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Living in the (Right-Wing) Media Glare

Martha Biondi is professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, and author of The Black Revolution on Campus (University of California Press, 2012).
Bill Ayers, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 240 pages, $24.95, hardcover.

In this beautifully written memoir, Bill Ayers recounts his bizarre and unsettling experience as a “public enemy” during the 2008 presidential election. An unlikely grouping of right-wing web sites, Fox News, liberal foundations, George Stephanopolous, and even university faculty and presidents did their part to portray the then-Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago as a veritable mad man, someone profoundly immoral whom any self-respecting public figure or institution should immediately disavow. This suggests the salience of two phenomena: first, the perennial appeal of demonizing the U.S. left (especially—but not only—its militant wing), and the ready availability of a variety of tropes to do so. Assailing this particular opponent of the Vietnam War must have been especially appealing as an unpopular war in Iraq dragged on and a would-be-war-critic sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Second, the incidents reveal a dark region of U.S. political culture striving to influence the mainstream. Many Americans were unsettled at the prospect of a black president, and they have displayed their fears, hatreds, and anxieties in various ways ever since. Of course, Ayers’s story also illustrates the folly of letting fear, hysteria, and half-truths shape civic decision-making, as has too often been the case during the so-called War on Terror.

Ayers acknowledges the source of his fame (or notoriety) in the first pages: his membership in the Weather Underground, an anti-war, anti-imperialist organization that took credit for twenty bombings in a five-year period. The group destroyed government property to protest the government’s mass killing of the Vietnamese as well as the government’s suppression of the Black Panther Party, but they injured no one. They never killed anyone, although it must be noted that three of their comrades lost their lives during a failed bomb-making operation, suggesting the risks inherent in such a political turn. It is sobering to consider how violent the anti-war movement became in those years. Ayers notes that the FBI tabulated 40,934 bombings, attempted bombings, and bomb threats during a fifteen-month period alone in 1969 and 1970, suggesting a wider resort to violent means of protest than is usually remembered or acknowledged.

Fugitive Days, Ayers’s 2001 memoir, explored his life on the run from two federal conspiracy charges, so he does not revisit that here, but that book’s fateful release virtually on the same day as the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon helps set up his saga of being an unexpected target of U.S. outrage. Suddenly, his lectures and talks were cancelled and the deluge of threatening emails and angry phone calls began. A Chicago newspaper writer demanded that Ayers and his wife, law professor Bernardine Dohrn, be barred from teaching or speaking. Fast forward to the 2008 presidential campaign when Ayers burst back into the news after someone noticed that he had donated a small sum to Barack Obama’s run for state senate in the 1990s. Obama, a law professor at the University of Chicago who, like Ayers, resided in Chicago’s Hyde Park, suddenly found himself accused of “palling around” with terrorists. For the future president, this smear tactic was one of many such attempts by opponents to defeat him; for Ayers, it took over his life, especially as death threats multiplied and a growing roster of neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances began to avoid or shun him.

By far the most disappointing examples of such cowardice and ignorance were committed by university faculty and administrators—people, one supposes, who should be occupationally committed to civil liberties and academic freedom. The chancellor of Boston University banned him from speaking; Penn State issued an invitation and rescinded it within hours. As much as Public Enemy offers a window onto the murky and vitriolic world of the right-wing, its most disturbing sections describe the caving of liberal academics and their odd but repeated requests for Ayers’s understanding. Professors at the University of Colorado bizarrely asked him to personally approve their decision to blacklist him from an education conference; a dean at the University of Nebraska similarly asked him to sign his name to a statement cancelling an invitation to speak there. At most places, wealthy donors and elected officials appeared to be driving these decisions.

A small but important victory for civil liberties was won in, of all places, the home state of Dick Cheney. Students went to court to challenge the University of Wyoming’s cancellation—on the pretext of being unable to guarantee the public’s safety—of their invitation to this professor of education. “To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their livesor to deny them the freedom to read widely and to speak to the broadest range of people,” Ayers writes, “was to deny democracy itself” (158). A federal judge vindicated the students’ position and Ayers delivered his speech without incident. Nonetheless, “the campaign to demonize and blacklist” Ayers “was nationally organized, and so picket lines were arranged at every talk” (166).

Ayers chose to remain silent during the presidential campaign and not publicly defend himself; Public Enemy is his opportunity to set the record straight and reclaim his identity. The author Ayers takes a special delight in noting when media critics discovered that the “enemy” Ayers failed to correspond with the living person. A New York Times reporter visited his home and gushed, “You certainly don’t live like Weathermen,” and a Chicago magazine writer remarked that he did not “look anything like a real Weatherman”—nor parent like one either! (80­­–81) It turned out that there was not much resemblance between the two Ayers’s, but this insight did not typically find its way into journalistic portrayals. When conservative blogger Tucker Carlson and right-wing schemer Andrew Breitbart surprisingly made a winning bid—in an on-line auction to benefit a local humanities organization—for a dinner cooked by Ayers and Dohrn, all hell threatened to break loose, again. Even though it was two years past the election, relationships with friends and civic elites froze and unraveled once more, as if the nation stood on the edge of an abyss. But what began as a surreal, even scary moment for Ayers, ended in a kind of personal triumph. Breitbart later tweeted that Ayers was “a gourmand charmer” who was great fun to spend time with, and even mused about taking a cross-country road trip with him (209). (It should be noted that Breitbart, who died recently, was notorious for contriving stories to derail the careers of leading black officials and activists, so his company on the road may not have been recommended.) But to our point, Breitbart let slip evidence of the “real”—warm, affable, witty—Bill Ayers.

Ayers spends most of the book unfolding a counter-narrative of the caricature that passed as Bill Ayers in 2008 (and as Ayers might put it—it is so weird to have to pen a counter-narrative of yourself!), and that counter-narrative details the life of a public figure and person of the left, but most memorably, as a father, son, husband, friend, comrade, and teacher. It is important that we know, for example, that Ayers was a loving son whose father spent his last years living with them, just as he and Dohrn took in and cared for her mother during her last years. In a particularly moving section, Ayers gives a glimpse of the many challenges—and ultimately triumphs and joys—he and Dohrn experienced parenting Chesa Boudin, whom they took in as a fourteen-month-old. Together they raised Chesa as their third son after his parents, radical activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were incarcerated for their role in an armed robbery and the killing of two police officers after an ensuing shootout. Chesa’s story of coping with a traumatic separation from his parents, and then struggling to stay connected to them, became part of the everyday life of the Ayers/Dohrn household, along with baseball games, marches, and rallies, and years of collective dinners with their neighbors: Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi, his wife Mona Khalidi, and their three children.

In this engaging memoir, Ayers refuses to hold up the 1960s as a golden age of social protest, but instead portrays that period as one chapter in a life of activist commitment, learning, critique, and engagement. And, importantly, throughout the memoir he strives to make this journey more of a collective than an individual story, helping to produce a portrait of white New Left radicals as evolving and flexible, rather than the spoiled or dogmatic figures they have become in some portrayals. The last chapters focus on recent struggles in Chicago and elsewhere by themselves, friends, and comrades to end the death penalty, oppose U.S. wars and occupation, end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and fight against NATO’s expansion.

Finally, Ayers notes the irony in all the pressure on him to disavow his and the Weather Underground’s actions to end the long war in Vietnam (not to mention the several other disastrous wars the U.S. government has waged since): the fact that most of their architects and proponents have never been held to account for their decisions and acts that were based on fabrications or made in violation of international law or human rights conventions. Even though Ayers expresses regret about various choices he has made as an activist—he gives sectarianism and dogmatism a thumbs down, for example—he resolutely stands by the broad and diverse anti-war movement of which he and the Weather Underground were a part. The memoir delivers vividly on this combination of a defiant and proud veteran of the 1960s mixed with the reflections of a more skeptical, questioning family man/teacher/activist. If the politics of the 1960s seem more certain or clearer in retrospect, as a narrator of contemporary political culture, Ayers consistently favors the pedagogical style he has cultivated in the classroom: the insistence on constantly asking questions.

Ayers mentions rather offhandedly that he is a graduate of Bennington College’s famed writing program. The fruits of this training bloom in the luminous prose and engaging narrative, which seamlessly interweaves personal and cultural and political history. But most assuredly, in the end, this is memoir rather than history and Ayers is clear-eyed and trenchant in reclaiming his voice.

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