Magazine article Monthly Review

Living in the (Right-Wing) Media Glare

Magazine article Monthly Review

Living in the (Right-Wing) Media Glare

Article excerpt

Living in the (Right-Wing) Media Glare 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 Dohm, 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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.