For most Yalies, the name Chesa Boudin ’03 is not likely to ring a bell. He is the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who in a 1981 robbery gone awry, aided in the murder of two police officers and a Brinks security guard in Nyack, N.Y. They were members of the Weathermen, a ragtag group of mostly white, mostly privileged kids who arose from the dark underbelly of the social and political upheaval of the 1960s.
Chesa caused a minor stir in the media four years ago when he won a Rhodes scholarship, due to the way in which he spoke admirably of his parents’ sordid past. Today, he would not be worth writing a column about were it not for his obsession with keeping himself in the spotlight. Nor, for that matter, should the sins of the father be held against the son. But when the son rationalizes away those sins and conflates them with his own political work, he becomes harder to stomach.
Last month, along with several other Western political pilgrims, Chesa was interviewed by The New York Times about his working for the regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He has translated into English a book of interviews with Chavez and this year published “The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions and 100 Answers.” He has delivered two master’s teas at Yale in the past few months, extolling the virtues of the Caudillo of Caracas.
Chesa follows in a long tradition of alienated Westerners like Paul Robeson, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Bernard Shaw who, during the Cold War, extolled the virtues of totalitarian societies while condemning the free world. He calls Chavez’s Venezuela the “first participatory democracy I have ever seen.” But as Amherst College Associate Professor of Government Javier Corrales explains in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Chavez is an authoritarian, who, like his idol Fidel Castro, has ably used “progressive” rhetoric to win over the hearts of the international left.
While Venezuela does not yet look like Cuba, Chavez is slowly destroying the vestiges of a democratic society. He has overseen changes to the country’s constitution eliminating the Senate and ensuring that major legislation can pass with only a simple (rather than two-thirds) majority, and he has packed the Supreme Court in a move that Franklin Roosevelt only dreamed of accomplishing. Not content with being the commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, Chavez has formed a paramilitary that he plans to number two million men (by comparison, the U.S. military and National Guard have 550,000 reservists). Like his ally Robert Mugabe (the two embraced and tried to outdo each other in condemning the United States at a U.N. meeting in Rome last October), he has seized tens of thousands of acres of privately owned land and given it to his cronies. Chavez also heads the body that oversees elections and through state monopolies controls the country’s oil wealth. Corrales’ damning conclusion: “If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn’t come close.”
Like his parents, Chesa sees no moral relationship between means and ends. About Venezuela, he told the Times that, “The fact that we have a country that’s trying to create an alternative model is bold and ambitious and unique, and that’s why people are wondering, ‘Is it possible?'” The horrors of the 20th century ought to have erased any doubt in the mind of a Yale-educated Rhodes scholar about attempts to yet again create Heaven on Earth and Socialist Man.
It is incorrect to label Boudin a useful idiot. Idiots do not become Rhodes scholars. His obvious intelligence makes his embrace of undemocratic tactics all the more troubling. Chesa calls Venezeula’s democracy “protagonistic.” People without hard-headed, Marxist political illusions call it “authoritarian.”
In addition to the tracts on the Venezuelan New Jerusalem, Chesa recently edited “Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out,” a book that includes the epistles of some 40 precocious radicals. In a letter written to his incarcerated father, Chesa demonstrates his terrifying ethical calculus. He tells Dad that his life sentence as an accomplice in three homicides is “largely a product of your own commitment to progressive political change and to the inherent value and equality of human life.” Apparently this “commitment” does not extend to the pigs.
Given the prevarication regarding his parents’ crimes, it should not be surprising that Chesa’s definition of “activism” extends beyond the antiwar theatrics he orchestrated during his time at Yale. Waving placards, as any authentic revolutionary knows, is so bourgeois. “Letters from Young Activists” is blurbed by none other than Mumia Abu-Jamal, who murdered Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner while he lay bleeding on a sidewalk the very same year that Chesa’s parents committed their crimes. Apparently, Chesa’s admiration for those who kill our nation’s finest extends beyond paternal affiliation.
But much of Chesa’s rhetoric is false bravado. In 2002, speaking of his left-wing activism at Yale, Boudin told The New York Times, “We have a different name for the war we’re fighting now — now we call it the war on terrorism, then they called it the war on communism. My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.” Fortunately for us Yalies, his “dedication” to fighting the Great Satan was not one and the same with that of his mom and pop. If it had been, there is no telling how many bombs Chesa would have set on Cross Campus.
Perhaps I am being too hard on my fellow Yalie. His birth parents locked away for most of his life (Kathy Boudin was released from prison in 2003), he was raised by unrepentant terrorists. In an interview published in the Times on Sept. 11, 2001, Chesa’s adoptive father, former Weatherman Bill Ayers, said, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” In light of this, maybe we can chalk up Chesa’s admiration for authoritarians past and present to a perverse youthful idealism learned at the feet of his parental figures. One day, maybe he will grow up.
James Kirchick is a senior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.