The activist, educator, and former leader of the Weather Underground on upholding revolutionary principles in “non-revolutionary times.”
Photo by Ismail Khalidi
Bill Ayers’s first memoir, Fugitive Days, which chronicles his time as a leader of the Weather Underground, came out on September 10, 2001. It was reviewed the next day in the New York Times. For most authors, this fact would amount to nothing more than a case of sad timing. But Ayers’s life as a radical anti-war activist involved—among other things—placing a bomb in the Pentagon, and the review printed on 9/11 bore the unfortunate title, “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.” It ultimately mattered little that such acts were committed in earlier protest decades, or that no one was killed as a result. Ayers, a radical-turned-education-reformer, became an object of derision and scrutiny overnight. He was labeled an “unrepentant” terrorist at the exact moment when the word attained almost mythically evil proportions in a country grappling with the horror of that September morning.
That was Ayers’s second time as a public enemy. The first was during the peak of his radicalism in the sixties and seventies, and his subsequent years as a fugitive living underground. During Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign, Ayers’s name was once again thrust into the spotlight when the Clinton campaign invoked it to suggest that Obama—who knew Ayers in Chicago—was in fact part of a shadowy cabal of terrorists and radicals. “Can you explain that relationship [with Ayers] for the voters,” George Stephanopoulos asked Obama in the Democratic Primary debate in April 2008, “and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?” The die had been cast and a media frenzy followed. Though the tactic didn’t pan out for the Clinton campaign, Ayers was nonetheless turned into an unwitting cartoon villain and was relentlessly invoked by far-right bloggers, Fox News, and the newly emergent Tea Party faithful. The McCain-Palin ticket was not far behind, with Sarah Palin charging that “[Obama] is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” (My father, a Palestinian and former acquaintance of Obama, is close friends with Ayers and was also labeled a Professor of Terror.)
It is this often surreal experience that Ayers writes about in his new memoir, Public Enemy (Beacon). “It was both amusing and disheartening to become a character in the election,” Ayers says in the interview that follows, “but one thing that was interesting to me was how quickly people were to distance themselves from any possibility that a radical had a place in the conversation.” Public Enemy also picks up where Fugitive Days left off, with Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn deciding to go above ground after living under assumed names. Ayers has, in the years since, become a renowned educator, authoring several books on the topic (To Teach, Teaching Toward Freedom, A Kind and Just Parent), and a fierce opponent of the corporatization of both education and war. Ayers also went on to found the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago, and served until his retirement as Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I spoke with Ayers last month in New York City as he prepared for his upcoming book tour. Wearing a “Team Snowden” T-shirt under a multi-pocketed vest, Ayers was in usual form: quick to laugh and eager to talk revolution with his seemingly bottomless to-go cup of coffee close at hand.
—Ismail Khalidi for Guernica
Guernica: One of the ways that conservative pundits have tried to smear Obama has been by implying that you wrote Dreams from My Father.
Bill Ayers: I hate to say it, but I did not ghostwrite Obama’s memoir. That whole kooky myth has been fun for me, though. In the book I describe how any time some right-wing blogger asks me if I wrote Dreams—and, as you know, a lot of them were trying to push that idea as part of the bigger notion that Obama is a Manchurian Candidate character—I always say to them, “Yeah I did, and if you can help me prove it, I’ll split the royalties with you.”
In one section of Public Enemy that didn’t make the final cut, I took a whole series of Obama’s most prominent speeches and claimed to have written those as well, and I included “my version” with my original intention and claimed that David Axelrod or Valerie Jarret or somebody cut out all the good parts. In “my version” of his Cairo speech, he calls for full self-determination for the Palestinian people. So I had a lot of fun taking the idea that I could be Obama’s ghostwriter, and thinking about what I would say if I had that access and freedom. In the Nobel speech, to take another example, what I wrote for Obama to say was that he would in his first term call for immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament and urge the world to follow that lead. Of course, my draft of the speech was altered and that was cut out because Axelrod and the Pentagon couldn’t stand it.
Guernica: What compelled you to write a second memoir, and why now?
Bill Ayers: This memoir follows Fugitive Days, which was focused on the years of the American war against Vietnam, 1965 through 1975, and while Public Enemy opens during the 2008 election campaign, it tracks quickly back and picks up where Fugitive Days left off. This book is about parenting and teaching and trying to find a way to live a life of purpose and principle in a dramatically changed and changing landscape, to continue to hold on to certain humanistic and revolutionary and activist principles in non-revolutionary times.
One answer is that we don’t allow our radical imaginations to soar.
My publisher had been bugging me to write a sequel for years, and I was always resistant to the idea. But a couple of things happened. One was the 2008 election, when I got thrust into the public eye as Obama’s “terrorist friend,” his radical friend, where I shared a stage or a position with other scary people like your father [Rashid Khalidi], Jeremiah Wright, Father Pfleger, and others. That pushed me to think that there is something that has to be said, and I guess what motivated me most of all was to say life isn’t a series of episodes where everything is the way you want it and you get to make great choices all the time. Life is a long process of unfolding, a dialectic of chance and choice, and how one makes choices determines who we are, what our identity is, and what we become. But in my particular situation, this unfolding involved going from being a leader of the student movement to a militant opponent of the Vietnam War and pretty much an enemy of the state, to turning myself in, raising kids, and being a teacher. And then unexpectedly, being thrust back into the public eye as a “public enemy,” having events cancelled, being blacklisted, threatened, and shunned. All of that struck me as really interesting and important to comment on, important to illustrate the kind of the country and world we live in.
Guernica: What do you mean by that?
Bill Ayers: We’re all against McCarthyism, but we practice a sort of day-to-day McCarthyism anyway. And of course you’re painfully aware of this around the aftermath of 9/11. Suddenly, we had a new set of enemies and a new set of scapegoats. It’s a weird thing to wake up and find yourself being shunned by people who ordinarily were just people you saw on the street. So I thought that was worth writing about, not because what I went through was so harrowing, but because it’s emblematic of the social and political world we live in.
Guernica: This moment is different from the McCarthy era, but there are strong parallels. Can you reflect on the evolution of spying and cracking down on dissenters and whistleblowers?
Bill Ayers: I’m no historian, but I can talk a bit about my experiences and my reading of these things. McCarthyism stemmed from a moment of fear and loathing and insecurity and paranoia. And it’s always at these times that people get cowed and stop opening their eyes and stop speaking their minds. That was a time of great prosperity in America, post-World War II, but it was also a time of threats from within and gearing people up to be willing to risk everything, to risk the world, in some kind of cooked-up confrontation with Russia and then China. It was part of a big agenda to get people in line and it was remarkably successful. The reason I raise McCarthyism in the book is not really to make a parallel, but simply to say, as I do about all kinds of social phenomena: we’re all against McCarthyism now because we know better. We would never ever go for a blacklist today. Except that, if it comes in a slightly different form, we do go for it. My brother often says that if anyone asked us, as college professors, to provide the state with the names of Jewish students in our classes, we wouldn’t do that—we know better than to do that! And yet, they are asking professors to give the names of people whose immigration status might be sketchy, and people do go along! So what have we actually learned?
One of the parallels that I have recognized is that fear is a profound motivator for bad behavior and for conformity and going against your principles, going along with an authoritarian or autocratic impulse in the state. I think we live in a very difficult and treacherous time right now. The problem with right now—and this is always the way it is—is that what we see in front of us, we just take for granted: “This is the way it is, this is real life.” I often ask my students, “You’re against slavery, right?” And they all say “Oh yes, definitely against slavery.” And would you have been against slavery in 1845? “Yes, I would have been.” So you see, we’re all abolitionists now. We’re all suffragettes. And we’re all anti-Apartheid now. The problem is that when it actually mattered, where were the majority of folks? The fact is, during slavery, most people went along because it was as natural as rain. During the years when women couldn’t vote, that was just the way it was. Or mass incarceration—we don’t oppose it as we should. I raise those things not to beat us up, but simply to ask, what are we missing today? What are we missing by allowing ourselves to be beat down by the dogma of common sense? Common sense is the most insistent dogma we know.
Guernica: I think people of my generation would say, “Yeah, we would have been out there on the streets opposing the Vietnam War.” And yet today we’re in a perpetual state of war and there is not that kind of mass mobilization.
Bill Ayers: I remember my dad, near the end of his life, saying, “Oh, that Vietnam war, we were all against it.” And I looked at my brother and raised my eyebrows. Yeah, we were all against it, after it happened. In 1965, only a tiny group of people was against it. And an even smaller group spoke up and acted out. And so we have to ask ourselves not if we were good people then, in history and in hindsight, but what we are missing now. We are in a state of permanent war. We’ve spent over a trillion dollars on wars since 9/11—hundreds of billions a year on the military. We are in a state of unbelievable mobilization for Armageddon.
I refuse the idea that because some bozo with an email account says he’s going to burn down the student union or whatever, we all have to cower and take that seriously.
A great recent example of this madness is Syria. The conversation, as usual, is driven by the twisty logic of liberal hawks and neocons. The day before the idea came up to put the chemical weapons under international control, nobody was talking about it as a possible solution. The day after: “Well shit, why didn’t we think of that before?” One answer is that we don’t allow our radical imaginations to soar.
Guernica: For example?
Bill Ayers: Well, for instance, I often challenge my students to come up with a hundred things we could do right now to make a more peaceful world. Think about it: right away we could close Guantanamo, we could pay reparations, we could close foreign military bases, step down from our nuclear stockpile, and we could join the International Criminal Court. These are just five things off the top of my head. There are hundreds more. But because the common sense or the given is so powerful, we don’t mobilize ourselves around our imaginations and that is a huge mistake. And that’s part of what many of us are trying to do in our teaching and our activism, and it is part of what I am trying to do by writing about a life as it’s lived, without the benefit of hindsight.
Guernica: Could you discuss the liberal reaction to you during the madness of the 2008 election and the reaction to Obama’s potential or imagined radicalism by Liberals?
Bill Ayers: It was both amusing and disheartening to become a character in the election, that people we knew well in the Chicago community of academics and NGOs and foundations and so on backed away from us. Some of our closest friends would say, “Well, you didn’t belong with those people anyway,” which is true. But one thing that was interesting to me was how quickly people were to distance themselves from any possibility that a radical had a place in the conversation at the table. I am a radical, and an unapologetic radical—that’s true. But I think if we look at history, it’s the radicals who are proven to be on the right side of history again and again in this country. So it was amusing and sad to see people who live right around the corner from us trying so hard to give Obama a shot at the presidency that they found it necessary to slam us publicly or to look the other way or shun us. Radicals made it possible for Obama to be in that position. And when it was all over, of course, people would come up and say, “Oh isn’t this great, we won this great victory.” I find that kind of hypocrisy deadly. And in the book, I talk a bit about how easy people find it to conform to a kind of groupthink about what the proper way forward is, when actually, if we all stood up and told the truth, we’d find a more complicated, nuanced way forward. But I’ve never put my hope in elections as a way that we make progress.
One problem with our politics today and with traditional liberal or progressive politics—and we see this in the Obama administration as well as the Bloomberg administration and the Rahm Emanuel administration in Chicago—is that people who think of themselves as “progressive” and “liberal” are so certain of their good intentions and their intentions to uplift their inferiors that they blind themselves to the impact of their policies. They blithely deny the agency, feelings, thinking, and meaning-making of non-elites. And of course they are then shocked when the people they are trying to “uplift” don’t go along with the program. With Bloomberg, for instance, you can just see the disillusionment in him right now, saying, “Look I did all this stuff for you ungrateful people, what’s wrong with you?” Rahm Emanuel can’t believe it when he goes out to a school and gets booed. But that’s because people like them are not really people who believe in participatory democracy. They are not people who believe that more democracy is the solution to problems in a democracy. They don’t believe for a minute that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions. They are people who believe that technicians with data are the proper people to make decisions about the things that affect all of our lives. I couldn’t disagree more.
Guernica: In the book you talk about how schooling is increasingly about obedience and conformity as opposed to “hearty doses of skepticism and irreverence and doubt.” Could you talk a bit, as an educator, about what’s going on in our schools in places like Chicago and New York?
Bill Ayers: Chicago is ground zero for the catastrophic takeover by the corporate agenda for what they laughably call “school reform.” But it’s also ground zero for the fight back, so I am not gloomy about the chances to win this battle. This is a wide open contested space even though the forces of reaction have the money and the megaphones and the corporations.
Guernica: What exactly is that corporate agenda as you see it?
Bill Ayers: What the corporate reformers believe is that education is a product like a washing machine or a toilet or a hammer, something that’s sold on the marketplace. And the market, they believe, is the best—and sometimes the only—arbiter for creating good things for everybody. Of course, you and I know that the market, necessarily and by definition, spits out winners and losers. And in this country, given our fraught history with race and class, we know who the losers are going to be. They are going to be the people who have traditionally been set up to lose. So the corporate reformers come along with their three-part agenda, which is basically: one, privatize the public space; two, take away any collective independent voice of the teachers; and three, reduce education to a measurable test score. This is the agenda promoted by Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, Rahm, Gates, Bush, Clinton, and all the rest.
Guernica: What would the alternative to the agenda look like?
Bill Ayers: Instead of education as a market, we need to argue that education is a human right that every child has at birth. And that right, as it’s described in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the right to an education that develops the whole human personality to participate in the fullness of civilization. Well shit, that’s not a test score. That’s not something you can reduce to a number, no matter how elegant your number is. So whenever Arne Duncan says we need to be data driven, I always shout back at the television that we need to be child driven and data informed. The idea that data is bigger than anything reduces humanity to a bunch of widgets and numbers.
The other thing is that every society can be understood by understanding its schools and vice versa. So every autocratic and authoritarian society of course has autocratic and authoritarian schools. Kids learn about obedience and conformity in fascist Italy or Germany or Spain. Likewise, in Apartheid South Africa, you learn about the color line and your place within the hierarchy of winners and losers and the accompanying mythology. In a theocratic state you’d learn to bow down to the Pope or the Ayatollah. In a kingdom you, learn fealty. What I’m arguing again and again in my work—and again in this book—is that education in a democracy demands something dramatically different. You can sum it up by saying that democracy is based on the fragile but precious ideal that every human being is of incalculable value. We should aim to create a school system that encourages initiative, courage, entrepreneurship, imagination, creativity, and construction, not obedience and conformity. Sadly, if you look at the schools in Chicago, for example, they are doing the opposite. So that’s what the fight is about. And the reason I feel so passionately about this, and have for my whole adult life, is because I don’t see education and democracy or education and freedom as separate. I think of democracy and education as part and parcel of the same thing. When we fight for free and decent and forward-looking schools, we are actually fighting for democracy.
Guernica: How do you respond to the attacks on teachers?
Bill Ayers: When politicians say we have to get the lazy and incompetent teachers out of the classrooms, a lot of people nod along, including me. Because if you frame the debate that way, who wouldn’t agree? Shit, I don’t want incompetent teachers educating my grandkids. But, if I get to the podium first and I say that every kid in an American public school deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring, hard-working, well-rested and well-paid teacher, then I win that argument. So who’s framing the issues?
Guernica: One thing I found compelling in your book was how you seem to have found these teachable moments amidst the censorship and the war and the threats on your life, as well as what you describe as the “heckler’s veto.”
Bill Ayers: I do try to engage folks when they picket me. I had knee surgery last month and yesterday was the first public talk I’ve given since then. It was out at a little school in the western suburbs of Chicago. A week beforehand, they started to get hate mail and threats and all the rest of it. So one of the officers at the school called me and worried with me about whether I wanted security. I told him absolutely not. I refuse the idea that because some bozo with an email account says he’s going to burn down the student union or whatever, we all have to cower and take that seriously. If I freaked out every time a threat is made against me, I’d be living my life in a bunker. Part of what I try to do in talking about some of those events in the book is to say that we give them way too much power when we bow down to those kinds of threats. We should stand up and be able to say what we believe without fear, and we should talk to people, human being to human being. I tend to talk to the people who picket me and I try to engage them. Not because it’s always successful but simply because I don’t want to get put into the same trap they put themselves into, which is to dehumanize someone else. People are insecure and frightened and driven by a sense of dread about the future. And I get that—I understand that can motivate people to do a lot of stupid shit.
There’s another reason I have tried to engage the Tea Party again and again, and that is to try to show all the other people in the audience that it can be done, that you don’t have to barricade yourselves—progressives do this in the education struggle sometimes and it drives me nuts. They barricade themselves because they feel they are under such intense attack from the right and they don’t have weapons of their own, so they cringe and sit in their offices with their doors shut. The other thing I try to combat by talking to Tea Party folks, for example, is the sentiment across the political spectrum that we, “the good people,” know all the answers and nobody else could possibly understand the preciousness of these beliefs that we hold. And I think that’s bullshit. It’s elitist.
Guernica: Your book includes moments that illustrate how people who are powerful or privileged, or speaking on behalf of power, are allowed to be experts, while those questioning power, those who are marginalized in some way or another, are often not allowed to be experts or even be heard on the issues that they know best.
Bill Ayers: Exactly. When you get to this question of experts, one of the things that marks a lot of liberal and “progressive” hawks is that they really believe in this concept of expertise in this self-serving, top-down way. I really don’t. I believe that you and every one of us is an expert on our own lives. And as experts on our own lives we have a right to enter the public square and have a conversation about the important issues of the day. The idea that we can’t possibly understand what happened in the fiscal crisis because it is way too arcane for us is bullshit. We have a right to weigh in and a right to understand every issue. And if it is somehow made indecipherable, that is part of the problem, and it is part of the control mechanism, too.
What Wikileaks represents essentially is us watching them watching us. That may be the best we can do for right now, but it is pretty fucking good.
Guernica: I take it you support whistleblowers?
Bill Ayers: This is an amazing moment. To listen to the NSA worm and squirm and try to explain itself and why it’s doing what it’s doing, it’s an absolute affront to anybody who believes in the most basic ideas of a democracy. And the amazing thing about the revelations (and why I’m wearing my Edward Snowden T-shirt that says “Team Snowden” on it) is that every time they deny something, Snowden drops another revelation on them, and of course it turns out they’re lying all the time. You had asked earlier about surveillance, and as we know, with all the breathtaking advances in technology it has meant that the spying is constant and pervasive. And it has brought up that old argument between Brave New World and 1984. The image of authoritarianism in 1984 is the billy club, the boot, and the hammer. The image in Brave New World is drugs, sex, easy pleasure, and manipulation. Well, we get a combination of the two now, depending on where we stand. There is no question those books were prescient in telling us where we live and what was in store. The reason why I’m all about Snowden and Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning and Anonymous and whistleblowers in general, is because 1984 is not a theory but a fact—it’s upon us, albeit it in a different package. What Wikileaks represents essentially is us watching them watching us. That may be the best we can do for right now, but it is pretty fucking good.
Guernica: It’s worth mentioning that, in the midst of the constant vilification by Fox News during the election, you half-jokingly mention in the book feeling a bit like the character Goldstein in 1984, during the two minutes of hate when everyone is shouting at the screens to “kill him.”
Bill Ayers: And what’s the frenzy based on? It’s based on fear and hatred and it’s based on loathing someone who is different from “us.” And that’s very much the world we live in. You know it well and have written about the scapegoating of Arab-Americans and Palestinians. But we’re getting to the place where a lot of these things are becoming more and more transparent and can give us good openings for conversation. The kinds of standards that we, the United States, want to hold everybody to, the U.S. does not want to apply to the actions of the U.S. itself. So torture, rendition, assassination, all of these things are bad. Unless “we” do them. Because we are an exceptional people. Our hearts are always pure. But it’s entirely transparent to most people. Just looking at the last week or two alone, Syria is forced to sign the ban on chemical weapons, or Iran is threatened with war if they build a nuclear program, but no one talks about the one country in the region that has weapons of mass destruction in spades. No one mentions the one country that undoubtedly possesses tons of chemical weapons and hundreds of nuclear warheads, but has never ratified any of the treaties. That country, of course, is Israel. So why not a comprehensive ban on all of these horrible weapons, for everyone in the region? No, only Syria has to put its nose in the dirt and eat shit. Israel, with U.S. cover, gets a pass, because they too are exceptional and above the law. The U.S. cannot even publicly utter what everyone knows, let alone have the gall to suggest a nuclear-free Middle East that includes Israel. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but it is see-through.
Guernica: The other day I heard a clip of President Obama criticizing people who criticize American Empire. “The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda,” he said, “but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion.” But right after, he came out and described the U.S. as exactly that, an imperial power. Not in name of course, but in practice. He said: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War. We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” In effect there seems to be a sort of disconnect, perhaps cognitive dissonance or perhaps just straight up dishonesty on the part of all American presidents who enact empire on a daily basis, while simultaneously saying we are not an Empire.
Bill Ayers: It’s sociopathic. How can anyone in the world listen to these people say “we come in peace” as the bombs rain down? So I think that speaking the truth about these things helps bring this cognitive dissonance into line, and tries to contextualize it, put it into perspective and hold those in power accountable. That’s why we look to journalists like Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and Juan Gonzales. They play a critical role. I think one of the great things about listening or watching Amy Goodman is that she seems to follow the simple rule I.F. Stone advocated that all journalists follow, which is to assume that all governments lie. And so your job as a journalist is to then find out who’s lying, why, and what they are lying about. And if you do that, you’ll be 99 percent on track. But if you assume your job is just to be a stenographer for power, you’re doing the people no good.
Guernica: I think you could argue that those same standards apply to teachers in a sense?
Bill Ayers: Absolutely. My brother Rick Ayers has written about this beautifully. He says he’s come to terms with the fact that as a teacher, you are 60 percent an agent of the state, and 40 percent a free agent. The trick then, is to use that 40 percent really well to combat and balance the dangers of that 60 percent of your work as an agent of the state. In other words, we all work for the “man” on some level, but carving out some space of independence, a public space for dialogue and dissent is essential if we are going to live humanely.
Hell yes, I want it both ways! I want to stand up for principle and I also want to survive. I want to fight the man and I also don’t want to get hurt.
Guernica: You write about having this realization about trying to have it both ways: to be radical and revolutionary and dangerous while being also this really nice, harmless guy. And it seems to me the book reasserts your radicalism but at the same time says, “Hey guys, I’m just this nice old crotchety professor at the end of the day as well.” Can you talk about that balancing act?
Bill Ayers: That realization came to me in part after Fugitive Days was published on September 10, 2001 and then 9/11 happened and the house was falling down around me, and one of my dear friends and mentors said to me, “You seem to want it both ways.” So I began to think about it and I realized: Hell yes, I want it both ways! I want to stand up for principle and I also want to survive. I want to fight the man and I also don’t want to get hurt. In the book and in life I am trying to play with that, but I think it does speak to a deeper human quality, which is that all of us want to be principled and at the same time well-liked. Mark Twain wrote a brilliant piece about free speech called “The Privilege of the Grave,” where he says we routinely lie to each other because we don’t want to offend, we want to get along, we want to be thought of as good. He goes on and cites the example in his life, which is the question of slavery. He says, “I don’t know anyone who’s for it and yet I don’t know anyone who speaks against it.” In other words, we all want it both ways. You want to be against slavery, or whatever the moral issue of the day, but not so much as to inconvenience you with your neighbors. And I do try to explore that as a human quality, as a personal quality, and as I do so I also try to push myself to be more principled and not to always compromise. But look, it’s important to recognize that it is a balance when you are living a life. I want to raise my kids, but I also want to get to the barricades as soon as possible.
Guernica: You talk in the book about activism and revolution as valleys and mountains to describe periods of calm and periods of momentum. How would you describe the present moment?
Bill Ayers: There are, I think, a couple of reasons these are necessarily confusing times. One is that these are unprecedented times. We’re living in a moment of U.S. Empire in decline, and nobody knows what that means. No politician will really talk about it, but from right to left people have begun to discuss the fact that U.S. power is, in many ways, in eclipse. Now will that eclipse take ten years, fifty years, one hundred years? Nobody knows. Will the result of this decline be some cauldron of violence and poverty and explicit heavy-handed state repression? A new kind of slavery? Or will it be an opening to a new kind of liberation? If you look at any other empire in decline, it’s always been a bloody mess. Randy Newman sings, “The end of empire is messy at best, and this one’s ending like all the rest.” And it’s true. You look at France or England, and their transition from empires cost millions of lives. If you count World War II, India, Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Algeria, and so on—all these disasters of the twentieth century were part of that transition and decline.
Another reason I think it is confusing is that we’ve seen all the ideologies that were meant to answer everything fall short. The Communist project has shown, at least in how it was enacted in Eastern Europe and Asia, its weaknesses and its contradictions and its flaws. And the Third World project—a project based on anti-Colonialism, anti-Imperialism, and anti-nuclear weapons—has shown itself to be prone to corruption and co-optation and new ways of asserting deadly power. So it’s not surprising to me that all of this is complicated. But it seems to me we can also define this as a moment of movement-building. Only social movements change the world. Elections don’t change the world. Social movements are what have the possibility of moving history forward. And how do you get a social movement? Nobody knows exactly. But what we do know is that you cannot will a social movement into being. You can’t say I really want it, therefore here it is. Nor can you wait quietly while forces amass to create the spark that becomes the civil rights movement or the spark that was the labor movement or the abolitionist movement. You can’t just wait, nor can you will it into existence. So that means we’re living in what Myles Horton would call a valley time. It’s not a mountain time—the magical moments when everyone knows more or less what justice demands. That means it is a time for imagination, study, projects, campaigns, alliance-building, solidarity, and dialogue. We should be urging ourselves to find ways to re-frame the issues we care about. And in a world that is as out of balance as this one, if you dive in anywhere, you’ll have good work to do. But we have to connect the issues we dive into with other issues elsewhere. We need to embody solidarity. And in that work we should be looking to fight for a little more democracy, more transparency, more peace, but we shouldn’t beat the shit out of ourselves when we cannot do it all in one fell swoop. Mountain times will come and when they do, let’s be ready. The way to do this is during valley times, to connect with other people, to imagine, and to keep working.
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