by Justin Tucker
In the wake of the election Donald Trump, the opposition to the President was immediately emboldened, and a movement coalesced. Thousands of folks took to the streets and became involved in political activism for the first time.
The election of Donald Trump also provoked Facets Multimedia to action by hosting a series of Teach-Ins featuring provocative films that explore particular topics. The first film of the series was director Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring the late John Hurt. After the screening, there was a discussion led by the controversial activist and retired UIC professor Bill Ayers, best known as a leader of the Weather Underground.
I recently had a conversation with the proud dissident to discuss the impact of Orwell, the election of Trump, and the American tradition of radicalism. What follows is an edited transcription of our discussion.
UR Chicago: Why is Nineteen Eighty-Four important, and why is it still as relevant today as it was the day it was published?
Bill Ayers: It’s been relevant ever since it was published, and it’s picked up in massive numbers whenever people feel the hot breath of authoritarianism breathing on them, and that’s exactly what happened here since the election. 1984 is once again a bestseller. Kind of amazing when you think about it and yet not amazing at all because people are looking something — for guidance or for help. They’re looking for clarity. They’re looking for a context, and certainly George Orwell provides a chilling context for understanding how authoritarianism works and how autocracy comes to power.
Combine 1984 with Brave New World, you actually get a fairly powerful picture of the world that we’ve been living in for a long time, but its intentions are much clearer, much cleaner than what they’ve been. So, I think that reading those two books together is a must. I, myself, picked up both books right after 9/11 because we were having conversations then about all the issues that mattered so much to Orwell and to Huxley.
Right after 9/11 the PATRIOT Act, which was anything but, [used] words like “special rendition” for people being put into torture chambers and “extraordinary interview techniques” [for] torture. That’s just doublespeak, and it’s doublespeak that we all should be aware of.
UR: Your latest book is Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto. What is it about?
BA: In some ways, Demand the Impossible is relevant to this moment, but I wrote it over the last couple of years, so it was well before Donald Trump was on my radar and on most other people’s. The idea was to write a book that tried to articulate what progressives, what radicals, what revolutionaries are fighting for in this country. I was empowered or motivated by the fact we are pretty good at making a critique of what is, but sometimes we are on much less stable ground when we say this is what we want.
So, I set out to write a bit of a utopian manifesto… unapologetically utopian, and yet Demand the Impossible is an ironic title for two reasons. One, is [that] it’s taken from a slogan that was written all over the walls of Paris in 1968 attributed variously, but often, to Che Guevara, and the slogan was “Be realistic: demand the impossible!” So, it was meant to be striking in its contradictoriness. And I wanted to also, as I wrote, point out that everything that I was positing as impossible, given the framework of the political discourse that we have going on in this country, was in fact infinitely possible.
Let me give you just one example: universal, fully accessible healthcare for everyone is completely possible. In the current conversation, of course over the last decades, it’s been posited as impossible. “We can’t afford it. It’ll make us broke. It’s socialism. It’s totalitarianism.” But that’s all nonsense. The fact is that universal healthcare is easily available... It’s something that can very, very easily exist if we had the political will to do so.
So, the book is very much like that. It posits what we’re fighting for, but everything we’re fighting for is possible. But in the current context, it seems wildly utopian. Wildly beyond our reach. But in my mind, things like world peace, the United States becoming a nation among nations, the end of mass incarceration, universal healthcare, a tax code that is fair and reasonable... All these things are completely possible.
UR: You mentioned discourse. As an academic, what are your thoughts on the recent riot at UC Berkeley?
BA: You’re referring to the student demonstrations that blocked this fascist speaker, correct?
UR: You might call them demonstrations. Other people might call it a riot, but yes, that is the incident.
BA: I’ve forgotten the alt-right, Breitbart guy’s name.
UR: Milo Yiannopoulos.
BA: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I know people who were there.
I think it was a continuation of an aroused public that is saying, “We are actually now [rethinking] our participation in the political realm, and we’re going to come out in large numbers.” After Donald Trump was elected, it was anybody’s guess what would be the response of large numbers of people, but the reality is that the first test happened the day after the election. And I’ve been an activist for over 50 years and I have never seen anything rivaling that in terms of outpouring, in terms of spontaneity, in terms of creativity. It was a brilliant, brilliant mass reaction to the fact that this new president ran on a campaign that was explicitly toxic... and he moved pretty rapidly to implement a government that is fascistic. So, I was very encouraged by that.
And then the outpourings at the airports as a continuation of that. The outpourings at town halls...And the outpouring at Berkeley, too…
Now you’re asking me about the folks that broke windows, I assume?
UR: And set things on fire among other sorts of acts.
BA: Again, I don’t have any real knowledge of it except that I think it’s a distraction for people to get caught up in that and [think] that’s the story. The real story is a fascist came to campus and massive numbers of [people] and students decided that was unacceptable and decided to demonstrate against it. That some people broke and set trash cans on fire... it’s not the nature of what happened. It’s not the main energy of what happened. It’s a reaction to a fascist coming to Berkeley and the community...was disapproving of that invitation and they, I think, rightfully went up against it.
And of course the alt-right, Breitbart News people [painted] themselves as victims of brown shirts who prevented free speech. It’s just bizarre that they promulgate discrimination and white supremacy [and] suddenly paint themselves as the victim in that scenario, and that gets picked up and carried forward by different forces... But I think the demonstration was the right thing to do, and it was a brave thing for people to participate in.
UR: You’ve called Milo Yiannopoulos a fascist. What has he said or done that can be considered fascist?
BA: Well, let’s get a working definition of fascism, you and I. I think fascism begins with attentive authoritarian rule. It’s powered by spectacle. It involves the targeting and criminalizing of entire populations, the stirring up of scapegoats to explain every problem that exists, the fateful intertwining of corporate and military and government power; at the same time it involves eclipsing the public.
Breitbart News has stood for those things for a long, long time, and the fact that it’s being normalized, that it’s moved into the West Wing of the White House should be alarming for everyone.
UR: Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion” and “the use of violence as a means of achieving a goal.” You’ve described the actions of the Weather Underground as “extreme vandalism.” Is there a difference between “extreme vandalism” and the definitions of terrorism I just described?
BA: Yeah, I would say there’s a huge difference. That Merriam-Webster [definition] has a tautology in it. Terrorism is “the use of terror.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but I’ve defined terrorism many, many times. I’ve written about it.
Terrorism is the use of random violence against people, against human beings to forward a political agenda through fear and intimidation. The audience for terrorism is much larger than the victims of terrorism. So, we have lots and lots of examples right in front of us.
One example is the World Trade Center. The act was not only a crime against humanity but an act of pure terror. Dylan Roof was an act of pure terror. He had a political agenda; he decided to shoot a bunch of people randomly and kill them... to further that political agenda and his audience was much larger than the victims themselves. So, that’s what terrorism is.
If you look at the last century and a half you will notice that, while terrorism can be carried [out] by political groups, religious groups, random individuals, cults, sects, political parties, overwhelmingly terrorism is carried out by governments, and governments have been the main perpetrators of terrorism in the 20th century and beyond.
The word as it’s used in America today...it’s a word that’s racial. It’s a word that is used distinctively about a certain religion and a certain race. That’s why FBI Director Comey would refuse, even when pushed, refused to call Dylan Roof’s action a terrorist action. When a random crime occurs, it’s not called terrorism until it turns out that it’s somebody from the Middle East... Otherwise it’s just a crime or a mental health problem.
When somebody throws a rock through a window, that’s not terrorism. That’s actually something else. And if you do it for political purpose and you call it terrorism is to paint with a pretty broad brush. So, the United States government... likes to say that somebody commits arson against a car... that’s terrorism. And that’s ridiculous... and at the same time to say Dylan Roof is not a terrorist is absurd.
UR: Do you endorse using such tactics you performed as member of the Weather Underground?
BA: Well, I’m not a tactician so I don’t endorse nor condemn a tactic in the abstract. I’m sure you think of yourself as nonviolent, correct?
UR: I do consider myself nonviolent, yes.
BA: And yet you live in the most violent country every constructed by Earth, correct?
UR: There is a good case to be made there. I haven’t looked at the empirical evidence.
BA: Then ask yourself, “Since I live in a violent country and I’m a nonviolent person, what am I willing to do to stop my violent country from committing the violence that it commits all over the world? What am I up to doing?”
So, let’s just take a couple of examples... If you had lived in the United States in the days of slavery, you can certainly see from the perspective of a hundred and fifty years later, that you were living in a violent society, right?
BA: In the violent society, whether anybody rose up or not, it was society maintained by violence. So, when John Brown or Harriet Tubman — who incidentally carried a pistol in their pocket — or Frederick Douglas or Nat Turner rose up against that violent system, you would be in favor of that rising up against the violence, right?
UR: Yes, I would. I support people taking the means necessary to protect their own lives and to fight back.
BA: You’re saying it’s okay for people to protect their own lives... So, Harriet Tubman with a pistol is okay, but John Brown attacking Harpers Ferry is not okay?
UR: There’s a little difference between those two things. Definitely we can say at the time John Brown would be considered a terrorist.
BA: He was! He was! And not only was he, he was executed for his crime. But notice two things. One is that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a book called John Brown. That Henry David Thoreau, who I’m sure you admire, wrote a book called A Plea for Captain John Brown and considered it his best book.
Let’s think about the reality of what was going on at the time. Yes, many people including the government, including Abraham Lincoln, condemned John Brown and killed him. Many other people defended him because they said the system was so violent and so oppressive and exploitative that it had to be opposed.
On the other hand, I think you probably think Nelson Mandela was a world figure of heroic proportions? I’m just guessing.
UR: I’m not a communist, but I support Nelson Mandela in the sense that he was sticking up for his people and trying to combat the oppression that was going on in South Africa.
BA: And you know what Nelson Mandela was in jail for all those years?
UR: It was terror or conspiracy, wasn’t it?
BA: Yeah, it was for conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was charged as a terrorist and went to prison for life...for organizing sabotage against the South African government. And most people in the West today are okay... with Nelson Mandela because he’s proven to be on the side of justice. At the time the US government called him a terrorist, banned him from the country. His organization was on the terrorist watchlist.
I’m only mentioning that because we’re talking about violence, and you were asking me if I think tactics are called for. Yes, I do. In Nat Turner’s case, in Harriet Tubman’s case, in John Brown’s case, in Nelson Mandela’s case.
I’ll give you one more case. If you look closely at the pictures of Martin Luther King in 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycott, you will notice two men with shotguns are sitting in their living room. Is that okay with you? It’s okay with me... Not that history has moved on, we all see...they were protecting him from being murdered.
UR: When you go into the nuances of it, I guess I’m not so much a pacifist. You don’t want to be passive to allow people to hurt you. I’m against initiating aggression. That’s a more accurate way of describing myself.
BA: So, you’re against the US government, as I am. So, we agree. The initiator of the violence should be stopped and that, in the modern world, is the US government, which has the largest military ever assembled on Earth, which has seven wars going on at the moment.
UR: You’ve spoken of American tradition of radicalism being one of the great things about America. Why is that?
BA: Because everything you and I take for granted today was brought to us by the activism of radicals, and that includes the abolition of slavery, a woman’s right to vote, the eight hour work day, clean water, clean air. None of this came because of the sudden awakenings of power. It came because of from fire down below, and fire down below is what I believe in, and it’s the only place I know to organize.
Let me give you two examples. One, Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address was a law and order speech which reassured the slaveholders that he was fine with slavery. Four years later, the second inaugural speech — the one reprinted in civics text books and could have been written by Frederick Douglas — says, “For every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
So, what happened to Lincoln? Did he just suddenly get a good idea? No, a lot happened to Lincoln. The abolitionists wouldn’t stop and they wouldn’t give up and they kept pressing through the Emancipation Proclamation and onward.
UR: If you could pick your own films to screen at Facets, which would it be and why?
BA: If I were staying in the realm of totalitarianism, I think Fahrenheit 451 is a valuable film, a brilliant film. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliant, and there are many, many others. I think Triumph of the Will is an amazing film to look at from its period.
But if I were to go pick a film in education, I might go with The Class, the French film about a French teacher to immigrant children in Paris. Or I might go with Half Nelson.
If I were talking about film that could explain the 1960s without being didactic, I would go with What Happened, Miss Simone? Or I might go with The Trials of Muhammad Ali by the great Bill Siegel, that just came out last year.
In other words, I’m a film nut just as I am a book nut. Don’t get me started because we’ll end up with about 200 films!
How about V for Vendetta? That’s another one that I think is a brilliant. And since the Wachowski siblings live here in Chicago, I hope they do screen V for Vendetta.
Facets Teach-Ins continues with Triumph of the Will on April 2nd, A Face in the Crowd on April 23rd and Sicko on May 1st. Tickets can be reserved at facets.org. The screenings are free with a $10 suggested donation.