by Bill Ayers
The late 1960s were, of course, a turbulent time in this nation's social history. This fact is a commonplace, now, but the events of those times still burn hot in the country's consciousness. So, a book by one of our more notable dissidents from that time should come as interesting reading, indeed. Bill Ayers was one of the former members of Students for a Democratic Society who went on to form the Weatherman organization (not to be confused with the ugly appropriation of the term "Weather Underground" for a weather reporting service). This was a militant collective that opposed the Vietnam war and saw racism as the key to oppression in conflicts all over the world. They started out advocating often violent action. In March of 1970, three of their members were killed when a makeshift bomb exploded in a New York City townhouse. This event is pivotal in Ayers's memoir. Before the Townhouse, he was a sincere and committed revolutionary. After the Townhouse, he went underground for a decade, still organizing, still bombing, but with a more unsettled feeling about his place in the world. At least, this comes out in his somewhat obscure prose.
Ayers writes of impressions and feelings, trying to convince the reader that he was a product of his time and place. He does so while often obscuring the facts. In many italicized asides, he meditates on the nature of memory and forgetting, but one wonders if his selective memory is in the service of rationalization, apology, or evasion. Ayers seems to be genuinely struggling with the language to tell his tale of memory, grief and committed revolution. And yet, so much seems almost conveniently left out that the memoir is often quite unsatisfying. Perhaps he is continuing to protect people within the Movement. Perhaps he is protecting himself. While there is a moodiness and an emotion about the writing that is sometimes moving, it seems slightly self-serving. Ayers gently approaches the ethical issues he faced then and now. But he doesn't dig terribly deep into his own culpability. The book can raise one significant question: Would you be willing to endanger the lives of a few of your fellow Americans if you were absolutely convinced of the injustice of the nation's actions in a bloody war killing hundreds or thousands of innocents per day? This is a deeply relevant question, in Vietnam, or in more recent wars. In the end, the Weatherman didn't kill anyone in their bombings, but for themselves. Other misguided crimes, however, didn't come out so cleanly. I am sympathetic to Ayers's dilemma, but this book didn't clarify it much for me. In fact, the only really compelling commentary he makes is in a post-September-11 aftwerword in this paperback version of the book. An interesting, if troubling, read.
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