Thank god for this Salon interview with Bill Ayers, which is quite possibly the only intelligent thing to come out of the disaster that was the McCain campaign pretending a) that Ayers is currently a terrorist b) that the Weather Underground is any kind of threat to us now c) that the Weather Underground has anything to do with Islamic terrorism d) that Ayers and Obama are best buddies and e) that modern politics should be about endlessly rehashing the 60s. It’s a good interview—Walter Shapiro and Bill Ayers are able to talk about their differences of opinion on the effects of radical action in the 60s without getting upset, even though it’s obvious this wound is still open and probably won’t heal as long as the people who remember that time are still alive and kicking. Ayers is ambivalent about his participation in the Weather Underground—obviously they were doing way too many drugs and hadn’t really thought about the ramifications of their behavior. It’s farcical to think that you can set out to destroy property without running the extremely high risk that you’ll kill someone, and I don’t know if he’s really grappled with that fact as much as he should. But he’s also right that their behavior was peaceful and moderate compared to the government’s behavior at the time.
The problem with that, though, is when you start comparing yourself to the people you hate and using them as a benchmark for your behavior, it’s really easy to slip into paranoia and start rationalizing all sorts of fucked up shit. To make it worse for people on the left, people on the right are pretty much in a perpetual projection and rationalization loop, as you have to be when your worldview is fundamentally based on oppression. They don’t really need an excuse to make up all sorts of vile accusations about how evil liberals are, because in order to get to sleep every night, they have to invent an evil that keeps them from looking inside. Homophobia is refashioned as “protecting the children/traditional marriage”. Racism is made a tolerable philosophy by projecting violence, subversion, and sexual perversion onto the targeted group. Sexism is justified by people who claim they’re “saving babies”, and once you have a rationalization like that, turning to violence to enforce your will becomes easier to rationalize as well.
Still, I feel pangs of sympathy, especially reading this commenter at Salon:
You know, you really had to be there.
We tried everything we knew how to do, we rallied, we protested, there were accountants against the war, and truck drivers against the war, and hairdressers against the war, and still the government bombed vietnam and cambodia, and sprayed agent orange, destroying the people and the land of Vietnam (and our own soldiers).
And there’s a legitimate question there that the entire nation is pointedly ignoring—is there a point where revolution is acceptable, and what is that point? It’s so tempting to make blanket statements condemning violence, but then you think about, say, how our Founders picked a fight with Britain and we honor them for that. Now, the Weather Underground was far from that point, and didn’t have near the public will to get behind a revolution, which is why they resorted to strategic bombing plots, albeit ones that were planned to avoid bloodshed.*
But reading that letter, I get uneasy, because the feeling of frustration, while intolerable, just can’t be used as a reason to engage in coercive violence. First of all, it’s wrong. Second of all, liberals are never, ever going to shake the double standard wherein conservatives who play footsie with violent extremists will not be held guilty by association, but liberals will even if they repudiate violence. Liberals don’t have near the stomach that conservatives do to tar political opponents with the actions of others in the way that conservatives do, as the recent election showed. The recent election also demonstrated that’s probably a good thing for us in the long run.
Which is why I got upset when I read at Pam’s place that a group of Castro residents chased a bunch of hateful bigots who hang out on street corners to taunt gay people while pretending to “witness” to them. Because as understandable as it is to explode with rage at such hateful people, all you end up doing is giving the homobigots an excuse to play the victim. They were already doing it, of course—lying about how not passing Prop 8 meant that churches would be forced to officiate same-sex marriages and implying that your kindergartner was going to be witness to fisting classes—but now that they have a tiny speckle of something to cling to, they’re going to ride the hell out of it and use it to imply their other claims to victimization have merit. Which they don’t.
And that’s where I find myself agreeing with Shapiro and not with Ayers—the Weather Underground was counter-productive. How could they not be? All this shit happened 40 years ago, and the right is still wrapping themselves in the fuzzy blanket of victimization at the hands of a group of young people who destroyed property (which is treated as worse than taking life). It didn’t work, but what if the Ayers smears had helped push McCain over the top? Then we’d be triply fucked. Now, I realize I’m playing the game of making unfair judgments based on hindsight that the Weathermen didn’t get to have at the time. So the most you can say, looking at this history, is that we need to learn from it. And, on the whole, it’s probably a good thing that violent confrontations turn most Americans off. It certainly helps our side, since the right is far more likely to reach for violence and coercion first, seeing as how their political philosophies are largely based on it.
*That said, one thing that always struck me as repugnant as all get-out over the McCain campaign pretending that the Weather Underground is the worst threat we have ever faced is that they focused on them and all but ignored the majority of domestic terrorists, who are right wingers that actively seek to kill people.