Paul Berman, one of the most influential political intellectuals writing today, has penned a searing indictment of former Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers. His essay is no surprise. Berman was the first activist/writer to tie SDS’s drift towards Leninism with its cadre’s decision at the Port Huron conference to admit to its ranks representatives of the American Communist Party. At its very start, SDS took the pose of “no enemies on the Left.” Writing at TheDailyBeast.com, Tina’s Brown’s new website, Berman correctly calls Ayers “the stupidest man in America” who “has learned nothing” since the 1960’s when he sought to launch guerrilla warfare against the United States through his now well-known bombing campaign.
Berman continues to note that Obama “is saddled with Ayers” not only because of his past associations with him, but because of what Berman calls “a culture of mendacity on the far left in America, …that allows Ayers to go on proclaiming his own nobility and ideals, quite as if his own principles were those of any liberal-minded person, which they are not.” Berman is rightfully angry that over 3000 people have now signed a petition of support to Ayers, that depicts the unrepentant terrorist as a victim of McCarthyite slander. The petition’s writers are furious that Ayers has been described as a “lunatic leftist.” As Berman writes, “if this phrase does not apply to Ayers, it applies to no one.”
It is a great shock to find that among those who signed the support Ayers petition are two editors of the social democratic magazine Dissent, educator Debbie Meier and the journal’s co-editor, Mitch Cohen. Meier signed, she explains, because her own conversations with him convinced her that Ayers “has fundamentally changed his mind” since his Weatherman days. Either Meier is disingenuous, or she has failed to read most of his recent political statements.
Their signatures are especially disheartening because the magazine, founded by the late Irving Howe in the 1950s, was once the stalwart of anti-Communist socialism as well as an opponent of the emerging New Left’s anarchism and proto-communism. Back then, Howe wrote a seminal and later suppressed essay, “New Styles in Leftism,” in which he had the honor being the very first figure on the Left to attack head on the new youthful leftists and their illusions. Years before Ayers even conceived of breaking away from SDS and founding the Weathermen, Howe pointed to the new “kamikaze radicalism, …white Malcolmism,” that he saw emerging. This New Left, he noted, castigated everything American, and thought that any talk “about Communist totalitarianism were simply…a bogey to frighten infants.”
This group according to Howe, was neo-Stalinist, authoritarian at its core, espoused black nationalism and racism, favored guerrilla warfare, and rejected the intellectual heritage of the West and a commitment to democracy. They had a “vicarious indulgence in violence,” Howe wrote, and even when merely theoretical, was still “all the more irresponsible.”
Howe might just as well have been talking about Bill Ayers today, which is why it is such a shock that some of his old associates now sing Ayers’ praises. On these points, Berman stands true to Howe’s old argument. But even Berman, who so accurately describes Ayers’ real legacy, begins by calling Ayers “a good and decent educator” whose old pre-school center in Manhattan was “first-rate,” and whose post Weather Underground educational work as a professor has been carried out with “admirable sincerity and skill.” The old Ayers:bad- the educator Ayers:good. The disjunction between proclaiming Ayers still stupid and yet a good educator today does not seem to strike Berman as strange.
Berman’s misjudgment of Ayers goes to the heart of the actual threat posed by him today. It is not that 40 years ago he was a terrorist, and that Barack Obama still associates with him. Even if Obama did not know about Ayers’ past as he now asserts, a response that is actually more than difficult to believe, he did know- and did fund through the Annenberg Challenge, Ayers’ extremely radical educational projects. All one has to do is read the many articles and critiques of Ayers written by Sol Stern for The City Journal and The Wall Street Journal,to see what Ayers’ “educational” work is all about.
Stern points out, rather than being a school reformer, Ayers is “a school destroyer” who hopes “for a revolutionary upheaval that will finally bring down American capitalism and imperialism.” Rather than see public schools as a way of assimilating children, especially immigrants, into a common civic and democratic culture, Ayers sees education as the mechanism to destroy “capitalist hegemony.” One has only to look at the course outline for his UIC course on Urban Education: “Homelessness, crime, racism, oppression- we have the resources and knowledge to fight and overcome these things…We cannot be child advocates…in Chicago or New York and ignore the web that links us with the children of India or Palestine.”
Stern documents Ayers’ favored curriculum elsewhere. Here he cites sections of books Ayers and Maxine Greene have edited on social justice teaching, published by Teachers College Press. Education schools are rushing to implement such a curriculum. Science, for example, is heralded as a medium that is essentially a “political activity” that can be used to transform “institutional and interpersonal power structures” that play a role in student’s lives. Math too has to be politicized. One must teach percentages and fractions by using charts of income distribution, to show students how wealth is concentrated at the top in America and benefits mainly the superrich. One has to show, for example, how military budgets for Iraq deprive Americans of their fair share of the nation’s resources.(They do not have to go into history; there the option for the radical educator is simple: assign the works of Howard Zinn.)
All these themes appear in Ayers most recent writings. In the newspaper Revolution, the organ of The Revolutionary Communist Party USA, a split off from the old SDS, Ayers defines the progressive education he advocates as an education that works to promote student opposition to “the most reactionary cabal of ideologues” that control the federal government and the media. To create a genuine democratic education, teachers have to work to overturn the repressive, racist and imperialist system that he believes is the United States. Education cannot be separated from the politics of “social justice and liberation,” Ayers writes, since urban classrooms were at present merely preparing students “for prison, for unemployment and for war.” Even if Republicans lose the White House, Ayers argues that the ruling class will remain irritated by education- the one area that they cannot control. To keep education out of their hands, he argues that one has to fight to stop proposals favoring charter schools and vouchers. Ayers does not seem to realize, or care, that such reforms gain access to good education for precisely the poor whose interests he claims to represent.
Ayers, it seems, is still searching for a Latin American revolutionary hero to carry on Fidel’s cause.In a speech he delivered at Hugo Chavez’s side in Venezuela in 2006. Ayers sounded like he was reliving those glory days of the Cuban revolution. Standing by Chavez’s side, he ended with “Viva Presidente Chavez!Viva La Revolucion Bolivariana! Hasta La Victoria Siempre!” You get the idea.Education, he told the assembled revolutionaries, “is the motor-force of revolution,” and Venezuela shows the path of how “to overcome the failings of capitalist education.” If anyone has any doubt about how education has replaced bomb-throwing as the way to attain his old goals, reading Bill Ayers relieves one of all doubt. Against the words of those he calls “everyday liberals” and other “radicals and armchair intellectuals,” in Venezuela Ayers has found the new revolutionary paradise. Echoing Hellen Keller in the 1920’s, Ayers endorses her cry: “Let us try revolution and see what it will do now.” Venezuela, he assures us, proves that “the failings of capitalist schooling can be resisted and overcome.”
To call Bill Ayers an educational reformer, in other words, is reminiscent of the 1950’s, when old China hands called Mao “an agrarian reformer.” Yet, the Left- even some of the so-called moderate Left- continues to uphold Bill Ayers as a model. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank penned a column “My Friend Bill Ayers.” Frank, like Obama, says that he too became Ayers’ friend when he met him in the neighborhood. Trust Mr. Frank, who also knows what’s wrong with Kansas, where regular people vote against their economic interests by regularly supporting those reactionary Republicans. And trust him about Bill Ayers, whom he calls “a dedicated servant of those less fortunate than himself.” Perhaps Frank is whom Paul Berman was thinking when he talks of “respectable” people who sing Ayers’ phrases. Not only is Ayers a good man, Frank writes, he should be “an honorary Eagle Scout.” Doesn’t Frank realize that Bill Ayers probably perceives the Boy Scouts as a homophobic and imperialist organization? After all, when the revolution comes, they would not be in the streets with Ayers’ cadre, but would probably be supporting the police and trying to pick up the nails the Ayers group would be throwing on the streets to break police car tires.
Whatever the actual exact nature of a tie between Obama and Bill Ayers there is; we can at least now be thankful for one thing. In the last debate, Obama promised that in his administration, he would not be taking advice from or consulting with Bill Ayers. Without this publicity, for all one knows, he might have considered appointing Ayers Secretary of Education. One might recall that Bill Clinton almost gave that position in his first administration to Johnetta Cole, only to pull back when he found out from David Twersky’s expose in Seth Lipsky’s Forward that Cole was associated with major American Communist front groups. Now, at least, Ayers’ nasty work will continue to be important only in education schools and in the tragic following he has created in scores of our nation’s future teachers.