The Magazine

Seminar in Shamelessness

The Ayers-Dohrn road show.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Baltimore

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn gave a seminar in shamelessness last week. On the road to promote their new book Race Course Against White Supremacy, the radical couple sat in armchairs on a small stage at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, conducting a "dialogue" instead of the usual book-tour speech.

Ayers wore the uniform of an aging professor whose grasp on hipness is as thin and worn as the knees of his jeans. A sport coat nods to professionalism, while his T-shirt bespeaks authenticity. Thanks to a media blitz during the presidential campaign last year highlighting Ayers's connections to his Chicago neighbor Barack Obama, Dohrn--who outranked her husband both in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and in felony convictions--has been reduced to sidekick status, waiting to deliver her opening remarks after his and praising his jokes, which she's "still laughing at after all these years."

She has traded the leather boots and mini-skirts of her militant days for the blousy, granola-professor look, the small red flower in her gray hair a wry accessory for a woman who found no power in flowers during the late '60s, when she deemed the nonviolence they symbolized weak and passé.

Ayers and Dohrn, as the country was reminded during the campaign, founded the Weather Underground-- a terrorist group that splintered from the SDS in favor of fomenting violent revolution during Vietnam. In service of that goal, the group damaged hundreds of thousands of dollars in property and killed at least six people.

You wouldn't know any of it to hear them speak today. Hawking rewritten history the way Ron Popeil sells a Showtime Rotisserie, Ayers and Dohrn marinated their militancy in self-righteousness, basted their guilt with the glistening mythology of the '60s, and set the thing to roast in the dark, warm halls of academe. They've now emerged on the lecture circuit, "respected" professors grinning ear-to-ear, with a patented recipe for rehabilitation without repentance.

The Weathermen-led riots in Chicago in 1969 and their declaration of war on the United States in 1970?

"Set it and forget it!"

The bombings of the U.S. Capitol (1971), the Pentagon (1972), and the State Department (1975)?

"Set it and forget it!"

The robbery of a Brinks armored truck in New York in 1981, during which two police officers and one guard were murdered?

"Set it and forget it!"

An FBI agent who infiltrated the group believes Ayers and Dohrn were personally involved in the February 1970 pipe bombing of a San Francisco police department, which injured eight and killed Sgt. Brian McDonnell, but they have never been indicted.

Three of the Weathermen, including Ayers's first love, blew themselves up building a nail bomb at a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970. They were preparing the bomb for an attack on an officers' dance at Fort Dix, N.J., when their plans for mass murder were derailed by incompetence.

In the intervening years, the bombs and murders have been euphemized with a wink for polite gatherings of leftists, such as the one in Baltimore. Bombings are now referred to as "tactics." The desire to topple American society through violence has become "activism for social justice."

I asked them (without euphemisms) this question: Given the fact that many leftists are disappointed with the actions of the Obama administration on detainee photos, military tribunals, and escalation in Afghanistan, when exactly would it be appropriate for concerned radicals to get violent again?

Ayers danced around the question, but Dohrn was less genteel, defending her own use of violence and declining to rule it out in the future, citing Nelson Mandela and John Brown as "radical" forbears who needed "armed resistance" to achieve justice.

"As to whether it's time to be violent again," she said,

I don't take any action of violence lightly. .  .  . We were determined not to let the Black Panther party .  .  . be shot down by the government without white people trying to intervene and stop it and put our bodies on the line. That's what we thought we were doing. That's what powered our militancy, .  .  . the incredible assault of this government on the black freedom movement in various forms. Luckily, in the old days, we pulled ourselves back from the brink. We didn't kill anybody. We didn't hurt anybody.

The brink? An interesting word choice for a woman who adopted the infant son of fellow Weatherman Kathy Boudin after Boudin was convicted on felony murder charges for her part in the Brinks robbery.

Dohrn's defense of the "old days" is characteristic of the mixture of denial, fabrication, and audacity that marks an Ayers-Dohrn "dialogue." They lecture other white Americans about their responsibility for colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow, while denying responsibility for Weatherman killings because haplessness kept their hands clean in an oh-so-technical sense.

Dohrn bemoans the "invisible justice system" for white people-- a symptom of society's "structural racism" perpetuated by white people not as enlightened as she--while ignoring the inconvenient fact that her years as a fugitive on the FBI's most-wanted list ended in only a $1,500 fine and three years' probation.

She decries the "Gulag of prisons across the United States," without acknowledging that during her time as a self-proclaimed "revolutionary Communist" she sympathized, colluded with, and met with Cuban and North Vietnamese officials who were enthusiastic users of political prison systems.

Ayers and Dohrn, in short, are shameless pitchmen for an alternative present and past, and their audience of aging fans and new far-left activists laps it up happily, bestowing Black Power salutes and the precious, revolutionary appellations of "brother" and "sister."

When asked what they like about their country by a Baltimore audience member, Ayers and Dohrn reply with predictable narcissism: its radicals and its history of radicalism. A radical, after all, might just talk himself out of a job if he concedes too much progress.

So, in the face of the election of the first African-American president, Ayers and Dohrn wrote a book on the scourge of "white supremacism." Dohrn can only concede that the state of modern women is "different," not necessarily better than it once was. They repackage the revolution to keep their relevance, dismissing American progress and peddling crank solutions to society's problems with all the eagerness of QVC spokespeople: "But wait, there's more!"

Ayers closed the event with a brazenly innocuous call to arms for his fellow radicals: "Go out and be mensches." One was left to wonder whether he meant the kind of mensch who occasionally blows up his countrymen for the good of the cause.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.