Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Because today seemed like a good day to have this argument again
From Walter Shapiro’s Salon interview with Bill Ayers:
This is where we probably part company. One of the reasons, in my view, that Nixon got away with pursuing the war was that, in part, the violence of the Weather Underground—and some of the other extreme parts of the antiwar movement—discredited the overall antiwar movement. And that led to a further polarization of American life, which led to the first round of demonology involving yourself.
I don’t see it that way. You could be partly right. I don’t know how to make those cause-and-effect relationships. I would posit a different explanation. I think what happened was cynical and thought through and it was deliberate. And I think what happened was that the Nixon administration determined that they could keep the war going without a domestic upheaval that they couldn’t handle. So they stopped bringing dead soldiers home. So they made it an air war and a sea war that was no longer a ground war. So they withdrew troops and they punished Vietnam and pounded it into the ground. When I say it was a war of terror, that is not idle talk. There were entire areas of Vietnam that were designated free fire zones. If you were a pilot and had leftover ordinance, you could just drop it in those villages and they did. So a couple of thousand people every month were dying, innocent people ...
It was a crime against humanity on an enormous scale. We were trying to end it. In the six years that the Weather Underground existed, we did everything we could to end it. We never hurt or killed anyone—by design. We didn’t want to. Was it risky, were we a little nuts, were we a little off the track? Yes. Did we cross lines of legality and propriety and common sense? I think we did. On the other hand, I don’t think we were the cause of any kind of reaction. I think we were a small part of an upheaval against war and against killing.
No, seriously, I’m glad Shapiro said this – the interview would have had a great big gaping hole in it otherwise. And while I’m usually sympathetic to Shapiro’s line of argument (no surprise there, I suppose), I’m a bit puzzled by the indirectness of Ayers’s reply. Not that I expected him to say, “up against the wall, Walter motherfucker,” exactly, but perhaps something like “yes, we went too far, and we alienated just about everybody. But surely you’ll remember, Walter, that it wasn’t as if nonviolent protests and marches were having any effect on the war policies of either party. And it wasn’t like proper parliamentary procedure was working in our favor, either. What’s more, people tend to get their chronologies all confused and compressed when it comes to the New Left, and everybody now thinks everything happened in 1968, as if we had a demonstration in Chicago, got beaten up by police, and went out blowing shit up the next day. Lots of stuff happened in between the Democratic National Convention and the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in March 1970, such as, oh, the secret bombing of Cambodia. So when you say that the violence of the Weather Underground allowed Nixon to get away with pursuing the war, I think maybe you have things a bit, how you say, ass-backwards.” Maybe something like that. Certainly, something better than “I don’t think we were the cause of any kind of reaction.” Anyway, I’m curious about what you all think—if you’re interested in having this argument again, of course.
On a more-or-less obviously related note, I’d also like to hear what you all think of a bunch of questions Cathy Davidson asked the other day:
If the Frankfurt School’s idea of critique is rooted in a horrific historical moment, one in which intellectuals were not just derided but jailed and killed, if the major theorists of the late twentieth century, virtually all of whom consider critique to be foundational to their method, came of age in the 1960s in the midst of struggles, riots, assassinations, unjust wars, and radicalism generated by a sense of political urgency and agentive hopelessness, what will the cultural criticism of the future look like for eighteen year-olds who voted for the first time for an utterly improbable and historically unlikely president who won. In other words, in the gross world of power politics and partisan politics in the U.S., what happens if what no one could have predicted was even possible a year ago could, through concerted collective effort, become possible? If you believe you have agency in democracy, what is the affective, critical imperative borne of that agency? What is the relationship between theoretical critique and collective action? What is the continuity between success in one improbable arena and the sense that you can enact change in other arenas as well through organized, determined, focused, collective action? What form of progressive critique, evaluation, and analysis emerges when you believe that you have the collective power to enact change in a progressive direction, even against a generation of anti-progressive and highly repressive politics? What form of analysis and future action emerges when you demonstrate, through action as well as through theory, that it is possible to succeed against all predictions, against the assumptions of history?
I know, I know, it’s like Chou En-lai said about the French Revolution—it’s too soon to tell. But for now, lest anyone suggest that Davidson isn’t being properly dour enough about Obama’s election, let me point out one interesting thing about those 1960s. No, not the end of them, the beginning. Take a look at this handy chart of the first 100 days of Presidential administrations since FDR. Pay special attention to the JFK part, because, you know, Obama gets likened to that guy sometimes. Youthful energetic charismatic fellow coming in after eight years of Republican rule, right, Camelot and new frontiers and stuff, and look! On Day 41 he creates the Peace Corps, and on day 88 he invades the Bay of Pigs. Now there’s disappointment for you! Even before the struggles, riots, assassinations, unjust wars, and radicalism generated by a sense of political urgency and agentive hopelessness. Whereas it appears quite possible that Obama’s first-100-days Cuban adventure will involve closing Guantánamo. So there’s that.