Ever since the rantings of Sen. McCarthy it has been a cardinal sin to suggest what has come to be called "guilt by association." But if we drop the word "guilt" it should be a matter of common sense that who an individual chooses to associate with gives some indication of his interests, tastes and values.
So it might not be amiss to take a look at some of the chosen associates in the life of a man who is a contender for the position of President of the United States and Commander in Chief of its Armed Forces.
We all know by now the story of the Black Liberation theologian Reverend Wright and the anti-white and anti-American ravings that Obama, with his wife and two small children, sat through without demurral until it became politic to distance himself from his former spiritual leader.
There are at least two other figures in Obama's past whose lives make interesting reading and raise questions about Obama's social and political views. The first of these had been dead for over a decade when the young Obama entered the sphere of his influence, but that influence was still very much alive.
Saul Alinsky has been called the father of grass roots community organizing. In the 1940s he set out to investigate the gangs of the Chicago slums. He concluded that the causes of criminal behavior were poverty and a sense of powerlessness. He made common cause with local union and religious leaders and set about organizing neighborhood residents, like many a demagogue before and after him, by convincing them they had a common enemy - political, business and institutional entities - and arming them with the means to confront them. As always, there was some justice in Alinsky's cause. Corruption was rife in Chicago machine politics at the time and jobs were hard to come by for the poor and uneducated. And as always, what began as a laudable venture morphed gradually into its own form of unintended consequences.
Just as "affirmative action," a euphemism for racial preferences, segued into racial quotas, and just as desegregation became legislated integration with forced busing and concomitant white flight, marooning the disadvantaged in the inner city slums, so Alinsky's technique of demonstrating for legitimate needs became demands for special privileges. The distance between the community organizer and the rabble-rouser lessened. Demands concerning housing and hiring were shouted in the streets and it was there that policy issues were decided.
I was a student at the University of Chicago when Alinsky defined the University as the enemy and its efforts to expand across the Midway into the Woodlawn neighborhood became the battleground. Demonstrators threatening to lie down in front of bulldozers defeated the University and created a sense of menace around the campus it would have taken Draconian measures to deal with in any way other than to accede to the protestors' demands. A crowd can easily be turned into a mob.
Alinsky's philosophy and his methods were at their height in the sixties. Among the many young people drawn to them was the young Hillary Clinton, whose senior thesis at Wellesley dealt with the community activism pioneered by Alinsky.
He himself was proudest of his contribution to what he considered "social justice." It could be described as agitating for redistributive egalitarianism. In his two books, Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1969), he described his program for training organizers like the young Obama to "rub raw the sores of discontent."
Barack Obama was just 24 and, according to his own account, searching to define himself as a black man, when he took a job with the Developing Communities Project, built on the Alinsky model on Chicago's South Side. As he makes clear in his memoir, being black meant identifying with the oppressed. As an organizer for the DCP, Obama's job was to engage the project's constituency following the rules set forth by Alinsky as a guide. Make them aware of their misery, lead them to blame government and corporations for everything wanting in their lives, and bring them together in a group to demand redress by whatever means will make it a matter of self-preservation for government and business to meet their demands.
Obama has been quoted as saying that his four years as a community organizer were the best education he ever got anywhere. That is admittedly an ambiguous statement, leaving it unclear just what it was that Obama felt he had learned in those years. Was it the usefulness of radical agitation for social/economic goals or its limitations? Did he move on to more mainstream attitudes and actions only, as with his former spiritual guru, when it became politically prudent to do so? And how would we know?
If Obama still believes in the values and methods of the world of Saul Alinsky, he would hardly seem to be the man most Americans would choose to lead the country. If he does not, it would behoove him to explain his transformation, not just announce it, lest he appear to be an unprincipled opportunist who moves as the wind blows.
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It's hard to say how many Americans still hew to the radical world view of the sixties. It is a safer bet that few outside of the tenured radicals of the colleges and universities would be comfortable knowing their elected leader associated comfortably with an unrepentant terrorist.
It was a beautiful bright morning of a crisp fall day when I unfolded my New York Times to see an article on the front page about a man whose history I knew well and whose rehabilitation by the newspaper of record I found unsettling. I picked up the phone and dialed a friend and fellow critic of the educational scene but when she answered it was only to cut me off abruptly to say, "Turn on your TV" and hang up. The date was September 11, 2001.
I forgot about William Ayers along with many other relatively trivial matters and only much later went back to read the Times article about him. The occasion of the article was the publication of Mr. Ayers' memoir Fugitive Days, an account of his life in the 1970s on the run from federal authorities as a former leader of the Weather Underground. The Weathermen, as they came to be called, claimed responsibility for bombing the Capitol, the Pentagon, the State Department building and banks, courthouses and police stations. He and his wife, fellow Weatherperson Bernardine Dohrn, were indicted in 1970 for inciting to riot and conspiracy to bomb government buildings, but charges were dropped in 1974 because of technicalities involving illegal surveillance. Dohrn had been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List and both remained in hiding. When they surfaced in 1980 Dohrn received three years probation and a fine of $1,500. With the Federal charges dropped they faced no further penalties until Dorhn, once referred to as "la Pasionara of the Lunatic Left," refused to cooperate with prosecutors in the trial of another bomber and was jailed for seven months.
The Times story was headed NO REGRETS… and began, "'I don't regret setting bombs,' Bill Ayers said. ‘I feel we didn't do enough.'"
The real shocker in this sorry story is that William Ayers was at the time of his book's publication, and remains today, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The mind reels at the thought of an unrepentant terrorist as a respected faculty member of an institution of higher learning, and of the training of future classroom teachers at that. But wait, as they say on television, that's not all. His wife and fellow former terrorist is an Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University and Director of its Children and Family Justice Center. The word "justice" in such contexts can usually be connected with the view of this country as mired in racist oppression crying out to be undone.
The story of the Radical Leftist orientation of American campuses is well known. The relevance of the Ayers saga today has to do with the relationship between the Ayers and Barack Obama. No one can claim they were ever bosom buddies, but their relationship certainly goes beyond the merely casual. Neighbors in the Hyde Park neighborhood around the University of Chicago, they had what Obama's spokesman David Axelrod calls "a friendly relationship." Casual, not intimate. Well, it doesn't necessarily imply intimacy but one may surmise a certain kindred spirit in the fact that a fundraiser for Obama in the early stages of his political career was held at the Ayers/Dorn house. In the years since, Ayers and Obama have appeared together on several panels, some of them organized by Michelle Obama.
And then there's the matter of the Woods Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit foundation on which Ayers and Obama served together as paid members of its board of directors. During the time (1999 to 2002) that Obama was a director, the Woods Fund made generous contributions to an Arab group founded by Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, a supporter of the PLO while it was labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terror group, and another host of an Obama fundraiser. The group in question, the Arab American Action Network, subscribes to the idea that the establishment of the state of Israel is a Nakba, a catastrophe.
Now there are Americans - the faculty at Northwestern University and many of the Obamas' and Ayers' Hyde Park neighbors among them - who look upon William Ayers' past as youthful indiscretion, and an admirable one at that, begging the question of how political decisions should be made in a democracy - by means of ballots or bombs.
Many others would be reluctant to elect a commander in chief perceived to have an outlook and values that reflect strongly radical sympathies. So far, little has been made in the mainstream media of this aspect of Obama's background but it may well surface as the campaign goes on. It would be a shame if Obama's loss of the election were to be ascribed to racism. It may just be that Americans reject him not because of the color of his skin but the content of his character.