Reflections on Bill Ayers’ Reflections

Forty years ago things were really different. News came daily and it arrived on your door as paper, or fit into a half an hour on the black-and-white television. Telephones had cords and there was about one per household, with maybe an extension upstairs.  “Long distance” meant expensive, and talk quickly. “Made in Japan” meant cheap. The best cars came from Detroit. Racism was legal. Sexism was legal. Bigotry was common.

You think of us baby boomers as old people now, but back then we were still in college, we wore bell bottom pants, we hated our parents’ music and they hated ours, and lots of us, including lots of the best and brightest of us, mistrusted people over 30 and opposed the war in Vietnam. Our parents believed in the leadership that had won the second world war. We mistrusted it.

Opposing the Vietnam war, at least among baby boomers, was the exception in 1965 and the rule by 1970. Civil disobedience made sense. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were heroes.

To play time machine games jumping from 2008 back into 1968 and pulling the terms of today along with it (like “unrepentant terrorist,” for example) is just so completely unproductive, and trivial spin, that it just doesn’t apply. Doesn’t make sense.

I just read William Ayer’s New York Times piece The Real Bill Ayers, a thoughtful reflection in an after-the-storm mood. And I want to post about it here because I think he says it so well.

I end up feeling very sympathetic. Presumably you wouldn’t think of me as any kind of terrorist; in fact I keep getting cold calls from the Republican Party, I assume because I own a business with 40-some employees, which is supposed to make me a Republican (but it doesn’t). And I am fiercely proud of my business, and my MBA degree, and my business writing. But I’m also proud of my opposition to the Vietnam war way back 40-some years ago.

It comes up as William Ayers describes what he actually did, way back then, that ended up creating the fictional campaign icon that bore his name last fall:

I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. I became a full-time antiwar organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. 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. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices — the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious — as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.

The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out 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.

Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. 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 cannot imagine engaging in actions of that kind today. And for the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching and writing about the unique value and potential of every human life, and the need to realize that potential through education.

I’m sorry, that just doesn’t seem all that bad to me. Not bombs, of course not bombs, but I don’t read the Bill Ayers quote above as him defending bombs. I do read it as making a very significant distinction between bombs that kill and maim people and bombs that damage property. There are degrees of bad. War is really bad, and racism and bigotry are bad.

I suppose all of this could be just philosophical meanderings, particularly since the election is over now and the intended mudslinging didn’t work; but I think it might be useful for all of us to see how truth and issues and human discussion gets too easily smashed up in the low-attention-span information-surplus world we now live in.

The memories of way back then are less important than recognizing the way they got mutilated and manipulated in this Bill Ayers case. He says it very well:

Unable to challenge the content of Barack Obama’s campaign, his opponents invented a narrative about a young politician who emerged from nowhere, a man of charm, intelligence and skill, but with an exotic background and a strange name. The refrain was a question: “What do we really know about this man?”

Secondary characters in the narrative included an African-American preacher with a fiery style, a Palestinian scholar and an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.” Linking the candidate with these supposedly shadowy characters, and ferreting out every imagined secret tie and dark affiliation, became big news.

I was cast in the “unrepentant terrorist” role; I felt at times like the enemy projected onto a large screen in the “Two Minutes Hate” scene from George Orwell’s “1984,” when the faithful gathered in a frenzy of fear and loathing.

With the mainstream news media and the blogosphere caught in the pre-election excitement, I saw no viable path to a rational discussion. Rather than step clumsily into the sound-bite culture, I turned away whenever the microphones were thrust into my face. I sat it out.

It reminds me of the movie War Games. “The only way to win is not to play.”  And, when we get into this spin and quick guerrilla wordfare warfare we participate in these days, there are very many ways to lose.


  • Tim Berry says:

    John, thanks for commenting. My reaction: I think I almost envy your certainty. That's something I've definitely lost through the years.

    And for the rest of us, notwithstanding that I don't like John's name calling in the comment, it might be useful to add a counterpoint that's come up since the New York Times piece was published. Call this an opposite point of view, but also well written, and therefore worth adding to the discussion:

    Titled Bill Ayers Sticks to an Unreal Past, in the Washington Post, by Charles Lane, a Post editorial writer.

  • John Askins says:

    You people are fools. Ayers dedicated a book to Sirhan Sirhan, who assasinated Bobby Kennedy. Shame on all of you.

  • Carol Stanley says:

    Ithink the old head in sand is becoming an active way of solving today's problems. Easy not to turn on the news, turn off the radio and TV…cancel the newspaper..and stop talking to anyone…Because that is really all the conversation today. So what is our solution …Tell me>>

  • Tim Berry says:

    Thanks Mark, that's an excellent addition. I agree, very much worth recommending. Tim

  • Mark Dyck says:

    Good Post Tim. You might be interested in an interview with William Ayers on NPR's Fresh Air show. Similar in content to your quotes from the NYT article but it sure adds something to hear his voice as well.

    I found the interview to be very compelling. Listening to Mr. Ayers, I hear a man who accepts that people change over time and that everything one does in life isn't perfect, especially at age 20. It's not remorse and it's not belligerence. It's a different and more realistic response alltogether.

    Here's link

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