Thursday, October 09, 2008

You Don't Need A Weatherman...

The right-wing Republican propaganda machine has begun its full tilt lurch toward painting Barack Obama, through his association with liberal college professor and former member of the Weather Underground William Ayers, as at worst a terrorist or at least a dangerous radical. All decent people need to be concerned at this attempt to tar a relatively centrist politician with such a dangerously loaded brush. In whipping up the right-wing hordes of bigotry and intolerance, it's possible that the McCain campaign knows not what it does. It's also possible, given the unseen hand behind the nomination of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate, that they know exactly what they're doing.

The US war of aggression against Vietnam was rightfully a polarizing conflict inside American society. In thirty years of neo-conservatism, Reaganism and revanchist revisionism, "new Democrats," Bush doctrines, and right-wing media celebrities it's sometimes hard to reach back across those years to remember how awful that war was; how cruelly it took life from millions of Vietnamese and thousands of young American draftees; how it consumed us for years changing our culture and our politics. How we breathed relief at its end, even as for us, here at home, its end was a slow sputter quite unlike the experience of the tanks of liberation crashing definitively through the gates of embassies and presidential palaces in Saigon back in 1975.

The civil rights movement was a stunning victory wrought by the power of millions. Even though its success was stained with the martyrdom of its leaders and the wasteful self-destruction of the urban riots and the unbreachable brick walls of class and corruption, it gave hope to the anti-war movement. Yet the anti-war movement was unable to stop the war. While its pressure must certainly have been felt by Nixon and the powers that be, it wasn't the movement that ended the war. Rather the war's obvious unwinnability and the promissory fig of better relations with the awakening giant of China (and potential allegiance with China against the Soviet Union) that really caused Nixon's henchmen to meet in Geneva with the Vietnamese and agree to phased American withdrawal.

It was in that frustrating inability of the movement to either actually end the war or effectively draw it to its logical revolutionary conclusions and radicalize the nation that the Weatherman movement was born. The Weathermen, later the Weather Underground, despaired of mass action, of the power of people uniting together, in favor of symbolically throwing a few bombs at a few buildings. They may have been righteously motivated, but their decision to abandon mass struggle in favor of what turned out to be a short-lived and disastrous military effort was not a wise one. They argued that "Fascist Amerikkka" was about to unleash mass repression on a massive scale and that open organizing had to be abandoned for the shadowy path of guerrilla warfare. Needless to say, the group that William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, now his wife, abandoned the Students for a Democratic Society to form, was never much of a threat to anyone, nor conversely, much of an inspiration.

Their literature was rousing in a sort of bell jar way. Their rainbow and thunderbolt logo was inspiring. But their gestures were ultimately empty. The wave of general fascist repression didn't come (though of course a generation of African-American revolutionaries did meet a determined and mostly successful government effort to militarily wipe them out). More importantly, by going underground, these would-be revolutionaries isolated themselves from "the people," who simply failed to take much of an interest in the latest communique. It ended badly for the Weather Underground: some of them accidentally blew themselves up. Others ended up in a gunfight with Brinks guards years later in a robbery gone sour. Some are in jail. Some still on the run. Some came gradually back to the light like Ayers and Dohrn.

The rest of the left didn't really fair better. A legion of revolutionary sectlets spawned by the anti-war movement flourished through the seventies and mostly dissipated in the dark days of the Reagan counterrevolution. Those that have hung on through the present day offer mostly wildly confused messages to the few people who pay attention, leaving the American people completely disarmed in the face of today's dire challenges.

It's obvious why Bill Ayers traded in his underground revolutionary life for academia and social reform. It must be said that he has obviously benefited from a certain privilege of class to end up where he's ended.

Was the Weather Underground a terrorist organization? Meh. Perhaps aspirationally, in the sense that all fighters for liberation are called terrorists by their enemies, or that bombing buildings (never intentionally people) isn't exactly a charming social interaction. But in the face of the massive American war machine (and its volunteer officers like John McCain) bombing terror into the hearts of Vietnamese (or destroying civilian power plants and civilian power-plant workers like the same John McCain) I have a hard time making that accusation. In the face of police terror waged against groups like the Black Panthers; or in the face of the US government funding Cuban exiles to hijack planes or overthrow Central American governments I have trouble judging the Weathermen too harshly for what amounted mostly to a misguided youthful arrogance.

Which way is the wind blowing now? We don't need the Weathermen to tell us that. But we do need solutions; solutions only partially and imperfectly offered by the election of America's first black president. While I fervently hope and pray that Obama is indeed the victor in a month, I'm completely frightened by what lies beyond that threshhold. If only the Weathermen and the rest of the movement of the sixties had not so squandered their energy. If only Americans had not so completely bought the big lie that was Reagan's legacy.

I look forward to a dawning new day. But we have to survive midnight first.

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