Last night Nicole and I attended a lecture on campus featuring Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, noted theorists of social justice and social change, though perhaps best known as former members of the Weather Underground and as punching bags of the far-right American media, which during the 2008 presidential campaign alleged a close relationship between the couple and then-candidate Obama.
To their credit, Ayers and Dohrn turned the lecture into a discussion about activism, democracy, and the current political moment. In a brief, contextualizing talk, Dohrn suggested the moment in the U.S. has five salient features: 1) the decline but persistence of imperialism, 2) the oft-ignored acceleration of the income gap, 3) the increase in assaults on human rights, 4) the ongoing massive incarceration of non-violent criminals, and 5) the stripping of benefits of workers. Nothing new there, but Dohrn articulated well how she sees these themes playing out in the U.S. and being systematically ignored by information conglomerates.
Ayers gave a compelling talk about the gulf between the "symbolism" and "reality" of Obama. Candidate Obama was honest, Ayers said, about his moderate views and has stayed true (continuing the war in Iraq, dragging his feet on closing Gitmo, refusing to say "poverty") to that moderate ideology to the disappointment of radicals. That is the "reality," which doesn't necessarily diminish the "symbolism," best captured by images of Obama in Grant Park in November, 2008, signifying to many a victory for racial justice, a defeat of Bush extremism, and an invocation of Chicago's and America's civil rights moments from forty years prior. Ayers suggested that the Obama narrative has played out as a "great man" narrative (he mentioned visiting college campuses and repeatedly hearing things like "I hope Obama brings peace and access to health care"), a narrative which can weaken organizing and disempower movements. Lincoln wasn't an abolitionist, FDR wasn't a member of the labor movement, and LBJ wasn't a civil rights activist. Politicians respond to movements on the ground: "Critical shifts are people shifts." He closed with three suggestions: 1) change the ways issues are framed (not "we need prisons to protect our safety" but rather "how many people must we really incarcerate?"), 2) link the issues, and 3) see yourself and your world as dynamic works-in-progress.
Good discussion followed, as audience members talked about using Frerian frameworks in Lebanon, working on literacy issues with Palestinian refugees (a subject close to the hearts of Nicole and I), and other matters. Wikipedia pages on Ayers and Dohrn link to all kinds of interesting articles about their controversial pasts, and their ongoing academic and civic work.