October 09, 2008

Brave Bill Ayers

by Jerome du Bois

Two years ago Bill Ayers received a letter from some colleagues at a university informing him of two things: (1) they were presenting a conference on progressive education in Spring 2007, and (2) he wasn't invited. He talks about it in an interview with Revolution, the main organ of the Communist Party of the US, online here. He reproduces the letter --omitting real names and the name of the university-- and his own reply to them in the radical journal Monthly Review online here. Today, in National Review Online, Andy McCarthy quotes parts of the interview and makes his own comments, mainly to show that Ayers has not retreated one step from his commitment to making schools into indoctrination arenas; that is, he is an unrepentant socialist progressive.

After reading what Ayers said and wrote in these pieces, two things stood out for me. First was his image that true progressive educators were embattled and besieged on all sides by reactionaries and conservatives, that they need to be brave and stand up and speak truth to power, and that social justice teaching was fighting an uphill struggle --when the fact is that social justice has all but mopped up the opposition, and that's even more true today than it was two years ago. If you doubt it, read some of the entries on the sidebar here called "The Social Justice Dispositions." I'll offer just one more case in point, which Nat Hentoff reported in late September:

At Brandeis University in Massachusetts, professor Donald Hindley, on the faculty for 48 years, teaches a course on Latin American politics. Last fall, he described how Mexican migrants to the United States used to be discriminatorily called "wetbacks." An anonymous student complained to the administration accusing Mr. Hindley of using prejudicial language. It was the first complaint against him in 48 years.

After an investigation, during which Mr. Hindley was not told the nature of the complaint, Brandeis Provost Marty Krauss informed Mr. Hindley that "The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty." A corollary accusation was that students suffered "significant emotional trauma" when exposed to such a term. An administration monitor was assigned to his class. Threatened with "termination," Mr. Hindley was ordered to take a sensitivity-training class. With no charges against him, no evidence of misconduct given him and no hearing, he refused in the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named.

The Faculty Senate and its Committee on Faculty Rights objected to this treatment, and so did the Massachusetts ACLU, and so did the student newspaper, Hentoff continues, but what about his fellow faculty members?

Mr. Hindley tells me that despite the response of the faculty Senate and the Committee on Faculty Rights, individual tenured members of his department, though outraged, would not stand up publicly on his behalf. One of them explained to him, "I'm about to retire." He and others fear retaliation.

Poor Professor Hindley. But it's okay for University of Hawai'i Professor Haunani Trask to write and have published a book of poetry called "Racist White Woman" --which detailed "her fantasy of punching, knifing, mutilating and ultimately murdering a white colleague she despised." I'd say that the social justice dispositions saturate higher education, and that defenders of academic freedom are the ones beseiged.

The second thing which stood out for me was Ayers's brave talk about Ward Churchill.

From the interview in Revolution:

Heís being pilloried for his politics, for being a leftist, for being a critic of U.S. imperialism as it relates to Native Americans. How can we as socialists or as communists or as leftists, how can we leave him in the cold and say, well Iím a good leftist because I donít talk the way Ward talks. I find that appalling. And I would hope that when they come to get Ward, we all link arms and donít allow it.

But when Ward Churchill got his ass handed to him, which he richly deserved, Bill Ayers was nowhere nearby. He allowed it to happen. He didn't fly out to Colorado and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that big brutal lug; instead he signed petitions and wrote an open letter of support on his blog. Real direct action, Billy boy.

Not incidentally, the university which disinvited Bill Ayers to its conference because of fear of association with his violent past was the University of Colorado, the same place which kicked out Ward Churchill. Education scholar Sol Stern reported about it in Front Page magazine here. Why did Ayers not reveal where his colleagues worked? Maybe so as not to burn any bridges? To keep his options open? Stern thought that the UC Ed people should reconsider and re-invite Ayers:

I predict that now that the contretemps about the conference is out in the open and the institution where it is to be held has been identified, the Colorado Ed schoolís exercise in pre-emptive censorship wonít stand. And that would be all to the good. The public interest and the cause of truth in advertising would best be served by having Bill Ayers participate at the conference. As we used to say in the 60s, let it all hang out. Let Bill Ayers be Bill Ayers. Not only should he speak at the conference, he should expound on his academic work in which he explains that existing American education is nothing but capitalist hegemony and that the mission of progressive educators (like himself) is to worm their way into the system, to take back the classrooms and turn them into laboratories of revolutionary change. In fact maybe he should even bring his tenured colleague from the University of Illinois, Professor Eric Gutstein, who has written about how he uses his seventh grade mathematics classroom in a Chicago public school to teach children that the U.S. had no reason at all to invade Afghanistan.

As far as I've been able to find out, Ayers was not re-invited. Perhaps he was too busy on the down-low, acting as a behind-the-scenes campaigner for Barack Obama, worming his way through the system.

Brave new worm.

Posted by Jerome at October 9, 2008 10:40 AM | TrackBack