By Paul Hollander
As some political commentators attack Barack Obama for his ties to radical Bill Ayers (a cofounder of the 1960s Weather Underground, which bombed public buildings), many academics have rushed to Ayers’s defense. These professors share Ayers's political beliefs and seek to dissociate these beliefs from his past actions; the latter are outright denied, ignored, or obfuscated. Some have even gone so far as to sign an online petition demanding protection for Ayers's right to free speech, as though that were the issue in question.
I wrote about Ayers in my book The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries and Political Morality (2006), which included a chapter about intellectuals who refused to reconsider their radical leftist beliefs. Ayers preeminently belongs to this group. I came to this conclusion after reading his memoirs and other writings. What is most unusual about him is that, unlike so many other sixties radicals, he has refused to express any regret for his past record of political violence, most notoriously in a New York Times interview. In that interview he said, “I don’t regret setting bombs.... I feel we did not do enough.” As reported elsewhere, he summed up his radical-activist career as “guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.” In his memoirs he redefines the political violence he and his comrades engaged in as “armed propaganda.” He escaped prosecution on serious federal charges due to a technicality.
Ayers was and probably remains an idealist, but his idealism is the kind—all too common among supporters of extremist movements—that allows the idealist to resort to sordid means in pursuit of the glorious ends. In the Inside Higher Ed piece, Ayers is euphemistically and misleadingly described as “a passionate participant” in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Passionate he was, as well as intolerant, authoritarian, fanatical, and enamored with the grandiose and unrealistic political fantasies embraced by the most radical and most embittered groups (such as the Weathermen) of the period. In his defense we are informed that he is “a personable professor known to invite his classes over for dinner at his home” and that he “cooked pasta” for his students. Surely these moving gestures wipe the slate clean—a man of such warmth could not have planted bombs, could he? Many disreputable political figures have shown themselves to be capable of warmth on selected occasions, but this has little to do with their political beliefs and actions. Concentration camp commanders played (or listened to) classical music and took very good care of their pet animals, many mafiosi were good family men, and serial killers have often been described by their neighbors as nice, considerate people. I am not suggesting that Ayers belongs to these categories, only that acting kindly on nonpolitical occasions is compatible with displaying violent hatred in the political arena.
Ayers’s memoirs suggest that not only did he find it easy to justify his own and his friends’ political violence by the lofty goals pursued but that he was positively intoxicated by it; he expressed great pride in having been a good street fighter, in “fighting like madmen” the police and in the “warrior rising up inside me.” It cannot be ruled out that Ayers changed his mind about his past, modified his utopian longings and became more tolerant of those who don’t share his views of the world; it is even possible that he no longer believes that American society is the most detestable that ever existed. I have yet to see any statement of his that would indicate that such a transformation of his political persona has taken place.
Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author or editor of numerous books, including most recently The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism (Lexington Books, November 2008).