HYDE PARK — Author-educator-activist Bill Ayers spoke at the University of Chicago Wednesday, mixing wry humor from his new book, "Public Enemy," with a continued bitterness about our "war-like nation."
Ayers talked to an audience of about 100 at the university's International House, musing on the lack of protesters, displaying a self-deprecating humor about his late infamy in the 2008 presidential campaign, but also growing antagonistic at how "we are wedded to continuous, ongoing, permanent war."
The Hyde Park resident spoke of how the near-attack on Syria was "completely nuts," adding that if anyone wants to talk about chemical or nuclear weapons in the Middle East, "let's talk about Israel." Yet, he pointed out it was a public movement opposed to the attack that eventually prevented it, drawing parallels with the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era.
"Stop the next war, which is looming right on the horizon," Ayers said, "because that's the inevitability of permanent war."
That position was echoed by Bernardine Dohrn, whom Ayers described as "my partner in life and in crime — she hates it when I say that — for 45 years." Dohrn also spoke briefly as part of the presentation, saying '60s radicals have to stand "shoulder to shoulder with the generation that's doing this," such as demonstrating against the threatened U.S. attack on Syria.
"We don't really have a nostalgic bone in our bodies," Ayers said.
The reading part of the evening, from "Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident," a sequel to his earlier "Fugitive Days" about his time underground with antiwar radicals the Weathermen, tended to be humorous, ironic and self-deprecating, as Ayers' writing also displays an air of whimsical imagination reminiscent of James Thurber.
Ayers writes of being in a seminar with his students in 2008 when they began watching the debate in which he was dragged into the campaign as a "domestic terrorist" who had supported Barack Obama in his early political ventures. One student turned to him and said, "Oh my God, that guy has the same name as yours."
Extending a metaphor he had used in "Fugitive Days," Ayers writes of being dragged into a "howling gale of a presidential campaign," as well as drawing on Bob Dylan (inspiration for the "Weathermen") by calling it an "idiot wind."
Chapters include "Palling Around," a reference to Sarah Palin saying Obama had been "palling around with terrorists," and "Talking With the Tea Party."
Ayers said "Fugitive Days" and "Public Enemy" were linked thematically by a simple question: "How do you live a life that doesn't make a mockery of your values?"
Yet the following question-and-answer session found Ayers taking off the gloves. He called Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Kerrey war criminals, in that the Vietnam War was "a criminal enterprise," and he labeled former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "obscene," adding, "He has more blood on his hands than anybody."
Ayers said he fantasized in "Public Enemy" that the country needed a "truth and reconciliation commission" in which soldiers, government officials and student radicals acknowledged what they did and what they were sorry for having done, so they could compare their misdeeds. "We have yet to tell the truth as a country," he added.
The event went on for two hours counting Ayers' book signing afterward. He said he and Dohrn were embarking on an extensive book tour, telling one person, "We are literally going to be on the run from now until Thanksgiving."