Ron Radosh

Tony Kushner's Newest Drama: Playing the Victim of McCarthyite Attacks

The left-wing world loves Tony Kushner, so much so that in two days the New York Times has published three articles about a new controversy surrounding him, one online blog, and a rave review of his latest play that opened in New York City. Kushner is both one of the most overrated and at the same time most honored playwrights working today. He has been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, an Emmy, an Academy Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and many, many more, including fifteen honorary degrees from other colleges.

Despite this, a furor arose when it was announced a few days ago that the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) had voted to shelve an honorary degree that was to be awarded to Kushner by the John Jay College of CUNY, the city’s criminal justice institute, where most students are police officers. As the first national report indicated, Kushner responded by accusing the trustees of slandering him, and demanding an apology. The denial of his honorary degree came after one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, accused the playwright of holding virulent anti-Israeli views. Wiesenfeld said: “I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things. Especially when the state of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood, which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.”

Kushner called Wiesenfeld’s comment a “vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” Claiming to be a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, and denying that he favored a boycott of Israel, Kushner added his dismay “that a great public university would make a decision based on slanderous mischaracterizations without giving the person in question a chance to be heard.”

It was typical Kushner — playing the victim of a new McCarthyite attack on him by the right wing. The only problem is that if anyone was distorting Kushner’s actual views, it was the man himself.  He has made them so many times, in so many different places, that it is quite easy to document. Fortunately, CAMERA went to the trouble of immediately publishing a compendium of them, which you can read here. Let me just quote one, which immediately reveals that Kushner’s claim to be a strong supporter of Israel is false. “I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.” Or in another interview,  where he told a reporter that the creation of Israel “was a mistake.”

The playwright says he does not support the BDS campaign, yet he sits on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which favors the campaign. Yet he continually charges his opponents with falsifying his views, and with using “ ‘McCarthyite’ tactics to portray him as an extremist.” And Kushner is very adept at creating a media frenzy of his supporters, who rush to his defense at a moment’s call.

Hence today’s New York Times, as mentioned, featured a major story by reporter Sharon Otterman, who quoted one after another of Kushner’s defenders, without pausing to even interview one person from CUNY who was supportive of the withdrawal of the honorary degree. If anyone wanted proof of the paper’s bias, this report is it. Yesterday, I was phoned by another reporter at the paper, Winnie M. Hu, who interviewed me at great length. She said she would pass on the material to the reporter who was working on the story. Yet not one word appeared in Otterman’s article; nor did she interview one anyone else at CUNY who did not support Kushner.

As Jonathan Tobin so wisely wrote at Contentions, the withdrawal of the honorary degree “violated the prime directive of Gotham’s cultural elites: Thou shalt not hold any liberal icon accountable for anything they do.” And Tobin points out that this is not any violation of academic freedom, since “there is no constitutional right to an honorary degree.” You wouldn’t know that if you listen to all the screams about McCarthyism coming from CUNY’s leftists.

The latest comes from historian Ellen Schrecker. She sent a letter to Dr. Benno Schmidt, the head of the CUNY Board of Trustees, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, the newspaper read by all of academia, highlighted it in today’s edition. As K.C. Johnson observed accurately yesterday, Schrecker “has made a career out of detecting a non-existent danger of ‘McCarthyism’ in an academic environment in which devotees of her viewpoint dominate. Schrecker asserted that its McCarthyism for trustees to exercise their legal authority to confer (or not confer) honorary degrees. Such a bizarre claim suggests that the Yeshiva professor fundamentally misunderstands the topic that has been the subject of so much of her scholarship.”

As if she was seeking to validate Johnson’s description, Schrecker went on to tell the CUNY trustees that “I cannot, therefore, remain silent when the institution that once recognized the value of academic freedom now demeans it. That freedom is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university professors. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.” And of course, Schrecker warns them not to “repeat…those dark days” of the McCarthy era.

Her statement reveals only that, expert as she claims to be, Schrecker does not comprehend the difference between denial of academic freedom and the decision of a university’s trustees to rescind an award granted by one of its institutions. Why is it an “educational priority” to give Tony Kushner this award? Whose freedom is being challenged by its withdrawal? Would Schrecker make the same argument if a white racist who opposed civil rights for African-Americans was given an award, because in his own field- — whatever it might be — that person had done outstanding work? To ask this is to answer it. She would be the first to demand such an award be taken back.

As Jeffrey Wiesenfeld himself explained (quoted  in the KC Johnson article):

I would no differently oppose a racist for an honorary degree who personifies himself by calumny against a people. . . . An honorary degree is wholly within the absolute discretion of the board to grant. It identifies the University with accomplished, generous citizens or public figures. It is also a tool which highlights the University and enhances its image in the educational marketplace. Every year, there are candidates that some trustees may not particularly favor. We can all express dissent where we warrant it – it is our right. . . . No extremist from any quarter is a good face for any University — from far left or far right. Honorary degrees are public declarations of esteem by the university community conveyed to the honoree; for the university, they are image-building, advertising and publicity as well. The denial of the honorary degree to Mr. Kushner, despite his protestations, was a reflection of his long-held radical sentiments, which are a matter of indisputable and contextual public record. CUNY should remain a place of comfort and welcome for all of our students, faculty and administrators – including supporters of the Jewish state.

Wiesenfeld, who thought he was only going to be making a dissenting statement and was stunned to find other trustees supporting him, was then subject to a separate attack in the guise of journalism, again in today’s New York Times. Opinion writer  Jim Dwyer wrote what is in effect an editorial condemnation of Wiesenfeld. Again, Tobin nails it, writing that “since talking back to the Times is no more allowed than dissing Kushner…the result was a piece that was every bit as one-sided as we are instructed that Wiesenfeld’s speech to the CUNY board was.”

For example, Dwyer has the following sentence in his article: “Was this any way for one of the great public universities of the world to discuss the views of one of the leading dramatists of modern times, author of the epic ‘Angels in America’?” Dwyer assumes the readers will all say collectively: of course not; give Kushner his honorary degree, and fire Wiesenfeld. Dwyer also tries to corner Wiesenfeld to being one-sided in his defense of Israel and being hostile to the Palestinians — while, of course, letting Kushner off the hook and denying that he is anti-Israel.  And, like his defenders, Kushner is a leftist’s leftist — the favorite of The Nation crowd, and hence the darling of the New York left-wing world.

One of the hidden themes is that the fight for Kushner is virtually a leftist vendetta against anyone who is pro-Israel. The head of the staff union- — the AFT affiliate, called the Professional Staff Congress- — is a woman named Barbara Bowen, an anti-Israel extremist who had led the union to endorse every left-wing cause, even if unrelated to the university and the faculty. The decision to withdraw the degree for Kushner, she stated, is an insult to the academic judgment of the faculty, and an attempt to close off and narrow public debate.” The Jewish Press, the major New York City Jewish newspaper, ran a feature story a few years ago about Bowen’s politics. A few weeks after 9/11, Bowen signed a statement of leftist union leaders  saying that the United States “inflicted widespread suffering on innocent people in such places as Iraq, Sudan, Israel, the Occupied Territories” and warning that the Iraq war “will play into the hands of religious fanatics from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell.”

Another supporter of Kushner is University Faculty Senate Chair Sandi Cooper, the wife of the late John Cammet, the former pro-communist dean of faculty at John Jay for many years, who regularly called himself “The Red Dean.” This is a play on the name given in the 1940s and 50s to the pro-Communist dean of Canterbury of the Anglican Church in Britain, who was a notorious fellow-traveler. Cooper is a well-known left-wing activist in her own right.  “Citing alleged dangers to academic freedom,” K.C. Johnson wrote, “(though Im unaware of an occasion in which she has expressed concerned about protecting the ‘academic freedom’ of people with whom she disagrees), University Faculty Senate chair Sandi Cooper accused Wiesenfeld of inappropriately criticizing Kushner for his ‘presumed anti-Israel sentiments.’” Johnson continued to write the following:

That the highest elected faculty official at CUNY could describe such Kushner statements as Israel is involved in “a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people”; or “the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity”; or “Israel is a creation of the U.S., bought and paid for” as merely “presumed” anti-Israel statements shows just how pervasive anti-Israel sentiment among the faculty has become. (Perhaps next week, Cooper can pen a letter discussing Hamas’ “presumed” support for suicide-murder attacks.) In Cooper’s vision of the University, it appears, trustees must rubber-stamp all faculty decisions, no matter how misguided.

So I end this report with the sad news that again, the left-wing has won this fight, caving in to Cooper, Bowen,  Schrecker and the left-wing gang at CUNY. The New York Times has just reported, a short while ago, that Benno Schmidt will override the Board. He now is scheduling a new meeting of the trustees, and will at that meeting urge the Board to rescind their withdrawal of the John Jay honorary degree, and give it to Kushner as scheduled. Calling the Board’s action a “mistake of principle” and a violation of academic freedom, Schmidt has bought into the Schrecker position entirely. He says that “like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored.”

Of course, anything Tony Kushner gets is intended, as he always makes clear, to honor his politics as well as his playwriting, which is indistinguishable from his politics. Just see any Kushner play, and try treating it as a non-political vehicle. Even Andrew Sullivan, who defends Kushner’s receiving the honorary degree, writes that

I found Angels in America to be pretentious, boring propaganda, and like most propaganda, endless and laden with stereotypes and cartoon figures. In the internecine fights in the gay movement in the 1990s, we were on opposite sides. I’d rather have pins stuck in my eyes than attend his new play, ominously titled ‘The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,’ which like other Important Plays, clocks in at four hours. His sad attempt to exonerate traitors like the Rosenbergs was once perverse; now it just seems at odds with reality.

So Kushner will get his degree, the Left will applaud, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld could even be booted off the Board of Trustees, simply for telling the truth about Kushner’s views. The fight we are in on the cultural front is long and difficult, and we are far from winning it. That is the lesson of the CUNY brouhaha over Tony Kushner.