Owning up to our connection to Ayers
Before we put this awful, sadomasochistic election campaign behind us, we need to deal with one of the most shameful parts of it — the treatment of Bill Ayers by both political parties.
There was a powerful lie of the “I didn’t inhale” sort in the whole use that was made of Ayers, the 1960s-era Weather Underground member. The vicious attack on Obama by the most absurdly tenuous guilt-by-association with this militant anti-Vietnam war protester (now a respected university professor) is one of several desperation moves one hopes lost McCain/Palin votes. But equally shameful is how the Democrats fell all over themselves dissociating Obama from Ayers.
It’s time for those of us who were there to stand up and put straight our connection with Ayers. If you were up and running in the late 1960s and early 70s, chances are very good you inhaled. And when Bill Clinton said that silly thing about not inhaling, you said, “Yeah, right. And you didn’t dig the subversive music of Dylan and Hendrix and the Stones, and you weren’t doing what you could to keep from wasting your life and spirit in that particular American war.”
To say you didn’t inhale is to declare yourself to have been the clueless Mr. Jones in Dylan’s famous song and expecting to get credit for it!
The fact of that time was that there was a terrible, tragic war going on, Iraq times 10, measured just in American casualties. Going on and on. By the time Ayers moved on to more determined antiwar action, a substantial and growing majority of the whole country wanted that war to stop. Chances are you were doing something in opposition to that war: trying your best to deprive it of your body for starters, participating in campus protests, boarding a bus for DC protests. Chances are that in one way or another you felt part of that vague but huge thing called the Anti-War Movement.
Smoking pot was not the only widely approved illegal activity. Going up against tear gas, getting dragged off to jail in protests, burning draft cards, occupying private university property were all considered by many to be gutsy acts in a good cause. Chances are that when you heard about more aggressive activities of the Weather Underground, you didn’t get on your high horse and blame them for going too far. I know I didn’t. I thought: Jeez, those guys are nuts; they’re going to get themselves jailed or killed. Don’t they realize what they’re going up against (the might of the U.S.)? Mostly, however, I felt challenged by what seemed their greater determination and willingness to put it on the line.
Ayers was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR on Nov. 18. Asked if he was a terrorist he was clear: Absolutely not. We targeted only property, not persons (the ones who famously got killed in their activities were three of them making bombs, including Ayers’ girlfriend). Did he now think planting a bomb in the Pentagon and other such militant actions had been effective in stopping the war? No, probably not. But, he asks, who had a better idea?
Stopping the murderous, indefensible war was a job that by the late 60s most of us wanted done. The more committed among us moved to more militant actions because the less militant, peaceful, symbolic protests (remember the chanting to levitate the Pentagon?) were not getting the job done.
Ayers’ reasonable conclusion is that none of the anti-war activity was effective. The war went on and on, killing untold thousands more on both sides, and ended finally only when we lost it. Ayers says he’ll apologize when we all apologize for not doing enough to get the job done.
It is wrong and a denial of history to disown the more committed anti-war protesters of the Vietnam era. Ayers is an uncomfortable reminder of the truth of that era, the situation we were all in, and what we did or didn’t do about it.
Brent Harold of Wellfleet, a former English professor, is the author of “Wellfleet and the World.”
As a college student in the late 60’s, growing up in Chicago, this certainly brings back memories. Bill is right. There was frustration with the establishment not listening to what we were saying. Forget the philosophical talk, we just didn’t want to die or kill for stupid reasons. We needed to change the direction and nothing was working. In those days, if you weren’t 40 or over your opinion really didn’t count or was considered extremely idealistic or sophomoric. I found it interesting that the big Nov 5 celebration for Obama was literally walking distance from the place where 40 years ago we also pressed for change from our government at the DNC. Hopefully the voices that voted in this past election will be heard much better than we were; and with less violence.
Where have all the flowers gone?
God, I’d forgotten about people trying to levitate the pentagon…that does make me laugh. I came out of Austin SDS and was in the National office when you all were. When I started hearing your name all over the news I had to look you up! And read your book.
I’m certainly respectful of your memory! I’ve never stopped feeling the savagery of the war in Vietnam and the equally savage racism here. Both peaking at the same time. I appreciate your book and being reminded of so much and now having something for my children and grandchildren to read. I think it’s important that we don’t forget. And I’m proud of all that we did accomplish even if it was no where near enough.
I agree with this Cape Cod article, I havn’t been too pleased with the Democrat response either. I certainly would have liked the new admin being open to dialogue with you re education, so important and so dysfunctional.
I’m proud of how you’ve stood up in this most recent storm and wish all the best to you and your family. I know you know how to watch your back but I send wishes for safety also.
P.S. I’m looking forward to more books!
It is important here that we all understand the history is a political project. It is written by people who make choices to include and exclude certain voices and narratives. The 60s to someone like myself, who came around long after the “counter-culture revolution” is represented as either a time of rock music, freaking out on drugs, rebellious teenagers, and most dramatically, a peaceful resistance for civil rights. What Professor Ayers has refused to let us forget is that the 60s cannot be fit into the categories that popular culture allows to be used. There were many movements, many strategies, and many different kinds of people who all had different strategies for getting what they wanted. Some of those groups were against actions taken by the United States in the name of the people because they saw those actions as terrorism, as barbaric, and as ultimately against what the United States is supposed to stand for. The narrative of the entire US united is peaceful resistance has drowned out many of the other voices that were sounding at the time. We should never forget that movements are made of assortments of different opinions and they are never as unified as they are depicted to be.
I think what is important here is that we look at the 60s for what they were, and not what we wanted them to be. We must learn from the events that took place, and we must move on. Professor Ayers has moved on. He is still struggling for justice, peace, and education, but his ideas have changed and the discussion has evolved.
We did try to levitate the Pentagon and you know, it didn’t work. Where is the real Santa Claus?
Let’s hope our current struggle is based on people who will do enough: to tackle that we have millions of children and adults with out health care, and to stop the tax and spend pork barrel give away to the corporations who made poor decisions and did bad business and wage war on a decent middle class? Who will stop the insidious nature of big insurance and big pharma that literally is sucking out the least financial breath from our sick, elderly, mentally ill and those suffering with dementia. We did not do enough to stop the Vietnam war…hopefully we have learned how to stop the war on our sick, ill, elderly, undereducated, and those forced into poverty from deregulation run amok.
I think I just better go back to Lake Forest Academy and re-learn the basics all over again…then again the reunion cocktail party will be more fun than returning to class and besides we can think of how disappointed Harold Corbin would be.
I think that the statement “the more committed among us moved to more militant action” because symbolic protest was not getting the job done is a disgraceful moral copout. There were a lot of things that could have been done short of violence. If there is an area Mr. Ayers has not fully addressed, I think this is it.
I strongly sympathize with Mr. Ayers as far as what took place in the campaign. It was a disgrace. Quite aside from the fact that I gave everything in my being to Obama, I am relieved that the country does not have to face the election result that the purveyors of the garbage sought.
I wish Mr. Ayers well in everything he does.