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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.