It was billed as the ultimate fight between the left and right.
In a wide-ranging debate last week at Dartmouth University, New York Timesbest-selling author Dinesh D’Souza and former Weather Underground co-founder and retired University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education Professor Bill Ayers went head-to-head on the central question of “What Makes America Great?”
In the match-up, D’Souza and Ayers sparred on a variety of topics, but mostly focused on the main question and America’s role in wealth creation.
“Part of what will make this discussion unique is the background and pedigree of the participants,” said Nicholas P. Desatnick, the editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Review and the debate moderator. “In truth, you’d be hard pressed to find two Americans whose stories in politics are more different.”
D’Souza, a member of the class of 1983 at Dartmouth, was described by New York Times Magazine as one of “nation’s most influential conservative thinkers,” Desatnick said. D’Souza has written 12 books, including What’s So Great About America and Obama’s America: The Unmaking of the American Dream. The latter inspired the film 2016: Obama’s America, the second most successful political documentary of all time, Desatnick said.
“On his left is Bill Ayers, one of the nation’s premier theorists on elementary education and a former leader of the countercultural movement that opposed the Vietnam War,” Desatnick said. “Born and raised in the Chicago area, he’s perhaps best known for his involvement in the political activism of the 1960s and his leadership of the Weather Underground, a self-described communist revolutionary group that conducted a public bombing campaign in the 1970s.”
In the years since, Ayers has emerged as a leading public intellectual who has written extensively about social justice and education, Desatnick said. His most recent book,Public Enemy, describes the experiences and perspectives as an American dissident, Desatnick said.
In his opening remarks, Ayers talked about the importance of social justice and his admiration for people like Jane Addams, a pioneer social worker in America and feminist who won The Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, a clinical associate professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law and a leader of the Weather Underground. Ayers said former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called both of them the most dangerous women in America.
“There are today countless men and women sweating out Jane Addams’ hopes and Bernardine Dohrn’s hopes as well all over America, naming situations and circumstances as unacceptable, working to repair deficiencies and to right wrongs, fighting for more peace and more democracy, more joy and more justice,” Ayers said. “These men and women propel themselves to act in solidarity with, not in service to, the people with whom they work. They are what’s so great about America.”
But rather than social justice – “dividing the pie, getting people’s fair share” – D’Souza said what’s great about America is one of its greatest inventions.
“If you think about human history, there are very few great inventions in history – truly great inventions; the invention of the wheel, the invention of fire,” D’Souza said. “I think America is responsible for perhaps the greatest invention of all – the invention of wealth creation.”
For thousands of years, wealthy was historically acquired through theft and conquest, D’Souza said.
“How did countries get founded? Machiavelli says all great nations are founded in crime,” D’Souza said. “You found a country by invading some other guy’s country, killing the man who was running it and declaring yourself to be the king. That is how wealth was obtained for thousands of years.”
In America, a different economic system first arose, D’Souza said – the idea of creating wealth rather than stealing it from others.
“That is a very bold idea – that you can in a sense create something out of nothing. It’s virtually divine,” D’Souza said.
This idea went unnoticed for thousands of years because the wealth creators – the inventors and entrepreneurs – were hated in most cultures, D’Souza said.
Instead of trade, “looting” was considered the better way of achieving wealth, D’Souza said.
“This is true even today,” D’Souza said. “Even if you go to Europe, even now, inherited money is better than earned money. Why? Because inherited money is like manna from heaven – kind of the way Bill Ayers got money. Earned money, from the European point of view, means you probably had to run over some guy to get it so it’s looked down upon.”
D’Souza – whose next film America is hitting theaters on the Fourth of July – turned next to the fate of the American dream.
“What’s happening to the American dream, I fear, is it is beginning to be shrunken in America and incredibly it’s beginning to be seized upon elsewhere in the world,” D’Souza said. “We are losing our own dream. It’s going to other people.”
Around the world, countries like Brazil, China, India and Russia are growing economically at five times the rate of the U.S., D’Souza said.
“Why? We have taught them the secret of wealth creation. For a long time, we sort of tried the Bill Ayers’ formula. We tried to go over there and build homes and we tried to go over and do stuff for them and we’d go over there and lend them money – IMF loans – all of which were a complete waste of time and money,” D’Souza said.
Finally, these nations decided to begin making products people want to buy and “take over the world market,” D’Souza said.
“And that’s really what’s happened,” D’Souza said. “The American dream, our dream, has now become a global dream. This is the great gift America has given and is giving to the world. It has actually been globalization. I’m talking about global technological capitalism that has been far and away the greatest anti-poverty program ever created. All the concoctions of Jane Addams, frankly Mother Theresa, every government handout and Barack Obama pale next to the simple ingenuity of the iPhone in a small Indian village where some female entrepreneur is using it to sell a bicycle.
“In other words, what has delivered the goods for people is not ultimately social agitation. Rather it is the very American sense of taking nothing – sand – and making it into silicon. It is that ingenuity – the making of the pie – that is far more profound an act than simply saying what do I do to divide the pie.”
But Ayers said D’Souza had set up a number of straw man arguments.
“Nobody said America is the most terrible place, but there are a couple of assertions that you have to take on faith that are astonishing,” Ayers said. “One is the idea that America’s great invention was wealth creation not based on theft at all. What about the theft of the entire continent? 90 percent of the residents who lived here were murdered.”
But D’Souza said Ayers’ claim was preposterous, noting Europeans came to America with many diseases such as smallpox and malaria that American Indians had no immunity against.
“The vast, vast majority of American Indians contracted the plagues and died and it wiped out the majority of them,” D’Souza said. “That was a tragedy. But it was no more a genocide than when the black plague and bubonic plague swept across Europe wiping out one-third of the population in Europe. This is not to excuse broken treaties or any of the rest of it, but it is a way of demanding a certain intellectual precision when we talk about these things.”
Under cross-examination, D’Souza asked Ayers about his radical past and whether he still considers himself a revolutionary.
Ayers said he’s not a revolutionary in the sense of someone who wants to overthrow the government, but he is interested in fighting for “more peace, more justice, more balance, more sustainability” and considers himself someone who sees the need for fundamental change in the nation.
As an example, Ayers said white supremacy continues in America today.
“It’s a struggle that still goes on and it takes different forms,” Ayers said. “It’s not slavery, it’s not Jim Crow. But the destruction of voting rights, mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of black men in prisons — that’s white supremacy today. That’s what we should be fighting.”
The fact that 2.5 million Americans are in prison and that a nation with 5 percent of the world’s population has 20 percent of its prisoners is an outrage that needs to be changed, Ayers said.
“Well, I have to agree with you that the lock-em up impulse is getting a little out of hand these days,” D’Souza said.