Friday, October 10, 2008

Obama's Bill Ayers Problem... And McCain’s

The McCain-Palin campaign has made much of the charge that their opponent, Barak Obama, "pals around with terrorists." The "terrorist" in question is Bill Ayers, a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois who has written numerous books on education and school reform, as well as served on several Chicago charity boards.

Ayers is also a political progressive who once organized a house party for Obama during his first campaign for public office. Ayers even donated $200 towards Obama's campaign for the U.S. Senate. Obama, who has a long-standing interest in school reform, also served on two nonprofit charity boards in Chicago with Bill Ayers, a man who is considered one of the top experts in the field by many educators, politicians, and philanthropists. Indeed, in 1997, Bill Ayers was named “Citizen of the Year” by the City of Chicago.

What are we to make of this? One of the odd things I have in common with Barak Obama is that I've also met Bill Ayers. I had a long dinner with him at Luca’s Restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire, after he came to Antioch University New England to give a talk on school reform. Ayers was articulate, thoughtful, and deeply committed to improving the lives of all our nation's children, including poor kids and inner city students of color. He was also charming and witty at the dinner table. We even spent a fair amount of time talking about his complicated past during the 1960s and 1970s--an era when he and I shared similar concerns.

In the mid-1960s, for example, Ayers actively supported the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Like King, Ayers also came to believe that the U.S. government's war against Vietnam was an unjust war of aggression in which the U.S. government committed horrendous war crimes everyday, year after year. After a time, as Ayers himself admits, he was increasingly traumatized by the U.S. government's relentless campaign of torture, imprisonment, assignation, mass defoliations and bombings, forced relocations of civilians, out-of-control massacres, and the systematic murder of over two million Vietnamese people.

His basic position on the war was simple and I think correct. The war was a monstrous evil and all the people of this country had a moral duty to stop it. To this day, Ayers wishes he had done more to stop the war. To his credit, Ayers actually engaged in countless nonviolent demonstrations, teach-ins, and citizen lobbying drives against the war. He also became an influential national student leader in the peace movement, which was growing rapidly in this country by the end of the 1960s.

Yet, just around this time, Ayers began to despair that nonviolent resistance would ever be sufficient to end America's immoral war of aggression against the Vietnamese people. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist German Lutheran minister who ultimately joined an underground group that carried out acts of property sabotage and even attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, Ayers ended up co-founding a clandestine group called the Weather Underground. In the early 1970s, this group began to plan and execute bombings of public buildings like the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon, where decisions were being made daily that caused mass murder halfway across the world.

This was not Ayers' shining moment. In his memoir, Fugitive Days, he writes that his actions with the Weather Underground were understandable, but misguided acts of temporary insanity--even though no one was ever killed in any of the building bombings he planned and arranged. When reflecting back on his days with the Weather Underground, he’s said he is "embarrassed by the arrogance, the solipsism, the absolute certainty that we and we alone knew the way." This is a man who seems aware of the mistakes he made as a passionate young idealist gone awry in the face of a colossal evil.

I was also interested to hear that Ayers had even written an apology to the one person he ever injured, a lawyer caught up in the "Days of Rage" anti-war riot that Ayers helped organize in Chicago back in 1969 when the Weather Underground was just getting organized. Contrary to what McCain and Palin would have you believe, Ayers has also long condemned "all forms of terrorism--individual, group, and official." When quoted in a New York Times article in 2001 as saying "I don't regret setting bombs," a phrase the McCain-Palin Campaign trumpet over and over again in their speeches and television ads, he quickly wrote a letter to the paper and said that this was a "deliberate distortion" by the journalist and not what he believes at all.

As we sat together at dinner a couple years after this news report, Ayers talked soberly about leaving the Weather Underground in the mid-1970s and being surprised that all the criminal charges against him were soon dropped. He talked to me about how this allowed him to rebuild his career as an educator and a scholar, restore his ties with his family, raise his kids in a calmer setting, and find his way back to a nonviolent, progressive political outlook. This guy had clearly been through a lot, learned from many of his mistakes, and changed his life in profound ways. Frankly, I was impressed with his journey back from this very misguided and useless period in his early twenties.

Today, I think it is important to remember that Barak Obama was just an elementary school kid when Ayers was in the Weather Underground, and Obama has only known Ayers professionally since Ayers dramatically turned his life around and became a respected figure in Chicago school reform efforts. Furthermore, Obama has frequently said he finds Ayers actions with the Weather Underground 40 years ago "detestable." Given this, I just don't see how Obama's work on two charity boards with Ayers in the 1990s is a legitimate campaign issue.

My wish for the McCain-Palin campaign is that they immediately turn away from such guilt-by-association smears based on such half-truths. What I think this country really needs is a genuine debate about each candidate's future visions, goals, and policy approaches so we can judge which candidate has the better program to resolve the economic crisis, help the poor and middle class, create a good universal health care system, end the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq, deal with the real terrorist threat, and promote climate protection and the creation of millions of new green jobs for those who are currently unemployed or under-employed.

That was the campaign high road we were promised by McCain months ago. Unfortunately, we are just not getting that from either McCain or Palin. That's John McCain’s Bill Ayers problem.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Don't Just Vote!

In the last week, I've received emails from several young people I know and each one includes a link to an online viral video called "Don't Vote." If you can stand a bit of swearing and silliness, get on the web and check it out. This little video is a celebrity-studded, get-out-the-vote ad, which uses reverse psychology to get its pro-voting point across. Frankly, I'm proud of the various celebrities who volunteered their time to help increase the percentage of young people voting in next month's historic election. Let's send a big shout out to folks like Leonardo DiCaprio, Halle Berry, Jennifer Annison, and all the others who took part in this project.

There is a lot to like in this off-beat civics lesson. Certainly, the young folks who sent me the emails all seem to think that this five-minute video clip, which is rapidly spreading through cyberspace, will help increase the number of young people who will register and vote this year. There is absolutely no question that this is work worth doing.

My only serious complaint with the video's message to young people is that it makes one important misstep when it describes voting as "your only power." Voting is an important civic act, of course, and it is a very important way to act powerfully with others to shape the future of our communities, our nation, and our world. If you want to live in a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, spiritually fulfilling, and peaceful world, you are going to need to become a thoughtful voter.

But, should our responsibility as citizens stop at the ballot box--with just voting every few years? The lesson of history answers this question with a resounding "No!" To create positive change, we'll need a nation of active and engaged citizens, not just occasional voters. Besides thoughtful voters, we also need charitable volunteers, community organizers, citizen lobbyists, and social movement activists--all the people who time and time again have made America a more just, democratic, and equitable place to live, work, and play.

I'm proud, for example, that my youngest son is doing more than voting this fall. In addition to reading up on the issues in preparation for his first vote in a national election, he just got a low-paid field organizer job for one of the presidential candidates, and he will soon be heading out to New Mexico and Colorado to do some of the last minute grassroots organizing that is required to make an electoral campaign successful.

I'm also very proud of eight of my students at Antioch New England who have recently formed a campus student group that is part the national Power Vote campaign. Have you heard about this campaign? It is an impressive, national, non-partisan effort spearheaded by the Energy Action Coalition. It seeks to elevate the issues of climate protection, clean and safe energy, and green jobs in the 2008 election by mobilizing one million "climate voters"--with a particular focus on young people, though not limited to them. To do this, the Energy Action Coalition and its more than forty partner organizations are organizing young people, students, faculty, staff, and community people across the United States to pledge their vote "for clean and just energy." These eight students are busy studying hard this semester and gathering on-campus endorsements from Antioch's President and the Faculty Senate, tabling in the lobby during lunch hours, giving brief "class raps," collecting online pledges, and asking tough questions of candidates who visit the Keene area regardless of their party affiliation.

Power Vote also doesn't intend to stop there. They are going to encourage the one million people that sign up to vote with the Power Vote platform in mind to keep pushing all those who are elected this time round to support creative policies that will quickly move our nation toward a clean energy future that will also create millions of new green jobs, reduce poverty, improve our health, and avoid future resource wars like the war in Iraq. I am proud to serve as a faculty advisor to these talented and engaged students. They clearly see active citizenship as meaning much more than just voting every few years--as important as voting is.

In their video, Leo DiCaprio and the others jokingly say, "Don't vote." I'm quite serious when I say, "Don't just vote!"

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Get Your Power Vote On!

Guest post by Mike Goudzwaard, a MS candidate in the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch University New England. Mike is one of the eight student leaders of Antioch Power Vote:

Like hundreds of student groups across the country, students at Antioch University New England have recently launched a Power Vote effort, part of a non-partisan grassroots campaign working to get one million voters nationwide to pledge to make clean, just energy a top priority in their vote this election. Power Vote is targeting young voters and the "young at heart" to engage in the political process by voting, getting their friends to vote, and asking candidates direct questions about how they will bring about clean, just energy.

During this campaign, on Nov 4th, and throughout the next term, one million Power Voters will demand the following of our candidates and leaders: 1) make clean energy, 2) green jobs, 3) reduction of global warming gasses, 4) end our dependence on dirty energy, 5) reengage as a leader in the international community, and 6) take dirty money out of politics.

Antioch Power Vote's goal is to get at least 60% of all students, faculty, staff, and friends of Antioch New England to take the Power Vote pledge by Nov 4th. This week Antioch President David Caruso and the Antioch Faculty Senate both endorsed the efforts of our student Power Vote group. We are now tabling, doing online organizing, giving class raps, and attending campaign events pushing the Power Vote platform.

Elected officials are often blamed for conforming to public opinion around an election to gain votes, but this is part of our power. When politicians know that one million pledged voters stand together they will know that if they want to get the job, do the job, and keep the job, there will be no other choice than clean, just energy and green jobs now. That pressure holds true for blue, red, and green.

So, what can you do?

1) Pledge online and help Antioch Power Vote by putting "Antioch University New England" in the school field.

2) Share the Power Vote Platform with your friends and have them pledge online.

3) Ask tough questions of candidates, even the one's you don't plan to vote. Make climate protection, green jobs, and clean and safe energy core issues.

4) Remember on Nov 5th the next phase of Power Shift begins. We need to hold all elective leaders accountable to the Power Vote platform--no matter who gets elected.

Questions, comments or a note telling us you've taken the Power Vote pledge can be directed to

Get Your Power Vote On!