“I used to imagine there would be some generational shift in the media, leaving behind the previous baggage, and things might improve. But from what I can tell you have the perpetually lost in the 60s crowd, the 70s anti-partisan crowd, the 80s Reagan is The Awesome crowd, the 90s Republican Revolution and Bill Clinton’s Penis is a WMD Crowd. . . .”
As someone who grew up among the latter categories, I wondered for a long time when the contentious debates over 60s and 70s politics would stop being an essential part of national campaigns. I thought that having candidates who were too young to fight or protest the Vietnam War would usher in a new era. Well, Chicago 10 is the cover story in the Reader this week and Bill Ayers is front page news again, so apparently I’m wrong.
It’s not going to go away. It’s not ever going to go away, because it’s timeless. I’m sure that Ayers and David Addington would deny it, but the Weathermen and the 24-watching waterboarding brigade are part of the same malignant, patriotic idealism and exceptionalism. Whatever other strange motives they might have–the romance of violence, authoritarian fantasies, pure sadism–it can’t be discounted that they were trying to do the right thing, to protect human beings from acknowledged evil. Why should law be a hindrance to the path of the righteous? Why should they have it easier than us?
The problem is that everyone wants to be a hero and everyone’s just a little bit guilty. If the officers who Ayers and co. wanted to bomb at Fort Dix were guilty and could be killed in the service of righteousness, why not a taxpayer? Why not the president? And why leave it to the Weathermen? As James Miller writes: “Though the Weathermen’s organization had killed no one but themselves, other groups inspired by their brand of violent radicalism killed and wounded a not insignificant number of innocent people.” The bombing of Wisconsin’s Army Math Research Center is just one example.
This is why it doesn’t go away. Lee Sandlin describes the logic of escalation better than I can: “Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. The wise and farseeing hero Njal, who has never met the original feuders and has no idea what their quarrel was about, ultimately meets his appalling death (the Vikings thought there was nothing worse than being burned alive) as part of a chain of ever-larger catastrophes that he can tell is building but is helpless to stop — a fate that seems in the end to be as inevitable as it is inexplicable.”
Even if we get lucky and sense prevails, either through the rule of law or by someone just turning the other cheek, later generations have to fight the same damn battles. The Weathermen stained the American anti-war movement, making objectors to the Iraq War more ineffectual than they deserved to be. The damage that people like David Addington and John Yoo have done to the Constitution will take years to unravel. After they ceded the moral high ground, we have to get it back before being able to work with it. See also Jon Burge.
That’s the tension behind a seemingly innocuous story like “Obama once visited ’60s radicals”–the law prof and antiwar figure encountering the notorious lawbreaker and antiwar figure of the previous generation. It’s the weight behind the author’s sneer: “what two guests recall as an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office stands as a symbol of how swiftly he has risen from a man in the Hyde Park left to one closing in fast on the Democratic nomination for president . . . from a local official who unabashedly reflected a very liberal district to the leader of national movement based largely on the claim that he can transcend ideological divides.”
Really? Yeah, well, no shit. Some of us think that’s how progress happens.