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Apr 2003 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Forecast for Our Times from the Weather Underground
By Thomas Crone

An hour before Bill Ayers was scheduled to speak at Left Bank Books, the signs of him inside Marty's Baking were telltale. A well-worn copy of his memoir, "Fugitive Days," sat on a table, alongside a full cup of tea. Ayers soon appeared and apologized in advance for the call that he'd have to take; his father was ill and his brother would be ringing him soon.

Aside from those minutes on the phone, Ayers talked right up until his scheduled speaking appearance next door, filling up an entire side of audiotape. Wiry and intense — but with a streak of quite evident kindness, even as he jabbed into the air — Ayers took each question and ran with it. If only one question had been asked, it's probable that Ayers could've gone the distance, without breaking a sweat.

The topics below are varied. Some discussion centered about his book, just re-released in paperback and chronicling his life-on-the-run as a sought member of the Weather Underground. And much more discussion centered on The General State of Things, a topic that he can riff on with some enthusiasm. Unfortunately, a very small audience filed into Left Bank to take in his lecture and signing of the highly readable "Fugitive Days."

Here, then, is a sampling of the man's feelings, on topics great and small.

TCS: I'm interested in starting off with your afterword to the book. Has there been a lot more interest in the media in having you write (about terrorism) since that new version came out?

I haven't had a particular amount of interest yet, but the official book tour starts Feb. 1st. The tour is just starting out. I've done three bookstores in Chicago and this is my first step outside Chicago, before a West Coast trip. Then an East Coast trip and a campus trip. I don't particularly understand the media and what agitates them and what doesn't. What was interesting to me originally was that after Sept. 11th, there was a flood of calls asking me to comment on terrorist attacks. And I felt completely unable to discuss a group of right-wing, religious thugs who have an Arab ideology and a goal that horrifies me. To me, that's all obvious; any 14-year-old can figure that stuff out.

To me, the larger issue, coming from the '60s and '70s, are issues of social justice and a world in balance. Everything I've hoped for, worked for, struggled for is in such disarray. I think the planes of Sept. 11 were a Rorschach: you looked into those flames and saw what you wanted to see. Bin Laden probably saw redemption. The rest of us probably wept and thought, "where the hell are we in the world?" I think for the Bush people, for the hard-right ideologues in our government, they saw opportunity. While people like you and me are basically breathless and dumbfounded, other people are writing legislation. Clearly the massive amount of wealth transferring from public to private hands, the restarting of the culture wars led by Dick Cheney and Bill Bennett... these kinds of things were just the tip of the iceberg.

What's so amusing and so horrifying and so real is an attorney general who's a marginal character becomes a major leader, a vice president who's slightly cracked but very intelligent takes over the reins of government, a defense secretary discredited on every level becomes the spokesperson on military policy... right-wing nuts like Wolfowitz suddenly see their global plans become realized. What's also there is that we drill in Alaska, let's destroy the rainforest, let's not give educational credits to military children — it's everything they ever wanted to do. It's in that context that I found myself deluged with commentaries about life in the underground. And I don't feel I share that space with these people I consider right-wing terrorists. I never considered myself a terrorist, so there're the beginnings of a distinction right there.

I'll mention two things. Having the book come out then [originally published in hardback on Sept. 11, 2001] is an accident. Timing's always an accident. You don't write a book like this thinking of anything other than having enough to write it. I set out to write it as a memoir and not a manifesto, not a defense, not a history certainly. I tried to take the mask off the whole memoir enterprise. Maybe we can be smarter readers. As consumers of memoirs, we can think about memoir. The timing of the book had some downsides, but some upsides, too. I found myself on book tour for the following year, 35 cities. Not St. Louis, but lots of other places. The great opportunity that afforded me was that it allowed me to see what I wouldn't have seen sitting at home eating my liver, or watching CNN. Which is not illuminating after the first two minutes. Out there, in the world, are these little independent bookstores in Iowa City, or Corvallis, OR, and lots and lots of people would come and jam these bookstores — not in support of the book, or because I was a curiosity — because they were desperate to have an actual conversation. Independent bookstores provide that setting.

I set out to write this afterword, typical of all my writings, as therapeutic. It went to 150 pages and Penguin clipped it to 10. Which is fine, most of the 150 sucks. But I'll probably get a couple of articles out of it, too. It was my attempt to come to grips with what was going on in the country, in the world. It's written in the personal essay style. That's a long answer to your question, but that's where I am.

TCS: Something that ran through my mind throughout the book was the idea of surveillance during that time and today. I'm interested in your thoughts on that, in light of your comments on John Ashcroft.

Oh, absolutely. I talk about surveillance all the time to my classes. What interests me is the question of privacy and the private space needed for imagination. One of the things that characterizes life as a good family, is that you'll find the intimacy of being well-known, but also being able to go to the basement, or backyard, or wherever it is to have privacy. Imaginative space is dangerous to institutions. It is always being invaded by schools. It's not controllable, it's not accessible. I always worry about private space and public space, which is essential to the control of the center. I worry about it a lot.

My oldest son, who teaches at Boston University, had his freshmen comp students read a short bit by Foucault, dense reading. But he had them read a simple part about surveillance. He then asked his students to go out and take photos of when they're under surveillance. The thing that's astonishing is he knew that there'd be a lot of contemplative stuff. But there's an endless amount of photographs of when you're under surveillance. Someone took a picture of a computer, somebody their phone, someone the airport security, somebody their credit card. But mostly they took photos of the eye, the little eye that's almost everywhere, including the street corner. And he said there were two things that surprised. One is how photogenic that little eye is when you line up 20 of them; they are bizarrely poetic and interesting. When you put 20 together, they're almost talking together and comparing notes. The second surprise was two innocent 18-year-olds out taking photos of the eye. And they were confronted by security who spoke words that could've been written by Foucault. They explained they were students at Boston University and they were challenged. They showed their student ID. And finally one of the security guards said, "you can't take pictures of us taking pictures of you." That's Foucault. To take the pictures is to lose control.

Sept. 11th again gave legitimacy to those who were well underway defining democracy and freedom in control, rather than privacy, expression, imagination. That's not the kind of democracy I want to promote or be a part of.

TCS: What are your general takes on students and activism? Especially in light of the war now?

If we had talked a week ago, this would've been different. It's dynamic. What I would've said a week ago, and I would say today: as is always the case, you have to look to the young to understand what the possibilities are for creating a movement. That's true whether you're living in Soweto, or Tiananmen Square or Birmingham. With Martin Luther King, it's hard to remember that he was younger than you when thrust into the world stage. The militants of SNCC in North Carolina, the Freedom Riders of that generation... you have to look to the young. It's the young that set the tone of possibility in building a movement. That's not to say there's not space for all generations of a movement, but the people who lead us in these thinking moments are young people.

I was excited two weeks ago, but I'm beside myself today. No one's ever seen what we saw on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Millions upon millions of people swarming the streets before a war has started, before a trigger has been pulled, saying "no" to war, "no" to the Bush doctrine. While there's a range of opinions there, these people not only feel this way, but express themselves through organizing with neighbors in the streets. That's huge for healing. What unites those folks is caution with the war in Iraq, not opposition, but caution. And opposition to the bully-boy tactics of the Bush administration, the arrogance of thumbing every international treaty, asserting its right to take on anyone it wishes to. It's being asserted with the arrogance of a king or emperor by this administration. How fitting for anything that considers itself a democracy for millions to express themselves. Through the darkest and most terrible times I'll live through, that's exciting. Again, power led by the young.

TCS: What changes have you seen from Bush the candidate to Bush the President? Have we seen much change, or could we have predicted these tendencies?

I think we could've predicted, except for Sept. 11th. His cranky, very bizarre behavior after Sept. 11th is smoothed over by a media that acts as a lapdog. There's no other way to think about it. The media is cowed; it's cowardly. Anyone with eyes open can see this slogan, "the liberal media." It's like "dysfunctional family." What it means is bizarre. There's no liberal media. There are liberal texts like The Nation or Harper's. But the rest of them are in the main with the imperial project. There are differences between the New York Times and Fox News. But those are differences within the family. But they're not differences in kind. No one doubts the right of America to assert itself all over the world, no one doubts in a fundamental way in the mainstream media. That's left to the margins.

I think Bush has been given a pass. And I think that's in deference to the effects of Sept. 11th. Even when I say it, I hear myself being heard as unified, that we all agree on what happened. I don't think that's true. I think what happened, to take one example, was a dreadful criminal act by a gang of thugs. It was terrorism at its most basic and awful. It was designed to kill innocents. But it was a crime, not a war. And that takes you down one road, or another. If it's a crime, it requires a criminal justice response. That could involve mobilizing armies, but this was not a war. We have heard nothing by the media except "we're at war," "this is a wartime president," etc., etc. It's a construction that leads us to no good. Nothing good will come from the moves this administration's taken.

I don't see much evidence of difference between the president and the candidate, except that he's consolidated power in ways that are unthinkable before the events of Sept. 11th. Bush is kind of a clown, a clod, no sense of irony to allow him to say there should be affirmative action. When he weighs in, it's all a part of the right-wing agenda. When you hear him talk about how students shouldn't be given preference, think about it...George, how did you get into Yale? Your academic achievement was minimal. A 560 on verbal. You can't get into Yale on a 560. Your life experience is nothing until you're 45. And then you're given opportunity after opportunity by wealthy friends. Bizarre! And yet he'll say black kids shouldn't be given preference for achievement. I think the guy's a buffoon. I think the guys riding him hard are the ones who run the ship: that'd be Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz. These guys are dangerous. What they're doing now is stuff they wrote about 15 years ago, all of them.

This idea that Powell is different is based on a passive, liberal look at a black man who speaks well, who they feel must be a liberal. There's not a liberal bone in that man's body. His every move has been to support the Cheney-Wolfowitz gang. Condoleeza Rice is another one. Sure, she can play the piano and she's cute, but what does that have to do with anything? I think liberals — and radicals, too — are suckers for the idea that they're sucked into the camp of good and the camp of evil. These people love their children, they pay their bills, they're not evil in that sense. They don't have horns and tails. Some play the piano and are nice folks. Their policies are driven by an ideology that's cancerous and dangerous and destructive and, ultimately, failing. That's why they should be opposed with every bone in our body.

That's not in the book, but that's what I've been thinking about.

TCS: Are you hearing anything — even in degrees, even in shades — from the Democratic candidates that you like?

You know, something I told my wife last night (and she almost slapped me) is that I've liked what Carol Moseley-Braun said. Carol was a charismatic candidate from Illinois, who was the first black woman elected to the Senate, who was a dreadful senator. Corrupt, didn't do her work, didn't show up. So she lost everyone in Illinois — all disenchanted with her — losing to a bozo, Peter Fitzgerald, who had nothing but a pocketbook. He's not even being supported by his party in a re-run. This guy was so beatable and Carol fucked it up. But frankly — as I was saying before I went into this thing — Abraham Lincoln wasn't a great senator, either; he had many failures before becoming president. The only one that tweaks my interest is Carol. I tend to think the Democrats will get suckered into not having real debate, participation.

What we've had is a Tweedle-Dum, Tweedle-Dumber presidential charade, where votes are bought, where democracy is not vibrant, where the soul of democracy is missing in our country. We ended up with a quarter of eligible voters voting — whiter, richer, older than the population and the electorate. That's a catastrophe. The American people really need to get involved in the issues, really discuss the real stuff like war and peace, worker's rights, the legal larceny that goes on. We have to get a candidate that gets urban people involved and engaged in political life. Jesse Jackson did that. I don't like Jesse as an opportunist, but when he ran, he energized the base. That was a very exciting thing. Can Carol do that? I don't think Daschle will do it. I don't think Gephardt will do it, even though he's your guy. I don't think Gary Hart'll do it, even though he has every right to do it, because he's not tied to the system. He went and got a Ph.D. in philosophy over in Oxford, he should do something with it. I don't think John Kerrey will do that. I'm not hopeful.

Politics comes from both below and above. You take someone like Lyndon Johnson. Despite his fatal flaw of Vietnam and imperial ambitions, he could've been a great President. What animated Johnson was the civil rights movement. There couldn't have been a Johnson without the civil rights movement. Plenty of people point out that no one else pushed through the Voting Rights Act. But it's equally true that Lyndon Johnson couldn't have been positioned for that without millions of people in the street.

With Franklin Roosevelt, he was answering the question of whether capitalism would survive at a time when that was at question. But there wouldn't have been that debate and the creation of the New Deal, without the creation of the CIO, the mass sit-down strikes. Without that, there's no Franklin Roosevelt.

I'm a big believer in the politics from below, even though there's the dialectic of power from above and below. Without people in the street, there's no progressing. And I mean that metaphorically. Without people organizing themselves and activating themselves on behalf of their own lives and the lives of those around them... I better have some of this tea before I speak, it's for my throat.

TCS: What types of people have been coming out to hear you speak?

My experience with this book tour — both hardcover and the three I've done [for the paperback] — has been overwhelmingly affirming. It doesn't mean everyone comes out to agree with the book. It does mean typically people come to discuss. Sometimes people come out with the idea that they'll disrupt. That hasn't happened yet, but that's okay, too. I don't think things have to be controlled, staged. My first round, right after Sept. 11th, I received a ton of death threats. The college took it quite seriously, had security follow me around. I said, "don't send someone around, I'll be fine." But I did have a guy show up in my office with a gun, and that scared them. The headline of "professor..." Anyway. At Barbara's, they had four officers show up. In Milwaukee, at Schwartz's, they had a battery, because I'd gotten a lot of threats there. I kept saying to them, "I don't need protection, I'm just a professor. I'm just a guy with a book." Nobody really is going to want to kill a guy with a book.

I don't need security; I need people to discuss a book. When people say, "you're a terrorist, you're a murderer," I want to talk to them. People can be rude to me. I'll try to be polite back to you. I believe in dialogue as one of the principles of education. I believe that this book is an invitation to a dialogue. It's not propaganda. The distinction I'll make later is that propaganda is one-way. You're told what to think. What I see emanating from the White House is propaganda. They're not asking me what I think, they're telling me. Or when John Ashcroft challenges the highest lawmakers in the land, on questions over patriotism, that's chilling. That's unbelievable. The fact that they're cowed is frightening.

Citizens like you, me, big shots like Susan Sontag need to stand up and not take this shit. Those people doing it will help small fries like us not take this shit. It seems to me what I want is education. It's always two-way, and it changes the teacher as much as it changes the student. But I'm a professor of education, I believe this in my gut and write this way and teach this way. Even my book is not a book about the definitive account of one person's life underground for 10 years. It's one boy's story about how he went from a place like this to a place like that. It's that journey that I've tried to capture from memory. That's what I believe in. Group conversation, a provocative back-and-forth, no right.

The problem we have as human beings — and as Americans — is that we don't have the luxury to not act. Sitting here and talking is acting. Going to New York and demonstrating is acting. Writing a letter is acting. To say, 'I dunno, I'm just sitting here,' is bullshit. You have to act in life.

TCS: That's brings up something interesting that I wanted to discuss with you, and that's web activism. There are things produced for the web as mechanisms of change. A few weeks ago, I'd say I got four e-mail messages saying that I should send rice to the White House.
Ayers: I got plenty of those, too.
TCS: What do think about that? Do you think it softens the debate at all?

I'm a techno-nerd. I know nothing. In fact, saying "techno-nerd" might make it sound like I know something. I know nothing, a techno-idiot. You're maybe a techno-nerd. But I get my little e-mail. I have to put things in the trash all the time; I can't read it all. I think it's great that Edward Said writes a little about the media three days ago and I've gotten it four times. When there's a little interview in the New York Times, I can get it six times. You know (Art) Spiegelman of Maus? I got a subscription to the New Yorker when he began to write for them. His wife is the art director there. He wrote a column about the toads of the media for the New Yorker and did it in a non-bitter way. But he describes that his project is different than that project. And he describes the censorship of the New Yorker in a better way. Their censorship is not like the censorship of a repressive regime.

There's a fantastic cover he did for the New Yorker in which we're bombing Iraq with turkeys. A fantastic cover. And he had titled it "Operation Enduring Turkey." And they called it "Turkey Drop," something like that. He asks, "Is that censorship? It pisses me off. I titled it to play off Operation Enduring Freedom. And replacing Turkey with Freedom is playing with that." They replace it and that's American censorship, saying it's over-the-top. One way to look at it is to look at the last 10 years, and as I look at my own censors I think, "American censorship is bad editing." You don't want people to fuck with your prose because they disagree with that. "Turkey Drop?" Fuck that, it's "Operation Enduring Turkey."

Back to the question of e-mails and that... I don't know how much longer it'll last, but it's great that it's there. We have to all get a lot smarter a lot faster. The question is whether virtual reality will trump reality. You always had to be a critical reader. This is the same of reading memoirs. You have to think critically. You have to become smarter readers than ever before. The Internet takes that to the nth degree.

My son gets the New York Times, he also gets Agence France Presse, he also gets Boondocks. He has this shit coming in, getting alternate sources. His friends harvest other things. And you put it all together. You probably have a better sense of this; I have no fucking idea. I just sort through my shit and make the best way that I can: Sontag, I trust; Said, I trust; Chomsky, yes. With a critical eye. Howard Zinn, absolutely. I get something from Al Jezeera, I read it with skepticism. The New York Times? A lot of skepticism. I mean that to say the interesting thing is — and this is provocative — a situation like in Egypt, where I spend some time, you have media that is Hosni Mubarek's. It's bullshit. And everyone knows it. So a cabdriver reading this crap can say, "This is shit." They're not reading a free press. Russians reading Pravda know they don't have a free press; it was a propaganda thing.

We have a double thing going on at all times. Free how? Colored by what? What's the role of money? The fact that they can't speak without choking while answering those questions is amazing. It's not all lies, or all propaganda. But we should be critical. Doubtful. That's how I want to read The Nation. I want to read it for the bent.

TCS: Real quickly, couple of last things.
Ayers: What time is it? It's 7:50? Let's take three more minutes?
TCS: Then do you feel you're observed more than others? That your phone is tapped more than the average Joe?
Ayers: No, I don't think so. I could be wrong. I think that we're old. As much as I don't like to think I'm establishment, shit, I'm a distinguished professor in the university. I'm a senior scholar. I'll say what I want to say. Am I leading a movement, likely not. Am I capable of leading a movement, probably not. Do I say what I want to say out loud, all the time. Do I think I'm under more surveillance than anyone else, or you, no. And I think that's increasing. I think they know where I use my credit cards, like some Big Brother, and that bothers me. They know I used American Express tonight and where I travel. It's all in some big data-band somewhere, and that grates me. But do I think I'm being singled out, no. Frankly, I think I'd be a waste of time; this isn't like 30 years ago. Though still active, I'm not significant, like kids would be.
TCS: How aware are those kids of SDS and the Weather Underground and SNCC?
Ayers: We have a thing in the United States, the United States of Amnesia. We don't remember from day to day. I was born in '44. I was arrested at 20, some 20 years after Hiroshima. Now it's 30 years since Vietnam. I didn't know a damned thing about the war. It was some old person's problem. But it was right there, just a nanosecond away. The way we teach history, the way we understand history, it's very much in the present. The relevance isn't there with kids and that's a phenomenon unlike anywhere else in the world. Everything's always new; I write about that in the book, everything's always now. There's nothing about the past. It leaves us so puffed-up with our own good intentions that it gives us a gaze that won't allow for anything dark.

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