They are storied and iconic, America’s Numero Uno radical couple. In the ’60s, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers were activists and leaders in Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen. Dohrn, now 64, and Ayers, 61, played starring roles as Vietnam War dissenters. When their protests turned violent, they became fugitives from the law.
Forty years later, they are still in the game. I recently invited them to dinner at Yoshi’s Café in Chicago’s Boys Town. The national convention of Students for a Democratic Society was coming to Chi-Town. So what do these longtime Hyde Parkers think about those good old days, when radicals were radicals and the movement was muscular?
“The ‘good old days’ is a funny way to think about the left,” said Dohrn.
Ayers picked it up. “One of the things that sits very heavy on the progressive impulses today, and young people in particular, is the myth that there was a golden age in resistance, that the ’60s was where it was really at.”
Today Dohrn is a scholar and director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. Ayers serves as a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They visit college campuses around the nation, where, Ayers says, “We spend a fair amount of time debunking the received wisdom of the ’60s.”
That “wisdom,” he explains, is that resisting the war “was easy to do and everybody did it.” It was a hard-fought slog.
Iraq brings its own lessons of protest. He points to a failure of leadership in the run-up to that war. “In March 2003, we participated in the largest antiwar movement in our lives, possibly in history. Now there was a leadership problem in a sense that the leadership said this is the demonstration that will prevent a war.
“It was a wrong thing to say,” Ayers argues, “because it didn’t help people who participated in that, particularly young people, to analyze the situation, to make sense of it, to make a contribution, and then to continue organizing. It said we’ll prevent a war. That war was not preventable.”
Forget the Democrats, they say. “The Democratic Party supported the war in Vietnam …” Dohrn began. Ayers cut in: “Led the war in Vietnam.”
“And they’ve been supporting, and leading this war,” Dohrn continued. “I don’t look to the Democratic Party. I don’t have hope for the Democratic Party. I think the Democratic Party is bankrupt. And I think the only answer is for us to build an independent, radical movement, and, I mean, the big ‘us.’ “
To mount a movement, “let’s look at history,” said Dohrn between bites of her tuna nicoise salad. “Lyndon Johnson was not a civil rights leader; Lyndon Johnson was responding to a civil rights movement. FDR was not a labor leader; FDR was responding to a labor movement. We confuse these things when we think about them today.”
Indeed, that’s “a great mistake. Lyndon Johnson was the most effective politician of his generation, but it took a movement independent of Lyndon Johnson to get Lyndon Johnson to use that effectiveness for the good.”
Still, I asked, aren’t progressives putting high hopes in November? Even leading Republicans admit that the Dems are likely to recapture at least one house of Congress.
So what? That’s not the point, Ayers says. Electoral politics is a tool to connect causes, like gay rights, disability rights, voting rights, human rights. “That’s how you use electoral politics. Not as an end in itself, but as an organizing mechanism. Our deepest belief, I think, is that we need to connect all these good projects and build the movement. …we should always be positioning ourselves, thinking, okay, if I’m involved in this next election, how am I positioned to help contribute to building a movement, raising consciousness, making the connections, and that’s a real tricky business.”
It wasn’t so tricky for Ned Lamont. On Aug. 8 Lamont blew out of nowhere to knock off the pro-war U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic senate primary. For my money, that vote is a strong predictor of the power war-weary voters will bring to the polls this fall.
Despite their critiques, Ayers and Dohrn are eternal optimists. Over coffee, Dohrn reflected that their activist days can serve as a metaphor for a “candle” that illuminates the past – and the future.
“The issue holding us back today, to me, is the idea that what you do won’t make a difference. The elite powers tell us the world is too complicated. They spend a lot of energy fostering despair,” she argues.
The candle shows us that “it’s not true,” Dohrn says. “I don’t think it’s all the complicated issues of what kind of an economic society we really want and how are we going to deal with globalization and all of that. Those are tremendously complex challenges but they’re solvable by human creativity and ingenuity and collective effort.”
Stay vigilant. The light will come.