The Terrorists' Salon

I don’t know about you, but I would feel extremely uncomfortable in the presence of anyone who once belonged to a group of murderous terrorists like the Weather Underground. Apparently, this is why I’m not an “intellectual” like Professor Stanley Fish who thinks that bringing up Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn is akin to McCarthyism.

Ayers said in 2001, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” But that’s OK in the social circles Fish swims, for as he says in today’s New York Times:

I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers’s house (more than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to an offer from Harvard. Of course, I’m not running for anything, but I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in the eyes of some to get me canned.

Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven’t asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since repented), and he hasn’t asked me to forgive him for his (if he has any).

Indeed in all the time I spent with Ayers and Dohrn, politics — present or past — never came up.

What did come up? To answer that question I have to introduce a word and concept that is somewhat out of fashion: the salon. A salon is a gathering in a private home where men and women from various walks of life engage in conversation about any number of things, including literature, business, fashion, films, education and philosophy. Ayers and Dohrn did not call their gatherings salons, but that’s what they were; large dinner parties (maybe 12-15), with guests coming and going, one conversation leading to another, no rules or obligations, except the obligation to be interesting and interested. The only thing I don’t remember was ideology, although since this was all going on in Hyde Park, there was the general and diffused ideology, vaguely liberal, that usually hangs over a university town.

Many of those attending these occasions no doubt knew something about their hosts’ past, but the matter was never discussed and why should it have been? We were there not because of what Ayers and Dohrn had done 40 years ago, but because of what they were doing at the moment.

Ayers is a longtime professor of education at UIC, nationally known for his prominence in the “small school” movement. Dohrn teaches at Northwestern Law School, where she directs a center for child and family justice. Both lend their skills and energies to community causes; both advise various agencies; together they have raised exemplary children and they have been devoted caretakers to aged parents. “Respectable” is too mild a word to describe the couple; rock-solid establishment would be more like it. There was and is absolutely no reason for anyone who knows them to plead the fifth or declare, “I am not now nor have I ever been a friend of Bill’s and Bernardine’s.”

You have to wonder whether Fish and his fellow professors would absolve a former and unrepentant abortion clinic bomber who, nonetheless, “lent [his] skills and energies to community causes” and “raised exemplary children” and took care of aged parents. The truth is that, despite all their claims to the contrary, Fish and his colleagues really consider Ayers and Dohrn to be counter-culture heroes of the 60’s, the best and brightest of the smartest, most idealistic generation in human history. They also see nothing wrong with Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Americanism and paranoid fantasies since they coincide with their own.

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