Friday 07 November 2008
by: Bill Ayers, In These Times
Bill Ayers looks back on a surreal campaign season.
Whew! What was all that mess? I'm still in a daze, sorting it
all out, decompressing.
Pass the Vitamin C.
For the past few years, I have gone about my business, hanging
out with my kids and, now, my grandchildren, taking care of our
elders (they moved in as the kids moved out), going to work, teaching
and writing. And every day, I participate in the never-ending effort
to build a powerful and irresistible movement for peace and social justice.
In years past, I would now and then - often unpredictably -
appear in the newspapers or on TV, sometimes with a reference to
Fugitive Days, my 2001 memoir of the exhilarating and difficult years
of resistance against the American war in Vietnam. It was a time when
the world was in flames, revolution was in the air, and the serial
assassinations of black leaders disrupted our utopian dreams.
These media episodes of fleeting notoriety always led to some
extravagant and fantastic assertions about what I did, what I might
have said and what I probably believe now.
It was always a bit surreal. Then came this political season.
During the primary, the blogosphere was full of chatter about my
relationship with President-elect Barack Obama. We had served
together on the board of the Woods Foundation and knew one another as
neighbors in Chicago's Hyde Park. In 1996, at a coffee gathering that
my wife, Bernardine Dohrn, and I held for him, I made a $200 donation
to his campaign for the Illinois State Senate.
Obama's political rivals and enemies thought they saw an
opportunity to deepen a dishonest perception that he is somehow
un-American, alien, linked to radical ideas, a closet terrorist who
sympathizes with extremism - and they pounced.
Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) campaign provided the script,
which included guilt by association, demonization of people Obama
knew (or might have known), creepy questions about his background and
dark hints about hidden secrets yet to be uncovered.
On March 13, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), apparently in an
attempt to reassure the base,- sat down for an interview with Sean
Hannity of Fox News. McCain was not yet aware of the narrative
Hannity had been spinning for months, and so Hannity filled him in:
Ayers is an unrepentant "terrorist," he explained, "On 9/11, of all
days, he had an article where he bragged about bombing our Pentagon,
bombing the Capitol and bombing New York City police headquarters.
... He said, 'I regret not doing more.'"
McCain couldn't believe it.
Neither could I.
On the campaign trail, McCain immediately got on message. I
became a prop, a cartoon character created to be pummeled.
When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got hold of it, the attack went
viral. At a now-famous Oct. 4 rally, she said Obama was Ïpallin'
around with terrorists.- (I pictured us sharing a milkshake with two straws.)
The crowd began chanting, "Kill him!" "Kill him"- It was
downhill from there.
My voicemail filled up with hate messages. They were mostly from
men, all venting and sweating and breathing heavily. A few threats:
"Watch out!" and "You deserve to be shot." And some e-mails, like
this one I got from email@example.com: "I'm coming to get you and when I
do, I'll water-board you."
The police lieutenant who came to copy down those threats
deadpanned that he hoped the guy who was going to shoot me got there
before the guy who was going to water-board me, since it would be
most foul to be tortured and then shot. (We have been pals ever since
he was first assigned to investigate threats made against me in 1987,
after I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of
Illinois at Chicago.)
The good news was that every time McCain or Palin mentioned my
name, they lost a point or two in the polls. The cartoon invented to
hurt Obama was now poking holes in the rapidly sinking McCain-Palin ship.
That '60s Show
On Aug. 28, Stephen Colbert, the faux right-wing commentator
from Comedy Central who channels Bill O'Reilly on steroids, observed:
To this day, when our country holds a presidential election, we
judge the candidates through the lens of the 1960s. ... We all know
Obama is cozy with William Ayers a '60s radical who planted a bomb in
the capital building and then later went on to even more heinous
crimes by becoming a college professor. ... Let us keep fighting the
culture wars of our grandparents. The '60s are a political gift that
keeps on giving.
It was inevitable. McCain would bet the house on a dishonest and
largely discredited vision of the '60s, which was the defining decade
for him. He built his political career on being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The '60s - as myth and symbol - is much abused: the downfall of
civilization in one account, a time of defeat and humiliation in a
second, and a perfect moment of righteous opposition, peace and love
in a third.
The idea that the 2008 election may be the last time in American
political life that the '60s plays any role whatsoever is a mixed
blessing. On the one hand, let's get over the nostalgia and move on.
On the other, the lessons we might have learned from the black
freedom movement and from the resistance against the Vietnam War have
never been learned. To achieve this would require that we face
history fully and honestly, something this nation has never done.
The war in Vietnam was an illegal invasion and occupation, much
of it conducted as a war of terror against the civilian population.
The U.S. military killed millions of Vietnamese in air raids - like
the one conducted by McCain - and entire areas of the country were
designated free-fire zones, where American pilots indiscriminately
dropped surplus ordinance - an immoral enterprise by any measure.
What Is Really Important
McCain and Palin - or as our late friend Studs Terkel put it,
"Joe McCarthy in drag" - would like to bury the '60s. The '60s, after
all, was a time of rejecting obedience and conformity in favor of
initiative and courage. The '60s pushed us to a deeper appreciation
of the humanity of every human being. And that is the threat it poses
to the right wing, hence the attacks and all the guilt by association.
McCain and Palin demanded to "know the full extent" of the
Obama-Ayers "relationship" so that they can know if Obama, as Palin
put it, "is telling the truth to the American people or not."
This is just plain stupid.
Obama has continually been asked to defend something that ought
to be at democracy's heart: the importance of talking to as many
people as possible in this complicated and wildly diverse society, of
listening with the possibility of learning something new, and of
speaking with the possibility of persuading or influencing others.
The McCain-Palin attacks not only involved guilt by association,
they also assumed that one must apply a political litmus test to
begin a conversation.
On Oct. 4, Palin described her supporters as those who "see
America as the greatest force for good in this world" and as a
"beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy."
But Obama, she said, "Is not a man who sees America as you see it and
how I see America." In other words, there are "real" Americans - and
then there are the rest of us.
In a robust and sophisticated democracy, political leaders - and
all of us - ought to seek ways to talk with many people who hold
dissenting, or even radical, ideas. Lacking that simple and yet
essential capacity to question authority, we might still be burning
witches and enslaving our fellow human beings today.
Maybe we could welcome our current situation - torn by another
illegal war, as it was in the '60s - as an opportunity to search for the new.
Perhaps we might think of ourselves not as passive consumers of
politics but as fully mobilized political actors. Perhaps we might
think of our various efforts now, as we did then, as more than a
single campaign, but rather as our movement-in-the-making.
We might find hope in the growth of opposition to war and
occupation worldwide. Or we might be inspired by the growing
movements for reparations and prison abolition, or the rising
immigrant rights movement and the stirrings of working people
everywhere, or by gay and lesbian and transgender people courageously
pressing for full recognition.
Yet hope - my hope, our hope - resides in a simple self-evident
truth: the future is unknown, and it is also entirely unknowable.
History is always in the making. It's up to us. It is up to me
and to you. Nothing is predetermined. That makes our moment on this
earth both hopeful and all the more urgent - we must find ways to
become real actors, to become authentic subjects in our own history.
We may not be able to will a movement into being, but neither
can we sit idly for a movement to spring full-grown, as from the head of Zeus.
We have to agitate for democracy and egalitarianism, press
harder for human rights, learn to build a new society through our
self-transformations and our limited everyday struggles.
At the turn of the last century, Eugene Debs, the great
Socialist Party leader from Terre Haute, Ind., told a group of
workers in Chicago, "If I could lead you into the Promised Land, I
would not do it, because someone else would come along and lead you out."
In this time of new beginnings and rising expectations, it is
even more urgent that we figure out how to become the people we have
been waiting to be.
Bill Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior
University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is
the author of "Fugitive Days" (Beacon) and co-author, with Bernardine
Dohrn, of "Race Course: Against White Supremacy" (Third World Press).
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