By WILLIAM AYERS
Published: December 5, 2008
IN the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust
upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest
drama. I refused, and here's why.
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.
Now that the election is over, I want to say as plainly as I can that
the character invented to serve this drama wasn't me, not even close.
Here are the facts:
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 have regrets, of course including mistakes of excess and failures
of imagination, posturing and posing, inflated and heated rhetoric,
blind sectarianism and a lot else. No one can reach my age with their
eyes even partly open and not have hundreds of regrets. The
responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most
extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long.
The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and
determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam.
And therein lies cause for real regret.
We the broad "we" wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at
induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of
troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three
million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.
The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign
went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two
people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that
they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus
downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then
you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook,
influences and, especially, responsibility for each other's behavior.
There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our
political culture, and at crucial times we've been unable to rise above it.
President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the
same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the
bookstore. We didn't pal around, and I had nothing to do with his
positions. I knew him as well as thousands of others did, and like
millions of others, I wish I knew him better.
Demonization, guilt by association, and the politics of fear did not
triumph, not this time. Let's hope they never will again. And let's
hope we might now assert that in our wildly diverse society, talking
and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.
William Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois
at Chicago, is the author of "Fugitive Days" and a co-author of the
forthcoming "Race Course."