William Ayers On George Orwell and John McCain

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Walter Shapiro, my former boss and continuing mentor, has a fascinating interview up at Salon with former “domestic terrorist” William Ayers, formerly of the Weather Underground. It’s notable because Shapiro and Ayers go way back, as “guys in the neighborhood” in 1968 at the University of Michigan, but also because it gives one of the clearest pictures yet of Ayers’ view of the 2008 campaign and the legacy of his violent activism. Some highlights:

SHAPIRO: During the campaign, how many clips did you see of people like Sarah Palin denouncing Bill Ayers, “the terrorist pal” of Barack Obama?

AYERS: I’m not a big consumer of television, so I didn’t see a lot. I also felt from the beginning that this is a cartoon character that’s been cast up on the screen and I didn’t feel personally implicated in that character. One of the delicious ironies of a campaign filled with ironies was that the McCain campaign tried to use me to bring Obama down — and every time that he mentioned my name his poll numbers dropped. Again, I think that’s a big credit to the American people. But I did see a few clips. I saw the clip where she [Palin] first talked about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists and the crowd shouted, “Kill him, kill him.” That was sent to me by my kids. I don’t know if you remember the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s “1984”? In Two Minutes Hate, the party faithful gather in front of a television screen and the image of Emmanuel Goldstein is cast up on the screen and they work themselves into a frenzy of hatred and they begin to chant, “Kill him.” That’s how I felt. I felt a little bit like I was this character cast on the screen. It bore no relation to me. And yet it had a serious purpose and potentially serious consequences. I was in New York when this was shown and my alderman from Chicago called — worried — and wanted to know how I was taking care of my safety. I was touched that she would do that. . . .

SHAPIRO: In [your] book you also state that a phone call was made to the Pentagon a half-hour in advance warning them to evacuate that part of the building [before the Weather Underground’s 1972 bombing]. But reading this entire passage — and remembering the era — what baffles me is how could you possibly ever believe that doing things like this would be an effective way to getting what you wanted?

AYERS: What we thought we were doing was to raise a screaming alarm — to try to wake up anybody who was still sleepwalking to the reality of what was going on in our name. Frankly, I look back at it, and I don’t claim or claim in the book, any particular heroism or status as leaders in any sense. What I do try to point out is that 1968 comes and the war is massively unpopular and our democracy can’t grapple with that. It can’t end the war somehow. And those of us who are committed to ending the war did many, many different things. Some went to Europe and Africa to get away from the madness. Some went to the communes of Vermont and California to start an alternative life. Some went into the factories of the Northeast to organize the workers. My younger brother actually enlisted in the Army and tried to build a serviceman’s union. You talk about nuts. Was that nuts? It was admirable and a little unrealistic.

And a small group of us decided that we wanted to survive what we thought was an impending American fascism. We saw this in the murders of black leaders close to us. The murder of Fred Hampton [of the Black Panthers] had a huge impact on us. We wanted to survive that — and make the making of the war painful for the war makers. So, looking back, it was hard for me to say that anybody had a purchase on the right thing to do. . . . History is always lived looking forward not backward. What are we doing now to end two unpopular wars? Two wars without end. What are we doing? And I would argue that we’re not doing enough, those of us who see the war as illegal, immoral, unwinnable. What are we doing to stop it?