My Dinner with Andrew Breitbart: Breaking Bread with the Right’s Bad Boys
March 31, 2012
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…