Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Robert E. Lee and Bill Ayers"

In today's Daily Review Atlas (DRA) print edition, Ira Smolensky has published his weekly column. Because the DRA does not publish its op-ed online, and because Smolensky's column touches on an issue which I have covered recently, I felt it necessary to post it myself. Please comment here, or contact Ira, either through the DRA or through Monmouth College.

It isn't often that bitter controversy comes to Monmouth, but come it has, in the person of Bill Ayers, who will speak tomorrow at the College auditorium.

The scheduled visit by Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, has aroused the ire of one of my fellow Review Atlas columnists to the tune of not one, not two, but three separate pieces bashing both Ayers and the college officials responsible for his visit.

According to my colleague at the newspaper, Ayers is nothing but terrorist scum on a par with Osama Bin-Laden, Joseph Stalin, Charles Manson, and Jack the Ripper, none of whom she thinks should be paid speakers at Monmouth College. (Of course, if we got Bin-Laden here, we could alert the FBI and finally put the old boy behind bars where he belongs. But that's another story.)

According to the college's publicity department, which seems to be keeping a low profile on the event, Ayers is merely a "noted scholar and activist."

The faculty members who arranged for Ayers' visit are more candid. They are on the record as being quite pleased to host a speaker with solid academic credentials (Ayers is a professor of education at University of Illinois) and so historically significant a personal background. They also think students will gain from hearing Ayers' account of how he came to flirt with violent revolution only to reject that path and become a productive member of society.

A number of Monmouth College students agree, and are looking forward to Ayers' talk, while others are planning to protest.

For my part, I didn't think very much of the Weather Underground. To me, they were spoiled brats who were playing at revolution. Probably, it's a matter of class. Members of the Weather Underground tended to come from privileged backgrounds. I was a working class kid whose dad fixed oil burners and came home every night covered in grime. He did that so I could go to college and have more choices in life than he did. Unfortunately, this seems to have dampened my zeal for violent revolution.

Still, I have no qualms about Ayers speaking at Monmouth College. To me, it's the equivalent of inviting Robert E. Lee to campus after the Civil War. Once vanquished, Lee accepted defeat and became a law-abiding citizen, much the same as Ayers. I would have loved to hear Lee speak about the war and why he chose to fight for the South. Likewise, I want to hear what Ayers has to say.

Of course, the two men are not identical. Lee was undeniably the better soldier of the two, and therefore, also much more destructive. Warren County lives were lost either directly or indirectly because of Lee. And Lee also ordered acts of terror, decreeing that escaped slaves caught fighting for the north be summarily executed.

Of course, Ayers lacked an army, so we don't know how destructive he might have been in other circumstances. Still, as a violent revolutionary, Ayers seems to have been shut out when it comes to the body count, which indicates that he remained something of a pacifist at heart.

When it comes to the morality of their causes, Ayers clearly gets the nod. Struggling against poverty, racial discrimination, and an unjust war(defending the Vietnam war to St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, the pioneers of just war theory, might get quite sticky) beats defending states' rights and slavery over human rights any day of the week.

Nevertheless, we chose to forgive Lee and heal the nation. Why is it that, for some people, Ayers is so much more difficult to forgive?

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