“This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin cried out to the agitated crowd during a 2008 campaign rally, referring to then-Senator Barack Obama. “We see America as the greatest force for good in this world” and as a “beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy.” This was how “real Americans” saw things, according to Palin. As for Obama, he’s “someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country!”
There it was: the punch line that would resonate no matter what else was said or done— palling around. It had a special creepy ring to it, for sure.
When Governor Palin—or, as our late friend Studs Terkel called her, “Joe McCarthy in drag”—uttered it that first time (and ever after) the crowd exploded: “Kill him! Kill him!” I couldn’t tell for sure whether it was me or Senator Obama who was the target of those chants— perhaps both. I’d been designated a public enemy before. I knew the territory pretty well and accepted the consequences with some equanimity, but now poor Barack Obama as well was forced to play Ibsen’s brilliant character, the embattled Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the “enemy of the people.” Stockmann was viciously taunted in the public square by a chorus of townspeople bent on delusion and self-deception: Kill the enemy of the people!
There was no way to prepare for what was about to hit me, of course, and at the outset I could barely glimpse it on the far horizon of my imagination—the great speeding locomotive designed to derail Obama would run me and others down as just some unavoidable debris or collateral damage, the inevitable road kill. No one really knew its shape or its power yet, no one could guess at its velocity. I grasped a couple of small things right away, but my family understood a lot more, and they were in fact already gearing up.
Before he left, my son Zayd showed us how to set up Google alerts for things we ought to be aware of instantly. He had alerts set for some of his friends and his whole family, and he set up a file full of every utterance on the web concerning Bernardine or me.
Because Zayd had a file and had passed some of the juiciest and most bizarre tidbits on to us, we knew that attacking us had been a project of the hard, hard Right for years, long before Obama was a glint in anyone’s eye. And of course we had seen the Weather Underground as fairy tale and emblem resurrected once before, right after the attacks of 9/11, providing “further evidence,” according to the masters of war, of the imminent danger of violence in our midst and the need to mobilize for permanent combat. And we knew that Bernardine and I could become a tiny part of some twisted, nutty, deeply dishonest narrative from the moment Senator Obama entered the Democratic primary in 2007. That’s just how I saw it then: tiny . . . twisted and nutty.
There were already a couple of bloggers hyperventilating and flogging the story— “Obama Launches Political Campaign in the Home Of Radicals,” wrote one; “Records Show $200 Donation to Obama from Weather Underground,” said another—and the National Enquirer touched as many bases as possible when it ran a cover story called “Obama’s Secrets” featuring “a chilling murder mystery—the slaying of a gay choir conductor . . . silenced because of what he knew about Obama”; “Screaming matches with his wife—over other women”; and, of course, “another ticking time bomb . . . his close friendship with . . . a former member of the violent, hippie-era, anti-American group the Weathermen.” Still, no one else seemed to notice.
Senator Obama, after all, was the least likely in a crowded Democratic field, and all the talking heads figured he was putting a toe in the river simply to get the temperature, develop contacts and deepen his experience and party credibility for a more realistic run in 2012 or 2016. He had lots of time—he was young and had nothing to lose by losing. Hillary was the clear favorite—it was her turn, as Espie Reyes kept reminding me—John Edwards and Joe Biden hopeful still, with Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson fading, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel hardly breathing. My dad, a big-capitalist Republican, had loved Obama and had sent him many small checks over the years, but the smart money had Obama in Kucinich-Gravel land then.
Still our kids felt we should be looking ahead, and so when we were all together at a summer gathering in the mountains, we snatched a few opportunities for some forward thinking and contingency planning.
They’d clearly thought some of this through together, which was by now their custom. A couple of years earlier they’d told us that they had combined their savings into a joint account managed by Chesa, a confident investor and college student at the time, and the inescapable image was of the three of them in an all-purpose, fully protected financial escape pod dropping down and veering off just as the inflated Ayers-Dohrn dirigible—the Mother Ship— plowed into a craggy mountain covered in fog and burst into flames. They could at least still attend college.
Malik was a gifted grill chef, and he spent a couple hours after river time most afternoons preparing and marinating food, gathering wood, creating the “perfect fire,” and then delivering abundant platters of steaming corn, zucchini, and meat to the table, to everyone’s delight. One day in late August, a neighbor brought over a salmon he’d just caught, and Malik seasoned and grilled the big fish and presented it as the centerpiece for our communal dinner. Chesa added lentil soup and curried cauliflower and tomatoes to the meal, and Zayd contributed an elaborate green salad with dried fruits and roasted nuts. It was a long, slow meal; as dusk turned the screen porch dark we lit kerosene lamps, and the talk turned to Obama. No one thought he could possibly break through at this point, but still, “Whether now or four years from now,” Malik said, “I can see you guys so easily pushed into the fray.” Malik had challenged Barack in basketball years before and was now a talented middle-school teacher in California, a gifted gardener and consummate cook, and someone whose general stance in the world was to cultivate others, take care of strays, support outsiders, encourage the weak, and nourish everyone around him. Now he was looking after us. “You might as well think it through so you don’t get surprised down the road.”
The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away. No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response. Be completely quiet, they said, and stay calm. “It’s harder than it sounds,” Zayd added, looking right at me, “especially for you.” True, too true: I tend to have a lot on my mind—who doesn’t?—and I’m genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment. My default position, no matter what, is to say something. My dad used to tease us for what he claimed was a genetic trait we all shared: “Often wrong, but never in doubt; routinely embarrassing, but seldom shy.” And Bernardine liked to tell people that one of the reasons we’d survived more than a decade on the run was that she’d never actually spelled out for me that we were underground: “He can’t keep a secret and he talks too much, so we just kept him in the dark about our predicament.” She was kidding—I think.
“You’ll get flattened,” they now said in unison. “There’s simply no sensible path to being heard in the teeth of the howling gale of a presidential campaign.”
“I’m not really worried,” I said.
Chesa responded, “Whether you’re worried or not is beside the point; you’re not a worrier, and so you’re not the best judge about what to be bothered about. But look: here’s this enormous, ravenous electoral creature with neither a heart nor a brain, and when it comes after you, it’ll scoop up a lot of other people for no good reason.”
“OK, OK. I give up.”
We left that summer in full agreement, and over the next months, my brother Rick and several of our closest friends and comrades deepened and extended the conversation, and underlined the basic conclusion: YO, BILL! SHUT THE FUCK UP!
I agreed, truly I did, and I pretty much thought that I’d gotten the message. I felt it unlikely, for example, that I could say anything substantive about the things I cared most deeply about and have it honestly reported—about the continuing American wars of invasion and occupation, for example, or about the racist injustices defining our increasingly barricaded society—but even here they saw backsliding. “Not unlikely, Pops,” Malik said. “Impossible. Try to keep it straight.” He was patronizing me again, but, hell, he was also right, because I was being an idiot and keeping everything clear was exhausting me. Everyone—even me—sensed that if the Obama campaign ever got a real head of steam, I’d need some help to hang on to our agreement, and everyone seemed to agree that it would take a village.
After the ABC “debate” and the George Stephanopoulos moment, I got messages from all three guys: “Holy shit, Pops! You‟re under the bus!” (Malik); “I loved Obama calling you an “English‟ professor—brilliant! It’s about to get weirder!” (Chesa); “Just hang in there, man—the longer you say nothing, the calmer your world will become. You can do this!” (Zayd).
When I talked with Zayd on the phone the next day, he predicted not only that I would settle into and embrace a practice of quiet reflection, meditation at the eye of the storm but that all the noise swirling around me would become even more frenzied and more frantic, more incoherent and more out of control, shriller and nuttier. “You’ll be sane, and all around you they will be going crazy,” he said. He began to sound like my own personal Buddhist advisor, my all-seeing and extra-wise Bodhisattva: “Remember: You’re watching the roller coaster. Don’t get on the roller coaster.” Om.
Over the next several days I stayed close to my routine—up before 5 a.m., strong coffee, and at least three hours of early morning writing at the big table before the noise of the wider world made its claims on my attention. But some things were beginning to shift without a doubt. I now avoided looking at the media altogether, even the sites that Zayd had recommended—I found the desire to respond and correct the record just too overwhelming, and I wanted to resist that terrible impulse. That was probably on balance positive thing, but even better, each of our kids now called me at least once every day, “just checking in.” We‟’ always been in regular contact, but this was another bonus, and it had its desired effect. I felt propped up and supported where it counted, and I loved it.
I biked from Hyde Park to the university still, but one day I decided to ride the path along Lake Michigan instead of my usual dash through the South Side, and it instantly became my preferred route. The bike path took a little longer, true, but slowing down was precisely what won me over—the lake was breathtaking and the approaching skyline beautiful, the wind refreshing, the sun on my face warming. As I moved along, breathing in the good air, I began to feel the frenzy outside falling away as a deep tranquility settled in, and I arrived at work filled with calm and inner peace. Several graduate students were cued up to talk to me about their dissertations and class papers during my office hours. Outside was all thunder and lightning, anxiety and challenge, and I felt as if I‟d just meditated. It was the end of the world as we know it, and I felt fine.
If somebody had to be thrown into the path of the dark and onrushing train at that moment—if the locomotive of the Lord was set to run someone down—I was in many ways as good a prospect as any, and in better shape than most. True, I’d tried to make a revolution, I had a dubious and hazardous history, and I’d “committed detestable acts forty years ago,” as Obama had so delicately put it, which was, after all, kind of the point of the whole messy muddle. But I wasn’t overly jumpy or all OCD about it, and I’d lived on. I’d dealt with the legal problems associated with the disorder decades before, and I’d publicly accounted for those dicey times in books and articles and interviews. I’d come under withering media attention and a sustained attack, complete with death threats, seven years earlier. And yet none of that captured how I actually experienced my life, and here I was, still standing, still happily putting one foot in front of the other.
I’d become an unlikely academic at a research university, written about teaching and learning and the requirements of education in a democracy, published several scholarly articles and monographs and books—all the things professors are expected to do—and been recognized, promoted, and steadily rewarded. I was a lot older now, and while my political views were still radical and my activist enthusiasm undiminished, I felt that I’d learned something of the perils of political passion and dedication without either withdrawing my commitments or making idiotic counter-commitments. These were different times with new responsibilities and unique demands, to be sure. But I had a good job and work to do that I thought was important, and I was deeply connected with a sturdy network of brilliant students and a huge community of agitators, activists, dissidents, and outcasts—lepers in a metaphorical sense, or at least folks who’d been forced out of the camp for “having issues”—as well as organizers and engaged colleagues. I had a cast of heroes, sheroes, weirdoes, and queeroes in my life, I knew who my friends were, and I knew I wasn’t alone. So under the bus or tied to the railroad tracks, I was feeling OK— pretty great in fact. The best in the world, as my dad would have said.
I was also still trying—with many, many others—to be conscious of and true to that challenge I’d first heard from Paul Potter back at the University of Michigan: Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values. I didn‟t take that to mean I could simply memorize a set of rules or make a list and carry it around in my back pocket for a lifetime, sleepwalking step by dogmatic step free of the inconvenience of thinking about what I was doing or rethinking anything I’d done. I took it to be a dynamic test and a living guide, something that I could never achieve nor fully satisfy once and for all, but rather a compass for a complicated world, a standard to be reached for, something to be worked out again and again in the messy process of living.
So I was devoted to leaping out of bed each day determined to work in some small way toward a new world of balance, peace, joy, and justice, knowing that I would end each day having fallen painfully, horribly short. Next day, as dawn spread her rosy red fingers in the dim sky, I’d spring from bed again with my mind reset on freedom. On and on, forever, I guessed.
I was still trying to understand the parameters of a public and engaged person’s obligations in troubled times—as well as my own obligations in those specific times—and I was still trying to fight the good fight, whatever that meant, in whatever ways I could.
I still thought of myself as a revolutionary, but if the test was to have a fully worked-out and internally consistent argument, as well as a set of concrete action steps that could take us from here to there—there being some vibrant and viable future characterized by peace and love and joy and justice—then I admittedly and most certainly failed the exam. I had no plan. I did have a lot of tolerance for confusion and contingency, a deep belief in dialogue and open debate, a love of experimentation and spontaneity, a fascination with particularity, an instinct for action, a willingness to dance the dialectic with some abandon, and an abiding faith in ordinary people as agents, actors, and history makers. If a revolutionary is someone who lives with a sense of perpetual uncertainty that typically accompanies social learning, someone trying to make a purposeful and activist life battling the murderous system of oppression and exploitation and opening spaces for more participatory democracy, more peace, and more fair dealing in large and small matters—well, then, OK: I was still a revolutionary.
Excerpted from “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident” by Bill Ayers. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.