. Ayers is a nationally known scholar, member of the Faculty Senate at UIC, Vice President-elect of the American Educational Research Association, and sought after as a speaker and visiting scholar by other universities because of his exemplary scholarship, teaching, and service. Throughout the 20 years that he has been a valued faculty member at UIC, he has taught, advised, mentored, and supported hundreds of undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. students. He has pushed them to take seriously their responsibilities as educators in a democracy – to promote critical inquiry, dialogue, and debate; to encourage questioning and independent thinking; to value the full humanity of every person and to work for access and equity. Helping educators develop the capacity and ethical commitment to these responsibilities is at the core of what we do, and as a teacher he has always embraced debate and multiple perspectives.

All citizens, but particularly teachers and scholars, are called upon to challenge orthodoxy, dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of authoritative claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the taken-for-granted. Without critical dialogue and dissent we would likely be burning witches and enslaving our fellow human beings to this
day. . . .

The current characterizations of Professor Ayers—“unrepentant terrorist,” “lunatic leftist”—are unrecognizable to those who know or work with him. It’s true that Professor Ayers participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans. His participation in political activity 40 years ago is history; what is most relevant now is his continued engagement in progressive causes, and his exemplary contribution—including publishing 16 books— to the field of education. The current attacks appear as part of a pattern of “exposés” and assaults designed to intimidate free thinking and stifle critical dialogue. Like crusades against high school and elementary teachers, and faculty at UCLA, Columbia, DePaul, and the University of Colorado, the attacks on and the character assassination of Ayers threaten the university as a space of open inquiry and debate, and threaten schools as places of compassion, imagination, curiosity, and free thought. They serve as warnings that anyone who voices perspectives and advances questions that challenge orthodoxy and political power may become a target, and this, then, casts a chill over free speech and inquiry and the spirit of democracy.


Is there anything they left out? “McCarthyism” is here, as is plenty of postmodern mumbo jumbo (“multiple perspectives,” “critical thinking” etc.). But the thing to take somber note of is the transformation of Ayers as a bomb-setting, antinomian radical into a disciple of the “civil rights movement.” In a normal world, this petition would be worth a contemptuous laugh before discarding it to the oblivion it deserves. But given the times, I fully expect its endorsements to swell far beyond the 3000 plus it had on September 24.


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