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The Best And Worst Coverage of Bill Ayers

Poring over the current commentary on William Ayers is a bit like looking at every picture from a Barack Obama rally at one sitting. Sure, you’d see hundreds, maybe thousands of snapshots of the same scene and the same people. But the multiplicity of different compositions, angles, and vantage points makes choosing the most fair representation a daunting task. Since there’s hardly an objective inquiry to be found in the still growing "literature" on the subject, one is forced to confront the great clash of opinions and interests if one hopes to make any sense of the muddled yet constantly audible Ayers buzz. While the matter of Obama’s association with Ayers is officially at stake, what’s most fascinating is whether the speaker shows more interest in delivering a verdict on Ayers or Obama, on the weight of history or the passage of time. This has become in some ways what the McCain campaign wants it to be–a retread of the 1960’s. Ayers and the Weathermen are and were real people, but today they are also totems–symbols of a culture of youth gone wild and treasonous with pinko radical chic "passion." For some those totems have a built-in panic button, for others they couldn’t be more innocuous or five-minutes-ago. Separating the real people from their symbolic status is as problematic as conflating them with their cultural-political totem. So let’s go over the configurations. Sol Stern, writing in City Journal, makes one of the more compelling criticisms of Bill Ayers by focusing less on the the past, or cultural symbolism even if he relies on it indirectly to color the proceedings as he drops a quip about Stalin here, and a dig at anti-captialists there. Stern’s concern is over what Ayers means by school reform:

Ayers’s school reform agenda focuses almost exclusively on the idea of teaching for "social justice" in the classroom. This has nothing to do with the social-justice ideals of the Sermon on the Mount or Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Rather, Ayers and his education school comrades are explicit about the need to indoctrinate public school children with the belief that America is a racist, militarist country and that the capitalist system is inherently unfair and oppressive.

This goes to the heart of who Ayers is today and why Obama’s association with him might be problematic. However, it also conveniently neglects to broach the subject that guilt by association would also implicate figures like the Annenbergs: prominent Republican philanthropists whose pocketbook Ayers’ grant proposal helped dip into. No detractor of Ayers has yet to apply any similar standard of guilt to the Annenbergs, who gave 42.9 million dollars to this former domestic terrorist. Stern wants Obama to be asked what he thinks about Ayers’ view of school reform–but why not ask the same of Leonore Annenberg who, after having bankrolled a project bearing Ayers’ name and his ideas must certainly be as responsible for supporting this kind of radicalism as Obama?

Paul Berman strikes at Ayers as well–but Berman uses the Ayers of today and yesterday as a means to take aim at the foul tendencies of left. Berman, a liberal intellectual who bucked orthodoxy after 9/11 by contributing one of the most significant studies of the linkage between European fascism and Islamic radicalism, doesn’t seem to care about Obama or Ayers so much as "left-wing politics of a lunatic variety." Berman’s a history guy and can’t quite shake the Ayers of yesteryear off as easily as the 3,000 who have signed a statement in support of "the stupidest man in America, politically speaking." Berman manages to call Obama naive, but doesn’t care to chain him to Ayers. He’d rather explain what an ass Ayers is and was, and how foolish the left of today is for helping make Obama look bad:

Obama is saddled with Ayers also because of a culture of mendacity on the far left in Americathe mendacity that allows Ayers to go on proclaiming his own nobility and ideals, quite as if his own principles were those of any liberal-minded person, which they are not[…]Barack Obama’s prospects appear right now to be good. But if he loses? Dear 3,247 signatories, and dear Bill: if Obama loses, one of the reasons will be your moronic and dishonest refusal to draw a distinction between the democratic ideals of the left, and terrorist notions of totalitarian communism.

David Tanenhaus and Richard Stern, however, would have us have nothing to do with history. Content to separate the Ayers of old from the the Ayers of today, their apologetics are not even reasonable engagements with the actions of the Weathermen. No far left sympathy for Ayers’ "principles," only rosy portraits of the here and now, of dinner parties and misguided do-gooders made good. At Slate, Tanenhaus paints a holiday card:

I sometimes find it hard to believe that the Bill and Bernardine that Barack and I met in Hyde Park in the 1990s are the same people that my students are learning about in class. I know them better as the couple that invited me into their home in 2000 to meet their extended family, make gingerbread-cookie houses, and share Christmas dinner. Our conversation that night, as it almost always did, focused on the future, not the past.

At the New Republic, Richard Stern hasn’t much else to offer:

At dinner, thirty-eight years later […] I didn’t hold their fiery and criminally violent behavior against them. As in Chekhov’s wonderful story "Old Age," time had planed down the sharp edges and brought one-time antagonists into each others’ arms.

Arguing that these individuals have been reformed is something quite apart from painting disingenuous idyllic pictures that disengage from the past. Tanenhaus briefly tries to contextualize Ayers’ behavior in light of the political heat of the 1960s. But nowhere is there a serious discussion about the qualitative differences and similarities between Ayers’ actions and what we now associate with the term terrorism. Sol Stern should certainly not expect us to believe that the Weathermen attacking, with warning, the U.S. military-industrial complex in the midst of an inhumane war is the same as those who attack, without warning, innocents in New York and Baghdad. But nor should Richard Stern rattle on about the "adolescent fizzle" in Ayers’ "sexagenarian bones" without some serious confrontation with the moral questions presented by Ayers’ past actions. This might be an excellent time to have a serious conversation about domestic demons symbolic and real, about the weight of history or the passage of time. But it has so far been a chance missed.

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