Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A few thoughts on blowing up America.

Browsing, I just came across this story. Written this past February, it is one of the more atmospheric renderings of that fateful 1995 meeting in Bill Ayers' house where Barack Obama, we are now told, "launched his political career." The meeting itself, as described, sounds unremarkable: like the kind of strategy session that any novice political aspirant could have as he endeavors to build a base of operations. But the writer, Ben Smith, clearly sees the problematic symbolism, and recognizes the albatross that the long-ago meeting could go on to become for candidate Obama. As indeed it has. Barack Obama has been trying to explain it away ever since, and it still haunts him going into the final week.

But I have a question: Why is Obama backing away from this?

OK, purely political terms, which is to say, in terms of protecting his image as a statesman and not giving the GOP more ammo for its attack ads (or more so-called "red meat" for McPalin to toss at its hungry fans), I understand Obama's need to distance himself from all that, to be discreet and cautious, to parse his words well. I understand that in a post-9/11 world, it is (almost literally) political dynamite, if not political suicide, to allow yourself to be contextualized as someone who "pals around with terrorists." Fine.

What about in logical, historically accurate terms?

One hates to belabor the obvious, but this nation began with a terrorist act, if one conceives the Boston Tea Party as the opening salvo in the American Revolution. Further, we tend to forget that the American Revolution was not a war in the classic sense; it was a revolution. (It's right there in the name, folks.) A mass insurrection. Our Forefathers, the men (and almost incomprehensibly courageous women) whose names we invoke in all this high-minded Capitol Hill rhetoric, were manifestly prepared to die for the cause, and that cause just happened to be a rebellion against the established order. A damn bloody one at that. Do we label them terrorists and "suicide patriots"? Do we recoil from their acts and mourn the lives they took as they fired on the Brits from their hiding places behind walls and trees? Not quite. We celebrate them. We build statues. We have picnics, set off fireworks and sing patriotic tunes every July 4.

While you're considering that, here's something else we tend to forget in thinking about the Revolutionary War: The implied distinction I offhandedly drew a few lines ago, about "firing on the Brits," is improperly drawn. We were Brits, too. We came here in ships from England (and, yes, other parts of Europe). We spoke and conducted our affairs in the King's English. So we were firing on our own people. It just sounds nicer, more palatable, when we set the British up as some evil, infiltrating force. In truth, they were us, and vice versa. They were the law of the land, and up to that moment, they were our law. We just didn't like answering to the King anymore, and we certainly didn't like sending him our hard-earned money.

There have been other acts of domestic terrorism that today occupy places of honor in the pantheon of Americana. For instance, John Brown's Raid. Though the violent tactics may give us pause, we finally accord these acts a revered place in history because we agree with the changes that resulted. (And suppose we disagreed? Does that make them wrong? Absent the perspective that history provides, how do we ever know in the moment when terrorism is just? The fact is, terrorists never know how history is going to judge them. They only know what they feel and believe.) Remember the way America's cities went up in flames during the climatically and racially hot summers of the late 1960s? Yeah, we quibble at the looting, and say that stealing a TV set isn't an act of social protest; I wrote such things myself during my younger, more conservative-minded days. Then I worked in Harlem regularly for ten years, between 1973 and 1982. In some of those years I worked there almost daily. I saw the effects of the institutional racism that I'd once sneered at from my comfy suburban pulpit. I saw the way cops generally treated the locals, and it wasn't pretty. Or let me say it without the sarcasm: It was inhumane. One of my more controversial memoirs, for the New York Times Magazine, recounted a harrowing experience I had in a Harlem alley with a couple of white cops who were beating the living crap out of some black guy. One might say I committed an act of terror that night. So maybe terrorism isn't "right," and maybe political assassinations aren't "justified." But are you telling me that you can't understand why some blacks, after trying to do things the right way; after taking what The Man dished out; after waiting for the reality to catch up with the rhetoric; after watching racist, malevolent cops go unpunished again and again... You're telling me that you can't understand why they'd mutter "we're not going to take this anymore" and pick up a gun?

If right now the war in Iraq were continuing at, say, 2004 intensity levels, with dozens of young Americans getting slaughtered each week, could you not envision a scenario where people, our own people, might up the ante in their protests? Where they might start plotting against domestic targets like the Pentagon or even Congress? Or let me ask an even more pointed question: If it were to come to light that Dick Cheney argued for the war in order to enrich himself and his pals at Halliburton, could you not envision some bereaved Iraq parent, someone with perhaps a little bit harder heart than Cindy Sheehan, trying to get close enough to Cheney to get off a clean shot? I know how inflammatory that sounds. But am I wrong?

Let us not forget that while Bill Ayers' measures were extreme, history has, at least in a sense, vindicated him and his buddies in the Weather Underground. Vietnam was a colossal tragedy, a national disgrace, and during the course of perpetrating it, our government lied to us repeatedly and prolifically. (And thenthe ultimate tragedy?both the government and many everyday Americans systematically mistreated the returning GIs who were the mere instruments of that disgraceful policy.) Ayers had his moment in history, and despite the nature of what he did, one cannot look at his acts out of context. In his singular time and place, Ayers came to believe that the American government had ceased to represent the will of its people; it had ceased to stand for goodness, justice, even liberty itself.*

Again I ask: Is that so unlike what we said back in Boston Harbor?

* Is any of this beginning to sound familiar, by the way?


Steve Salerno said...

Before anyone comments, let me be clear: I am not siding with William Ayers or saying that he was right. I am asking: Can we really be so smug in our certitude that he was wrong?

Anonymous said...

just wanted to let you see news from over the pond

I just don't know what to believe anymore.....

The Crack Emcee said...

Barack Obama was "launched" in Bill Ayers's house.

These kooks are nothing like the Founding Fathers - who, BTW, were fighting mistreatment by what was their own government.

Bill Ayers is a disgusting hypocrite - nothing like John Brown:

"I don’t like dry-gulching journalism, but there was a strange scene when the Fox reporter caught up to Bill Ayers and stuck a microphone in his face as he went up the sidewalk of his rather impressive home: Ayers, with a bright red star on his T-shirt, shoos away the reporter with the apparent mumble “this is private property” before the police arrive. How strange that an advocate for communalism and an erstwhile attacker of police stations reverts to the notion of property rights and police to protect him from an intrusive reporter. Right out of Thucydides Book III and the strife on Corfu, when the historian warns that those who destroy the protocols of civilization may well one day wish to rely on them."

You're part of a political cult, Steve, the Obama Campaign has even admitted it. Here's the quote again:

"...Nobody joins a cult. You join a self-help group, a religious movement, a political organization.

They change so gradually, by the time you realize you're entrapped - and almost everybody does - you can't figure a safe way back out...."

- Deborah Layton, Survivor of Jim Jones' People's Temple

I'm not the first person to say, when you've dug yourself into a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging.

I love you, man.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, as one who has seen first-hand and participated in both "sides" of the debacle in Vietnam, I also find myself questioning the appropriateness of applying such harsh judgments. As has been often said (but widely dismissed in our politically polarized environment), one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

I do not condone the taking of another human life under any circumstance, yet acknowledge that there are times when people feel pushed to such action as a last resort. Certainly, I detest the random killing of non-combatants, but must also acknowledge that my own country has done so, perhaps on a larger scale than those we deem to be terrorists. If we are to salve our conscience at all, we must dehumanize those we kill by labeling them evil, and convince ourselves that our own actions are justified by the "greater good."

Ultimately, the definition of that "greater good" is a highly subjective exercise, and the final judgment will be handed down by a dispassionate history. I honestly believe that we would be better served by at least attempting that same level of dispassion; perhaps our own actions would be borne of the kind of common sense and compassion we claim to possess.

In the "real world" of the present, it would indeed be political suicide for any candidate to publicly consider the mindset of those we call terrorists. If we are to ever realize a peaceful coexistence with our neighbors, however, it is essential that our leaders at least give some thought to such an unthinkable mindset.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, congratulations! You *are* part of a "political cult," albeit one beseeching a victory of common sense over paranoia. So long as there exists a fringe element obsessed with seeing demons in every shadow, that common sense will be challenged, and we will be faced with the choice whether to live our lives cringing in fear or striving to do better.

There will always be voices striving to reinforce that fear, but to our collective credit, they grow more marginalized every day, and continue - slowly, but surely - the slide into irrelevance and obscurity. Cooler heads *will* prevail.

Anonymous said...

Yes, in the Cheney scenario, I can picture the situation you describe. And yes, it is wrong. Civilians don't get to search out kill people who do them harm. We just don't.

Despite context and whatever justification is felt - and without filtering, nuance or prejudice - yes, it's wrong.

That's not perspective. It's called a civil society.

That's why the Weathermen were also wrong. They eschewed non-violence and instead chose a violent, destructive, and fatal in some cases approach to opposing the government's stance on the Vietnam War. They despised the violence in Southeast Asia so they answered with violence in America, towards the people they held responsible.

And now many years later, most of them live comfortably, enjoying the country they so clearly scorned in 1969. Why aren't they still fighting "the Man?" I guess some of them are doing it in classrooms, in front of impressionable minds. So be it. Time will tell how harmful that turns out to be.

Finally, I guess you missed the Emmy awards. The people involved in mounting and fighting and ultimately winning the American Revolution were community organizers, not terrorists. At least according to Laura Linney.

RevRon's Rants said...

"And now many years later, most of them live comfortably, enjoying the country they so clearly scorned in 1969."

There's a big difference between scorning one's country and fighting against actions that diminish that country. I don't condone the violence, but one must remember that during that period, civil and reasoned calls for change were ignored, and those calling for the change were persecuted for even voicing their opinions. Desperation often leads to horrific behavior. That doesn't make the behavior right, but perhaps it is no more wrong than the actions that led to it, and could have been prevented.

roger o'keefe said...

Maybe it's just me but I have to say I'm a little surprised at you and this post, which sounds marginally treasonous if you ask me. There's a difference between playing devil's advocate and being an advocate for the devil. You're darn close to that line here. You really will rationalize almost anything in your support for Barack, won't you.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Steve. Don't have time to comment at length, but maybe will manage later.

Anonymous said...

For those who make such a big deal out of Obama's accidental associates, I'd say, get a life. Your country has bigger problems than harping on who sat with whom back when. McCain has his own, possibly bigger, share of dirt under his nails. All politicians have questionable accidental associates in their history. Unless they identify with their goals and means, these associations are meaningless. You should pay attention to the trouble the US is in and try to find the best solutions, not bicker about irrelevant issues.

RevRon's Rants said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"There's a big difference between scorning one's country and fighting against actions that diminish that country."
Yes. Many people scorned the country and protested without setting off any bombs. Others created bombs and used them to enact violence. Both choices fought against actions that people believed diminished the country. One left people dead.

"I don't condone the violence, but one must remember that during that period, civil and reasoned calls for change were ignored, and those calling for the change were persecuted for even voicing their opinions."
I'm not certain of your point, honestly. Doesn't everything that follows the "but" in your thought condone the violence? People were not being heard, they were being arrested and perhaps jailed for their protests - and they can turn to violence? Without - as it turns out - significant consequence?

"Desperation often leads to horrific behavior."
Who is to say what's horrific? Killing Daniel Pearl was morally and in all other ways justified in the minds and hearts of those who did it. Then again, "perhaps it was / is no more wrong than the actions that led to it, and could have been prevented."

"That doesn't make the behavior right..."
Correct. It doesn't make it right. The rest of the thought is - to me anyway - a not much more than middle class guilt. What the Weathermen used to call "white skin privilege."

RevRon's Rants said...

"You should pay attention to the trouble the US is in and try to find the best solutions, not bicker about irrelevant issues."

Excellent points, anon 1:03. Based upon virtually every opinion poll, the majority of Americans agree with you.

On the other hand, the bickering bespeaks the elephant in the room; is our country sufficiently committed to our principles of freedom to allow dissenting voices to be heard and considered, or do we follow the path of all dictatorships and demonize any who disagree with the actions of our leaders? Do we follow the path of civil discourse, or force those who disagree with us to resort to drastic measures before we listen to them?

Blogs such as this one are a microcosm of our society as a whole. We each decide, on a very personal level, how we would perceive and function within this experiment in democracy. Those who would shout down dissenting voices pave the way for our descent into autocracy. Those who allow, listen to, and try to understand opposing viewpoints help to reinforce the freedoms for which so many have sacrificed.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Both choices fought against actions that people believed diminished the country. One left people dead."

To be fair, the actions being protested left far more people dead than did any violent protests. I do not excuse either one. Can you honestly say the same?

"Doesn't everything that follows the "but" in your thought condone the violence?"

You missed my point entirely. One need not condone a behavior in order to attempt to understand it. As a matter of fact, the only way to prevent such behavior - short of annihilating all dissenters - is to understand what led them to believe such behavior was their only option.

Perhaps a bit of what you call "guilt" is appropriate. Those who pressed for and continued to support an unjustifiable war should bear some responsibility for it, don't you think?

"Who is to say what's horrific?"

That's an easy one: any reasonable human being. The trick is to at least make an attempt to put aside one's personal agenda long enough to consider how it will impact another's. For example, when the US overthrew a democratically-elected government in Iran and placed the Shah in power, we set in motion the rise of terrorists who sought to harm us. To claim that we had no responsibility in that sequence of events is to ignore reality. And ignoring reality is a sure-fire way to have it come back and bite you.

Chad Hogg said...

Amen. The amount by which American history is ignored or misunderstood in furtherance of current or future American actions and goals is ridiculous. This started at least as early as the Civil War, when we (the Union) completely trashed the idea that people have the right to throw off an unjust government and form a new government more to their liking. (The abolitionist goals of some Northerners were quite laudable, but they are not the reason the CSA was not allowed to secede.)

I do have one point of contention to make. We tend to use the term "terrorist" for anyone who engages in violence against a nation's government without a mandate from a nation's government. (If they have such a mandate, then they are soldiers.) I would rather make a distinction that a terrorist is someone who attacks civilians.

From this perspective, the "heroes" of the American Revolution are not terrorists. The Boston Tea Party consisted of (I believe) only property damage to a quasi-governmental organization. Members of the Continental army fought against British troops (including colonists who took up arms with the British military). There were certainly acts of intimidation and violence against Loyalist civilians, but these are not the acts that are praised in our history textbooks. I am not a scholar of the WUO, but the wikipedia article on them makes it fairly clear that at least some elements of the organization were quite willing to inflict non-military casualties, so I would consider them terrorists.

In any case, the point remains that throughout time people have chosen to do what they believed was moral rather than what was legal, that this is generally condemned by contemporaries, but that it may be honored by future generations if they share those moral values. However, they will be shocked and outraged when members of their own generation do the same.

I have rambled to the point that I considered throwing the entire comment away, but I think there are some valuable points somewhere in here.

Cal said...

My questions are: with the quagmire in Iraq and the imploding domestic economy, why are there no Ayers and Weather Underground today? Are kids so coddled, self-indulged and spoiled that we won't ever again see a young generation rise up as in the '60s? Or maybe it's that they would be thrown in jail and never again see the light of day in our post-9/11 world in the USA? They certainly wouldn't have the chance to end up like Bill Ayers and end up teaching at a prestigious university.

Let's be honest, this country was founded violently. America didn't win it's freedom from Great Britain and didn't take land from the Native Americans peacefully.

Anonymous said...

You know what's funny to me is think about the word that everyone is using this year. CHANGE. Change is revolution of a sort. Everybody is sick of the status quo, but most people are just to "whipped" in the larger sense to take up arms about it. But if Barack Obama isn't the personification of somebody who reprensets a desire for a kind of revolt, I don't know who or what is.

RevRon's Rants said...

Cal - I believe that the current generation may well be coddled and self-absorbed to a degree. By the same token, however, I don't think they feel as disregarded and disenfranchised as did the generation that protested the Vietnam war. Judging by the groundswell support this generation has had for Obama, it would appear that they have some faith in their ability to improve matters by operating within the system, rather than having to resort to acts of civil disobedience. During the '60s, that faith had been effectively destroyed.

It is my hope that no future generation will feel so cynical about their country that they feel the need to attack. So long as us old codgers are willing to listen and consider their viewpoints - even those that run contrary to our own - such desperation need not reoccur.

And Chad - I concede your distinction between terrorists and soldiers. Unfortunately, in every armed conflict, there are civilians who fall victim to the violence. Sometimes, it poses a real challenge to identify who are actually "civilians." Anyone who participates in a conflict - even those who do so merely by looking the other way - will be considered by some to have relinquished their civilian status.

Anonymous said...

Since when is criticizing your country's wrong policies a treason? Shame on you, Roger, for bringing this over-the-top and discredited charge here. It's time we stopped that nonsense, with accusing those who dare to stand for truth and justice of "treason." How vile. How ridiculous.

And if supporting a smarter, more qualified, better equipped to lead presidential candidate makes one member of a cult(!), then call me (and all the thinking people of the world) cultist. Such an epithet, far from describing its intended targets, only reveals the fear and paranoia of the one using it.

Elizabeth said...

I love you, man.

Hm. I dunno. I'm not one to stand in the way of love, but it seems to me that when you love someone, you don't want to "line them against a wall and shoot them." JMHO.

Anonymous said...

Cal, Ayers isn't the only one teaching at a prestigious university. Angela Davis, of Black Panther fame, is held in high regard and a chair at the University of California. She teaches history at UC Santa Cruz. Oh, how times change. Remember when she was the talk of the nation?

I find it funny many parents let their young be taught by these "radicals." The "radicals" have sold-out too in many ways and become part of the establishment.

roger o'keefe said...

Anon 3:08 stop demonizing people for voicing a legitimate opinion, all right? I'm not saying it's treasonous to support Obama, so please don't imply that's what I'm doing. I'm saying it's treasonous or close to it to justify blowing up official government buildings in the name of protest, and THEN using that logic to support one's chosen candidate. There have to be lines drawn somewhere or else it's anarchy!

Anonymous said...

Roger, nice try but that's not what you are saying.

You are specifically accusing Steve of writing a "marginally treasonous" post and "being an advocate for the devil" in "rationalizing almost anything in (his) support of Obama."
Your own words. Own them. And apologize.

Cal said...


In many ways I hope you are right that we may never have to have another '60s. But we'll see the reaction when many of the promises that Obama (assuming he wins, which I don't but he's considered more of an agent of change than Obama) has made he has to go back on. For instance, when he realizes that the US can't just leave Iraq on a specific date because of the chaos that will ensue. I remember when Clinton in '92 campaigned on a tax cut, then when he got in he got Congress to pass a tax increase to deal with the budget deficit.

Anon 4:03, that's why my comment was directed toward the younger generation. I do believe as you get older, you almost have to become part of the system to survive. Plus, I think the evolution of the body and mind makes one less likely to be involved in radical protests. I'm talking for most of us. An older person probably feels it is better to work within the system.

RevRon's Rants said...

"There have to be lines drawn somewhere or else it's anarchy!"

Roger, unfortunately, those "lines" have been drawn so tightly these last 10 years or so that mere disagreement with a government policy is considered treason. It is for that reason that you will get such a firm response to the cavalier use of the term.

I still contend that our elected leaders' subverting the principles upon which our country was founded is at least as treasonous as are acts of civil disobedience performed in protest of those subversions. Neither act is condonable, but the latter can only be prevented by avoiding the former.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I'm not saying it's treasonous to support Obama, so please don't imply that's what I'm doing."

He didn't, Roger. Read his comment again.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I remember when Clinton in '92 campaigned on a tax cut, then when he got in he got Congress to pass a tax increase to deal with the budget deficit."

And yet, he went on to be one of the most popular presidents, and had it been Constitutionally permissible, would have been unbeatable in a run for a third term.

Modifying one's goals to meet the reality at hand is a given, in politics, business, and personal affairs. So long as the elected official adheres to the spirit in which he/she is elected, reasonable voters will understand and forgive.

Of course, there *will* be that fringe element, so unnerved at the loss by their preferred candidate, who will attempt to make even the most essential revisions into a case of fraud, just as they did during the Clinton administration. Hopefully, they will at least act responsibly enough to consider the current fiscal crisis before demanding a multi-million dollar witch hunt into everything the new president does (or has ever done). But I don't hold much hope that the so-called conservatives would behave so... er... conservatively.

roger o'keefe said...

You may have noticed I don't usually participate in these ongoing he said she saids, I just say what I have to say and I'm done. In this case I have to add, come on people. Don't make it seem like I'm the crazy one who misinterpreted Steve's post or made too much of it. I think there are many, many people out there, including victims of Oklahoma City and other incidents who would be extremely offended by the analogies and easy parallels Steve makes. When you start justifying murder as political protest, especially the murder of innocents and police, you've crossed over into very dangerous territory. That is not the America I grew up in. I respect Steve and have gotten a great deal of intellectual stimulation out of this blog, but just as Steve reserves the right to call a spade a spade, I can do the same, even if my target is SHAMblog itself or some of its more fanatical pro-Obama readers.

RevRon's Rants said...

"When you start justifying murder as political protest, especially the murder of innocents and police, you've crossed over into very dangerous territory."

As you do when you twist another's words to the point where their meaning bears little resemblance to the original intent. NOBODY even remotely suggested that murder was justifiable. Again: NOBODY even remotely suggested that murder was justifiable. The point that I was making was that we at least attempt to understand the frustration that can lead to violence, and to not intentionally exacerbate that frustration by abandoning our principles. If demonizing those who disagree with us is the extent of our efforts toward sustaining a civil society, those efforts are doomed.

Elizabeth said...

Where exactly is Steve justifying murder as political protest, Roger?

As to the "offensive" analogies and "easy" (?) parallels that Steve is supposedly making, if you are offended, Roger, then you need to say so rather than speak up on behalf of the mysterious unknown individuals. JMO.

Anonymous said...

"That is not the America I grew up in."

What is the America you grew-up in Roger? It seems every American has a different "America."

I grew-up with senile Ronald Reagan. A lot of politicos have repainted his presidency. I grew-up under AIDS and the threat of nuclear annihilation. I sent letters to my counterparts in Russia begging them to write to their leaders too. I often wondered if those Russian children laughed at our efforts.

Some grew-up under Nixon and the Watergate Scandal, which I believe forever changed people's belief in politicians.

Some grew-up under the Watts' riots of the 1960's and the segregation of the Jim Crow laws of the South.

Some grew-up under John F. Kennedy's brief time in Camelot and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some grew-up under Franklin D. Rooservelt and World War II, but their numbers are dwindling.

Many will now grow-up with 9/11 in their rearview mirror and a collapsed economy.

Everyone has grown-up in different "America," which one was yours?