FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Specter of the Sixties

by GARY LEUPP

Like over 3000 other academics, I’ve signed the “Support Bill Ayers” statement defending Ayers from the desperate, opportunistic attacks of the McCain campaign. I think it important to combat the depiction of a distinguished scholar as a “terrorist” by the likes of Sarah Palin, whose ignorance and extremism terrify many. But I also think that the campaign might be doing us all a favor by drawing our attention to the 500 pound guerrilla in the room: the ’60s.

Or more properly, the ’60s and early ’70s: that era shaped by an unpopular imperialist war and massive social movements demanding racial and gender equality. The antiwar and civil rights movements mobilized millions and influenced everybody. Without the gains of those years, arguably, a black man would not be leading in a presidential race today. The public would not reject the Iraq War as a wrong war based on lies but rather rally around the flag, trusting the leaders.

John McCain has built a political career on one episode in his life: his plane was shot down in October 1967 as he was bombing a power plant in a heavily populated area part of Hanoi. (In 1995 the Vietnamese government estimated that two million North Vietnamese civilians died during the war, mainly due such bombing.) His downed plane landed in Truc Bach Lake, and his life was saved by a Vietnamese civilian. The Vietnamese, realizing the McCain came from a distinguished military family, granted him special medical treatment although he had suffered no mortal injuries. He was held as a POW to 1973. During that time he publicly praised his captors for providing him “very good medical treatment.” While he has claimed to be the victim of torture, and claimed his statements acknowledging war crimes were forced, he has also opposed the release of his government debriefing that might shed light on these subjects. He was reportedly bound by ropes, and subjected to beatings during his confinement. But no one has suggested he was  terrorized by attack dogs, sexually humiliated, water boarded or subjected to the refined torture tactics used in Gitmo or Abu Ghraib. It is doubtful that his treatment would fit the Bush administration’s current (very narrow) definition of torture.

Somehow McCain’s been able to parlay this history into a reputation as a “war hero” whose faith in God and country kept him strong against his evil “gook” captors. This is the account the mainstream media accepts, as it accepts and promotes the idea that somehow McCain is “strong on national security.” Up until recently polls showed the public generally buying this line, however logically inconsistent it may be with the general assessment of the Vietnam War as a “mistake” if not a crime. How can you be a “war hero” in a war that was so unheroic and so wrong?

Bill Ayers represents an era of widespread outrage at American imperialism, including in the U.S. itself—an era of deep division unparalleled since the Civil War. An era McCain and his rightwing fringe running-mate would like to forget or undo. They see nothing wrong in the Vietnam War except for a lack of will to win. The ’60s “protesters” for them were a genus of traitors, whose very right to protest was somehow being defended by those bombing Hanoi. If the communists weren’t stopped in Vietnam, they argued, they’d be invading the west Coast. Rational people see this argument as highly stupid now.

Three years after McCain was shot down over Hanoi while on that bombing mission, Ayers by his own admission participated in a bombing of a New York City police station, and went on to bomb the Capitol and Pentagon in the next two years. Each action came in response to a specific escalation of the Vietnam War. There were no casualties, and Ayers was never convicted of a crime. He denies that the bombings were acts of terrorism and points out instead that the war in Vietnam was a war of terror. (During this time, by the way, the 11 to 13 year old Obama was living in Indonesia and Hawai’i.)

Bill Ayers like many of his generation was a follower of Martin Luther King before joining the SDS then some of its spin-offs which (like many in the New Left) parted company with the doctrinaire non-violence they perceived as ineffectual. But consider his background. While studying at the University of Michigan in 1965, he joined a picket line protesting an Ann Arbor pizzeria’s policy of refusing service to African-Americans. (18 years later, when I studied at UM, such racist exclusion was unimaginable. How the world had changed because of people like Ayers!) He participated in a draft board sit-in, punished by 10 days in jail. He worked in progressive childhood education. These are the kind of rebellious activities that enraged the white supremicists (then far more respectable and mainstream than now), the kneejerk anticommunists, the reactionaries terrified by rock ‘n roll and the youth counterculture. But what’s there to damn here, for those who aren’t misled by a washed-up generation of racist uptight bigots?

People over 50 remember that period very well, and many much younger people view it with envy and fascination. After all, today’s youth listen to the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, considering them their own. (We in the ’60s rarely listened to the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.) College students flock to courses on the ’60s, viewing that decade as one of turmoil, excitement, and progressive change. The verdict’s in: the war was wrong, segregation and all racism was wrong, sexism and homophobia were wrong—and the limited social progress as we’ve seen since the ’60s is largely rooted in the tireless efforts of the activists of that decade.  The ’60s were good!

But McCain doesn’t see it that way. Nor does Sarah Palin. She of course is 44 years old, but obviously atypical of her generation. There’s no reason you can’t be the popular governor of a state of 671,000 while expressing contempt for such ’60s fixtures as “community organizers,” sexual liberation and the questioning of wars of aggression. Palin’s the lipstick-painted pit-bull chosen to attack Ayers as a “terrorist” decades after the demise of the Weather Underground, after he’s become a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and received a Citizen of the Year award (1997) from the city of Chicago for his work on education reform. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of the infamous Mayor Daley who ordered the police attack on antiwar protesters at the Democratic Convention in 1968), who regularly consults Ayers on school issues, says ““He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally.” But for Palin, he’s a terrorist, present-tense.

Now, no honest person can actually suggest that Obama’s association with Ayers, dating from 1995 when Ayers hosted a fund-raising event for Obama in his living room and including service on the board of the philanthropic Woods Fund of Chicago (along with several Republican business executives from 2001) constitutes “palling around with terrorists.” Journalists from a variety of publications have concluded that Obama had at most a friendly casual acquaintance with a man he knew as a liberal activist. Even “palling around with former terrorists” would be a dubious charge, but that qualifier would weaken the McCain-Palin smearjob effort so Ayer and his wife Bernadine Dohrn become, for campaign purposes, lifetime terrorists

McCain and Palin say “we need to know the full extent” of the Obama-Ayers “relationship”—so we can know if Obama “is telling the truth to the American people or not.” The fact is, of course, that the politically careful Obama has steered clear of Ayers since January 2005 when he took his Senate seat. So what do they want to know? How many times the two men met on the street in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where both live? How many times Obama visited Ayers’ house? Do we need to know the content of their conversations?

Obviously with her “palling around with terrorists” remark Palin wants to set voters’ imaginations working. What does she want them to imagine? Obama patting Ayers on the back, saying “Good job on that Pentagon bombing, Bill”?   Maybe. Recall the famous July 21, 2008 New Yorker cover, showing Obama in Muslim dress, fist-bumping Michelle sporting an Afro and AK-47, American flag burning in the fireplace, Osama bin Laden picture on the wall. It was “satire” supposedly, but in a country where 11% believe Obama is a Muslim (Newsweek poll, May 2008), and  one-third believe U.S. Muslims are sympathetic to al-Qaeda (USA/Gallop August 2006) that sort of image, and Palin’s kind of language, can be poisonous.

“This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Palin declared earlier this month to a select crowd of people who in her words “see America as the greatest force for good in this world. . . [a] beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy. . .” (Has she read the international polls about how this country is really perceived nowadays?)

Maybe in fact Obama doesn’t see America precisely as she does; he seems, after all, more aware of the real world in general. Unfortunately, with his plans to escalate the hopeless counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, provoke further confrontation along the border with Pakistan, and support the strike on Iran favored by his top Middle East advisor and the Israel Lobby, he sees America all too much as do McCain and Palin: through the eyes of an imperialist.

His campaign ads make clear, lest anyone might doubt, that Bill Ayers will have no role in his administration. Colin Powell, on the other hand, might. This is the Colin Powell who, as an Army Major in 1968, six months after the My Lai Massacre charged with investigating charges of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, dismissed them blithely declaring “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” That was his ’60s, as McCain’s ’60s were his glory days bombing those Vietnamese people.

For many of us, the antiwar movement of that time remains a cherished memory. So too the Freedom Rides, the marches on Washington. The counterculture. The Stonewall Riots of June 1969. That groundswell of necessary rebellion in this country that dovetailed with the near-revolutionary upsurge in Europe in 1968 and even the Cultural Revolution in China. Those ’60s—emblematic of all the subsequent challenges to mandatory “patriotism,” butt-headed religiosity, attacks upon science, criminalization of inner-city youth under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” resurgent assaults on women’s rights—is the real focus of the attack on Ayers, and through him on Obama.

What sort of political operative sits behind a desk, weighing options, decides, “Ok, let’s go with this Ayers thing?” The sort of operative who imagines that the base can best be energized by a frontal attack on the ’60s. The sort of Rovian manipulator who calculates that the ideal simple-minded voter seeing Atta in Ayers will see Osama in  Obama. If one can exploit Islamophobia to conflate al-Qaeda with Iraq with Yassir Arafat with Hizbollah, one can exploit the lingering Republican bitterness at the ’60s and revolutionary possibilities that era represents to confer an aura of radicalism around the Democratic presidential candidate.

He surely doesn’t deserve it. But neither does he necessarily suffer from it. For many of us, the ’60s were and remain a time of youthful exuberance and idealism, sincere questioning of received wisdom, righteous resistance to obvious lies, institutional racism and vicious immoral war. By all means, Ms. Palin, raise that specter, and see what good it does you!

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

 

 

 

 

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail