Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bill Ayers on being banned from speaking at the U. of Nebraska

Bill Ayers was one of those who became part of the collateral damage left in the wake of the Hillary Clinton and then McCain/Palin guilt-by-association assaults on Barack Obama. Last month Ayers was banned from speaking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Today, he was allowed to publish this OP-Ed piece in the Omaha World-Herald. Because you won't be able to read Bill's entire piece on-line unless you subscribe to the World-Herald, I am running it in full here at SmallTalk. -- M.K.



William Ayers (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Omaha World-Herald November 12, 2008

On October 17th, 2008, officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled three talks I was scheduled to give in mid-November at the College of Education. The College is celebrating its Centennial this year, and a faculty committee determined last February that I could contribute in some way to the intellectual dialogue that marks these kinds of occasions. I was invited to prepare a paper on narrative research in schools and communities as part of a student research conference, and then to engage graduate students informally in a “fire-side chat” about qualitative inquiry and their own research agendas, challenges, and demands. Finally they requested I give a Keynote Address, which I had tentatively called, “We Are Each Other's Keepers: Research and Teaching to Change the World.”

The day before the cancellation, and at the height of the presidential campaign, an administrator had called me to say that my pending visit was causing a "firestorm." She said that the governor, a US senator, and the Chairman of the Board of Regents had all issued statements condemning the decision to invite me to campus.

The president of the university said, "While I believe that the open exchange of ideas and the principles of academic freedom are fundamental to a university, I also believe the decision to have Ayers on a program to celebrate the College's Centennial represents remarkably poor judgment." The Regents Chairman added that while he welcomed controversial viewpoints, “The authority we grant to the faculty to decide what to teach and who to invite comes with a responsibility to use that authority and that freedom with sound judgment. In this case, I think, that was violated.” That last statement struck me as worthy of the disciplinarian of a middle school commenting on a decision about homecoming made by the student council.

The administrator told me further that the university was receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as promises of physical disruption from anonymous sources were I to show up. She said that the university's threat assessment group had identified “serious safety concerns.”

I sympathized and told her how terribly sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a group of extremists claimed they might do, I said, I thought that the Nebraska state police could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there.

She wasn't so sure, and, who knows? I'm not from Nebraska.

Still, I said, I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures. Is a public university the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor? Are there things we dare not name if they happen to offend a donor? Do we institute a political litmus test or a background check on every guest? Do we collapse in fear if a small mob gathers with torches at the gates? I wouldn’t force myself on the College, of course, but I felt that canceling would send a terrible message to students, bring shame to the university, and be another step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.

It's hard to think what consistently rational argument could have been advanced in the halls of power for canceling my scheduled time in Lincoln. That I'm not a patriot? I love the country, period, but loving our country mindlessly and thoughtlessly, closing our eyes to those dreadful things that our government has done and continues to do, cannot be a criterion for entering a conversation. In fact, speaking up, engaging in the public square, resisting injustice is every citizen's responsibility; it is in fact the essence of democracy. Future generations will decide who the true patriots were: those veterans, for example, who threw their medals at the White House 40 years ago, those who had the courage to refuse to fight an illegal and murderous war, those who suffer in silence at home today, or those who claim to know which part of Virginia is the real Virginia.

That I'm an unrepentant terrorist with no regrets? I am not and never was a terrorist. Terrorists use indiscriminate violence and target the innocent, intending to kill and engender fear among people. Nothing I did 40 years ago was terrorism; the fact is that no one was killed or even injured by any actions of the Weather Underground. We were militant to be sure, we crossed lines of legality and perhaps even common sense, but we were not terrorists. By contrast the war on Vietnam, at the cost of thousands of innocents killed every month for 10 years, was indeed an instance of unspeakable terror.

I make no claim that violence should be part of any progressive movement; indeed, I believe that nonviolent direct action is a powerful tool for social change. But I must note here that our government has been the greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967. We live in fact in a sewer of violence, often exported, always rationalized and hidden through mystification and the frenzied use of bread and circuses. If opposing all violence is the oath that must be spoken in order to come to Lincoln, consider who will be excluded: both of your US Senators, your governor, the president and his entire cabinet, the liberal head of the New School and the leaders of both major political parties, military recruiters, and anyone not a pacifist; and don't forget Nelson Mandela -- he wasn't in prison all those years merely for acts of civil disobedience.

I am a political radical, a lifelong educator, and a skeptic. But I'm not the least bit radioactive. It is true that I was made unwittingly and unwillingly an issue in the recent presidential campaign, and that unwanted celebrity is absolutely the only reason I'm not allowed to speak this week at the University of Nebraska. But the fallout will affect me only marginally. The university will surely suffer: after all, the primary job of intellectuals and scholars is to challenge orthodoxy, dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of all authoritative claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the taken-for-granted. The growth of knowledge, insight, and understanding depends on that kind of effort, and the inevitable clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed. In this case Nebraska has shunned its responsibility.

Other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in central Omaha, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math teacher in an Oakland middle school. They and countless others immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with your head down.

In Brecht’s play Galileo the great astronomer set forth into a world dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: “The cities are narrow and so are the brains,” he declared recklessly. Intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo found himself propelled toward revolution. Not only did his radical discoveries about the movement of the stars free them from the “crystal vault” that received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his insights suggested something even more dangerous: that we, too, are embarked on a great voyage, that we are free and without the easy support that dogma provides. Here Galileo raised the stakes and risked taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority, and it struck back fiercely. Forced to renounce his life’s work under the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, he denounced what he knew to be true, and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of the faithful, but exiled from humanity—by his own word. A former student confronted him in the street then: “Many on all sides followed you…believing that you stood, not only for a particular view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of teaching— in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute.”

While there is no Galileo in the current dispute, this is surely what all the nonsense of demonizing and now excluding me finally comes down to: the right to a mind of one’s own, the right to pursue an argument into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church and its orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.


  1. thanks for posting this, excellent article by Bill. Nebraska doesn't know what it's missing!

  2. Was this posted in the Obama World Herald?

  3. Oh, I get it, real patriot. You remove the M from Omaha and put in a B and then remove the H and put the M back in and it spells Obama. Shows you've learned your alphabet and are truly a patriot.


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