October 4, 2008

Bill Ayers and double standards

Yesterday's New York Times story on Obama and Bill Ayers suggests that Bill Ayers is not particularly reflective about his time as a Weatherman (their bombings weren't that bad because of the magnitude of the crime they considered the Vietnam War to be??) but that it's a real stretch to claim (as a new ad from the independent attack-ad group American Issues Project does) that Obama is an Ayers-ite. Apparently almost all of the contact between the two came before 2001, when Ayers' memoir (with its embarrassing statement) was published.

More generally, it's unfair to hold someone who is in public life and community affairs for several decades to an impossible "Caesar's wife" standard of whom you know and meet. I suspect that John McCain has (gasp!) met with Oliver North, who is responsible for some pretty despicable things (at least in my view). But I don't really expect Sen. McCain to have denounced him, and it would look pretty silly (and desperate) for any of Obama's supporters to say that the main reason why we would not want McCain in the White House is because he has not yet denounced every single shady conservative actor he's met more than three times. Obama hasn't even focused on the links between the savings and loan crisis and the current disaster, and on McCain's being a part of the Keating Five. (In any case, I suspect that would be a useless issue politically, for a variety of reasons.)

Maybe a bit of perspective here would be worthwhile. Some years ago, one of our neighbors suffocated her nine-month-old infant about half a year after her family moved into a house they rented on a nearby street. My children had been friendly with her stepsons, and we had talked with her occasionally. After she killed her baby, we had some long conversations in our house about the nature of evil, and we asked the questions I expect anyone would ask: could we have known what was going to happen? could we have intervened? are we fools for not having asked her more questions about how she was doing? That's the situation where you question your ability to observe and draw conclusions about your fellow human beings. Occasionally going to meetings with Bill Ayers over 20 years? Not the same issue.

So for the record, if I were ever invited to a panel with someone I thought had done some damaging things in the past, yes, I'd make my decision based on the general question of whether it was worth my time, not on the symbolic and meaningless issue of whether my presence on said panel would be an endorsement of everyone else on it. I can even shake the hands of Bill Ayers and Oliver North without implying that I agree with their stupid or criminal acts.

Addendum: At this point early Monday afternoon, the Ayers-Keating-what's-next mud now appears to be flying around more generally. At least this means the EDIN08 effort will not be the low point in the 2008 campaign.

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Posted in Higher education on October 4, 2008 3:09 PM |