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Progressives with Bombs

The whitewashing of the Weather Underground

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By PETER COLLIER
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So when it comes right down to it, Weatherman didn’t really have anything to do with bomb factories, bruising criticism/self-criticism sessions (Maoist “gut checks”), draconian intercourse assignments to break down the bourgeois possessiveness of monogamy, wool gathering sessions about which cop to kill or politician to kidnap, or fantasies about imprisoning capitalists in vast political reeducation centers in the Southwest when America was finally conquered and liquidating them if they refused to recant. No, it was about change—premature Obamaism.

In a promo for the film with the New York Times’s David Carr, Redford says that he was “sympathetic” to the Weather Underground at the time, and understood its reasons for doing what it did, although he adds densely that he was also against their “turn to violence”—as if this group’s ends and means were ever divisible. He says that like them he too had paid a price for his beliefs. No wonder then that he portrays them as Weather-beaten martyrs in this film. No wonder that he sees them as idealists who might have been driven temporarily insane by an obscene war but have managed somehow to recover their ideals during the gray ambiguity that has enshrouded them ever since. 

Weatherman was always radical, but how did it become chic? How did this group—proudly totalitarian in its day—get mainstreamed without ever having to undergo denazification? Why has it been allowed a rehabilitation without evincing at least a token of remorse?  


The group has profited greatly from the time-lapse atonement our culture offers free of charge to those who simply hang on. Weatherman has no doubt also benefited from the leftward drift of our political world over the last 40 years, especially the etymological waterboarding of the term “liberal” to make it describe the radicals who killed authentic liberalism in the ’60s and then inhabited its corpse and claimed that it had always been them anyhow. 

But it is also true that this sect, which was about nothing if not the triumph of the will, has created its own redemptive myth. Forty years ago, it might have been expected that the central architect of Weather revisionism would have been Bernardine Dohrn, the sensual face of the group from the moment it became news; the queen bee who maintained internal power by adroitly dispensing her royal jelly among all the jostling males of the group; the group’s sayer of the unsayable, as in her infamous reaction to the Manson murders: “Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate their dinner in the same room with them, then they even stuck a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach. Wild!”

But today, while Bernardine is the lawyer, it’s her husband Bill Ayers who has successfully constructed, over time, the brief accepted by Redford and others that argues, all facts to the contrary, that Weatherman was not a terror group at all, but the last of the just. 

Ayers was the first to understand that the universities, dominated in the 1980s by those who had failed to burn them down in the 1960s, could provide a rat line back to the real world. Weatherman had already pioneered the ideology about race, class, gender, and national evil that was finally taking over the academy, and when he surfaced in 1980 (unprosecuted because of irregularities in federal surveillance), he saw that someone like him could use that ideology as protective coloration when resuming the long march. 

Briefly a teacher in a Summerhill-like school in his early radical years, Ayers enrolled at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1984 and embraced the “critical pedagogy” that was just then taking over the formation of teachers. This movement, as Sol Stern has pointed out in City Journal, charges that public schools reinforce the “oppressive hegemony” of the capitalist order, creating a sinister ideological tape loop that can only be destroyed by a “transformative” curriculum of “social justice.” With gurus such as Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire urging on a radicalism that “does not conceal but proclaims its own political character,” critical pedagogy slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching, including science and math, and created a prime hitchhiking opportunity for someone like Ayers, who already spoke the lingo.

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