Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Self-serving whitewash of '60s antiwar weirdo

Bill Ayers, labeled Obama's terrorist friend, surfaces.

Katha Pollitt

writes for The Nation

It couldn't have been easy for Bill Ayers to keep quiet while the McCain campaign tarred him as Barack Obama's best friend, the terrorist. Unfortunately, the silence was too good to last.

In the New York Times recently, Ayers announced, "It's finally time to tell my true story." And like his memoir,

Fugitive Days

, Ayers' op-ed was a sentimentalized, self-justifying whitewash of his role in the weirdo, violent fringe of the 1960s and '70s antiwar left.

"I never killed or injured anyone," Ayers wrote. "In 1970, I cofounded 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 the Weathermen (as did Ayers himself and Bernardine Dohrn, now his wife). Weathermen, Weather Underground - completely different! And never mind that the "accidental explosion" occurred during the making of a nail bomb intended for a dance at Fort Dix.

Ayers wrote 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 monumental luck. An unrelated bombing at the University of Wisconsin unintentionally killed a researcher and seriously hurt four people. If the point was symbolic outrage, why not just paint 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 (running naked through white, working-class high schools, shouting, "Jailbreak!").

"Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war," Ayers wrote. "So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately."

I'm not so sure that terrorism necessarily involves intentional attacks on people. But, OK, let's say Ayers wasn't a terrorist. How about thuggish? Vainglorious? Egomaniacal? Staggeringly irresponsible?

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 that "wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers." But at the time, the Weathermen had nothing but contempt for the rest of the antiwar left.

I realize this is ancient history. As a friend who doesn't see why I am raking all this 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 1969, 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 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.

Of the many thousands of people involved in the movement, only a handful thought the thing to do was blow things up in the service of a ludicrous fantasy: 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 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 something to show he actually gets it.

I'd like him to say he's sorry for his part in destroying Students for a Democratic Society; sorry he helped Richard Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy; 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, was only the most notorious.

True, the damage wrought by the Weathermen is trivial compared with the war, and it 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 over wherever he goes.

I'd be happy to forget all about the Weathermen, many of whom have done good since. But if we're going to talk about them, let's tell the truth. Of all the sectarian groups of that era, the Weathermen were the least effective and most destructive to the movement. It was all about the romance of itself. And it still is.