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.”