My Reminiscence of Bill Ayers

Barack Obama, as we know, has been directly accused of “palling around” with “domestic terrorist” Bill Ayers because his first political meeting was in the home of Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn, another member of the Weather Underground of the late 1960s and 1970s, even though neither were present at that meeting, and for having a simply amicable yet businesslike relationship with Ayers because they were both on the same organizational board. However, quite unlike Obama, I can actually be accused of knowing Bill Ayers fairly closely, even though we were bitter antagonists in the same New Left organization, SDS, back in the late 1960s? For I did know Bill Ayers fairly closely as a young SDSer and student at Michigan State University in East Lansing while Ayers was a student at the nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and frequently visited MSU in order to foment factional strife in Michigan State’s SDS chapter. Not only that, I’ve since gone on to read Bill Ayers’s memoirs of his “revolutionary” period (before he and Dohrn gave themselves up and went on to both become respected college professors), Fugitive Days. If Barack Obama can be so accused of “palling around” with a supposedly known “domestic terrorist,” and his wife Michelle accused also because she once worked in the same law firm as Bernadine Dohrn (along with 300 other attorneys), then what does that make me guilty of, having actually known Bill Ayers when I was in my twenties, and actually considering my self a revolutionary socialist political opponent of Bill Ayers? Isn’t it time for me to come clean on my reminiscences of this notorious “domestic terrorist” now turned educational reformer and Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago? Indeed it is!

The Bill Ayers I knew in the 1960s was an arrogant twerp, a self-righteous know-it-all who could not tolerate anyone disagreeing with him. Indeed, to Bill Ayers and his coterie, Bill Ayers held all the secrets to unlocking the entire universe in the palms of his hands. An attitude he carried with him into later life, and which is much manifested in his memoirs of his Weather Underground time, Fugitive Days, which was first published in 2001. In these memoirs, same as when I knew him in the late 1960s, the thematic content was, and is, always the same: “It’s all about me.”

So, alas, those seeking insight into the founding and development of the Weather Underground will not find it in Fugitive Days, despite this being Ayers’s attempt to be on the record about the organization he founded and was one of its most notable leaders. First of all, he doesn’t even begin to describe the events that led to the founding of the Weather Underground until page 168, following a long autobiographical ramble about his youth. Second, what he does say about the events of the founding and subsequent course of the organization is notably opaque, and often a most disingenuous rewriting of history out of existence. For example, there is no mention whatsoever of the infamous War Council meeting in Flint, Michigan following the fiasco of the Days of Rage in Chicago the previous October, 1969, which would supposedly attract hundreds of thousands of angry youth to engage in open street fighting and thus launch a new American Revolution. But Days of Rage fizzled, because only a few hundred bothered to show up.

It was at the War Council that the Weather leaders extolled as a revolutionary example—Charles Manson! Not mentioned, of course. Nor will one find in Fugitive Days any mention of Bill Ayers’s spoken admiration of the notion of “Fight the People”—“there's something to it,” intoned Ayers. Nor of Ayers’s ideological pronouncement that “If Weatherman [the original name for the organization] is right on this one thing, then nothing we would do in the Mother Country [the U.S.] could ever be adventurist.” One will find twice in Fugitive Days Bill Ayers’s present cavalier dismissal of the Weather Underground manifesto from 1969, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” despite Ayers’s crucial role as collaborator in drafting the document, and which the Weather Underground itself touted in the 1960s and 1970s as a pathbreaking document that outlined a new, necessary political approach. Needless to say, this new, necessary approach was but the random bombings the organization engaged in, neoanarchist “propaganda of the deed” melded into a collective that was thoroughly top-down and self-consciously Marxist-Leninist in structure, and upheld its revolutionary orthodoxy by frequent attributions to Mao and Maoism.

But what one will find in Fugitive Days is that, after the failure of the Days of Rage that only made the Weather leaders hunted criminals, Bill Ayers, political person extraordinaire, had to spend his time avoiding people who might know him, staying away from demonstrations and protests, and constantly, furtively, having to seek absolute anonymity lest he be recognized and arrested. Truly a waste of political energy and talent (Ayers is intelligent and forceful), with the bulk of Fugitive Days thus only the limning of a political wasteland.

But to be fair to the Bill Ayers of today, respected professor and educational reformer, I read beyond Fugitive Days to encompass what he’s writing now on educational philosophy, and so read his 2004 book, Teaching Toward Freedom. And in so reading, I re-encountered that other side of Bill Ayers that was also present in the Bill Ayers I knew from the 1960s: Bill Ayers the airy idealist, very much given to sounding good, but all too frequently lacking in substance. For Teaching Toward Freedom is but a 161-page overwritten humanist manifesto described as a pedagogical manual that calls for one thing, and one thing only, at far too great length: teachers should be social activists who “take the student’s side,” and in doing so, will thus transform their students, themselves, and the greater society. It is anecdotal and literary in approach, constantly quoting poets and novelists, and in its way inspiring to the choir who already believe this, but as a guide to concrete pedagogical activity for humanist teachers—a complete cipher. While Ayers does address parenthetically some of the problems facing students and teachers in the school systems today, such as over-reliance on testing and labeling, when it comes down to practical matters, all he can offer up is examples drawn from small-scale, strictly voluntary alternative teaching projects. Further, his romanticizing of today’s students (whom I experienced first hand as a substitute teacher) shows him to be out of touch with what generally prevails in the classroom today. Teaching Toward Freedom smacks far too much of that naïve romanticism that characterized the halcyon 1960s, and is, at bottom, only an irritating 1960s déjà vu.

As far Ayers himself “teaching toward freedom,” an incident from the late 1960s that involved me indicates his “pedagogy” toward those who disagreed with him: when I was once in a political argument with Ayers, after I’d raised a point in opposition, he responded—by not saying a word in reply, but instead, simply pulling my pen out of my shirt pocket and throwing it on the floor! He did this several times, and I was about to punch him out because of it. This incident succinctly sums up the Bill Ayers I knew all too well: the Bill Ayers of the flesh, not the McCain-Palin cartoon character.



Having written articles that require this much work, I commend you for your service to the future bloggers. I’m sure they will appreciate it!I’m going to bookmark this page so I can return and keep reading.