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Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident Hardcover – October 8, 2013
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*Starred Review* This compelling sequel to Ayers’ Fugitive Days—published on September 11, 2001—describes the author’s chaotic life after he and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn, became the topic and target of conversation during Barack Obama’s first run for the presidency. Accused of being a domestic terrorist, Ayers, a popular professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, learned to navigate his new role as the nation’s “public enemy.” He begins his story in April 2008, when he was watching the presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Obama with a dozen of his graduate students, and one of the debate moderators, George Stephanopoulos, asked Obama to explain his “friendship” with Ayers, a member of the radical 1960s Weather Underground. Ayers describes the nightmares that ensued: hate mail, death threats, canceled lectures, being denied entry into Canada. He owns up to his activities as an “unrepentant terrorist” with the Underground but points out no one was killed or harmed: “Our notoriety, then and now, outstripped our activity.” Demonized and blacklisted, Ayers maintains not only his sanity but also his humor. When a reporter notes that he doesn’t look like a real Weatherman, Ayers laughs and asks her what a real Weatherman looks like. A wonderful homage to free speech. --June Sawyers
“[A] witty and spirited follow-up to Fugitive Days . . . Among the book’s many edifying elements, including insight into the inner life and deep humanity of a man portrayed as a ‘cartoon character,’ is the author’s conversational style and whimsical sense of humor. . . . Through humor and self-reflection, the book offers a complex portrait of Ayers, including his experiences as an early education specialist, professor, husband (to former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn), father of three, author, and activist. . . . Often times riotously funny, yet also plainspoken and serious, this is a memoir of impressive range.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This compelling sequel to Ayers’ Fugitive Days describes the author’s chaotic life after he and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn, became the topic and target of conversation during Barack Obama’s first run for the presidency. . . . Demonized and blacklisted, Ayers maintains not only his sanity but also his humor. . . . A wonderful homage to free speech.” —Booklist, starred review
“The one-time Weather Underground fugitive talks about his life as a political bogeyman. . . . His writing is thoughtful, penetratingly insightful and marvelously lacking in self-pity.
No matter how they feel about his politics, readers of this memoir should find the author’s humanity irresistible.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The legendary Bill Ayers is at his spellbinding best in Public Enemy—a brilliant, spirited document of a revolutionary life in our not-so-revolutionary age. One of the most compelling, insightful memoirs of the year.” —Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“An inspiring, ripping read. Apart from being a committed activist, engaging thinker, and brilliant parent, Bill Ayers is a great storyteller.” —Aleksandar Hemon, author ofThe Lazarus Project
“Bill Ayers is a master teacher, a master storyteller, and a clarion-clear voice of conscience and commitment. Here he is, standing calmly at the center of the never-ending maelstrom, a public enemy trying to make meaning and change and sense of it all.” —Adam Mansbach, author of Rage Is Back
“Bill Ayers writes eloquently of the profound challenges, the joys, and the toll of embracing a deep, lifelong commitment to social change. He has confronted power for more than half a century: in the civil rights movement, against the Vietnam War, living underground for over a decade, and during his long career as a respected educator. This deeply personal memoir spans the gap from the ’60s to the present day, framing the current so-called war on terror in a critical, urgent light.” —Amy Goodman, author of The Exception to the Rulers
“With incisive humor, Bill Ayers’s captivating memoir reveals that behind the fearsome ‘public enemy’ lies a deeply dedicated parent, compassionate teacher, and principled revolutionary activist, representing this country’s best hopes for a democratic future." —Angela Davis, author of Women, Race, and Class
“In no way apologetic, the book is a well-written consideration of an engaged life lived in a contentious time." —Counterpunch
Top customer reviews
I looked forward to reading this book, thinking that it spoke of the time during which Bill Ayers was living underground, as a declared public enemy. Although this account mentions part of that history in passing, for the most part this book revolves around two important periods in Ayers' life:
first, married raising his three sons, and
second, the time during the 2007-2008 period when right-wing whack-jobs targeted Ayers in attempts to smear the emerging candidacy of Barack Obama. (Remember the "pals around with terrorists" mantras about Obama from Fox News and the Hillary camp?)
I had encountered Ayers at SDS events in the 1969-1970 period before he and the "Weather Bureau" went underground. (Usually he was at the front of the room and I was at the back, LOL). SDS, itself, had a class structure: older, Ivy-league and graduate students occupied center stage -- undergraduate students at public universities were at the periphery. Bill Ayers was definitely a central figure, but one of perhaps two dozen such figures, during the time I observed SDS. He seemed to me, at that time, to be a "real radical firebrand".
In this book, I discovered an older, thoughtful, reflective, education professor, momentarily startled to be demonized by the right and overlooked and abandoned by the left and middle as Faux News and the alt-right attempted to use Ayers' distant past to discredit Obama.
The sections about Ayers' experience of trying to raise conscientious and happy children ring perfectly true. I am a little surprised to find him admitting that he was unsettled by right-wing repression -- if anyone, I would expect him to be conscious of the continuing repression that cost him so many friends over the years. Overall, I discovered here that Bill Ayers has maintained a life-long commitment to creating a better world.
Beyond that, I chose a 4-star rating because this is a tremendously written book. Ayers' mastery of the language is obvious, and his writing style in engaging, thought provoking, and consumable.
Spoiler alert - if you are a rabid "conservative" that is considering this book because you think the great mystery behind who penned Dreams From My Father will be revealed, don't. The assertion in the Amazon write-up is in quotation marks for a reason.
Disclaimer - I bought the book because of the aforementioned assertion, that Bill Ayers was going on record for writing Dreams. Aren't I a boob?
But Bill Ayers' memoir is more than politics writ large. I really appreciated the day to day details of Bill and Bernadine Dohrn raising their young family in the 80's while reminding us of what's is most important in nurturing healthy, self-actualizing and socially responsible children
Through numerous encounters Ayers tells the lessons of men and women, students and children across the generations who inspired as well as challenged him to stick to his better instincts. Among the many lessons, I loved the section on Mike Klonsky, a long time Ayers' friend and Chicago education activist who reminds Bill that resistance to those seeking to silence all of our voices is the real issue each of us is confronting. When Bill thanks Mike for defending him by refusing to participate in an education conference which has barred Bill, Mike sternly replies, "Defending you? I wasn't defending you, I was defending myself. . . I am as radical as you are . . . . "
Then, there is principled commitment of the people at Millersville University who welcome and provide space for Bill when so many liberals ran for cover in face of the national discourse condemning our so-called 'unrepentant terrorist'. As a historian and aging activist I also loved the importance Ayers finds for honoring and learning from our elder activists like 90 year old , legendary Greek dissident Manolis Glezos.
For all of us who have stood up to the threats and actions of those in power who have tried to intimidate and silence our principled voices in the daily political grind of living in and challenging the existing order, Pubic Enemy offers welcomed sustenance, often even good humor, and for certain needed energy to keep us moving forward. Thanks Bill.