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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: firstname.lastname@example.org