Bill Ayers is, by all accounts, a mild-mannered professor in his mid-sixties who teaches at the University of Illinois. He lives with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. That’s the same neighborhood in which Barack Obama and his family live. Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, lives there as well. So does my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law teaches at the University of Chicago Medical School. Before getting elected to the United State Senate, Obama taught at its Law School.
Hyde Park is a genteel, slightly upscale, southside neighborhood that borders the campus of the University of Chicago. It’s a neighborhood that’s not marked by great wealth, but it does have a racially mixed population filled with various kinds of professionals who prefer urban to suburban living. It has lots of bookstores, organic food outlets, funky cafes, interesting restaurants, coffee houses and an extraordinary intellectual life.
Hyde Park is surrounded on its other three sides by far less well off black, urban ghettos. It was in these surrounding neighborhoods that Obama cut his teeth as a community organizer in the eighties.
It seems that when Barack Obama first decided, in the mid-nineties, to run for state political office in Illinois, Ayers and Dohrn hosted an event in their home to raise money for his campaign. The relationship remained casual. In subsequent years Obama and Ayers served together on the boards of several community organizations concerned with educational issues. On occasion they would see each other on the street and say hello.
The McCain campaign has begun to panic in the face of plummeting polling numbers with only three weeks to go until the election. Deciding they cannot defeat Obama on the issues, they have decided to attack him personally. “Who is Barack Obama? Do we really know him? Is he really an American like us? Does he share our American values?” intone regularly both McCain and Palin. A conservative white candidate from Alaska asking whether Obama is “really an American like the rest of us” is purely and simply a set of racist code words designed to scare borderline voters and strike fire into the soul of the Republican base.
Palin, an embarrassment whose palpable lack of intelligence is exceeded only by President Bush at the national political level, has been a particularly venomous attack dog of late. She’s been running around the country delivering an only slightly veiled racist attack questioning Obama’s patriotism, concern for America and suggesting that he’s sympathetic to terrorism. Here’s where Bill Ayers comes in.
Actually, I’m rather surprised that Ayers has become nemesis #1 in this case. While certainly an SDS activist and early Weather Underground member, Ayers was clearly secondary to Bernardine Dohrn in terms of prominence. In those days they were not yet married. In the late sixties she was the epitome of the white student radical leftist. Relatively speaking, Ayers was secondary. Nearly four decades later he’s been turned into a national political issue.
Back in the sixties, Ayres and Dohrn were anti Vietnam war activists in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society. In the fifties, SDS had been the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) which itself had come out of the left wing of the old industrial unions grouped in the CIO. In the early sixties, SDS declared itself independent of the LID and became, by far, the most prominent, campus-based, left wing student organization in America. I was, on several occasions, a member. On those occasions when I was not it was not because of any disagreement but merely because I had not gotten around to renewing my membership.
In those days I was part of a southern-based, civil rights organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC and SDS worked closely together. The primarily black SNCC worked in southern black communities focusing on voting rights and other issues having to do with race, while SDS organized on northern and western, primarily, white campuses. SDS focused on anti-Vietnam war actions as well as more broadly socialist questions.
For a variety of reasons that are too complicated to discuss here, by the late sixties the “movement”, as we called it as a whole, was splitting into a variety of factions: black power, cultural nationalism, Stalinist, Maoist, more moderate mainstream leftists, New Left radicals and so on. SNCC, the organization that I had been part of, was collapsing under its own factional disputes, triggered by government agents provocateurs who had infiltrated as part of an FBI program known as COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was aimed at debilitating and destroying America’s radical left-wing movement. It accomplished its task.
At its national convention in 1969, SDS was split into factions, driven significantly by the same impulses. On the one side was a Stalinist/Maoist outfit called Progressive Labor (PL) which tried to take over the organization. This was resisted by a faction that called itself the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) which, after vanquishing PL at the ’69 convention, itself split into two groupings; RYM 1 and RYM 2. RYM’s slogan was a line taken from a Bob Dylan song called "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in which Dylan sings “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.
After a few more splits, one faction of the “Weathermen”, as they were known, changed its name to the Weather Underground and did exactly that; they went underground. At the most there were several dozen members and, perhaps, several hundred more above ground sympathizers. Over the next few years there were several bombings directed at US government facilities; the government that was prosecuting the brutal war against the Vietnamese people. By the mid-seventies it was all over and most of the Weather Underground had been rounded up and put on trial.
This is what happened to Ayers and Dohrn who, turned themselves in to the authorities in 1980. Obama was then a teenager in Hawaii. After settling their legal issues, Ayers and Dohrn went on to live conventional lives. He’s a professor of education at the University of Illinois and she teaches law at Northwestern University. When they were engaged in their radical activities in the early seventies, Barack Obama was eight years old, hardly a fellow conspirator.
Many of us, including me, were, admittedly naïve and romantic about the degree to which we thought it possible for America to change radically and become something entirely new and different. By the end of the sixties, disillusioned completely by what had happened to the movement with which we’d been involved for the previous decade, the radical, revolutionary underground had some attraction and I admit to being tempted to join it. Instead, I gathered up my wife and two small children and went into self-imposed exile in Africa and Europe for the next fifteen years. That was my decision. They made theirs. Ultimately, I found the tactics of the Weather Underground and other similar organizations foolhardy and futile. Eventually they were all run down and disposed of by the FBI. But I cannot, even now, bring myself to criticize Ayers and Dohrn for theirs. Nor am I able to criticize some of my former SNCC comrades for having done the same.
Now, nearly forty years later, the brainless, but scurrilous Sarah Palin and her mentor, John McCain, a man who speaks loudly of honor but who, in fact, despite his military posturing, has none at all, are accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists”. They impugn the Democratic candidate’s character, integrity and patriotism because he has had a casual professional relationship over the past decade with a couple of middle aged academics, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who live in his neighborhood.
McCain wants to be president far more than he values honor and is all too clearly willing to sell his soul to achieve his goal. There are slightly more than two weeks to go and we can expect the Republicans to engage in even slimier tactics, and they are the masters of the slimy tactic. Honor be damned.