The Ayers Affair (IV): In the Interest of Full Disclosure
What I think of Prof. Ayers
Let’s get this on the record and off the table, so readers can decide how my background and my political and educational leanings align with Ayers, and whether I'm defending the man because Im in his camp.
Let's start with the declarations that I am a Republican, I vote for the party in Presidential elections because they are about an Administration as much as a man. I like McCain because whether or not I believe he's right on an issue, I believe his position is a matters of principle rather than expediency.
I consider myself part of the defense strand of the neoconservative migration to the Republican Party. In college, I supported Scoop Jackson’s run for President. In 1978, I chose to pursue graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy over Columbia’s School of International Affairs because of the former’s “hard line” security studies faculty. When I got to Washington, I worked with that group of defense intellectuals highly skeptical of arms control and very much in favor of what became Star Wars. I almost took a job on the staff of neoconservative Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Perle offered by neoconservative Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy Frank Gaffney.
Although I knew I fell to the right of most of RAND’s professional staff then working on nuclear strategy, I chose to work there because of my intense interest in defense analysis, the opportunity to lead research projects, and my admiration for the nuclear strategy thinking of RAND alumni Albert Wholstetter, Herman Kahn and others. RAND’s financial offer was also much better, and I had student loans to pay off.
With that as a background - my views on Ayers politics. I do not consider Ayers’ decision to form the Weatherman utterly devoid of reason. Americans working peacefully against all kinds of government policies from Jim Crow, to the bombing of Cambodia, to the assassination of Allende, to the suppression of evidence related to the murder of civil rights workers and leaders in the South, were the targets of illegal government surveillance and harassment. They were bound to consider violence as a response.
The civil rights and antiwar movements both debated the practical necessity and political legitimacy of using violence to pursue their ends. Many who were in sympathy with the reasons of those who adopted violence, nevertheless rejected the choice. These circumstances lie at the core of the dilemma for those with that history as they now confront the Ayers affair.
I was issued a draft card, but I graduated from a very small suburban, largely upper middle class, and certainly all-white high school in 1974, so I was hardly part of this process. But I watched enough then, and studied enough since, to find it hard not to take this history into account in my personal judgement of Ayers.
My own views on the Vietnam Was era were and remain complex. On the one hand, I have been fascinated by power politics and war as an instrument of policy from my teens, and knew early in high school that I would pursue a career in national security. On the other, I wasn’t all that keen about being sent to war and possibly killed. Maybe I was a really a coward, but I also thought the war couldn’t be won and knew it was tearing apart the communities I experienced. Had I been old enough, I honestly don’t know if I would have left for Canada, opted into ROTC, joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), or found refuge in something like the security studies programs then being established in the universities.
I believe that if I had joined SDS, I would not have left for the Weatherman. I know that at that time I preferred the nonviolence of Martin Luther King to the violence advocated by H. Rap Brown and Malcom X but, heck, I’m white. I certainly understood that the violent acts condoned by Brown and X and committed by the Weather Underground and similar groups are illegal.
I suspect that Ayer’s decision to take the path of violence had something to do with youthful idealism, but it was still misguided and morally wrong. Above, I’ve supplied some explanations for Ayers' choice, not an excuse.
As a matter of strategy, I believe Ayers was a fool not to understand that the Weatherman’s use of any type of violence would strengthen the hand of those who wanted to stick with the war, and make it much harder for those working “from the inside” to bring the war to a close.
I believe Ayers was supremely arrogant to believe that once the Weatherman split from the SDS on the use of violence to protest the war, distinguishing violence against property from violence against human beings, and violence directed at the government from violence directed at “the people,” their small bunch could prevent the slide in precisely that direction, or the further splintering of the Weather Underground along those lines. The Weathermen were not a highly organized paramilitary institution like the IRA – with internal rules of conduct enforced with real discipline. Nor were they a tightly knit cadre like Bader-Meinhoff. The SDS was a youth movement, not a political party. The Weather Underground was a youth roup who separated from a youth movement. The concepts of a “chain of command” or even “operational control” applied to neither.
As matter of morality, whatever the efforts they took to warn authorities in time to evacuate the buildings they bombed, the Weathermen didn’t have the right to play dice with people’s lives. On a practical level, the risk to people who had no role in national policy, despite their employment as government functionaries or military personnel, and despite prior warnings was much greater than they realized. The actions the Weathermen took were illegal, and they were damned lucky they didn’t kill anyone but their own. In fact, if the three deceased Weathermen actually intended to kill officers at Fort Dix, Ayers was damned lucky they died.
Finally, while I understand that there is a philosophical connection between Ayers' approach to education and his decision to help form the Weathermen, the two are independent. Ayers supplied the connection, but it was hardly inevitable. There are plenty of neo-Nazi and radical Islamist terrorists who would be happy to kill people who hold Ayers’ views on politics and education. There are plenty of people in agreement with Ayers views on politics and education who would never resort to violence – most of the SDS didn’t join the Weathermen.
To recap: Ayers' decision to form the Weatherman was a huge mistake. Bombings carried out by the Weathermen were illegal. He was morally wrong to place innocent lives at risk, however small that risk, and whatever actions might be taken to minimize the risk.
On to education.