When past isn't prelude

>> Friday, October 10, 2008

There's been a lot of noise lately about Senator Obama's so-called associations with a former leader of the Weather Underground, William Ayers.

"Noise" is less apt as a description than the famous line uttered by Macbeth in Shakespeare's play would be: the fact that Senator Obama met with Ayers and served on Chicago community panels with the man is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

There is a great deal of heat there, and no light. There is a generational divide between at least three generations (if not four) in play, and the cultural divide between right and left that plagues this nation. Even among people of the same generation, I think, there is a divide between those who see Ayers' sins as unforgiveable and those who seem them as history.

What ought to be clear, and for some reason isn't, is that Ayers' sins are not Obama's. I have made the mistake (which I will repeat in some degree even in the sentence you're reading now), of responding to the Ayers issue by mentioning Senator McCain's association with the Keating Five scandal and we could, if associations are so important, discuss Governor Palin's past associations with the Alaskan Independence Party. But I find myself asking why we should bother, and why should I keep making that mistake? Politicians shake hands with a lot of people, so to speak, and it's not hard to find unsavory characters in the backgrounds of any successful politician. To discuss who had lunch with whom, to obsess over who spoke at a gathering or who might have attended a meeting--so fucking what, really? I suppose there's a line out there somewhere--you can construct a scenario where somebody is constantly hanging out with fascists or something--but to be honest I'm not sure whether that line involves specific unsavoriness or frequency or both. If it turned out that Politician X and Holocaust Denier Y happened to share the bill at Conference Z, would it mean anything more than "somebody's assistant didn't vette the schedule thoroughly enough before accepting on behalf of"? Even if someone went to six meetings, or twelve gatherings, or twenty-four really long lunches, would it mean anything?

All of which is getting far afield of where I was really going with this.

I would have been inclined to just ignore this issue entirely--I think a lot of people already have their minds made up, and I consider the Ayers thing mostly a bunch of FUD (that's Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, for any non-geek readers). But then there was this very thoughtful piece in Slate by David S. Tanenhaus, in which he talks about the William Ayers he knows, and apparently the same one Obama met. It's worth reading.

The Ayers that Tanenhaus met is a juvenile justice advocate in Chicago. He's a man who taught classes in juvenile detention centers, a man who has devoted time to a variety of boards and commissions devoted to juvenile justice issues and to education. He's a man who was Chicago's "Citizen Of The Year" in 1997, a man whose service to his city was commended again by Chicago Mayor Daley last year.

One obvious point in all of this is that it seems like it would be impossible for any politician or local activist interested in juvenile issues in Chicago to not deal with William Ayers, regardless of Ayers' background. (On a related personal note, I deal with juvenile justice issues in my neck of the woods, and it seems obvious to me from Tanenhaus' essay that if I lived in Chicago or if Ayers lived here, he would be somebody I'd deal with at least monthly.)

The other point is reflected in the title of this post. Whatever Ayers may have been when he was wanted by the FBI--and "domestic terrorist" seems like a fair enough description, that apparently who he isn't now. Tanenhaus quotes Daley:

"I don't condone what he did 40 years ago, but I remember that period well," Daley said last April. "It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep refighting 40-year-old battles."

The '60s were an anarchic crazy time. They've been described as the most culturally-divided period in American history since the American Civil War: like that era, brother fought with brother, neighbor with neighbor, and grievous wounds dealt with word or deed. People did irrevocable things. Sometimes people died. And it was a long time ago. Obama, as he's said, was eight. I wasn't even a twinkle in my parents' eyes.

This isn't to condone Ayers' criminal activities as a young man, or even to excuse or apologize for them. But it is to note that there has to be some accounting of the actions of an older man against those of his younger self. One wonders if Ayers' work with kids reflects a sense that there are second acts in life--or is that too much armchair psychoanalysis or even relevant?

There will be those, certainly, who point to Ayers' lack of remorse as if it is somehow dispositive of everything. It would certainly make for a convenient narrative, yes? The man so engulfed in guilt for his criminal past he turns to a life of service. A more complicated narrative, uneasier on the listener's soul, is that a man who was passionate to the point of violence about what he believed was right and wrong matured into a man who was passionate to the point of sacrifice about what he believes is right and wrong. It's regrettable, I guess, that human stories do not follow traditional story arcs. Mr. Ayers' real life will need to be smoothed out one way or another if anyone ever does the movie version, whether he's cast as the hero or as the villain. I'm not immune--it would be easier to write this, an admittedly empathetic piece, if Mr. Ayers convenienced me by beating his breast and tearfully admitting that his decision to violently act against what he thought was an evil regime--which happened to be his own government or what passed for it--was mistaken in assorted ways.

But this, at any rate, is Senator Barack Obama's relationship to William Ayers, if it matters to you for some reason: a local politician and community activist (Barack Obama) became involved in youth issues in the neighborhood in which he lived. One of the most prominent figures in that field (Ayers) happened to be a former '60s radical who'd turned from a violent life to a life as an educator and advocate. The two men dealt with each other repeatedly for a period of years--perhaps more than Senator Obama acknowledges now that he's pressed by some to somehow defend the history of a man he worked with to help troubled children in Chicago. Whatever Ayers was in 1969, when he blew things up, in the 1990s he was a college professor who advocated on behalf of some of the most troubled and least-nurtured children in the city of Chicago, and that is the man Barack Obama met and worked with. And I have no question in my own mind that he was right to do so.


Leanright,  Friday, October 10, 2008 at 3:42:00 PM EDT  

I appreciate your input on Ayers, and perhaps his repentance is in his actions as opposed to his words; therefore, those outside of the Chicago area generally aren't able to see what his may have done to improve his community.

I feel though, that there are many questionable characters in the past and/or present life of Barack Obama. In a campaign, 25 days is a lot of time to change minds for EITHER candidate. This should be interesting.

P.S. I'm sure McCain has some questionable people in his circle as well, so don't think that I'm naive to that. What I do feel that I know is whom he has been for 25+ years. I don't have that level of assuredness about Obama.

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