What’s So Great About America? opening argument, Dartmouth, January 30 2014

January 31, 2014

Such a huge subject, and such a lovely question— when a dialogue on that expansive question was first proposed to me, my initial impulse was to make a list.

Let’s see…OK: I’ll start my what’s-so-great list with Chicago; yes, Chicago—because it’s my hometown and I know it well, and because it’s one small piece of America in all its outsized and crazy complexity, the city of the Big Shoulders, the essential American metropolis—Chicago is one of the things that’s so awesomely great about America.

The musical, sure, the song and the film, The Jungle and The Pit and The House on Mango Street, too, Augie March and Bigger Thomas, the Blues Brothers and V I Warshawski, Jimmy Corrigan, the smartest kid on earth, Studs Terkel’s Division Street and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Algren’s

Nelson Algren’s wonderful book length love poem to his hometown was called City on the Make, and Algren once described Chicago—rightly I think—as a beautiful woman with a broken nose—he’d have said the same about America.

So, so great, and there’s more of course: Lake Michigan, that vast inland sea now under siege from cataclysmic climate change, the massive, inviting prairie that fires our imaginations and beckons us toward the far horizons, and the Chicago Cubs who teach us humility and perseverance, Chris Ware and Aleksander Hemon, the film-making Wachowski siblings, Haki and Sefisha Madhubuti, Koko Taylor and Yoko Noge, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddly, and the Sun Ra Archestra. You know, of course, that I’m barely scratching the surface here—but enough.


Whenever I’ve travelled abroad, the city’s name tends to evoke a clichéd response: for years it was, “Ah, Al Capone…rat-a-tat-tat…” and then, refreshingly, “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” In Baku someone asked me if I knew Oprah—“Of course,” I said. “Small town, Chicago.”

But today the universal reaction to hearing the name Chicago is a single word: “Obama!” Yes, Chicago is also home to Barack Obama, the president of the United States and first African-American US president in history.

During the heat of the primary battle in 2008, when asked which candidate he thought Martin Luther King Jr. would support, Senator Obama responded without hesitation: Reverend King would not likely endorse any of us, he said, because he’d be in the streets building a movement for justice. The fact that Obama had been a community organizer for many years on Chicago’s storied South Side, and that he had within his own experience and knowledge the realities of that particular life on the ground, undoubtedly fueled his response—he’d experienced power in the neighborhood, the community, the shop and the factory, the school and the street which is for ordinary people more real and more relevant than the power of the White House. That idea underlines the fact that in a democracy we don’t wait passively wondering what the king has in mind for us; we aren’t some sovereign’s subjects because we are the sovereign, the collective authority, and we have the opportunity and the responsibility to enact our sovereignty every day.

Chicago’s Jane Addams acted out her citizenship responsibilities every day, and she’s part of what’s so great about America too. Socialist, feminist, lesbian, pacifist—Addams established Hull House in America in 1889, and with an intrepid group of crusading women went on to create the first Juvenile Court in the world which freed children from adult prisons and poor houses, the first playground in a city park, the first public kindergartens in America, an end to child labor, and a thousand other projects and reforms. She argued that building communities of care and compassion required more than “doing good,” more than volunteerism, more than the beneficent but ultimately controlling stance of a Lady Bountiful. It required, rather, a radical oneness with others in distress, an identity of purpose with the wretched of the earth. When she opened her large settlement house with her sister activists, and lived there with poor immigrant families in crisis and need, she pushed herself to see the world through their eyes, and in fighting for their humanity, discovered her own as well.

J. Edgar Hoover, the G-man whose Wizard-of-Oz like PR skills and political opportunism outstripped any putative crime-fighting abilities, had called Jane Addams the most dangerous woman in America shortly before she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and fifty years later, still at the helm of his vast criminal enterprise known as the FBI, bestowed that same honor on my partner Bernardine Dohrn—the most dangerous woman in America indeed, possibly the only time Hoover and I agreed on anything.

There are today countless men and women sweating out Jane Addams’s 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. These men and women propel themselves to act in solidarity with—rather than in service to—the people with whom they work.

They’re what’s so great about America.


And what else?

My list contains multitudes.

First: the spirit of democracy—the precious but fragile ideal that every human being is of incalculable value, endowed with certain inalienable rights, the faith in that idea—using faith in the Biblical sense of “the evidence of things unseen”—a conviction that the people need no kings or queens, no rulers of any kind, and that we are quite capable of making the decisions that affect our lives, and indeed that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions, and that the wisdom and energy of ordinary people is our most precious reality.

Next: the inspirations of liberty—the aspiration toward liberation, the belief that all human beings ought to be free to invent and reinvent ourselves, to shape our identities in every sphere of our existence without the oppressive and traditional constraints of king or court or church or howling mob, and whether we are concerned with our social character or our politics, our manners or our sexual practices, we can resist convention and strike out on a path of our own choosing or even of our own making.

Third: the pursuit of social justice in large and small matters—like any compelling and layered term, social justice isn’t easily or neatly defined because it’s not so much a point-of-arrival or a specific destination, as it is a longing, a journey, and a quest; it’s that ceaseless striving by human beings—in different times and places under vastly different circumstances, and pursuing a range of strategies and tactics and tools—for greater fairness, sustainability, equity, recognition, agency, peace, mobility….

Democracy and liberty and justice—like love—are generative: The more you have, the better off you become; the more you give away, the more you have.


And they are clearly dynamic and unfinished themes, pulsating with the uncertainties and chaos of life—none is static or fixed or simply instrumental—and yet each is made more vital and unrestrained and more vital when encouraged and assisted by the arts of liberty, and specifically by a small but mighty phrase easily embraced by the humanities: “I wonder.”

It’s not the known, after all, that propels us out of bed and out the door, it’s not the taken-for-granted that prods us up the next hill or onto the next challenge, and it’s not “received wisdom”—including all the deadly clichés of common sense—that pulls us forward and pushes us to create or to invent or to plant and build. No, the deep motivation at the core of our humanity, the powerful force driving toward enlightenment and liberation, is the vast and immense unknown.

That’s why that simple phrase—“I wonder”— is indispensible: it’s where inspiration comes from, courage and vision and progress, too, and revision and rethinking as well: “I really don’t know.”

As soon as you “know” something for sure it becomes either boring or self-righteous, and it turns tedious or dogmatic pretty quickly. If you think you know all there is to know, the fervor may be there, but not the curiosity, not the drive, and at that point the questions close down, the answers come too easily, and you become a threat, then, to yourself, and possibly to others as well.

There are zillions of Americans whose lives have soared on the wings of wonder: Einstein, Stravinsky, and Said, Twain, Dickinson, Robeson, Chaplin, Whitman, Hughes, Freidan, Kelly, Brecht, Baraka, Milk, the Marx brothers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Junot Diaz and Tommy Morello.

In a free and democratic society we learn to live with questions and in dialogue; we learn to speak with the possibility of being heard, and we learn simultaneously to listen with the possibility of being changed. We become skilled at asking the essential questions again and again, and then finding ways to live within and beyond the answers: What does it mean to be human? Who are we in the world? How did you and I get here? Where are we going? Who decides? Who’s left out? What are the alternatives? What do we have the right to imagine and expect? Why? In many ways, these kinds of questions are themselves the answers, for they lead us into a powerful sense that we can and will make a difference.


Remember the brief but famous dialogue—in the form of two simple questions—between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shouted over a prison wall not far from here: What are you doing in there? Emerson asks his incarcerated friend, locked up for refusing to pay taxes to a war-making slave state. And Thoreau responds: What are you doing out there?

Good question: What are you doing out there? What are you doing with your spirit of democracy, your rumors of freedom, and your various quests for justice?

There’s a rhythm—simple to state, but excruciatingly difficult to live out—to staying true to the spirit and the inspiration of liberty and democracy:

Open your eyes and pay attention…Be astonished at the beauty and ecstasy all around us as well as the unnecessary pain we visit upon one another…Tell about it…Doubt.


What’s so great about America?

There are the arts and the artists: Gwendolyn Brooks begins her poem on the dedication of the magnificent Picasso statue in downtown Chicago with a question: Does man love art? She asks. Man visits art, she says, but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.

America is a place of voyages, metaphorically as well as literally, and there’s always, even there, complexity and the contradiction at the very heart of the matter.

Centuries ago a Genoan adventurer and his band of fellow travelers plunged into the unknown, rode the waves until they stumbled upon the Bahamas and, as the authorized texts tell us, “discovered America.” We all know the story by heart, that foundational fable, and it’s worth noting here that, whatever else it represented, that exploit—part myth and part symbol—took a surplus of imagination and vision, resourcefulness and courage on the part of that wild and somewhat random crew.

But every story has a prologue; every opening a foreword; no story can ever quite begin at the beginning.

And so centuries before that, another group of voyagers summoned their imaginations and visions, their own resourcefulness and courage to travel thousands of miles on foot across the Bering Strait, down through forests and mountains into the Great Plains of North America, to settle there and bring forth generations. That’s another story we all know by now.

And there’s a third to go with those other two, also a central part of our shared American narrative and another piece of what’s so great about America: those Americans who rose up to oppose the Castillian invasion and to resist the Columbian genocide—Osceola and Crazy Horse and Cochise also summoned courage and resourcefulness as they mobilized their own visions and their own American hopes.

Clearly history is more than the facts of the matter; it is as well the narratives we construct to circulate those facts—it’s a continual creation at the dynamic intersection of what happened and that which is said to have happened. And each of us—from the start until the present, both then and now—is both an actor and a narrator in history; works-in-progress thrust into a world not of our choosing, and yet destined to choose who to be and what to become in the lively, unfolding drama that catches us and propels us forward.

Wherever you begin and however you look, deep within our human DNA, embedded in our collective American experience we find imagination and hope, vision and resourcefulness, initiative and courage, conflict and contradiction, the individual and the community.


America is an immense landscape, a crazy-quilt, and the people, yes, the people—the opening lines to Carl Sandburg’s classic love song to America—where we come from and where we will forever return.

Here’s a fun fact you may not know about Carl Sandburg—he moved to Chicago from Milwaukee where he had served as secretary to that city’s first socialist mayor. The city had the longest run of socialist mayors in American history, and one of them, Daniel Webster Hoan, had met Albert Parsons as a five-year old child in 1886. Parsons was later hanged for his role in the famous Haymarket demonstrations that had turned into a police riot and massacre, and when he was on the run from the Chicago police, he hid out for a time in Waukesha at the home of Daniel’s socialist parents who owned a factory there.

Albert Parsons was from Texas and had fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War, went through an essential American transformation when he renounced white supremacy—a dazzling life-altering choice available to all of us here—and became a leading voice for anarchism, socialism, workers rights and the eight-hour day, married Lucy Parsons, a former slave who outlived him by half a century and was herself called “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” in the 1920s by the Chicago police.

Albert Parsons was hanged in 1887 after a quick show trial; the three surviving Haymarket defendants were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld who was, incidentally,  my favorite Illinois governor until George Ryan, a corrupt right-wing Republican and self-described pharmacist from Kankakee, declared himself an abolitionist and cleared death row in 2003 of 163 men and 4 women just hours before he left office and two years before going to prison himself—fraud, corruption, quiet money—the most significant action challenging capital punishment since the Supreme Court struck down the old death penalty laws in 1972.  So now George Ryan is my favorite Illinois governor.

Death penalty abolition: one of the great things about America; the death penalty itself—the shame of the nation.

In 1894, a year after the hanging, Eugene Debs was jailed for 6 months for violating an injunction against supporting the Pullman Strike, and 100,000 people gathered in the rain in Chicago when he was released. He linked the cause of labor to the aspirations of the revolutionaries of 1776, and famously said, “If I could lead you into the Promised Land, I would not do it, for someone else would come along and lead you out.”

And in that same year the philosopher John Dewey took a teaching position at the University of Chicago, and wrote to his wife that “Chicago is the place to make you appreciate at every turn the opportunity which chaos affords.”

Chaos and opportunity—there’s constant contradiction in Chicago, in America, always another incongruity or disparity or dispute or deviation to look into, always a challenge, an opposition or an absurdity, and until the end of time another pathway opening. Standing directly next to the world as such—the world we see and the places we take-for-granted—stands another world, a possible world, a world that could be or should be, but is not yet. And that’s surely a good thing because contradiction may save us.  Nothing is settled, once and for all, everything is on the move and in the mix, and there’s much more to know, and to do. We’re in the middle of the muddle—right from the start.


There are the muckrakers and the whistle-blowers and the truth-tellers from Upton Sinclair and Ida B. Wells, to Daniel Ellsberg and Jeremy Hammond and Aaron Swartz, all three Chicagoans, to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

They’re what’s so great about America.

There are the citizen activists who brought us the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and are largely responsible for the fact that you live in a country where you can—unless you’re in West Virginia—confidently drink water right from the tap.

They’re what’s so great about America.

There are the Abolitionists—Frederick Douglass and his friend Captain John Brown, each buried not far from here, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, General Harriett Tubman with that necessary pistol in her pocket, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

They’re what’s so great about America.

There’s Seneca Falls and the feminist fighters Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

They’re what’s so great about America.


Let me pause a moment here and ask you seriously—speaking of those two great movements—two quick questions: Are you opposed to slavery? Are you in favor of a woman’s right to vote?

Terrific, but had you been alive then, and had you taken the positions you’re taking now, you would have been against the law, the Constitution, the founders, the Bible, your preacher, your parents, your neighbors and many friends, but OK, you’re on the right side of history—now.

Is there anything you see around yourself today that fifty years from now your grandchildren might condemn as backward, archaic, misbegotten, ignorant, or immoral? The extraction of the last drops of fossil fuel? Mass incarceration? The corruption of money in politics?

Carrying the three themes that I began with—the spirit of democracy, the inspirations of freedom, and the quest for social justice—I urge you to get to the bottom of things, to go to the root, the Greek base and source for the word radical

On the important issues of the last two centuries, America’s radicals from Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Harriet Tubman, to Eugene Debs and WEB Du Bois have gotten it right by going to the root of matters. The legacy continued with the work of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X forty years ago, and on up to today and the efforts of James Thindwa and Karen Lewis, Grace Lee Boggs and Ai-jen Poo, Bill McKibben and Michelle Alexander, Kathy Kelly and Reyna Wences. Of course as Ella Baker said of Reverend King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were thousands, tens of thousands and millions putting their shoulders on history’s wheel.

The country is as it is—a mass of contradictions and tragedies; rich with beauty and human accomplishment, vicious with human denial; an organism that drains us and replenishes us at the same time, gives us life and kills us—and it’s asking you to dive in: study, imagine, ask queer questions, read, learn, organize, talk to strangers, mobilize, and display your ethical aspirations publicly.

You might take a page from Walt Whitman who wrote:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number for men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, [walk with delinquents with passionate love] re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

The tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent  thrust—and the rhythm of  and recipe for activism as I said before is always the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the immense world as we find it; we are astonished by the beauty and horrified at the suffering all around us; we dive into the wreckage and swim as hard as we can toward a distant and indistinct shore; we dry ourselves off, doubt that our efforts made any important difference whatsoever, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more.

Repeat for a lifetime, and you’ll find out for yourself what’s really great about America.

Ready to go!

January 28, 2014

Thursday night January 30, 2013 at Dartmouth College in a debate with another charged felon. Dinesh D’Souza’s felony charge—fraud and corruption and shady money in politics—is unresolved, whereas mine—crossing state lines to create disorder opposing war—was settled long ago. Not guilty!
Watch the “debate” on line.

Jamie Weinstein, right-wing “intellectual,” in conversation…

January 27, 2014


Just read an excerpt from your new book.


I enjoyed it, but this is almost certainly not true!

When Jamie 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.


But it is a fun caricature. 

Look forward to reading the whole book—when I learn to read. 




I’m confident you will learn to read and soon.

PLUS, I stand by every word…




It just doesn’t sound like me! I’m sure I would have at least dropped some Burke. At least it allowed you to make your silly Somalia point, though I must admit I expected something more original. That is a standard liberal talking point these days. 

Are you going to be in DC? We could do a video interview for the site. 

Also, Matt Labash isn’t a young Daily Caller writer! He is a super talented and widely respected long-form journalist for The Weekly Standard. You should read his book of essays. You would probably enjoy it. 




DC for sure. 

I’m at Busboys and Poets, Poetry and Prose and Red Emma’s…Come and talk. 




Let’s try to do a video interview when you are in town. In the meantime, would you be up for an email interview? I’ll send you 10 questions to answer and return. Work for you? 

Or better yet, we can do it one question at a time, so it is will be more conversational in tone. Let me know if you’re up for it. 




Sure. Fine. Maybe you’ll come to your senses.

By the way, one of your elders, Dinesh D, is going to publicly debate me early in the new year.
Be there.



Fantastic. Let’s start here. You are often labeled a “domestic terrorist.” Do you reject the label? Do you embrace it? 




In order to be entirely clear, and in order to at least start on the same page, what is your definition of terrorism???




I think the use of force by non-state actors in order to achieve political goals is a pretty good definition. But it doesn’t really matter how I define it. I am wondering what you think of the term and whether you think it is fairly applied to you? 




Of course your definition matters.

In fact, let’s stipulate now that whatever dialogue you and I engage in, including the above from today, will be in the published interview in full. Can you agree to that? Oh, and I will do the same: the whole thread or nothing in each of our published versions.




Sure. But I am not looking to engage in a debate. I am interested in conducting an interview. You’re the star here. So let’s start again with my first question. You are often labeled a “domestic terrorist.” Do you reject the label? Do you embrace it? 




No, no…You are the star, and a good interview usually goes beyond the boring Q and A into a real exchange.
So I will go forward now, since you agreed that all will be published or none. And I will get to your question directly.

As in your response to the question I asked you at dinner concerning your definition of CONSERVATIVE in which you said, “Small government,” (Yes, you did!) your definition of terrorism—”the use of force by non-state actors in order to achieve political goals”—is overly broad, anemic, and simple-minded. By your definition the revolutionaries who carried out the Boston Tea Party were terrorists, as were the Founding Fathers, all the creators of both Israel and the new South Africa, Harriett Tubman, Cesar Chavez, the Freedom Riders, and, yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. who said in several speeches that he was mobilizing the force of the down-trodden to make a revolution.

If you’re sticking to that definition, fine, but it’s fine as well to modify in order to be more precise about what you mean. I’ll get to your question directly.




As you know, I don’t think that is what I said at the dinner. It doesn’t sound like me. But that’s beside the point. I’m asking as a simple question. I’ll ask one more time and then move on because I don’t want to get stuck on it. You are often labeled a “domestic terrorist.” Do you reject the label? Do you embrace it? 




I reject it entirely.




What do you say to John Murtagh, who blames the Weather Underground for a bombing that almost took his family’s life when he was a child? Do you accept responsibility for that attack? Will you apologize to Murtagh? 




I have no responsibility and can’t apologize for it because I had nothing to do with it.

I know I know, it’s one of your favorite minor tropes—dishonest to the core—and I’m sure you can find many more bubbling in the fever swamps of the Looney Tune Right: Will you apologize for this or that, or this one over here? And like the man in the joke who says, “But I don’t beat my wife,” the response will surely be, “So you’re still not sorry?”

Another word on your preposterous definition of terrorism:
Nicholas Lemann reviewed the current scholarship on terrorism in the April 26, 2010 New Yorker and becomes immediately muddled when he attempts to answer the most basic and straightforward question: What is terrorism, anyway? The expert consensus, according to Lemann, includes a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives, and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims, already better than your weak-assed definition. But then he veers off track: terrorists are non-state actors, he claims, just as you do, which exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, Sherman’s march to the sea, [the British RAF fire-bombing of over 130 German cities], [Hiroshima and Nagasaki], and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause terror for a political goal. Terrorists, he continues, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s a convenient tautology: if any conventional government decides to pound a village to dust, it’s a field of battle; if a villager kills a soldier in the exact same spot a day before the invasion commences, that’s terrorism. Terrorism, according to Webster’s, is “a mode of governing, or of opposing a government, by intimidation.” That definition has the virtue of consistency and fairness; it focuses on the use of coercive violence, whether committed by a religious cult, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself.




We can’t all be level-headed moderates like you, Bill. What is the rightwing loony trope you are referring to? That the Weather Underground bombed buildings? I think that’s called a fact. I don’t think we need to get into a debate on terrorism. But government’s can commit crimes and holocausts that are every bit as bad as what we define as terrorism—or, in many cases, worse. It just might not be classified as “terrorism.” Don’t be simplistic.  

But let’s move to President Obama. I imagine you are not a big fan of the president’s foreign policy, particularly his use of drones. Do you believe he is a war criminal who should go to prison for the rest of his life? 




First, stop the name calling! How offensive: I’m no level-headed moderate!

And the trope I referred to is an old and worn trick: Investigator, “Are you sorry you beat your wife?” Husband, “But I don’t beat my wife!” Investigator, “So you’re still not sorry!”

On “terrorism,” you don’t think we need to get into a debate (or a dialogue?). Sorry, but we’re already in a discussion about it, and the more I reflect on your definition the weirder it seems to me. Any reconsideration? To you, the Syrian opposition is a terrorist outfit, right? And the Chinese workers in Hunan who seized a factory and smashed the machines? And the residents of the Warsaw ghetto? The youth in Tahrir Square, and the generals who took out the Muslim Brotherhood? Oh, and now that Palestine is a recognized state and no longer a “non-state actor” any sanctioned act by that state against a neighboring state may be terrible but it escapes the awful label of terrorism, right?

If you stick to it, I’m sure, as with your definition of “conservative” it makes your life much simpler—none of the messiness of actual thought in a real world. Rather a kind of comfortable connect-the-dots exercise with bits of received wisdom strung together in a strict ideological frame.

On to your question: as I mentioned to you at our dinner, I’m a prison abolitionist and believe that caging our fellow human beings is an atrocity and a stain on society. Further, mass incarceration is as defining a feature of our times as slavery was in 19th Century America. There are hundreds of alternatives to prison, and those of us who believe in a just and humane future work to develop those options.
So, no, the president should not go to jail for the rest of his life.

Now it’s my turn: Do you think Henry Kissinger should be given a pail and a shovel and asked to walk the length and breadth of Viet Nam digging up the remaining unexploded ordnance? Or do you think Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld and Powell should be put on a desert island and asked to resolve their differences and come up with their collective accounting of how they marched the US into two costly and catastrophic wars?




Bill, you’re the one with the book out. The public is dying to know your thoughts. You evaded my questions. One more time. 1.) Do you believe President Obama is a war criminal? 2.) If he is, what should happen to him if you don’t believe in prison? 




You spoke to the “public” and they are “dying to know?” OMG, I had no idea of the power of YOU!
So, you won’t answer my questions? You defined terrorism earlier, why now the stone wall? Is TC pulling your leash?

We stipulated at the start that we would publish the whole thread or nothing at all, and in spite of your awesomeness, I have questions for you too. In a conversation, all parties speak.

Your turn now, then mine.

And yes, this too is part of the thread.




Everything will be published, even the part about Tucker being my puppet master. But this is an interview. If people think my definition of terrorism is stupid, so be it. But I am genuinely interested in whether you think Barack Obama is a war criminal? For the record, I don’t. But considering your past “activism,” I imagine you might. And if you indeed do think he is a war criminal, what should happen to him and other war criminals since you don’t believe in prison? 




Tucker? How did he get into it?

Anyway have you read PUBLIC ENEMY?

And will you answer the questions?




It’s like pulling teeth to get you to answer questions, Bill! You referred to TC pulling my leash. I assumed by TC you meant Tucker. I haven’t read Public Enemy. My definition of terrorism is on the record, along with your refutation. I would add to my definition the use of force against civilians. But to answer your last question: I don’t think Obama is a war criminal and I don’t think Bush was a war criminal so I don’t think they should be punished for anything. But for the love of all that is holy Bill, let’s answer the damn questions: 1.) Do you believe President Obama is a war criminal? 2.) If he is, what should happen to him if you don’t believe in prison? 




You didn’t answer my questions about Kissinger, or the desert island.

And if you read PUBLIC ENEMY—any self-respecting working interviewer would at least read the book that is the putative point of the so-called interview—you would find the answers to most of your questions.

On this question of war criminals, what is your definition or understanding of war crimes? I mean are there actions that are war crimes regardless of the actor, or does it always depend on who does the deed?




I guess I am not a self-respecting interviewer. I accept all the insults you want to hurl at me. Just please answer the questions! Is President Obama a war criminal, as you define it? And if he is, what should happen to him since you don’t believe in jail? If you don’t want to answer the question, say so, and we can move on. 




No no—I write about it…and happy to expand, but search for it first.
And also, answer the questions I asked about war crimes so we can see if we are talking about something similar. Your definitions of “conservative” and “terrorism” were illuminating if a bit sad. How about “war crimes?”
Sheesh! Getting you to answer the simplest thing is like pulling teeth!




This is not a research project, Bill. This is an interview. You asked me to review your book and we agreed instead to do it this way. Should we continue or do you want to back out? If you want to continue, then you are going to have to actually answer questions. Let me know. 

In point of fact, you asked me to review it first, Bill. We have an email chain. That’s pretty easy to discover. Email 2—your reply to my initial email about the inaccuracy in your excerpt. If you can’t answer my questions, we can’t proceed. You didn’t do this on Morning Joe! Please do let me know if you have answers to my previous questions. 1.) Do you believe President Obama is a war criminal. 2.) If so, what should happen to him if you don’t believe in jail? 

I have so much more to get to. It would be sad if we had to end it here. But that’s up to you. 




Yes yes. Let’s not end it here.

Just answer my questions and we will bounce along down the yellow brick road hand in hand.




Don’t have definitions for you. The ball is in your court. But I can understand why you wouldn’t want to continue. This won’t be a softball interview like you’ll get from Truthout. I really hope we can proceed. I got some juicy questions down the road. 




Oh please. Don’t flatter yourself. You are not a hard fastball journalist for real. And the ball (as long as we’re mixing metaphors) has been hit out of my court, and the puck is on your ice.

I love juicy questions by the way.




I admit—I’m no Herbert Mathews or Walter Duranity. But let’s do it this way since we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Here are a bunch of questions. If you want to answer them for the interview, that would be awesome. If not, I’ll publish what we have. Thanks. 

1.) Would you encourage today’s youth to follow your example and start a group similar to the Weather Underground to “protest” American foreign policy abroad? If not, why not? 

2.)  You said after you were acquitted of your crimes on a legal technicality, “Guilty as sin, free as a bird—what a country, America.”  But seriously, aren’t you fortunate to live in a country that takes the rule of law seriously? What do you think would have happened to you if you committed such crimes in Chavez’s Venezuela, which you have praised?  

3.) You said recently that you wake up every morning saying that today you’re going to end capitalism. How much money have you made from your books? How much do you charge to give a speech? 

4.) When is the last time you spoke to President Obama? 

5.) Did you, Rashid Khalidi and President Obama ever go out to dinner together when you all lived in Chicago? If so, how often and what were the discussions like? 

6.) Is the Barack Obama in the White House different than the man you knew in Chicago? If so, how has he changed?  

7.) What three books most influenced your worldview? 

8.) Why did you write your new book and what will readers get out of it? 




OK, here are my questions for you:

*Was the Lybian bombing of Pan Am 103 an act of terrorism? Was the CIA bombing of Cuban Airlines Flight 455 in 1976 in which 78 people were killed an act of terrorism? What are the differences?

*What is your definition of “socialism?”

*What aspects do you support?

*Is education a product or a human right?

*What are some reasonable community or collective or government responsibilities; which responsibilities would still be better if privatized?

*If “privatization” uses tax money, is it still private?

*What pending international treaties should the US Senate ratify?

*Should the US join the International Criminal Court?

*What’s great about America?

*What do you estimate the total cost of your schooling and education?

*How much of that did you earn and pay yourself?





I pledge to you that if you answer all my previous questions honestly and forthrightly—including my question about whether you believe President Obama is a war criminal and, if so, what should happen to him since you don’t believe in prison?—I will happily give you answers to these questions. 



So, let’s agree that we’re talking about the same thing: war crimes include those detailed at Nuremberg after WW II, and later by the International Criminal Court—the crime of aggression, crimes against peace, the wanton destruction of cities or towns or villages, the murder or ill treatment of prisoners, forced deportation, and more. And let’s stipulate, following Nuremberg, that responsibility cannot be dodged because of rank or governmental position, nor can it be avoided simply because someone claimed to be following the orders from a higher ranking person. True?




No more negotiations. You answer the questions I sent you. Then I’ll answer the questions you sent me. You can define war crimes in your answer the way you want. If you don’t want to answer a question I sent, fine, just say so and answer the rest. But as long as you answer in good faith, I’ll answer the questions you sent me in good faith. But let’s get on with this.




What are you talking about?

You can’t dictate the terms of a conversation with me, sorry.

If you can’t even say what it is you mean by war crimes—and in a way I don’t blame you for your hesitation, since your attempts to define “conservative” and “terrorism” were so feeble and anemic, exposing a staggering simple-mindedness—even after I gave you a good place to begin, let’s meet up in DC at one of the book stores and go from there.



This is becoming absurd. I will define what I mean in my answers. Readers can determine if my answers are feeble. You apparently prefer to go round and round in circles. I can’t make you answer anything. But you asked me to review your book and we agreed to do an interview. If you want to proceed, let’s proceed. Answer the questions I asked in good faith and I will answer the questions you asked in good faith. But if you prefer to end it here, we can end it here. It’s up to you. 




Of course you can’t make me answer. And I can’t seem to persuade you to engage in a dialogue.

Fine, back to the beginning. I’ll say it again (lightly): Review Public Enemy; don’t bother to read it first—that would just confuse you.

Podcast from Rag Radio Austin, Texas, with our old friend Thorne Dreyer

January 22, 2014


Rethinking ZERO TOLERANCE at last (and after a lot of damage has been done)

January 8, 2014

The New York Times finally wrote this week about the wreckage left in the wake of zero tolerance school policy. If they’d been paying attention, someone on the editorial board might have benefited from reading the book below (published in 2001).




ZERO TOLERANCE: Resisting the Drive for Punishment (2001) edited by William Ayers, Rick Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn


A handbook for parents, students, educators, and citizens: a clear-eyed collection that takes aim at the replacement of teaching with punishment in America’s schools. “Zero tolerance” began as a prohibition against guns, but it has quickly expanded into a frenzy of punishment and tougher disciplinary measures in American schools. Ironically, as this timely collection makes clear, recent research indicates that as schools adopt more zero tolerance policies they in fact become less safe, in part because the first casualties of these measures are the central, critical relationships between teacher and student and between school and community. Zero Tolerance assembles prominent educators and intellectuals, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Michelle Fine, and Patricia Williams, along with teachers, students, and community activists, to show that the vast majority of students expelled from schools under new disciplinary measures are sent home for nonviolent violations; that the rush to judge and punish disproportionately affects black and Latino children; and that the new disciplinary ethos is eroding constitutional protections of privacy, free speech, and due process. Sure to become the focus of controversy, Zero Tolerance presents a passionate, multifaceted argument against the militarization of our schools.

Topics include:
• Media and anti-youth policies
• Race, civil rights, and school discipline
• Student writing on zero tolerance
• Community agencies dealing with rehabilitation
• Zero tolerance and mentally ill students