Friday, December 12, 2008

Bashing Bill Ayers misses the point

Bill Ayers -- the "unrepentant terrorist" Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of "palling around with" -- is flaking his book, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist. Damn, the guy turns out to be a real true blue American -- rendered involuntarily notorious, he is out to profit from his current 15 minutes of fame.

Suddenly he's everywhere, in the New York Times, on Hardball with Chris Matthews (interesting clip), even has his own blog (not much content).

I've been fascinated by the vehement reactions to the guy in much of the progressive blogosphere, often at sites I frequent and by writers whose work I usually appreciate. Some samples:

To me, though, he's just a shallow rich kid who took himself and his revolutionary rhetoric much too seriously, helped inspire people to do things that got them killed, and helped to discredit the anti-war movement and the left as a whole.

He has done enough harm already. Now he should do the decent thing and leave us in peace.

Hilzoy,
Obsidian Wings

He could have done so many things to make this world a better place: organize peaceful anti-war rallies and sit-ins, set up a grassroots campaign to influence public opinion on the war, raise funds to help wounded Vietnamese civilians, advocate the outlawing of Agent Orange to Congress, just to name a few things off the top of my head.

But no, those things weren't glamorous enough.

So instead, he chose to use counterproductive violence and turn off many Americans from the anti-war movement. It really was all about him and about wanting to live an exciting life at the expense of others.

Emma,
Comment on Obsidian Wings post

I do enjoy reading people who lived in the 60s as they ever so patiently explain that those of us born later cannot possibly hope to understand what life was like back then. Imagine, a whole generation of unique and precious snowflakes whose life experiences transcended that of the mere mortals that came before and after them! Surely, the world has never known a generation of young people who watched helpless as their government engaged in a pointless slaughter of innocents in a far off land. I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in the United States while the US military was busying itself destroying a society across the globe.

Turbulence,
Comment on Obsidian Wings post

Okay, I hear you. Ayers infuriates because his methods of protesting the Vietnam war back in 1970 were ineffective, dangerous and stupid, because he's an old guy who still thinks the stuff he did way back when is worth thinking about, because he's a white guy who came from privilege so that when the government blew his prosecution, he could find a second chance to become a useful citizen. Yes I know, lots of people wouldn't get that knd of second chance. All those are plausible gripes, but why the venom?

Because Ayers' history was, for a short season, a danger to Obama? Maybe.

Like Ayers, I lived through the experience of seemingly endless, fruitless protest against a morally insupportable, murderous war that killed several million Vietnamese and 50000 U.S. soldiers. I marched; I petitioned; I tabled; I worked for a local candidate trying to replace a pro-war congressman; I worked for a Senatorial candidate to try to get a better Senate. When Ayers' folks were setting bombs, I thought they were nuts, morally bankrupt, self-aggrandizing, and very unhelpful to stopping the war. Exposure to folks from that set sent me scuttling out of that part of the antiwar movement to learn draft counseling and later to work to support deserters. (By the early 70s there were lots of deserters.)

But I understood then and I understand now where they were coming from. U.S. democracy simply wasn't working. The enormous difference between the experience of the last decade and of the Vietnam era was that Vietnam was the Democratic Party's war. Democratic "moderates" only wanted "victory" in Southeast Asia, perhaps to install their puppet government in Vietnam. Republicans wanted to nuke Hanoi and maybe Russia and China. The political establishment had no room for the antiwar dissent that was becoming the majority position by 1968 -- under pressure from their sitting President who had made the war his own, Democrats in that election nominated the candidate most identified with continuing the war. The system seemed frozen and invulnerable.

Perhaps because I'm older and can take a longer view, perhaps because the U.S. is objectively less all-powerful than back then, the last decade has never seemed so completely stuck. The Bush/Cheney regime has certainly done more damage to our country than that era's leaders did. Right after 9/11, those rulers seemed untouchable. For me, probably the nadir was the fall of 2004 when the country returned Bush to office -- after the looting that destroyed a prostrate Iraq while the U.S. shirked its responsibility, after the lies about WMD, and after the unveiling of the torture system at Abu Ghraib.

Yet the country never felt so locked down and impervious to dissent as the mid-60s felt to many of us. Organizing Democrats to create a pole in opposition to the Bush/Cheney project seemed not just possible, but perhaps even a route to some real change. The internet opened new possibilities to go with the old, human labor-intensive organizing methods. Now we'll get to find out if we were right about that possibility of change.

As for Ayers, I can't see getting so pissed off about him. His crimes of idealism gone very sour can't really be weighed equally with the big crime he confronted. The big crime -- what our government was doing in our name -- was the real crime then and it's the real crime now. It is still up to us to stop it, to fix that government, and to heal whatever can be healed. Ayers might even be helpful, now, in that work. Give the guy a rest ...

1 comment:

Nell said...

It's about Obama. The huffiness and the "why won't he just go away?" attitude are the big clues...

Thanks for this post. The explosion in New York and the Army Math Research Center bombings in 1970 sent me into a shell for several years wrt antiwar activity. Yet the disproportionate, prissy outrage in Hilozy's post and many of the comments actually tempted me to defend Ayers and company, something I've never felt the impulse to do before (and ultimately couldn't bring myself to do).

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