Looking back on the counterculture with ideals intact

By Joseph N. Liss

The Sixties ought to be of great interest to us, if only because the decade’s peculiar events defined the lives of our parents, and might thereby help us understand what the hell the problem is with Mom and Dad. Their turbulent generation was born in America’s swell and cocksure post-war years. Having grown up under the glooms of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and a stifling sense of conformity, should not their years of cutting loose have defined their adult lives and continued to make a more free and loving nation? Shouldn’t rock and roll have lived forever, and shouldn’t the Man have been definitively damned-damned to death? What possessed the Woodstock generation, a mere 10 years later, to vote Ronald Reagan into office?— “Well, we’re all disgraced and disillusioned failures, so we might as well have low taxes”?

It seems to me that any memoir of Sixties radicalism needs to address the problem of the hippies’ fake and failed revolution, which has liberated no one, opened no minds, made the Corporation a more powerful entity than the Government, and given us only a darker, more threatening, more resentful, more noise-flooded world to take from them. We can say this because our generation is obliged to be more perspicuous (at least we ought to be-or at least I am) than our parents, less enthused with ourselves and less inclined to pile up a revolution out of our anti-war protests.

Fugitive Days is a testament from the most extreme wing of the old folks back when they were us. The author, Hyde Park resident Bill Ayers, is fortunately not an apologist; he knows just how fucked things got. His book is called a memoir, but it follows the form of a full autobiography, spending a lot time laying the tedious but necessary groundwork that he would try to demolish as a young adult.

In narrating his 1950’s childhood, Ayers’ style sometimes makes it seem as though he considers his own past a cliché. He has a bit too much of the PoMo know-it-all, and as a result his earlier memories feel inauthentic; perhaps it is intentional that his early life and thoughts conform entirely to every hackneyed image of Eisenhower’s spit-shined and white-bread America we’ve gleaned from the Counterculture PR machine, but that doesn’t make it interesting.

The book takes 100 pages to get off the ground, but it does so in great form as Ayers chronicles the rise of his personal circle of activists, taking him from Midwestern campuses to New York and DC, and back to Chicago for an exhilarating insider’s story of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots. These scenes are populated with colorful names (Tré, Dandy, CW, Roger Vanilla, Ron St. Ron) though the people themselves are sketched rather vaguely. Characterization is a weakness of Fugitive Days, as in most memoirs, because everyone is presented in the hazy light of personal recollection and dedication to fact. Ayers’ most compelling character, with whom it is hard to resist identifying, is his cause. With a rollicking style fleshed with sincere and heated feeling and exhaustive lists and statistics of American abuses at home and abroad that all have the stab of authenticity whether they’re true or not, Fugitive Days’ frenetic midsection is one of the most heartfelt and compulsively readable accounts of the spirit of the Sixties I have ever read.

Then something happens, both to the young dissenters and, more subtly, to the book. The love for the oppressed and the passion for justice, nurtured by the tear gas, nightsticks, harassment and brutality of Mayor Daley’s Chicago Police Department, soon grows into the hatred of the oppressors and the injured and frustrated resort to a simplifying, comforting, and ultimately blinding ideology.

How did it happen? “Stay young. Stay beautiful. Youth will make the revolution.” That’s before. After: “We had to oppose idealistic foolishness with hard materialist reality. We had to stomp out anything that might cloud our steely-eyed judgment in combat.” How does the first become the second in a space of forty pages? How do the Rock ‘n Roll revolutionaries become a cadre of bomb-makers? How does idealistic devotion become a military machine ethic, a flower child become a steel man of armed rebellion, a youth whose life is poetry become a guerrilla, a free spirit become an interchangeable prole in the revolution-making plant? An answer to this is left disappointingly ellipsized as Ayers gets as carried away with remembering as he did with rebellion. In his delirious and dangerously persuasive telling, Chicago was not all that far from Paris of 1789 or St. Petersburg of 1917. But the institution doesn’t bow to human force, and Ayers’ revolutionary group, the Weathermen, starts making bombs.

Perhaps too symbolically (and yet it’s true), this decision signals the end. Ayers’ beloved Diana Oughton and several other Weathermen are killed in a bomb-making accident on March 6, 1970. The Sixties are over. This, combined with the oppressive heat of the feds, drives the Weathermen underground, and the third act of the book chronicles the revolution’s winding down into a subversive counterlife of assumed identities, until Ayers and his partner Bernardine Dohrn turn themselves in to the FBI in 1980 (charges were never brought because of massive investigative misconduct that would’ve left no evidence untainted).

Fugitive Days was originally published in September of 2001; this is the paperback version with a new afterword in which Ayers comments on the state of the world. He somewhat wrongly paints an America rededicated to racism and imperial jingoism in the wake of 9/11, though he rightly casts a raised eyebrow at an administration that tells us to be afraid, but whatever we do don’t stop shopping. Ayers is still full of his ideals and still thinks the Weather Underground ought to be remembered as heroes of the war for social justice. He still thinks there is as much infamy as ever to be crushed today, and, apparently, he still thinks that the same old, white, Eisenhowerian military-industrial complex, the same undying privileged few, are the ones behind the curtain.

But whose infamy is it? It is his generation, the same anarchists, mobilizers, bombers, underground men, and fiery students that now sit in boardrooms and Starbucks and watch their young lives and passionate causes be turned into corporate sentimentalism in car commercials. I wonder what Ayers’ own children are like; are they also born and raised media consumers like the rest of us unfortunate spawn of the hippies? I wonder how Ayers would respond to Thomas Pynchon, whose bitter and frustrated novel Vineland is precisely about the free-love generation’s betrayal of its own children.

Ayers ends with his ideals unchanged, still the flower child, still dedicated to the value of collective action and social change. He knows but refuses to admit the hard truth of the failure of this belief: the dream of the Counterforce cracks and diminishes, and when paranoia of the underground man finally dissolves away, the only revolution to be enacted remains in the solitary integrity of your remembering self.