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In December 2011 a tiny but wondrous Chicago program of the Illinois Humanities Council (IHC) launched an online auction to raise needed cash. The Public Square, which promotes dialogue about political, social, and cultural issues, was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and my wife, Bernardine Dohrn, and I offered our own prize to a winning bidder: a lavish dinner for six.
We’ve done the dinner thing two dozen times over the years—for a local baseball camp, a law students’ public interest group, immigrant-rights organizing, and a lot of other worthy work—and we’ve typically raised a few hundred dollars. There were many more attractive items on the auction list: Alex Kotlowitz was available to edit twenty pages of a non-fiction manuscript, Gordon Quinn to discuss documentary film projects over dinner, and Kevin Coval to write and spit an original poem.
We paid little attention as the online auction launched and then inched onward—a hundred dollars, two hundred, and then three—even when a right-wing blogger picked it up and began flogging the Illinois Humanities Council for “supporting terrorism” by giving taxpayer money to my wife and me, two founding members of the Weather Underground. He was a little off on the concept because we were actually donating money and services to them, not the other way around, but this was a typical turn for the fact-free, faith-based blogosphere, so we paid it no mind.
There was a little “Buy Instantly” button on our dinner item that someone could select for $2,500, which seemed absurdly high. But in early December TV celebrity and conservative bad boy Tucker Carlson clicked his mouse, and we were his.
I loved it immediately. Surely he had some frat boy prank up his sleeve—a kind of smug and superior practical joke or an ad hominem put-down—but so what? We’d just raised more for the Public Square in one bid than anyone thought would be raised from the entire auction. We won!
Well, not so fast—this did mean we had to prepare dinner for Carlson plus five, and that could become messy. But, maybe it wouldn’t, and anyway, we argued, it’s just a couple of distasteful hours at most, and, then bingo! Cash the check.
Right wing blogs erupted, with some writers tickled by Carlson’s sense of humor and others earnestly saluting his courage and daring in service to “the cause” for his willingness to sit in close quarters with us—radical leftists and enemies of the state. But others took a grimmer view: “Don’t do it, Tucker,” they pled. “This will legitimize and humanize two of America’s greatest traitors.”
Carlson got a congratulatory letter from the IHC that offered ten potential dates for dinner and noted that “all auction items were donated to the IHC [which] makes no warranties or representations with respect to any item or service sold” and that “views and opinions expressed by individuals attending the dinner do not reflect those of the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Illinois General Assembly.” I imagined the exhausted scrivener bent over his table copying that carefully crafted, litigation-proof language—does it go far enough?
Carlson chose February 5—Super Bowl Sunday.
• • •
We were besieged by friends clamoring to come to dinner. “I’ll serve drinks,” wrote one prominent Chicago lawyer, “or, if you like, I’ll wear a little tuxedo and park the cars. Please let me come!”
All our friends saw the event as theater, but not everyone was delighted with the show. A few called Carlson and company “vipers” and argued that we should never talk to people like them. We disagreed; talk can be good. Others began distancing themselves from us, wringing their hands the moment they saw themselves mentioned on the right-wing blogs and instantly, almost instinctively, assuming a defensive crouch.
Dinner with Tucker Carlson seemed cheery and worthwhile compared to counseling a bunch of cringing liberals.
Things quickly got weirder. Two IHC board members resigned, complaining that the organization was now affiliated with people who “advocate violence”—presumably Bernardine and me, not Carlson or his friends. The paid stenographers at the Chicago Tribune duly reported the two resignations by quoting the outraged quitters and leaving it at that.
(Regarding the art and science of fact-checking: had the Tribune in fact checked the facts, the fact-checker would have checked the fact that the quitters used the phrase “advocates violence.” Check. Had he or she dug a little deeper, the fact-checker might have discovered that, yes, we’d been described that way before, even in the pages of the Tribune. Check. And so it goes in the hermetically sealed, narcissistic echo chamber—a characterization becomes a fact with enough repetition. Oh, and for the record, we don’t advocate violence—we’re not with NATO or G8. Check.)
Some winced and stooped; no one was moved publicly to defend the idea that dialogue, controversy, and conversation are essential to the culture of democracy and to the vitality of the humanities, and no one condemned this most knee-jerk instance of demonization and far-fetched guilt-by-association.
Dinner with Carlson seemed cheery and worthwhile compared to counseling a bunch of cringing liberals. Where is the backbone or the principle? No wonder the cadre of right-wing keyboard flamethrowers feels so disproportionately powerful. Liberals seem forever willing to police themselves into an orderly line right next to the slaughterhouse.
• • •
On January 12, 2012, I wrote Carlson a quick email:
We’re looking forward to seeing you all for dinner and what we assume will be a spirited and enlightening conversation. We salute you for making such a generous contribution to the Public Square, a tiny program that works mightily to promote public dialogue in unlikely places, and bases its efforts on a core belief that in our wildly diverse democracy, talking to strangers is an essential way forward. Our dinner surely fits that bill.
We’ve received lots of messages from friends who can’t quite believe this is happening, and find it surreal at best. Some want to serve drinks or wait tables, but others insist it’s all a silly publicity stunt. We disagree, and point to both the importance of conversation across a variety of orientations, as well as your good comment to the Tribune: “I bought the auction dinner because I support the important work of the Illinois Humanities Council.”
It appears that you’re taking some heat yourself from far-right pundits and bloggers for agreeing to sit down with us at all, and that some of your political allies argue that you are undermining “the until-now-airtight argument that Obama was wrong” to have any associations with people like us who hold quite different political beliefs, or who likely won’t agree on a wide range of issues. We’re glad to see that you disagree with these folks, and that you believe, as we do, that we can all share a dinner, have a lively conversation about the spirit and direction of our country and the world, perhaps learn something from one another, and still maintain the integrity and independence of our own views.
We heard that you were kidding around about the dinner with Dennis Miller on his radio show, and said with a laugh, “When I hear the word ‘humanities’ I draw my gun.” It was a joke, of course, but please leave your guns at home!
Thanks a lot for this. I’m looking forward to Sunday. Just bought plane tickets and reserved a hotel for myself and one of our reporters, Jamie Weinstein. I haven’t finished the rest of the guest list—I’ve been on the road for these primaries nonstop—but I’ll send you the names as soon as I have them. Where’s dinner? I want to make sure we’re not staying too far away.
We exchanged several notes the next day:
We’ll meet up and you’ll be dining in the proverbial Undisclosed Location—ten minutes by cab from any downtown hotel. It’s a lovely home with a perfect kitchen for me to prepare something sensational. Keep me updated on the guests and on any dietary issues. You know, of course, that the Super Bowl begins at 5:20 Chicago time.
On another note: poor you, slogging through those particularly unattractive primaries. I’m eager to hear true stories from the front, Hunter Thompson–style if possible!
Undisclosed location? Holy smokes. Are you guys in hiding again?
Nope! We’re open and easily accessible. But if we did meet in the proverbial undisclosed location I like to think we would engage the ghost of Christmas past. I’ve got a really nice dinner planned, so bring an appetite as well as people who enjoy good food.
That’s a riot. And have no fear: I have an appetite like a golden retriever.
Raw meat? Gosh, I was going a cut above Alpo, but maybe I should scale back.
You could probably serve kibble. I’m not very discerning about dinner.
If I’d been feeling mean-spirited, I might have responded that he’s not very discerning about a lot more than dinner, but what the heck?
A few days later Carlson sent us the guest list: Jamie Weinstein, Matt Labash, Audrey Lowe, Buckley Carlson, and Andrew Breitbart. “Entertaining, civil people all of them, guaranteed,” he vouched.
We set place cards depicting six different “great Americans”—Rosa Parks, for example, as well as Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin.
I figured Weinstein and Labash were his young associates at the Daily Caller, Buckley his brother, and Lowe his random reader who had won the privilege in some kind of online contest line. Breitbart, self-described “media mogul” performed the role of grinning and menacing bomb-thrower of the radical right. His record included actively assisting the demise of ACORN, efforts to damage Planned Parenthood, and the profoundly dishonest discrediting of Shirley Sherrod at the Agriculture Department, which led to her dismissal (followed by official apologies from the White House, NAACP, Agriculture, and others).
Entertaining and civil, guaranteed.
• • •
A couple of nights before the dinner, I was hosting a meet-and-greet coffee at home for a young friend and former student running for the Illinois Senate. As the event wound down and people began to disperse, an old friend took me aside and told me it was foolish to have offered the dinner to the Public Square in the first place—an act of “left adventurism” she called it—and going through with it now would be provocative and stupid. “What?” I said, my voice rising and cracking. “We’ve done this dozens of times. How is this particular dinner adventurism?” “Oh, please,” she replied, annoyed. “We’ve been on their board for a decade,” I continued, “and they asked us to do it, so how is it provocative?”
“But not in this context,” she explained. “And this is a publicly-funded group. They’re vulnerable, and this is not good for them.” I was stunned.
“I’m innocent and I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, but that sounded whiny and ridiculous the moment it left my mouth—I’m not “innocent” in the least, and I do wrong things all the time. Still, this dinner just didn’t seem like one of my many terrible or even tiny transgressions. I felt rattled and isolated.
But the turmoil had a clarifying effect as well. Friends came into sharper focus, and those who understood the importance of standing on principle—friends or not—on issues such as resisting the grotesque demonization of individuals and whole social groups, or fighting the toxicity of guilt-by-association in political discourse, also became conspicuous. Those who were confused or confounded, duped or bamboozled, faded into the background.
I shopped; I cooked; I set up for dinner. But it felt mostly like a heavy slog through thick mud. I was cold; I was lonely; I was tired. Not at all the mood or the tone I’d wanted.
• • •
Bernardine finally returned from her out-of-town trip, which chilled me out, and went right to work on the carrot-ginger soup. By the time our closest folks assembled to help out and serve, mostly to be present at the dinner party, I felt fine. There was lots of wine and beer, and we set an elegant table with place cards depicting six different “great Americans”—Rosa Parks, for example, and Gertrude Stein, as well as Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin—along with menus printed on card stock they could each keep as a souvenir: hoisin ribs and cucumbers, carrot ginger soup, white fish with black and red quinoa, Midwest farmhouse cheeses, apple pie and Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream ice cream. At the bottom of the menu I included two quotations about the humanities:
“I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities.” —David McCullough (Awarded the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush)
“When I hear the word humanities, I draw my gun.” —Tucker Carlson
It was, of course, a joke.
In the last moments before our guests arrived, my heart pounding and my hands sweating, I took a last cleansing breath and meditated on Rilke:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
And then the doorbell rang: let the rumpus begin!
Spirited greetings and introductions all around, laughter at the improbability of the whole thing, a flurry of separate conversations as wine was poured and glasses were lifted. I proposed a toast to Carlson thanking him for his generous gift of $2,500 to the Public Square, and I reminded everyone that this was a dinner party, not an interview or a performance—of course, dinner is always a performance, and this one more than most. We lifted our glasses once more, and then they were at the table, first course served.
Breitbart argued for U.S. military interventions in Iran, Syria, North Korea, and China—on humanitarian grounds, of course.
Friends had warned us that our guests would try to create a gotcha moment, but not much happened. We ferried food in and out, pulled up chairs periodically to chat while they ate. Carlson and Bernardine gazed out the windows for a time at the Chicago skyline and discovered a shared background (Swedish Christmas cookies!). Weinstein acted the intrepid cub-reporter, notebook in hand, scribbling the titles of books from the shelves, spouting questions in a steady stream, but perhaps his manic, in-your-face manner was the result of jet-lag (“I’m just off the plane from Israel,” he said half a dozen times. “My third trip,” he exclaimed).
Carlson and Breitbart had been on the road covering the primaries, and each expressed deep disdain for the Republican candidates seeking the presidency. When Weinstein complained that none was a bona fide conservative, I asked him to define “conservative” for me. “Small government,” he said. “That’s it?” I asked. “Yes.” I pointed out that Somalia was a small government paradise.
Carlson told me at one point that his kids went to the same boarding school that he’d attended, and asserted that the difference between his kids’ fine school and a failing school in Chicago was that at the prep school they could fire the bad teachers. I laughed out loud, and he smiled weakly.
Meanwhile at the other end of the table, Bernardine was saying that the United States should close all foreign military bases immediately, begin to dismantle the Pentagon, and save a trillion dollars a year—a small government proposal if ever there was one. The boys weren’t buying it at all, clamoring for violence here, violence there, violence practically everywhere. Breitbart, humid and heating up, argued noisily for U.S. military interventions in Iran and Syria, and then, egging himself on, North Korea and China—on humanitarian grounds, of course—while Bernardine, that notorious poster child for violence, steadfastly urged disarmament, peace on Earth, good will toward all. It was utterly surreal.
We gave each guest a goodie bag with candy kisses, a souvenir menu, and one of my books. Carlson took my comic book about teaching, and I signed it “To my new best friend!” I had bought his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, which has an epigram (returned to again and again in the text) from Larry King: “The trick is to care, but not too much. Give a shit—but not really.” I asked him to please autograph it for me and he wrote: “Thanks for the fantastic ribs! Please read every word of this—the truth lies herein.” Perhaps he was being ironic as well.
As Breitbart was leaving he told Bernardine that he was thrilled to know her, and he noted that we had at least one thing in common: we were all convenient caricatures in the “lame-stream” media.
It was all over in an hour and a half. Breitbart tweeted from the taxi ferrying them back to their hotel:
Shorthand: Ayers, a gourmand, charmer. Dohrn, hot at 70, best behavior. Potemkin dinner. Pampered by their coterie. Kicked out by half-time.
He elaborated in a long radio interview later that night from his hotel bar:
We were exposed to the two most sophisticated dinner party-throwers in the world . . . This was their battlefield and they couldn’t have been more charming
. . . I think I’m going to try and reach out to Bill Ayers and try and figure out if I can maybe do a road trip across the country with him—him and me—and he can show me his America, and I can show him my America, and maybe we can film it and let people decide. Because I’ve got to be honest with you, I liked being in the room with him, talking with him.
That road trip was never a likely prospect, but it’s no longer even a distant dream or a far-out possibility—a few days after our dinner Breitbart died suddenly outside his home at the age of 43.
Life—short or long—always ends in the middle of things.
Bill Ayers is retired distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of several books, including Teaching Toward Freedom, Fugitive Days, Teaching the Taboo, and To Teach. He was a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society and a founding member of the Weather Underground.
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