It couldn't have been easy for Bill Ayers to keep quiet while the McCain campaign tarred him as the Obama's best friend, the terrorist. Unfortunately, the silence was too good to last. On Saturday's New York Times op-ed page, he announced that "it's finally time to tell my true story." Like his memoir, Fugitive Days, "The Real Bill Ayers" is a sentimentalized, self-justifying whitewash of his role in the weirdo violent fringe of the 1960s-70s antiwar left.
"I never killed or injured anyone, "Ayers writes. "In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village." Right. Those people belonged to Weatherman, as did Ayers himself and Bernardine Dohrn, now his wife. Weatherman, Weather Underground, completely different! And never mind either that that "accidental explosion" was caused by the making of a nail bomb intended for a dance at Fort Dix.
Ayers writes that Weather Underground bombings were "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam War." That no one was killed or injured was a monumental stroke of luck-- an unrelated bombing at the University of Wisconsin unintentionally killed a researcher and seriously injured four people. But if the point was to symbolize outrage, why not just spraypaint graffiti on government buildings or pour blood on military documents?
Spectacular violence, and creating fear of it, was the point. Along with beating people up and ridiculous escapades like running naked through white-working-class high schools shouting "Jailbreak!" It was what the Weatherpeople were all about.
"Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war," Ayers writes. " So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends." I'm not so sure that terrorism necessarily involves intentional attacks on people, but okay, let's say Ayers wasn't a terrorist. How about thuggish? Vainglorious? Egomaniacal? Staggeringly irresponsible? And illogical, don't forget illogical: as Hilzoy points out, the idea that because "peaceful protest" hadn't ended the war, bombs would is missing a couple of links. It's like a doctor saying, Well, chemo didn't cure your brain tumor, so I'll have to amputate your leg. It's not as if there was nothing else to try, after all. While Ayers and Dohrn were conveying their outrage, other people were doing the kind of organizing work that the Weather Underground despised as wimpy. Today Ayers blends himself into that broader movement, the "we-- the broad we" that "wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at inductions centers" etc., but at the time, Weatherpeople had nothing but contempt for the rest of the antiwar left. Writing letters? Off the pig! you might as well... become a community organizer!
I realize this is ancient history. As a friend who doesn't see why I am raking this all up argues, it's not as if today's left is bristling with macho streetfighters. It's hard to imagine anyone now applauding the Manson murders, as Dohrn notoriously did in l969, or dedicating a manifesto to, among others, Sirhan Sirhan. But just because it's ancient history doesn't mean you get to rewrite it to make yourself look good, just another idealistic young person upset about the war and racism. We were all upset about the war and racism. I knew people in the Progressive Labor Party who were so upset they joined the army to radicalize the troops. A freshman in my dorm was so upset she quit college, joined the October League, and went to organize in an auto-parts factory, where last I heard maybe a decade ago, she was still at work. Of the many thousands of people involved in the movement one way or another, only a handful thought the thing to do was to form a tiny sect and blow things up in the service of a ludicrous fantasy : ie, creating a white-youth fighting force that would join up with black nationalists, end the war and overthrow capitalism. Oh, and anyone who didn't see why that was the right,necessary and indeed only possible course of action was a sellout and a coward.
I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left. Not another "regrets, I've had a few," "we were all young once," "don't forget there was a war on" exercise in self-promotion, but one that showed he actually gets it. I'd like him to say he's sorry for his part in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society. He's sorry he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people. He's sorry for his more-radical-than-thou posturing, and the climate of apocalyptic nuttiness he helped fuel to disastrous results, of which the fatal Brinks robbery, committed by erstwhile comrades who became even crazier than Ayers' crew, was only the most notorious.
True, the damage wrought by the Weatherpeople is trivial compared with the war itself and has arguably been more thoroughly denounced. After all, John McCain most likely killed civilians while bombing Vietnam, and he got to run for president as a war hero. Henry Kissinger is fawned upon wherever he goes. I'd be happy to forget all about the Weatherpeople, many of whom have done good things with their lives since. But if we're going to talk about them-- and Ayers can't leave it alone -- let's tell the truth. Of all the sectarian groups from that era, Weather, in all its permutations, was the least effective and the most destructive to the movement. It was all about the romance of itself. And it still is.
By Katha Pollitt
Reprinted with permission from The Nation