I’m reading Bill Ayers’ (yes THAT Bill Ayers) memoir that picks up, I believe, where Fugitive Days leaves off. Like many people of my generation (I’m just a few months younger than President Obama, and like him was too young to really be involved in the events that first brought the Weathermen and Bill Ayers to the public eye) I didn’t even know who Dr. Ayers was until the 2008 presidential election.
Like many, I was deeply troubled by what I heard. And like many, by the time the McCain/Palin ticket had reached its full-throated worst, I had developed the kind of deep distaste for what I saw coming out of their political machine that leaves knots in the belly. I was bothered enough to do a very smart thing: to not take the media at their word. I started doing some digging, and what I found was a man for whom I had deep respect–even while I was still troubled by some of the places his convictions led him.
I’m an odd mixture. I grew up in a staunchly conservative family, I came to political progressivism quite late in the game. While I believe deeply that a strong social system is necessary, I also believe that there are many who abuse that system. I understand the value of caring for our most vulnerable, and yet, on a personal level, the idea of asking for and receiving financial benefits from the state (or friends or family, for that matter) is anathema to me. So I’m divided.
I’m also not really a Big Picture person. My causes and contributions are small–I believe I am at my most effective in curing the small evils I see around me–in offering help and support to those in my town, in picking up litter even if I didn’t put it there, in treating the children who cross my path with dignity, respect, and love, in convincing the students in my College Writing classes that we’re learning how to think, not how to put marks on paper. I’m small-time.
In Public Enemy, Dr. Ayers refers to himself as a public person. If I am small-time, he, his partner, and his closest friends and associates tend to be big-time. Very big time. Unlike me, they see their lives in terms not of their small town, but in national, international, and cosmic terms. They fight the same good fight in which I am engaged, but they do it on a far broader stage than the one on which I perform.
Public Enemy not only examines Ayers’ activism and clarifies the goals, mission, limits and philosophy of the Weathermen as the young Bill Ayers saw them, but also places the Weathermen into the context of the times–something that I found very helpful in understanding how someone who–gasp–set bombs in government buildings (surely a “bad” thing) could later express the same values that led him to violent activism in a lifetime devoted to love expressed through education, justice, respect, and equality in the public square.
The Bill Ayers who tells his story in Public Enemy is passionate, outspoken, erudite, and committed. Sometimes his convictions make me uneasy. I am still not sure how I feel about the whole “bombs in public buildings” thing. Dr. Ayers points out that the Weathermen never killed or injured anyone–and that that wasn’t an accident. They turned to violence as a way of making their voices heard in a violent world, in the midst of what they saw as a corrupt and evil time. And in retrospect, I suspect many of us would agree with their analysis.
I haven’t finished Public Enemy yet, but I find myself repeatedly stumbling across phrases that strike a chord for me: “Parents are only as happy as their least happy child…” “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values…” and many, many more. I read of his protest at John Wayne Gacy’s execution not because Gacy wasn’t a terrible man, but because in choosing publicly sanctioned murder we became just a bit more like him, that his execution was not about redemption, but about vengeance. And what does that say about us? Whether I agree with Dr. Ayers or not, this is surely a conversation worth having.
Dr. Ayers’ quest to not let his life make a mockery of his convictions has led him into dark and dangerous places from time to time, but in making that journey he has played a part in shaping a better world–or at least in slowing our descent.
Which leaves us with the single biggest question that Dr. Ayers’ memoir poses for me. He speaks repeatedly about the corruption that led to the Weathermen’s embrace of violent protest. He reflects on the meaning and effectiveness of that protest. I found myself reflecting on our current national life.
Our public institutions are riddled with such entrenched corruption that we have become self-parody. Our government has been shut down not because a majority of those in government supported such a step, but because a powerful, extreme minority altered the rules to make shutdown a certainty to suit their own political ends. We see good and valuable legislation watered down or jettisoned altogether. Disinformation has become the order of the day. And this is all very, very public. These are not backroom deals; this is now business as usual. Racism, bigotry, sexism, and greed are given Orwellian rewrites that should make our politicians blush. I find myself thinking of a passage in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
I don’t believe in violence. I don’t believe that brute force ever won an argument. But I find myself looking at the Weathermen’s “bombs in public buildings” protest in the light of our own times, and I find myself wondering not if they were right or wrong, but about us, today. I don’t know that politics are any dirtier than they ever were. I don’t know know if we are more corrupt. I don’t know if abuses are greater. What I do know is that we no longer even pretend to aspire to anything better. The laws designed to keep us safe are routinely repurposed to serve vile ends. Corporations have openly purchased our government. And either it’s all right, or we no longer believe we have the power to change that. We have lost our innocence, and all too often our idealism has become a cloak for the sort of jingoistic nationalism, racism, and bigotry that has plagued us under the name of virtue for far too long.
And that leaves the question: How do those of us who are deeply troubled by what we see around us, but who believe in non-violence, make our voices heard? Can we?
Dr. Ayers’ book isn’t always a comfortable read. I suspect that he might not approve of me much if we were to meet. But that’s all right. His book has stretched me in new ways. It’s made me think. It’s making me ask questions. It has changed me. It’s worth the read.