“Activism is always an act of education,” Bill Ayers, long-time activist and co-founder of the controversial Weather Underground said. “You’re educating others as well as yourself.”
Ayers visited Knox last Thursday to deliver his lecture, titled “Where do we go from here? Peace or Barbarism?” as part of the Alliance for Peaceful Action’s annual symposium. It centered on his beliefs regarding the current state of activism and included both parables and relevant anecdotes from his own personal experiences and perspective.
Activism, according to Ayers, is also “the notion that the status quo is unnecessary,” and it is about saying “the way things are is unacceptable.”
Some students cheered Ayers’ remarks, some sneered contemptuously and many walked out mid-lecture. During the Q&A session, sophomore Alex Uzarowicz asked whether Ayers has any regrets from his past, particularly his involvement in the Weather Underground.
As a member of the organization, Ayers was involved in bombings of the New York City Police Department in 1970, the United States Capitol Building in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972.
“I did what I did,” Ayers said, responded to Uzarowicz. Additionally, he offered his belief that people at that time had no idea what they were doing any more than young activists do today.
Ayers opened his lecture by proposing a definition of a “moral citizen” as an activist, and of “activism” as both the stance that “all is not well,” and as a process that consists of a recycling set of steps: “pay attention,” “be astonished” and “tell about it.” Ayers posited that one cannot be a “moral citizen” unless one “pays attention.”
He alluded to José Saramago’s 1995 novel, “Blindness,” as an analogy, declaring that we are all “seeing people who are blind,” and pointed accusingly towards consumerism and privilege as powerful blinding forces that prevent Americans from participating in solutions to global problems. Without “seeing,” he noted, a simple business transaction may appear to lack any moral implications.
In addition to “paying attention,” according to Ayers, being a “moral citizen” also requires being able to imagine a better world parallel to this one and, moreover, that a “moral citizen” is compelled to act by a moral imperative. Ayers referred to Mark Twain for having noted that even though most white people in the 1840s were opposed to slavery, very few did anything at all to stop it. “Everyone likes to get along with their neighbors,” Ayers said, it is “always harder to oppose the status quo of today, today.”
As a historical example, he referenced Thomas Jefferson’s having been a life-long slaveholder and asserted that it was Jefferson’s privilege that made it so difficult for him to free his slaves.
“When privilege is pushing you — like the wind — you don’t notice it,” Ayers said. “You only notice it when it’s in your face.”
After touching on watchfulness and action, Ayers tackled doubt and dogma. “If you don’t doubt,” he said, “you become dogmatic.” More than the dogma of one’s opponents, he suggested, the greater concern of any activist should be his or her own dogma. Furthermore, he said, one should always consider possible connections between the environment, war, capitalism and other spheres of life.
Ayers ended his lecture asking everyone in the audience to become a “mensch” — a Yiddish word once used by Rosa Luxembourg, imprisoned in Germany for protesting during World War I, referring to a person who loves one’s life enough to enjoy every moment, and also the world enough to take action to change it for the better.
Note: Alex Uzarowicz is a columnist for The Knox Student.