Bill Ayers : I’M SORRY!!! (I Think…)

Bill Ayers’ Sixties history — and his alleged relationship with Barack Obama — hit the top of the news during the 2008 presidential campaign. Image from webcastr.

On notoriety, complexity, and contrition:
I’M SORRY!!!! (I think…)

By Bill Ayers / The Rag Blog

Bill Ayers is Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, June 8, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. They will discuss social change and the Sixties, the Weather Underground, and educational theory and reform in the U.S. today. For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.

[Bill Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Senior University Scholar. He is an internationally respected education reform theorist and social justice advocate. Ayers was also active in the Sixties New Left and was a founder of the Weather Underground. Ayers was allegedly involved in the bombings of several buildings and was a federal fugitive starting in 1970, but charges against him were dropped in 1973. There has been pressure on Ayers to disavow his Sixties activities, especially his involvement with the Weather Underground. This is a response he wrote in 2008.]

The episodic notoriety is upon us again. And always the same demand: Say you’re sorry! Of course there is much to regret in any lived life, much to rethink and redo. But opposing the War in Viet Nam with every fiber is not one of them.

Here was the situation: thousands of people a week were being slaughtered by the U.S. military in a sickening and catastrophic imperial adventure. Those of us who opposed the war had worked to convince people of the wrongness of the war, and soon most agreed. But we could not stop the war. It dragged on for a decade and the human and material costs were incalculable. What to do? Whatever one did in opposition, it wasn’t enough, because we did not stop the war. We didn’t do enough, we weren’t smart enough, brave enough, focused enough, or just enough.

“We did the right thing” was taken again and again to be evidence of an obtuse refusal to apologize, proof that my various wrong-doings had not been adequately recognized. I’ve failed to fess up, I’m told, and my transgressions, then, are enduring, on-going. Without a full-throated confession, wholehearted and complete, uncomplicated by fact or detail or even by my own interpretations, and then, without the crucial detail, saying the words, “I’m sorry,” something vital is missing.

I feel like I’m in a bit of a trough here, because I hear the demand for a general apology in the context of the media chorus as a howling mob with an impossibly broad demand, and on top of that I’m not sure what exactly I’m expected to apologize for. The ’68 Convention? The Days of Rage? The Pentagon? Every one of these can be unpacked and found to be a complicated mix of good and bad choices, noble and low motives.

My attitude? Being born in the suburbs? I feel regret for much — I resonate with Bob Dylan singing of “so many things we never will undo; I know you’re sorry, well I’m sorry too.” But, he goes on, “stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow, things are going to get interesting right about now.” Some read my failure to apologize as arrogance, stupidity, and recalcitrance, or worse, but I think, or I hope, that I’m holding on to a more complex, a truer read and memory of that history.

In some part, apologizing is rejecting, letting to or giving up — conversion. There’s something deeply human at stake, something in both the heart and the head, and intellectual severance, an emotional break. And a broad, general apology may be just too much — I am not now nor have I ever been… Even when true, the words are mortifying. They are the end not only of a dream, but of a life. The apology in general is uttered, and suddenly you die.

On top of that the apology is never enough — to be effective it must be enacted every day, its sincerity proved by ongoing symbolic purges, no one of which is ever adequate. David Horowitz, the poster-boy of 60’s apostasy, said that if Bernardine [Dohrn — Bill’s wife, also a founder of the Weather Undergound] and I were to say we’re sorry for everything and then don sackcloth and ashes it would be inadequate. There’s always more to do.

Naming names during the McCarthy years was the prescribed form of apology for a radical youth. People were coerced into providing information when no information was needed — the rift was long past, the names already known — and to disassociate with a ghost already gone. The ritual was one of expiation, isolation, and realignment. Loyalty and subservience was the rite of passage, the price of growing up.

In my case, my actions were all well-known, I’ve resolved the legal charges, and I’ve faced the consequences. The legal system must of necessity hew to a narrow line — the law’s business is to weigh charges, render judgments, and level punishments, nothing more, nothing less. A central moral question remains — the question of individual responsibility and of the nature of moral judgment.

But I still refuse to grow up if the price is to falsely confess a sin I don’t take to be a sin. What is left to do? Those who refused and suffered the lash of McCarthyism, those who “stood on principle,” had a terrible time trying to say what the principle was: Support for the U.S. Communist party? Not exactly. For Stalinism? No, definitely not. Opposition to anything the U.S. government does? The importance of never telling on friends? Free speech? I feel the same bind. What am I defending?

Perhaps it’s simply the importance of defying the ritual abasement and the rewriting of history. I embrace that defiance. Where in all the noise is there any authentic call for a process of truth-telling, a means to reconciliation? Where might we construct an honest chain of culpability?

America is in desperate need of some kind of truth and reconciliation process — not because I want to see Henry Kissinger, for example, wheeled in front of a magistrate and forced to confront his victims. Well… it’s tempting, but not the heart of the matter. We need a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility of a more just future. We need a history of lesson as a guide to teaching. Its really that simple.

I write about memory, about its tricks and deceptions, about its power to create a powerful or a deformed identity. Individual identity, collective identity, generational and national identity are all built on the memories of shared experiences. Our national identity is a catastrophic, festering sore.

The victims of violations must have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering; the victimizers must be asked why and how they created that suffering; society must have the opportunity of witnessing all of this in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us. So we need the stories that constitute the truth-telling, and we need the possibility of amnesty in order to move on.

In this truth-telling you can make no convincing moral distinction among victims — suffering is suffering after all. But distinctions are possible, even necessary, among perpetrators: anti-colonial fighters, for example, are struggling for justice against forces of oppression.

Similarly collective guilt and collective punishment are terrible, reactionary ideas whether in the hands of Nazis or French colonialists or Israeli settlers. On the other hand, collective responsibility is an essential and powerful and useful concept. Americans are as a group responsible for war. We must, as a group, do something about it.

So I want to keep it complicated, to defend complexity against the distorting labels that come to us in neat packages and summary forms — apologizing in general is asking too much. As one McCarthy-era resister said: I’d rather be a red to the rats, than a rat to the reds.

Todd Gitlin — he’s everywhere — is quoted, incredibly, as saying, “It’s not that the country is more reactionary.” He goes on, “I think the prevalent feeling is impatience with the claims made back then that violence can contribute to the political good… It’s just a very hard sell today. Acts that seemed to make sense back then seems senseless to us now.” He seems to say that these acts might have been sensible then, or at least seemed so. That’s new. Gitlin warns against “people who have harbored this grudge against the 60’s… Nobody needs to rescue those days, but nobody needs to savage them either.” Still, he seems in a rescuing mode.

Bill Clinton pauses while giving a speech on January 7, 1999, the day his impeachment trial began. Photo from CORBIS.

Confession and apology is a primary pedagogy, a ritual that runs deep within our culture. We are raised on the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, and so we learn at a tender age both that confession is ennobling in itself, and also that it has the power to diminish punishment. On the other side, failure to confess or refusal to do so is proof of arrogance, self-righteousness, and hard-heartedness. In a recent capital case in Illinois the jury said the defendant “cooked himself” by refusing to take responsibility, to show remorse, and to say he was sorry. Refusal invites greater punishment, even, if you’re the president, impeachment. Better to confess, take your raps, and move on. Erase the blackboard — we’re all such easy believers in moving on.

Our earliest instruction includes injunctions to confess and to apologize, to say “I’m sorry” for transgressions large and small. If I ever said something unkind or did something wrong or hurt someone’s feelings, making amends was never enough, never adequate to moving forward. The words themselves, my mom taught me, were essential — I’m sorry.

The ritual extends throughout life — public and private — and apologizing can be an essential part of intimate friendships. When one partner hurts another’s feelings, or a misunderstanding leads to sadness and tension, some semi-formal statement of regret seems necessary. Like saying “I love you,” both an expression and an act of love, or “I hate you,” a hateful gesture in itself, “I’m sorry” carries more weight than two simple words. It’s a form of atonement, it’s the act itself.

We were recently treated to the protracted struggle between a sitting president and his tormentors in the media, the Congress, and the special prosecutor’s office, and it all came down, finally, to whether Bill Clinton would confess. The scope and scale of his misdeeds was never in doubt — his bad behavior was known far and wide, down to the tiniest detail. More than we wanted to know.

While most citizens felt that enough was enough, powerful forces insisted that without an admission to lying under oath, without a specific confession, there could be no honest resolution. In late 1998 the New York Times urged Clinton to just “say the words,” confess as an indication that he recognized his wrongdoing, to say I did it and I’m sorry, and thereby create the basis for rehabilitation and reconciliation.

President Clinton in other cases was the absolute master of the public apology — soaring diplomacy and low-slung politics — the component parts of which an aide called the “four C’s”: confession (admitting fault), contrition (I’m sorry), conversion (seeing the light), and consequences (taking some limited responsibility and moving on). Politicians, of course, opportunistic and adversarial by nature, are practically programmed to never apologize, to never explain. Apologies can then be built on the slick constructions that allow a plea of innocence and guilt at once: If I offended anyone, then I apologize. The offended shake their heads in cold comfort, and try to figure out what they were just given.

The ritual of the Catholic confessional is comforting and reassuring, releasing guilt, cleansing, but at the same time disciplining and policing. The little booth with the flimsy curtain does both kinds of work, and both kinds of work are recreated in the police dramas with their persistent scenes of interrogation and on shock TV, with the noisy beating of breasts and the loud sobs of lament, abject and disingenuous. Today psychotherapy earnestly recapitulates the confessional act for non-believers and the banal theme-song of the self-help gurus urges: “Get it off your chest.”

Apologizing is only a part of the equation, receiving or accepting the apology completes the transaction. For the receiving party the confession and apology allows a sense of justice in meting out punishment, but it can easily become the occasion for building up a full head of indignation: I was wronged, and I want to defend that high ground of self-righteousness as long as possible. This is tricky — to refuse an apology authentically offered, to say or do things that are mean-spirited or overly zealous, can bring their own fresh offense, and then another round of apology is in order — now reversed.

There’s still a deep ambivalence in our society about confessions — we protect people from being made witnesses against themselves, and yet we demand a kind of general openness; we oppose the forced confession, and yet we applaud the detectives of NYPD Blue as they bully or trick some recalcitrant sleaze-ball into signing the statement; we want our courts to be paragons of integrity, and we daily tolerate the most transparent horse-trading — plead to this lesser crime (just say the words, Schmuck) and I’ll give you a better deal. We remember Salem where young girls were threatened into hysterical confessions of festivals of witch-craft, and we know too well the absurdity of young men found innocent after confessing to crimes they could not have committed.

What do we want these confessions to be? What do we want them to do? What purpose is served? What is at stake? What are the persons who receive the confessions or apologies supposed to do with them? I was impressed with Jonathon Franzen’s confession and apology for dissing Oprah and acting like an elitist jerk: “Mistake! Mistake! Mistake!” he said. “I was an idiot and I’ll never do it again.” That didn’t slow down the criticism a single beat.

Fugitive Days [Ayers’ memoir] is I suppose the ultimate non-apology, no matter what’s in it, because, whatever else, it’s the snapshot of that excruciating decade by someone who lived on an extreme edge of it, and survived somehow intact.

Michelle Goodman wrote again to say that I “seemed to want it both ways,” and I guess it’s true, I do want it both ways. Doesn’t everyone? I want to do the heroic thing and I want to survive. I want the romantic fun of the outlaw and still the moral high ground of protesting war and injustice. I want to be right but complicated, opinionated but generous, public and private. Every American seems to want both the good life and a good conscience at the same time. Everyone wants to be a peaceful person and close their eyes tight to the violence erupting all around and in their names. Yes, I definitely want it both ways, and perhaps that’s not possible — shouldn’t be possible.

It’s hard to know what else is at work for me personally, or for Bernardine. One odd response I got again and again as I talked to folks in the media in July and August was this: reporters said to me with a straight face and a slightly surprised tone, “You don’t look anything like a Weatherman.” I’d always ask — What does a Weatherman look like? — and we’d all laugh.

Chicago Magazine reported that for Weathermen, Bernardine and I had raised three remarkable young men, which struck me as a bizarre non sequitur, and the Times reporter kept asking how many square feet our home in Chicago had — I pointed out that she was conditioned to Manhattan, and we laughed — and referred to my mother-in-law’s care-giver consistently as our “house-keeper.” “You certainly don’t live like Weathermen,” she said.

Perhaps for some our successes in our professional lives and our “normal-looking family” constitute a kind of implied apology, and then the book by contrast is so, well, unapologetic. There’s nothing in Fugitive Days that I haven’t said out loud for 30 years — but, of course, who paid attention then? It surprised me that the book sounded like a departure to some, but it did. Perhaps, as a young friend observed, we’re like the punk band that got a record contract — some unstated but assumed agreement is breached; success was never supposed to be part of the deal. Be a punk. Stay a Weatherman.

Another possibility is that people who lived through that decade are still trying to measure their own contributions — Michelle Goodman referred insistently to the marches and the teach-ins and the letters to Congress she’d sent — against the horror of what we had witnessed. We, all of us, including me, recognize how small our contribution to peace really was.

Or perhaps some people have made a kind of unspoken or unacknowledged reconciliation with the world as it is. Slipping to the Right is normal after all — one of my dad’s favorite bon mots has to do with any thoughtful person being a socialist in college and a Republican by middle age — and so Fugitive Days may be a bitter reminder. Yes, and then a challenge.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn with son outside federal courthouse in New York, 1982. Photo by David Handschuh / AP.

It’s a strange sensation to be assigned a role — in my case “unrepentant terrorist” (wrong on both counts) — to be handed a script, and then to discover that no editing or improvisation is permitted. I read time and again that I’m wandering around saying “guilty as hell, free as a bird,” — unrepentant, triumphant, arrogant — when what I actually wrote was, “among my sins — pride and loftiness — a favorite twinkling line… guilty as hell, free as a bird…” Sins? Oh my, is that repentant enough? Apparently not. This feels more totalizing than a conspiracy. It feels like the suffocating straightjacket of common sense.

What complicates matters, too, is the wide range of vaguely constructed offenses — some internally contradictory, others pitting complaining commentators directly against one another — for which I’m putatively guilty and urged to confess. Inclined to apologize, I’d be hard put to know where to begin; I feel, then, like the man asked by the police inspector if he’s now sorry for beating his wife over all these many years who says, “But I didn’t beat my wife,” to which his interrogator replies, “So you’re still not sorry?”

Any normal person is expected to already know and accept that being a Weatherman is synonymous with fanaticism, violence, and murder. There’s no need for a normal person to read the book — others will read it for them, tell them what it says, and save them the trouble. The campaign around the book pushes forward, and the book itself is but a footnote. Any normal person skips over the footnotes.

Another Big Lie is the famous Charles Manson story. Bernardine was reported to have said in the middle of a speech at an SDS meeting in Flint, Michigan, “Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they put a fork in their bellies. Wild!”

I didn’t hear that exactly, but words that were close enough I guess. Her speech was focused on the murder just days earlier of our friend Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, a murder we were certain — although we didn’t know it yet — was part of a larger government plot, the Gestapo-like tactics of an emerging police state. She linked Fred’s murder to the murders of other Panthers around the country, to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba, the CIA attempts on Fidel’s life, and then to the ongoing terror in Viet Nam.

“This is the state of the world,” she cried. “This is what screams out for our attention and our response. And what do we find in our newspapers? A sick fascination with a story that has it all: a racist psycho, a killer cult, and a chorus line of Hollywood bodies. Dig it!…” So I heard it partly as political talk, agitated and inflamed and full of rhetorical overkill, and partly as a joke, stupid perhaps, tasteless, but a joke nonetheless — and Hunter Thompson for one was making much more excessive, and funnier, jokes about Charles Manson then, and so was Richard Pryor.

Not only is it apocryphal and demonizing, it’s irrefutable — every attempt to explain, including possibly what I just wrote above, is held up to further ridicule, as deeper dimensions and meanings are slipped into place and attached to the story. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, for example after a three hour conversation, reached over and touched Bernardine’s arm and said, “I just have to ask you about the Manson quote. It’s my duty as a journalist.”

I heard Bernardine respond in full, explaining the context, the perverse humor of it, Fred’s murder and all the rest, her own meaning-making and her sense of its meaning to insiders and outsiders alike. It made no difference: Kolbert reported the received story intact without any mention of any part of their exchange, and with this added fiction: “The Manson murders were treated as an inspired political act.” Not true, not even close, a lie on every level.

And two months later Steve Neal of the Chicago Sun-Times, playing off Kolbert, wrote: “…the Weathermen idolized killer Charles Manson and adopted a fork as their symbol…” Not true, not true. But what’s the use? By the end of the year a Time magazine essayist called me an “American terrorist,” and echoing the New York Times, said that “even today he finds ‘a certain eloquence to bombs.’” It’s all part of the endlessly-repeating official account, the echo that grows and grows as it bounces off the walls. How can it ever be effectively denied?

Also see:

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4 Responses to Bill Ayers : I’M SORRY!!! (I Think…)

  1. Didier says:

    I’m sorry (I think) that you think you are sorry, Bill
    I’don’t know if you did the "right" thing. I don’t know what the "right" thing was. You fought the RIGHT fight.

  2. Bill – My CP comrades who defied McCarthyism were never at a loss to define their objection to the witchhunt. It was a denial of the human right of free association & belief. If one cannot choose one’s friends, cannot express the beliefs experience & thought engender, what is the point of being human?

    Of course you fought the right fight; surely you can say what it was! The story lies, does it not, in how you fought, & how you returned from that edge?

    I’ve been having some interesting talks lately about “political correctness” & collectivity. Whether Left or Right, “PC”ism seems always to stem from fear of the Other: people whose beliefs differ from our own. Attempts to enforce conformity, whether Left or Right, invariably fail because acts taken (or forbidden) “for the good of the People” rest, bottom line, on individuals.

    This isn’t intended in any way to devalue collective action! However, it must always be CONSCIOUS of the individual cogs of whatever vast wheel is turning.

    Well, I’ll have to read your book, because this article confuses me. I’m sorry I missed meeting you this past week, & won’t hear Rag Radio this afternoon; I’m spending every spare moment on our upcoming benefit for Marilyn Buck (6/25, 7-11 pm; watch Rag Blog for details!), who, readers know, is still incarcerated 25 years after her role in activities similar to those you & Bernardine pled guilty to; she too is a “terrorist”. Now she’s fighting cancer, & though she’ll be released in Aug, she’s very ill.

    I truly can’t help but contrast her life with yours. Marilyn pled to violent political crimes so a co-defendant could be released & get medical care, but she got 80 years. She’s never stopped advocating for oppressed people; she never will. Even if the cancer gets her, her poetry & essays (no memoir!) will carry her maturing, compassionate thoughts to the future. The assessment you & she once shared, that armed revolution was imminent, was false, but there’s no need to apologize for having held it. Fidel’s early writings are titled “History will absolve me”; in the case of the armed underground of our own history, it didn’t.

    I don’t criticize you & Bernardine for trying to live a normal life & raise great kids. It’s a worthy objective; I tried it, too, & did good with the kid part! But, since I didn’t follow your leadership as SDS imploded, I don’t see any reason to change that now. And that’s OK! I’m sure the book is interesting & well-written, & it ought to do well. I’m only saying to readers, “Let’s not confuse past notoriety & interesting celebrity with current leadership.”

    Bill, Bernardine, since we don’t know each other, I must say, please don’t take this personally. (M Klonsky was upset when I made comments, in a review of C Oglesby’s memoir, that he saw as an attack on him, misunderstanding my intent.) With some relief, I don’t think you 2 are interested in being today’s national Left leaders – maybe Elders, but you’re still too young! 😉 – you have busy, productive lives already. But even radicals tend to conflate notoriety & popularity with wisdom. And it’s awfully flattering when people ask you “what is to be done”!

    So my questions are: 1) have you learned enough to say, when appropriate, which may even be often (it is for me!), “I have no idea how to solve [x]; we need better qualified opinions”?

    2) did Thorne or Alice ask you for a couple of signed copies of your book for us to sell at Marilyn’s benefit? If not, would you please make this donation?

    vaya bien –

  3. Richard says:

    Bill, thanks for your thoughts from this time and with this prespective.

    It seemed a little confusing at times, I wasn’t confused but you seemed to be.

    Thanks MW for your thoughtful comment, I too want to know more.

    Reading assignment for all, Clayton Van Lydergraf’s testimony before the Seattle Grand Jury.

  4. Markin says:

    Here is an entry I place on my “American Left History” blog thta makes the points that I want to make in response to this blog- except one additional thing-Free Marilyn Buck!

    Tuesday, July 03, 2007




    Recently in this space I reviewed the documentary Weather Underground so that it also makes sense to review the present book by Bill Ayers, one of the ‘talking heads’ in that film and a central leader of both the old Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground that split off from that movement in 1969 to go its own way. Readers should see the documentary as it gives a fairly good presentation of the events around the formation of the Underground, what they tried to accomplish and what happened to them after the demise of the anti-war movement in the early 1970’s.

    To get a better understanding of what drove thousands of young American students into opposition to the American government at that time the documentary Rebels With A Cause (also reviewed in this space) is worth looking at as well. Between those two sources you will get a better understanding of what drove Professor Ayers and many others, including myself, over the edge. Professor Ayers makes many of those same points in the book. Thus, I only want to make a couple of political comments about the question of the underground here. They were also used in my review of the Weather Underground documentary and apply to Professor Ayers thoughts as well. I would also make it very clear here that unlike many other leftists, who ran for cover, in the 1970’s I called for the political defense of the Weather Underground despite my political differences with their strategy under the old leftist principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. Moreover, and be shocked if you will, the courageous, if misguided, actions of the Weather Underground require no apology today. I stand with the Professor on that count.

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