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* Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity

Posted By: Peter McLaren on January 22, 2007
Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity
By Peter McLaren

I met Bill Ayers recently in Caracas. We gave a joint seminar at the World Educational Forum (Bill, I might add, gave a rousing talk as an opening speaker) and we spent time with the wonderful researchers and activists of Centro International Miranda (CIM) where we work as algunos cooperantes internacionales. I was pleased to learn that Bill also delivered a lecture as part of the la Cátedra McLaren recently created by the Bolivarian University of Venezuela and CIM. It was, I thought, a good choice by the university administration to invite Bill to deliver the inaugural lecture (although it seems that it was more than his ‘curiosity’ that was piqued when he discovered, after the fact, that his lecture was called The Peter McLaren Lecture. I am sure he would have much rather delivered a lecture named after someone else). While in Caracas, Bill decided to purchase one of my books, Capitalists and Conquerors (one of my more theoretical works, I should add, which he claims to have read on the airplane ride back to Chicago), of which most of the chapters were co-authored, some by leading Marxist educational theorists.

When I returned to Los Angeles after my trip to Caracas, I found his review of Capitalists and Conquerors in an e-mail attachment that he sent me. I was a bit worried about reading the review since, back in the 1980s, I was told by colleagues that Bill didn’t much like my work, nor that of some of my colleagues, because he considered it to be too academic ( my Life in Schools being an obvious exception). But perhaps he no longer disliked my work, I thought, since a handful of years ago he very generously invited me to do a reflection on the work of Maxine Greene, as part of his edited collection on her work. I was wrong. After reading his review, it was obvious that Bill utterly despised my book, and in the event that he chose to publish his review somewhere, I sent him a handful of articles and a book, the contents of which I felt would easily undermine much of the general temper of his critique. Perhaps Bill could do a more nuanced reading of the book, and actually deal with the issues it raised if he became more familiar with the tradition of revolutionary critical pedagogy. As much as I would like to think Bill is motivated by honest debates among the left, my hunch is that Bill didn’t read them. He was on a roll, after all, and he didn’t want anything to derail his review, which recently appeared in Teachers College Record (December 12, 2006).

When I sat down to re-read Bill’s review more carefully, I was struck by his obsession with my “polarizing” physical appearance. That was odd, I thought, both of us wear loop earrings in both ears, and both of us sport lots of tattoos which we are only too happy to show to anyone who indicates even a passing interest. As far as I could see, we both gravitate towards jeans and T-shirts. So what is the big fascination with my appearance? I have to confess that I do look more like “Andy Warhol on drugs” than Bill, but since I don’t feel it appropriate to comment on an author’s physical appearance, I won’t make any comparisons of Bill with well-known icons, although I am tempted.

I was struck numb by how Bill discussed my reputation. Bill has obviously heard a lot about me over the years. To him, I am some kind of Manichean figure whom people love or love to hate. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when my name comes up among Bill and his colleagues. Perhaps if, instead of some articles and a book, I had sent Bill some recent photos of myself sporting an undersized plaid shirt and dual pocket protectors stuffed with pens, with my glasses held together with masking tape, he might have been more inclined to write something favorable. After all, there is only room for so many rebels in this here town known as Pedagogy Place.

While I felt Bill’s review took on serious issues I also was disappointed that Bill was either not serious in the way that he, himself, took them on or too impatient to get his initial points across—so much so that he failed to give sufficient attention to the actual arguments in the book. In other words, he didn’t provide any substantive commentary on the book’s contents. He seemed more interested in what he perceived to be my public image (Satan [the Dark Prince] “leering into the camera”, Andy Warhol, the dashing rebel) and speculating on whether or not I have a following of “McLarenites” on call to do my bidding [for all of those who might be interested, I instruct my followers in a nightly ritual in which I send out ESP messages from a secret tower hidden in the far reaches of the Hollywood Hills, so if you don’t want to become a McLarenite, wear a tinfoil hat on your head or read Bill Ayers).

Bill seemed relieved to report that I was not any one of the good or bad “stereotypes” of which he was familiar. Apparently I am just a “regular person after a couple of minutes”. I was glad to read this admission from Bill, since I was worried that people might begin crossing themselves for protection when they met me at a conference. And those tinfoil hats, well, that will definitely put you on the critical educator’s ‘worst dressed list’ for sure, and nobody wants that.

Bill is apparently disturbed by the fact that my book, Capitalists and Conquerors, is a book of theory. He wanted to see a book like my Life in Schools, the only work of mine of which he was familiar, and which he obviously appreciated. I am thankful for Bill’s kind words about Life in Schools. I think that book has probably more in common with the books that Bill writes.

Bill thinks that all books about education should include narratives about teaching and learning, and should be grounded in experiential, participatory events. Again, these are the kinds of books that Bill writes, and writes well. While I think such books are exceedingly important, there’s much more on the menu. Critical educators are more diverse than Bill would like, and perhaps Bill either regrets not following the developments in critical educational theory over the years, or he doesn’t really care.

Some of us actually believe that critical social theory and philosophy are too important to be left out of the educational literature. We believe that philosophy and theory are important tools to help us understand the world and sharpen our praxis. It seems as though most revolutionaries throughout history thought so, too. If Lenin, Che, Marx, Freire, and others took philosophy seriously, why shouldn’t radical educators?

Bill thinks he’s ‘been there and done that’ when it comes to issues of educational praxis. And he is never at a loss to share with readers his storied history as a radical educator in the 1960s. Surely, it’s a history to be proud of and a history from which all of us can learn. But there is also a tradition of writing in education that deals with the contradictions of capitalist society from a more theoretical lens. It is in his attempt to deal with substantive conceptual issues that Bill’s review crumbles into an under-nuanced, knee-jerk reaction. How, after all, could the author of Life in Schools, an award-winning book that chronicles a teacher’s classroom experiences in the 1970s, fall so low as to become a Marxist theorist interested in developing an obscure philosophy of praxis? How could an author who used to write more like Bill Ayers suddenly burden his readers with theoretical and philosophical concepts, ideas, and arguments?

One example should suffice. When it comes to the relationship of race to class Bill writes: “This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction.” If Bill read more about the debates on race and class (some of which I sent him), he would know better than to make such a glib and opportunistic claim about my work. He would know that I am not saying “class is everything” and “forget race.” That is a willful misreading of my work, but it puts him on the side of recognizing that there is a “white blind spot” that has historically afflicted white Marxists. Yes, Bill, we hear you. I agree that there is a white blind spot. Yes, I am aware of the “murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change”. In fact, I have written about these issues for years. Bill admits he hasn’t read much of my work, because if he did he would have come across numerous critiques that I have done of white supremacy that make Bill’s exact point.

In my more recent writings on the intersection of race and class, I do stress the explanatory primacy of class for analyzing the structural determinants of race, gender and class oppression. Not for analyzing their psychological aspects, or their phenomenological or cultural dimensions. But, and I will repeat this again, for analyzing their structural determinants. To reduce identity to the experience that people have of their race, class and gender location is to fail to acknowledge the objective structures of inequality produced by specific historical forces (such as capitalist production relations) that mediate the subjective understandings of both individuals and groups. While relations of oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender invariably intersect, their causes and determinations in capitalist societies can be effectively traced to the social relations of production (but not reduced to them). Most social relations constitutive of difference are considerably shaped by the relations of production and that there exists a racialized and gendered division of labor whose severity and function vary depending upon where one is located in the capitalist global economy is a commonplace assumption within various schools of Marxism. I don’t think it has eluded Bill that contemporary capitalist formations (neo-colonialist, fascist, imperialist, sub-imperialist) are functional for various incarnations of racism, sexism and patriarchy. It’s also true that capitalism can survive in relations of relative racial and gender equality—capitalism has become multiculturalized, after all. These are issues that warrant serious discussion, more serious than the one Bill has provided in his review.

One thing is clear: Race-based or feminist traditions of struggle are no less important or urgent than class-based ones. What my work attempts to highlight is how class operates as a universal form of exploitation whose abolition is central to the abolition of all manifestations of oppression. Class includes a state apparatus whose conquests and regulations create races and shape gender relations. You have to abolish a class-defending state if you want to make real headway in eliminating racism and patriarchy. Clearly, constructions of race and ethnicity are implicated in the circulation and process of variable capital. My work takes the position that forms of oppression based on categories of difference do not possess relative autonomy from class relations but rather constitute the ways in which oppression is lived and experienced within a class-based system. My work attempts to specify how all forms of social oppression function within an overarching capitalist system. Class denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. This does not mean we reduce race to class, or gender to class. We need to see this relation dialectically.

Bill knows, but fails to mention, that my approach to social struggle is multi-pronged: I choose to organize against racism, sexism, class oppression and white supremacy simultaneously as part of a larger anti-imperialist project directed towards the struggle for socialism. My work on the topic of how race and racism are linked to capitalist social relations argues that forms of non-class domination such as racism must often be fought in advance of the class struggle. Certainly we cannot make headway in fighting class oppression without fighting racism and sexism. And clearly, racism and sexism must be fought against, and tirelessly so, despite whether or not we have traced their existence to capitalist relations of exploitation.

I argue for the explanatory primacy of class in examining all forms of domination and exploitation, but that in no way suggests that class struggle is more important than anti-racist struggle. Or struggles against patriarchy. It’s gratifying to see Bill signal his affiliation with the work of W.E.B. DuBois, James and Grace Lee Boggs, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelly, bell hooks, and others. These, of course, are authors that I have admired for years, many of whom have figured prominently in my own work. By arguing that the most powerful contradiction in capitalist society is that between labor and capital is in no way saying that all we need to do is to bring on the revolution and racism and sexism and homophobia will all melt away by themselves. If Bill would only stop being the pompous provocateur and read what is actually in my work, maybe he can write a review that actually advances the conversation rather than obscures the issues.

Clearly, it is important to meet people where they happen to be, to speak to them in a language of solidarity and struggle, as Bill suggests. And as my mentor, Paulo Freire, also emphasized in his work. But there is more to it than that. Once, in a conversation with Paulo, I remarked that many people were criticizing the philosophical language that he used in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I told him that they also were criticizing my language, and those of my more theoretical colleagues, and in some cases the language of critical educational theory in general. Should we, I asked Paulo, abandon our language? He answered that our language should not be abandoned. Too many radical theorists have paid a heavy price for their work, he said. He also cautioned that, as critical educators, we are also translators, and in discussing our work with teachers and students and workers we can help translate that work in relation to the contextual specificity of where they find themselves. This requires a dialectical approach. But for Bill, dialectical language is the language of obfuscation. Bill’s dismissal of the language of dialectics (and the language of ideology critique) simply reifies the experience of the here and now (okay, folks, let’s talk to each other and get mobilized!) in a teacherly paean to a yeasty pragmatism.

Freire understood something that seems to have eluded Bill. While it is important to dialogue with teachers and students and community workers, to relate to people wherever they happen to be, it is also important to understand why people are where they are, how the juggernaut of capitalism has positioned them in relations that are not always transparent. Freire, in other words, understood the importance of dialectics.

One of my greatest disappointments is that you can read Bill’s review and not learn anything about what my book is about. You don’t learn that one of the chapters is about ecosocialism and critical pedagogy, another about Christianity, globalization and the false prophets of imperialism, another about the work of Paul Willis , or that there are several chapters on dialectics and the labor-capital relation. You don’t learn that the book is an attempt to contribute to work on Marxist educational theory, as well as a commentary and analysis of contemporary political events such as the war in Iraq.

In his failure to mention any of my six co-authors — Nathalia Jaramillo, Paula Allman, Glenn Rikowski, Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, and Gregory Martin and Donna
 Houston—Bill insults the whole idea of the collective scholarship behind this work (not a good move by the standards of any radical school) and dismisses the labor of all those involved in writing the book. In attacking a book composed of a majority of co-authored chapters, Bill is addressing, by implication, the work of my co-authors whom he fails to mention by name. What Bill did was make them invisible. Bill should know that such an exercise in silencing is anathema to the critical educator. Bill should have acknowledged all of my co-authors, unless, of course, he thinks the contributions of co-authors is merely window dressing. Or maybe in the case of Capitalists and Conquerors he believes that the co-authors are just ‘McLarenites’ anyway, and don’t really possess their own autonomous existence. Our brains are all somehow mystically attached—an easy task for the Dark Prince.

A note to Bill: Capitalists and Conquerors is not a critical ethnography. If you want an ethnography, read some of my other texts. Capitalists and Conquerors is a book that takes up theoretical issues and applies them to thorny questions involving anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle. If you are not interested in reading about critical perspectives on ecosocialism, or the work of Paul Willis, or what Marx’s labor theory of value has to contribute to our understanding of capitalist schooling, then I can direct you to plenty of studies of actual schools and communities written by excellent researchers, some of whom are mutual friends of ours. Those books are important, but that is not the type of book I chose to write.

Fed up with the language of the academy, I have tried over the years to craft an engaging, somewhat experimental style. Bill is obviously as interested in the craft of writing as I am. My own style has been described by various critics both in glowing and damning terms, and Bill obviously falls into the latter camp. So be it. Bill prefers Gore Vidal. I love Gore Vidal, too. There is a place for all types of educational work, Bill, and not all of it has to mirror your own.

Twenty years ago, my colleague Henry Giroux (with whom I was working at the time at Miami University of Ohio) and I would frequently come across criticisms of our language that were every bit as crude as Bill’s, that our vocabulary was too difficult and academic, and that if we were 'real activists' we would write in a more lean, accessible prose. In fact, I remember reading the “satire” of which Ayers speaks—I think it was called “how to write like Henry Giroux” or “how to write like a critical theorist” or something like that. Match the columns A to B, etc. We laughed out loud.

And while I surely recognized then, as I do now, the pretentious character of much academic writing, I felt that many people who passed that satire around at education conferences just didn’t have the time or opportunity to familiarize themselves with the specialized language of critical theory or to mine the richness of many of the arguments that critical theorists were making (which is not to say that critical theorists can’t be bad writers). I was thinking at the time of Herbert Marcuse and how his work influenced a whole generation of political activists in the 1960s. But I also found that some of the criticism of critical theory by self-proclaimed educational activists took on a distinctively mean-spirited and reactionary tone. I also found it curious that the critics who sounded the most self-righteous about avoiding dense tomes by philosophers while organizing on the streets would never direct the same arguments against theoretical language (at least publicly) against Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (a challenging dialectical text), or works by Foucault or Marx (not that I would ever compare myself to those thinkers). What I also discovered in those days was that many of the outspoken critics of the language of critical pedagogy characterized themselves as the ones who were participating in 'real' educational transformation, while those in the same field who wrote theoretically or philosophically driven work were relegated to the position of ivory tower intellectuals, big on rhetoric but little on action --despite what might have been their considerable educational activism and political work outside of the classroom. Those who veered from writing like a newspaper editorial were not considered serious participants in educational change. According to Bill, I guess Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist humanism, was misguided when she would go into factories to teach Hegel to the workers.

In his review, Bill acknowledges the activist work that I do outside of my writing, so I would not place Bill squarely in this camp. But his comments do echo some of the earlier historical ‘division’ between those who considered themselves the real activists in the classrooms and the streets and those who apparently chose to take up residence in the seminar room and barricade the door with copies of Das Kapital and Phenomenology of Mind.

Of course, I agree with Bill that we need to do class analysis and not just talk about it. But what are the tools that we use? Most of the language in education that deals with class is grounded in a Weberian analysis of class as a lifestyle choice dealing with relations of consumption, not production. Rarely do we see educators advance a Marxist language of class analysis. That was part of the motivation for putting together Capitalists and Conquerors. We need to do class analysis, yes, but we also need a language of critique, and to participate in the process of making such a language relevant to the conditions of the global present. Marxist humanist critique, as I have been trying to develop it in the context of creating a philosophy of praxis, isn’t enough to bring about the revolution but it can help clarify key faultlines and issues in relation to the struggle ahead. For instance, in asking the question of why so many revolutions have historically turned into their opposite, I think the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, especially her work on absolute negativity, is crucial if you believe, as I do, that developing a coherent philosophy of praxis is important (Dunayevskaya had a big falling out over the relevance of Marxism with Grace Lee Boggs, as I am sure Bill knows). Reading radical philosophy is but one of numerous activities that can help move the struggle forward; it can help to clarify our understanding of some of the major contradictions that drive capitalism and strengthen our resistance to it, along with helping us to formulate strategies and tactics necessary to engage in effective anti-capitalist work both locally and transnationally. That alone is a worthwhile endeavor, if it is a sincere attempt to make the world a place where socialism can take root. That Bill thinks developing a philosophy of praxis, or contributing to the debate over the Weberian analysis of class versus the Marxist humanist approach to class, is all about trivial polemics or academic rhetoric (rhetoric that is just fodder for the seminar room or for getting academics tenure) is a shocking admission. It is a disservice to those folks who would benefit from reading Marx, Hegel, and other thinkers and who might discover that reading these authors helps them become more coherent revolutionaries on the ground. If you read theory only for its own sake, and not in the context of developing a revolutionary project that has flesh and bones and advances social and economic justice, then yes, it can all be just a futile exercise.

Bill laments that after reading my book he did not “feel free”. Could that be that revolutionary critical pedagogy is not all about the pedagogy of “pleasure”, the pedagogy of “feeling good”. Bill makes the struggle against the universal exploitation of labor by capital to be simply a matter of populist pragmatism—of speaking to the affective consciousness of the individual. (“Hello, my name is Bill Ayers and I want to speak with you, not for you.”) It’s all in the discourse. In Bill’s view, my work, by contrast, becomes just an undifferentiated abstraction. Here, Bill’s voluntarism slides into reformism, obscuring my emphasis on transnational class struggle. Teaching suspicion of abstraction is a key component of bourgeois pedagogy. Marx, however, believed that it was through abstractions that we get a deeper grasp of the concrete. Does that mean our work should be deliberately obfuscating. Of course not. What is does mean is that we need many kinds of contributions, many guests at the banquet of social transformation.

I don’t fault Bill for wanting strategies for change. I don’t fault Bill for wanting more empirical work with teachers and students and communities. But that leaves out an entire universe of writings. Bill notes: “For all I know he’s [McLaren] made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire /oeuvre/—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis.” Yes, Bill, I have made the effort elsewhere. It’s a good thing that you haven’t read these other efforts because they might have undercut your criticism. Then again, you could always just dismiss these works, as well, as death by exhortation.

Tragically, Bill has recycled the tired and cranky old criticism of academic discourse that has been around for decades, and seems to have read my work in a way that is at least as under-nuanced as what he claims to be my own reading and writing practices. Bill’s “imprimatur-like” pronouncement on my book betrays an arrogance of presumption
 that in my view undermines his credibility as a critic. But 
in spite of his criticism, he still holds out hope that I am on the side of the good guys. No, Bill actually admits that I am “surely one of the good guys.” By that I guess he means I am not the Dark Prince. Thanks for letting prospective teachers know that if they read my work, they won’t break out in boils. Furthermore, he writes: “I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it.” I guess now is the time to thank Bill for his encouraging words, and for suggesting that while my theoretical work over the last thirty years has been mostly a waste of time, there is still hope for me if I listen to his seasoned advice. Okay. Thanks, Bill. I am sure you are one of the good guys, too.

I have admired Bill's writings on teacher education for years (no, decades) and appreciated the opportunity to speak with him at length in Caracas and share our commitment to the Bolivarian revolution. I appreciate that he would consider to do a review of my work and demythologize the mysteries surrounding the “phenomenon” of Peter McLaren. But I am disappointed that his comments amount to little more than a caricature of the anti-academy writings that still tirelessly 
circulate among those who privilege their reputations as the 'real activists'.

This type of posturing was not useful twenty years ago, and it is even less useful today. To minimize the contributions of critical theory to the project of educational transformation because its scholarly language appears too removed from everyday life is to slide into a reactionary form of populism or 'basism' about which Paulo Freire warned us against decades ago.

I am sure that it is not lost on the astute reader of Bill’s review, that his commentary on me and my work are not without their own rhetoric. Bill’s review is dressed up in the language of the benevolent school teacher who assures us that he really likes the misbehaving child whom he beats mercilessly. I guess he wanted to wield the hatchet but hide the blood. All said, if Bill is really concerned about solidarity among the left, he would have read my book less selectively. Not generously, mind you, but less selectively. I think he had his mind made up after the first twenty pages, decided he could fit his comments into his preordained activist critique of critical pedagogy that he held twenty years ago, and then went to the garage to look for a hatchet. That’s the kind of action that Sartre called “bad faith.”

Peter McLaren is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.
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 Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity by Peter McLaren on January 22, 2007  * 
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