The Importance of Being Tony Kushner
By Michael Winship
Coincidence combined with foresight on the part of my girlfriend Pat -- she bought the tickets months ago -- landed us at a performance of Tony Kushner's new play, just days after the executive committee of the City University of New York's (CUNY) board of trustees held an emergency meeting and scrambled to reverse an earlier board decision to table an honorary degree for Kushner.
The resulting serendipity was an affirmation of free speech and of the rightful place of outspoken, often radical thought in an open society, whether you agree with it or not. Tell me that's not worth the price of admission.
Kushner, author of the epic Angels in America and other extraordinary work, initially was denied the degree after objections from CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who attacked Kushner as unfairly critical of Israel. He pointed in particular to a statement the playwright reportedly made to an Israeli journalist, one which Wiesenfeld pulled secondhand off the website of controversial political scientist Norman Finkelstein: "Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it was ethnic cleansing and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people. I have never been a Zionist," Kushner was said to have continued. "I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state, it would be better if it never had happened."
This is not the first time Mr. Wiesenfeld has made waves at CUNY. As the May 11 New York Times reported, "In 2001, he called participation in an October 'teach-in' sponsored by the union [CUNY's Professional Staff Congress] about the 9/11 attacks 'seditious.' In 2006, he blasted a book that Baruch College had chosen for its freshman reading, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, calling it 'deeply offensive' and 'anti-Semitic.'" In an interview with the Times' Jim Dwyer following CUNY's initial rejection of Kushner's degree, Wiesenfeld characterized Palestinians as "people who worship death for their children... not human."
Tony Kushner pushed back hard. In an open letter to the CUNY trustees, he described Wiesenfeld's charges as "a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I've given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Wiesenfeld strongly disagrees."
He continued, "My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."
But, Kushner added, "I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Wiesenfeld's than with mine; Mr. Morris differs from Mr. Wiesenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a scholar's rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the truth."
(Kushner's entire letter is worth reading. You can see it at: http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/user/20/54643560-Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11.pdf. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's statement to the CUNY trustees can be found at: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/transcript-of-cuny-trustees-speech-on-kushner-award.)
To put it mildly, Tony Kushner has a lot on his mind and he expresses it at length in his work, often brilliantly. His new play at New York's Public Theater is a rowdy, rambling, funny and heartbreaking tale that tackles nothing less than a dissection of the intellectual history of the last century; a deft analysis of the left, organized labor and sexual politics --told through the story of a dysfunctional family in a Brooklyn brownstone whose patriarch is contemplating suicide. Whew.
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (or iHo, as Kushner has dubbed it) is a nod to George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" and the writings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Both are referenced in the almost four-hour piece, as are Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Garibaldi, Chekhov, Angela Davis, Pete Seeger, New York's nearly forgotten, socialist Congressman Vito Marcantonio... and Yoda.
This is a play filled with ideas and insights, fiercely entertaining and beautifully acted, its dialogue sometimes so fast-paced and overlapping, a Robert Altman movie seems dozy by comparison. As John Lahr wrote in his New Yorker review, "Out of this bubbling mélange comes an unexpectedly powerful and bittersweet taste of our post-imperial moment; the fractious household can be read as a metaphor for America, its characters perilously poised between remembering and forgetting, between community and atomization."
Kushner's is an important, moral and empathetic voice in a time when such powers of perception and eloquence are rare. And while you may differ with him, there's not a thing he has argued that isn't debated in the Israeli media virtually every day; far more openly, in fact, than here at home.
Anyone who would attack the depth of commitment to his Jewish faith must be unaware of the entire body of his work, including not only Angels in America but also his adaptation of A Dybbuk, his children's book Brundibar, even his script for the Steven Spielberg motion picture Munich, co-written with Eric Roth, a brooding reflection on violence and the ambiguity of evil that tells the story of the assassination team sent to kill those believed responsible for planning the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
"I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true," Kushner wrote the CUNY trustees. "I am interested in history and politics, and long ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It's been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day."
The death of faith and the corruption of ideals are major themes in Kushner's new play. In their initial rush to judgment, the CUNY board abandoned faith in the fundamental principle of free speech and at first allowed themselves to be corrupted by a cowardly expedience. It was, as CUNY chair Benno Schmidt said, "a mistake of principle and not merely of policy."
Now, on June 3, Tony Kushner will receive his degree. Briefly, the day has indeed been carried and the bullies held at bay. Until the next time. Stay tuned.
Michael Winship is a senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.