Monday, November 17, 2008

The Terrorist Pal Speaks Out

I've been away in Asheville for a few days, where I gave a lecture on the University of North Carolina campus that was sponsored by the Black Mountain College Art Museum. They are featuring the work of women alumnae, and that is how I was invited to speak, having spent a summer session at BMC when I was a mere slip of a girl, just out of high school. However brief, those two months, as I expressed it to the audience there, were a "defining moment" in my life: my official entry into the world of artistic bohemia. I never looked back.

But the trip did cause me to fall behind in my blogging. Also I have to confess, there is some post-election paralysis. How to find thrilling topics now that the most vivid experience of our lifetimes has come to a wildly successful conclusion? Can you top this? Well, today there was an interview on Salon, the online Newsletter, with that notorious terrorist gridded into countless stanzas of the Republican campaign, William Ayers--O ye of the former Weather Underground. I'd often wondered why Ayers never came forward with his own version of the story. But now, it seems, he has, including the reasons for his silence during the campaign. He has come forward at this point because his memoir, which describes the whole period of that era 40 years ago, with all the projected the rage and helplessness about the Vietnam war, has just been published.

The interview, of which I am posting select excerpts below, is by Walter Shapiro, who also knew Ayers casually, from living in the same Chicago neighborhood as Obama. The full interview can be found at:

I think John McCain and Sarah Palin owe Ayers a public apology. See if you agree after reading this.

From the Salon interview with Bill Ayers by Walter Shapiro:

"Were you there in Grant Park for Obama?

I was there for hours and I couldn't leave and I'll tell you why. I've been in larger crowds of people before, but I've never been in a crowd that large where there was no edge of anger, there was nothing that people were trying to push against, no one was drunk, there was no gluttony. It was simply a gathering of pure joy. Something that would have seemed unimaginable just a couple of years before was now inevitable and unforgettable. Everyone wanted to be there. And the sense of unity and the sense of hope was really palpable and lovely.

So I take it you voted for Barack Obama?

Of course, what were the choices? I voted for Obama and I was delighted that he's been elected. And, of course, we have to embrace the moment. It was a moment when the American people overwhelmingly rejected the politics of fear, the politics of war and militarization, paranoia and the acceptance of the shredding of our constitutional rights. It was a sense of "let's move beyond that." And so, of course, I wanted to be a part of that, and we need to embrace that. I also think -- and this is where we need to move in the future -- that we cannot believe that presidents save us. They cannot save our lives. We have to do for ourselves the important work of transformation, the important work of reframing the last eight years, the last several decades, into something more hopeful.


But I e-mailed you during the campaign and asked, "Do you want to talk about this?" And you said, "Thanks, great to hear from you, but not at this time."

Well, what I didn't want to comment on was the political campaign. I didn't want to enter into that. The reason is simple: I thought that I was being used as a prop in a very dishonest narrative -- and I didn't want to be part of the narrative and I couldn't find a way to interrupt it. Anything that I said was going to feed that narrative. So I felt that part of this was the demonization of me -- certainly that I'm some kind of toxic agent that has to be feared.

The second thing, and perhaps more important, is that I was being used to try to bring down this promising new leader by the old tactic of guilt by association. The idea that somehow -- and this is deep in the American political culture -- that if two people share a bus downtown, have a cup of coffee, have several conversations, that somehow means that they share an outlook, a perspective, responsibility for one another's behavior. And I reject that. That guilt by association is wrong and we shouldn't buy into it.

Do you feel diminished by Obama repeatedly referring to you throughout the campaign as just some "guy from the neighborhood"?

Not in the least; I am a guy from the neighborhood. And I'm proud of it ... And the neighborhood being Hyde Park, which is a very close-knit, very friendly, very politically diverse, very racially diverse. You have all kinds of poles there. You have [conservative] Judge Richard Posner on one pole and Louis Farrakhan on the other. And everything in between. It's an interesting neighborhood, a college town [the University of Chicago]. It's close-knit. It's kind of like Wasilla, Alaska, except that it's different.

What have your impressions been of Obama over the years?

I met him sometime in the mid-1990s and, as I said, I know him about as well as thousands and thousands of other people do. And like millions of other people, I wish I knew him a lot better now. My impression of him from the start was that this was the smartest person who walks into any room he walks into. An incredibly bright, an incredibly quick person. A compassionate, kind person. And everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious. For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago. And that's where my imagination ran out of steam, apparently, because clearly he had his sights on something else and I'm delighted for him and for the country and the world that he was able to accomplish this.


During the campaign, how many clips did you see of people like Sarah Palin denouncing Bill Ayers, "the terrorist pal" of Barack Obama?

I'm not a big consumer of television, so I didn't see a lot. I also felt from the beginning that this is a cartoon character that's been cast up on the screen and I didn't feel personally implicated in that character. One of the delicious ironies of a campaign filled with ironies was that the McCain campaign tried to use me to bring Obama down -- and every time that he mentioned my name his poll numbers dropped. Again, I think that's a big credit to the American people. But I did see a few clips. I saw the clip where she [Palin] first talked about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists and the crowd shouted, "Kill him, kill him." That was sent to me by my kids.

I don't know if you remember the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell's "1984"? In Two Minutes Hate, the party faithful gather in front of a television screen and the image of Emmanuel Goldstein is cast up on the screen and they work themselves into a frenzy of hatred and they begin to chant, "Kill him." That's how I felt. I felt a little bit like I was this character cast on the screen. It bore no relation to me. And yet it had a serious purpose and potentially serious consequences.

I was in New York when this was shown and my alderman from Chicago called -- worried -- and wanted to know how I was taking care of my safety. I was touched that she would do that.


What's your biggest hope for an Obama presidency?

Most of all, what I really hope is that we put an end to the era of 9/11, the era of fear and war -- and that's what I think most people hope. That spirit in Grant Park was that spirit of hope and that spirit of "yes, we can." "Yes, we can put an end to this." "Yes, we can reimagine the future." I think it's a time when we could redefine what are we basing our foreign policy on, what are we basing our education policy on. I think this election is automatically a historic moment. It automatically restores a certain amount of goodwill in the world. I hope he uses it. I hope he closes Guantánamo immediately. I hope he withdraws from Iraq immediately. But those hopes aren't idle. They are built on building an irresistible social movement to see that those things happen...

One of the delicious ironies of being in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, was that I was weeping for a lot of reasons. But one of them was that I couldn't help remembering 40 years earlier I was beaten bloody in that same park. And there's something sweet about 40 years later, something unimaginable happening...

We [Ayers and Dohrn] got there around 10:00. We were so glad that we had because it was a moment that we wanted to share. We didn't want to be by ourselves. It was just too sweet. It felt like a page of history was being turned. And, of course, there are going to be challenges, obstacles, setbacks, disappointments, reversals up ahead. But who doesn't want to savor that? Who doesn't want to wish this young man and his beautiful young family all the best in the world because it's their moment. We invest a lot of hope in them. Let's not lose hope in ourselves. But let's wish them all the best."

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