Right Jab, Left Hook: Ideologues Debate At Dartmouth
Dinesh D'Souza, '83, an outspoken conservative author and critic, gives his opening statement while Bill Ayers watches during a debate entitled "What's So Great About America?" between Ayers and D'Souza in Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on Jan 30, 2014. (
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Bill Ayers, a 60's-era antiwar activist and a founder of the radical Weather Underground, rebuts conservative author and critic Dinesh D'Souza's opening remarks during a debate entitled "What's So Great About America?" between Ayers and Dinesh D'Souza in Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on Jan 30, 2014. (
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Hanover — As political theater, the debate at Dartmouth College that was advertised as The Ultimate Fight between Left and Right was more an exercise in mild-mannered disagreement, with the occasional jabs, than it was an intellectual boxing match.
Sponsored by the College Republicans and the Dartmouth Review, the college’s noted conservative magazine, the debate Thursday night in Spaulding Auditorium pitted Dinesh D’Souza, Dartmouth graduate and former writer for the Review, as well as prolific author and director of documentary 2016: Obama’s America against Bill Ayers, a founder of the 1960s radical movement the Weather Underground who became a college professor and author.
The question on the floor: “What’s So Great About America?” Over the course of the two and a half hour debate, the two men engaged each other directly before an audience of some 600 people that was more PBS than WWF.
The event had been sold as a slug fest, an epic battle, a cerebral joust between two men whose ideas could not be more diametrically opposed.
But if audiences came expecting to hear D’Souza proclaim the virtues of American exceptionalism and Ayers proclaim the folly of it, the two men both lived up to expectation and deflated it. D’Souza was seated to the right, and Ayers to the left, and whether that was coincidence is anyone’s guess.
At age 70, Ayers is no longer the flame thrower he had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Weather Underground undertook a bombing campaign aimed at government buildings and banks. Nor was he a rhetorical flame thrower, ignoring the bait that D’Souza occasionally threw his way, when he called Ayers a “kind of American Bin Laden.”
And while D’Souza, indicted in January on charges of campaign finance violations for funneling $20,000 to a candidate for the U.S. Senate, was ardent in his defense of American capitalism he nonetheless conceded that in the name of spreading democracy the U.S. government has frequently sabotaged its own good intentions, particularly during the Iraq War.
For his part, in his opening remarks, Ayers invoked his native Chicago as an epitome of American greatness, from its writers (Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren and Lorraine Hansberry) to its radicals (the Haymarket Square Riot in 1886) and its social activists (Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, the settlement house for the poor).
“People with problems are also people with solutions,” Ayers said. One of the aspirations of liberty is “to shape and reshape ourselves without the constraint of the king, court or the howling mob.”
But the notion of America as a place where democracy is available freely to all is a myth, Ayers said. There is a tension between “what happened and what is said to have happened.” America must always work to perfect itself, he said.
D’Souza, in his remarks, countered Ayers’ view of America as a country more flawed than ideal. “When we complain about America, we’re using a utopian standard,” he said. When its detractors complain that “America is terrible,” D’Souza retored, “Compared to what?”
There are truly few great inventions, D’Souza said, and in his view America is responsible for one of the world’s greatest inventions: “the creation of wealth.” One of America’s strengths, D’Souza said, is that not only can the smart, hard-working guy have a good life but so also can the not-so-smart, not-so-hard-working guy.
“What America really offers you is the chance to write the script of your own life,” D’Souza said. That said, he worried that American position as the economic superpower was slipping, falling to powers like China, India and Brazil.
The audience was attentive and polite, and lined up to answer questions, although one woman yelled at a Korean student who took D’Souza to task to “go back to Korea.”
White River Junction resident Rose Spillman, who said she doesn’t follow politics too closely, hadn’t quite known what to expect. “It was a good balance of both sides of their opinions. Both sides had valid points,” she said afterward.
Erica Bittner, who lives in Croydon and describes herself as libertarian, thought the debate was a “great idea. It was really nice to se it in a forum where you could interact and exchange views.”
The evening showed “how divided we are, how divided our conceptions of the country are,” said Keri Gelenian, who lives in Fairlee. “I applaud Ayers looking at this as a discussion, not a debate. I think he opened more doors.”
But Karen Cervantes, a Lebanon resident, came down in favor of D’Souza.
“I thought D’Souza was far more revealing in his answers. He answered the questions.” Dan Fleetham, a Canaan resident, was pleased to have the opportunity to attend the debate. “It’s good for the community to have this. It’s a good idea to have the debates.”
Liberal activisit Bill Ayers participated in a debate at Dartmouth College Thursday night. His last name was misspelled in earlier versions of photo captions for photos associated with this story.