The Chutzpah of Bill Ayers

I did not intend to write about Bill Ayers again. The man has already had far more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame, and he didn’t even deserve that. But Michael Moynihan of Reason magazine alerted me to his latest travesty.  Today is the publication date of the new edition of his book Fugitive Days, and now that the election is over, Ayers has chosen to speak out in his own defense in the pages of a democratic socialist newsweekly, In These Times.


By choosing this vehicle, Ayers is skillfully engaging in his own sanitized rewriting of history. His effort is to paint himself as just another honest dissenter, a man whose valiant socialist principles have caused the media to unfairly demonize him as a terrorist. All he did in his memoir, he writes, is to go back to those “exhilarating and difficult years of resistance against the American war in Vietnam.”

I have already on this site linked to my review of Ayers memoir. But anyone who actually reads it knows immediately that what he is defending is not opposition to the Vietnam War, but his own and his comrade’s record of terrorism. There were thousands of patriotic Americans who opposed that war — a miniscule minority supported or endorsed the actions of the Weatherman faction of SDS and the bombing campaign they undertook when they went underground. Indeed, most of the mainstream cadre of the organization viewed Ayers and his group as a force that undermined their own credibility and helped to isolate what they hoped was a genuine peace movement.

Ayers new apologia is, as one reads it, completely amazing in his disingenuous argument. He was active, he writes, at “a time when the world was in flames, revolution was in the air, and the serial assassinations of black leaders disrupted our utopian dreams.” Let us look at the last claim. Was he alluding to Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of those black leaders? If so, all one has to do is recall that Ayers and company, who supported “black power” and not non-violent resistance to segregation, considered King an Uncle Tom, and regularly blasted him as a sell-out. As for the assassination of blacks, one of the offshoots of his own group killed a black policeman in the Brinks robbery, and another killed a black school superintendent in Oakland, California. And of course, the Weather Underground saw Huey Newton’s gang of thugs, The Black Panther Party, as the vanguard of the revolution, and declared their own support for their activities. Newton killed plenty of blacks who opposed him, as well as others in gang wars over drugs.


Now, as a would-be good plain democrat, he has the chutzpah to complain of how the media has unfairly tried to paint him as “un-American, alien, linked to radical ideas, a closet terrorist….”
You get the idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the photo he posed for tramping an American flag underfoot, his open espousal of the glories of bombing in his memoir, and his espousing revolutionary socialism as his goal in his two year old interview. The late Irving Howe once said that Tom Hayden “gave opportunism a bad name.” I would revise that estimate, and give that award to Ayers.

Now, Ayers seeks police protection against those who threaten him regularly. He’s lucky they are only threats. He and his associates went way beyond verbal harassment, and planted and planned to bomb targets that would have killed thousands of Americans. Now, like any other good citizen, he turns for protection to those he regularly used to call “pigs,” and whose supporters in Grant Park in 1968 attacked fiercely, even paralyzing one cop for life, and then bragging about it in a song written to a Dylan tune. Now, as he says, he is “pals” with one cop in particular whom he has turned to before.

And this man then has the nerve to personally attack John McCain. Most Americans, even those who did not vote for him, know of his commitment to this nation and to his honor and his bravery in defense of his country. Not Bill Ayers. In his eyes, John McCain is nothing but a war criminal. As he sees it, McCain “built his political career on being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.” As most everyone knows, McCain has regularly refused to talk about his time as a POW, making an exception for his convention speech after receiving the GOP nomination. McCain’s career is based on his record in the Senate, his willingness to cross the aisle and reach compromise with the Democrats, much to the dismay of the conservative base of his own party.


And while Ayers says the 60s are over, he  goes on to prove that for him, they are not. Bringing up Vietnam, he writes as if he is back in that decade, condemning the war as “an illegal invasion and occupation…conducted as a war of terror against the civilian population.”  Millions were killed in air raids, he writes, “like the one conducted by McCain.” The evildoer was not the Vietnamese Communists who were seeking to create a Communist tyranny and destroy any independent civil society in South Vietnam- including the Buddhists and the organized trade union movement-but the Americans who were helping to keep the South out of Ho Chi Minh’s hands. As Ayers puts it, McCain and the other airmen were engaging in “an immoral enterprise.”  Which, of course, justifies his own “enterprise” at the time with the Weather Underground as a moral response to American terror.

So for Ayers the 60s are not over; they are a guide to acting in the present. It  was, he says, “a time of rejecting obedience and conformity in favor of initiative and courage.” I guess that was what he and Bernardine Dohrn were doing in those days, showing their bravery and heroism by seeking to create a revolutionary situation in Amerikka – as they spelled our nation-in order to “bring the mother…… down.”

And finally, one can only laugh at Ayers’ paean to democracy, where we should know “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.”  We live in a “robust and sophisticated democracy,” where “political leaders-and all of us-ought to seek ways to talk with many people who hold dissenting, or even radical, ideas.”  This from a man who supports Hugo Chavez’s pathetic attempt to create a Fidelista style tyranny in Venezuela, and who loves Fidel Castro and his prison camp.


Mr. Ayers says we should “press harder for human rights.” Amen, I am all for them. Will he begin by joining me in an open letter to Fidel Castro condemning him for his torture and imprisonment of scores of political prisoners, for his failure to allow petitions for free elections to be circulated by the brave dissenters in Cuba? Will he condemn Chavez for silencing journalists and closing down opposition TV stations? Will he condemn Iran for their constant threats to eliminate Israel? I don’t think we have to spend much time waiting to hear his answers.


My friend, the historian Jeffrey Herf, has just e mailed me this important correction:

In his excellent blog about Billy Ayers, Ronald Radosh refers to Ayer’s
“supporters in Grant Park in 1968” who “attacked fiercely, even
paralyzing one cop for life, and then bragging about it in a song
written to a Dylan tune.” This is only partly correct. Actually, Ayers
and about 600 Weatherpeople engaged in the “Days of Rage” in Chicago on
October 8-10, 1969. They attacked policeman and smashed store windows.
In their book /Destructive Generation/, David Horowitz and Peter Collier
wrote the following: “One city official, Richard Elrod, was paralyzed
form the neck down when he attempted to tackle a demonstrator and struck
his head on a curb. This inspired Ted Gold [who was one of the
Weathermen killed when the bombs they were building blew up in a
townhouse on 11th Street in Greenwich Village in New York in December
1969, JH] who became the Weatherman songwriter, to write the lyrics to
be sung to Dylans ‘Lay, Lady, Lay” The lyrics were the following:


“Lay Elrod, lay
Lay in the street for a while
Stay, Elrod stay
Stay in your bed a while
You thought you could stop Weatherman
But up-front people put you on your can
Stay Elrod, stay
Stay in your iron lung
Play, Elrod, play
Play with your toes for a while…”

Few things convey the viciousness and fanaticism of the Weather
organization Ayers was leading better that Gold’s sick song lyrics.

Jeffrey Herf


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