True Banality

Wow. Last week, on election day, Bill Ayers — unrepentant domestic terrorist, professor of education, and Barack Obama benefactor — actually spoke to a reporter. And as I read his comments, I am struck by how bland and inane they are.

First up, the photo. Ayers looks grizzled, with a gray beard and a receding hairline. And he’s wearing a T-shirt featuring one of the angry young black characters from “Boondocks” flipping the bird. It’s a fascinating blend of impressions that all combine to say “pathetic.”

Next up, his actual words:

One night, Ayers recalled, he and Dohrn were watching Bill O’Reilly, who was going on about “discovering” Ayers’s 1974 manifesto, “Prairie Fire.” “I had to laugh,” Ayers said. “No one read it when it was first issued!”

That manifesto is now out as a PDF for free downloading, and it’s downright terrifying. Hell, just the dedication alone should give anyone chills — it’s a long, long list of people, including many truly reprehensible vermin. The one name that jumps out at me is Sirhan Sirhan — the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy.

Here’s an excerpt from that book’s introduction:

PRAIRIE FIRE is written to communist-minded people, independent organizers and anti-imperialists; those who carry the traditions and lessons of the struggles of the last decade, those who join in the struggles of today. PRAIRIE FIRE is written to all sisters and brothers who are engaged in armed struggle against the enemy. It is written to prisoners,
women’s groups, collectives, study groups, workers’ organizing committees, communes, GI organizers, consciousness-raising groups, veterans, community groups and revolutionaries of all kinds; to all who will read, criticize and bring its content to life in practice. It is written as an argument against those who oppose action and hold back the struggle.

It’s like Ayers and his comrades took all the scary rhetoric of the right wing and chose to embody it. A call to “communist-minded people” to “struggle” and “take action” against the government. Innocuous enough, until you remember that the people making this argument used real bombs on real targets as part of their “action” in the “struggle.”

Anyway, back to today. Or, at least, last week. Another Ayers quote:

He said that he laughed, too, when he listened to Sarah Palin’s descriptions of Obama “palling around with terrorists.” In fact, Ayers said that he knew Obama only slightly: “I think my relationship with Obama was probably like that of thousands of others in Chicago and, like millions and millions of others, I wished I knew him better.”

He knew Obama only slightly. Obama chaired a board that Ayers sat upon, for a foundation that Ayers set up and spent $150 million, served on another board together, and Ayers welcomed Obama into his home for his political ‘coming-out party,” yet he only knew him slightly. Ayers, it appears, is remarkably generous with virtual strangers.

Ayers said that while he hasn’t been bothered by the many threats–“and I’m not complaining”–the calls and e-mails he has received have been “pretty intense.” “I got two threats in one day on the Internet,” he said, referring to an incident that took place last summer when he was sitting in his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he has taught education for two decades. “The first one said there was a posse coming to shoot me, and the second said they were going to kidnap me and water-board me. This friend of mine, a university cop, said, ‘Gosh, I hope the guy who’s coming to shoot you gets here first.'”

I wonder if, for even an instant, Ayers found himself identifying with John M. Murtagh. When Murtagh was nine years old, Ayers’ colleagues in the Weather Underground firebombed Murtagh’s house and nearly killed his entire family — just because Murtagh’s father was the judge overseeing the trial of some Black Panthers.

Ayers seemed curiously calm and cheerful about the way he had been made an issue in the campaign. He seemed unbothered to have been part of what he called “the Swiftboating” process of the 2008 campaign.

“It’s all guilt by association,” Ayers said. “They made me into a cartoon character–they threw me up onstage just to pummel me. I felt from the beginning that the Obama campaign had to run the Obama campaign and I have to run my life.” Ayers said that once his name became part of the campaign maelstrom he never had any contact with the Obama circle. “That’s not my world,” he said.

A cartoon character? Mr. Ayers, all most people did was take your own words and deeds (mainly words; you seemed to make an art form out of getting other people to do your dirty work while keeping your own hands clean) and repeat them. Perhaps you might recall your own words after your trial for terrorism: “guilty as hell, free as a bird — America is a great country!” You were not acquitted, Mr. Ayers; rather, the case was dismissed because prosecutors, in their zeal to put you in prison where you belonged, broke the law themselves.

And please, the “guilt by association” thing is an absolute red herring. The reason your relationship with Barack Obama was so important to so many was because he had made a major “selling point” his judgment. Well, that made a lot of people want to look at who had judged worthy of his time and trust and support, and your name was fairly high on that list.

Ayers said he felt “a lot of sympathy” for the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, “who was treated grotesquely and unfairly” by the media. He said that Martin Luther King Jr. was, in his time, far more radical than Wright: “Wright’s a wimp compared to Martin Luther King–he had a fiercer tone.” Ayers was referring to the speeches King gave late in his life in opposition to the Vietnam War and on the subject of economic equality. “Martin Luther King was not a saint,” Ayers said. “He was an angry pilgrim.”

Here’s a hint for you, Mr. Ayers: you ain’t Martin Luther King, Jr. Neither is Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Again, the “swiftboating” involved taking the words and deeds of the person in question — in full context — and quoting them.

Ayers said that he had commiserated recently with yet another former Hyde Park neighbor (and fellow Little League coach), the Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi, now at Columbia University, who has also been a punching bag of the right wing in recent weeks.

Ah, Rashid Khalidi. The fellow who ran the PLO’s press office during its terrorist heyday in the 1970’s. It’s fun to imagine these two former terrorists coaching Little League baseball. “Come on, Skip, throw that fastball like it’s a grenade aimed at the Zionist capitalists!” “Attaboy, Timmy, run those bases as if the imperialists have sicced their dogs on you!” “Way to go, Bobby! Don’t let that second baseman illegally occupy that base! It’s yours! Run him down!”

Ayers said that he had never meant to imply, in an interview with the Times, published coincidentally on 9/11, that he somehow wished he and the Weathermen had committed further acts of violence in the old days. Instead, he said, “I wish I had done more, but it doesn’t mean I wish we’d bombed more shit.” Ayers said that he had never been responsible for violence against other people and was acting to end a war in Vietnam in which “thousands of people were being killed every week.”

“While we did claim several extreme acts, they were acts of extreme radicalism against property,” he said. “We killed no one and hurt no one. Three of our people killed themselves.” And yet he was not without regrets. He mocked one of his earlier books, co-written with Dohrn, saying that, while it still is reflective of his radical and activist politics today, he was guilty of “rhetoric that’s juvenile and inflated–it is what it is.”

“Extreme radicalism against property?” I guess that’s technically true. After all, the Murtagh family survived the firebombs at their house and car.

“Three of our people killed themselves.” That conjures up the images of the anti-war monks setting themselves on fire in protest. The reality is considerably less noble. Three of Ayers’ colleagues in the Weather Underground were building nail bombs to blow up an enlisted men’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And they killed themselves by their own incompetence, when one of the bombs they were assembling went off early — turning the three would-be terrorists into superb Darwin Award candidates.

“I wish I had been wiser,” Ayers said. “I wish I had been more effective, I wish I’d been more unifying, I wish I’d been more principled.”

I wish you had been a bit more courageous, Mr. Ayers. Courageous enough to engage in your own dirty work, and perhaps even be on the scene when one of your own bombs blew up.

Ayers said that his life hasn’t been much altered by recent months, though he decided to postpone the re-release of his memoir, “Fugitive Days”–“I didn’t want it to be put in the meat grinder of this moment.”

“Meat grinder.” What a grisly, yet apropos image. Ayers’ colleagues were building bombs laced with roofing nails, the intent of which is to cause as much gory injury as possible. “Meat grinder” is not that off the mark.

In the end, it must be recalled that Ayers (and his oft-overlooked wife, Bernardine Dohrn) are simply the ideological counterparts of people like Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh had more courage in his convictions and considerably more competence, while Ayers and Dohrn had their family connections and intellectual backers to give them a chance to have second lives in academia after their criminal trial fell apart.

Note, one final time, Mr. Ayers’ regrets of his youth:

“I wish I had been wiser,” Ayers said. “I wish I had been more effective, I wish I’d been more unifying, I wish I’d been more principled.”

No “I wish I hadn’t been involved in trying to kill people.” No “I wish I had worked harder to succeed without violence.” No “I wish I hadn’t dedicated a book to the man who murdered Robert Kennedy.”

I have wishes, too, Mr. Ayers. I wish you had been present when the firebombs that nearly killed the Murtagh family went off. I wish you had been in that brownstone when your comrades’ bomb went off. I wish the prosecutors in your case had not violated the law in collecting evidence against you. And I wish to hell that you weren’t involved in teaching young, impressionable children today.

But wishes don’t do a damned thing. Instead, all I can do is make certain that you never escape your own evil past, no matter how much you try to minimize it, rationalize it, glamorize it, or gloss over it.

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