Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Kushner Crisis, or "Jeffrey Wiesenfeld Knows So Little about the Way Universities Operate, He Should Be a State Legislator"

I confess that I am not a huge fan of Tony Kushner. While I like Angels in America well enough, for example, I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, and I sure as hell don’t think there’s seven hours of material there. The one time I’ve ever been in the same room with Mr. Kushner, he gave one of the most excruciatingly pompous conference keynote speeches I’ve ever heard. His insularity, profound ignorance of the world inhabited by his audience, and simplistic reasoning were matched only by his arrogance. There were those, a majority, in fact, who lapped it up, of course. (“Ooh, it’s Tony Kushner!!!”) I wasn’t among them.

So, if I were a member of a faculty committee charged with recommending potential honorary degree recipients, I might express some doubts about Mr. Kushner, despite his obvious credentials: two Drama Desk awards, two Tonys, an Emmy, an Olivier, and a Pulitzer, among other accolades. Would I vote against him? Probably not. And I certainly wouldn’t vote against him if my only reason to do so were that he is too critical of a foreign government. Nor if the basis for my reticence were that I read some unflattering things about him on the personal website of… well, frankly, anyone. Nor if I were, say, a trustee, and my function in the process was to issue a pro forma acceptance of the committee’s recommendation unless a). there was a thorough investigation of the allegations against a proposed honoree, and b). those charges were found both credible and relevant.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be writing this unless someone—in this case the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York—did something remarkably stupid. According to Patrick Healy of the New York Times, trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld “objected to John Jay College’s submission of Mr. Kushner for an honorary degree. Mr. Wiesenfeld described viewpoints and comments, which he ascribed to Mr. Kushner, that he had found on the Web site of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist and critic of Israel.” Be it noted: Wiesenfeld, a presumed guardian of the standards of a highly respected university seems to have formed an opinion of an internationally famous writer based solely on material found on one personal website, run by someone who truly is anti-Israel and appears to be scrambling to find something akin to support from high-profile personalities, regardless of how far out of context he must place their remarks to get his desired effect. Suddenly, my students who think Wikipedia is a legitimate source don’t look so bad by comparison.

Anyway, Finkelstein reported, in late April and again in early May, 2006, on the (unsuccessful) attempt of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) to block Mr. Kushner from receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University, unquestionably the nation’s most prominent Jewish institution of higher learning.

The ZOA’s allegations include a number of statements attributed to Mr. Kushner, the overwhelming majority of which fall into one of two categories: a). the kind of single-sentence (or less) snippet that screams that it’s being taken out of context, (e.g., describing “American Jews who support Israel as ‘repulsive’”… gee, you think he might have been referring to American Jews who support Israel uncritically?), and b). statements which are utterly innocuous except to a true believer (“Israel is a foreign country. I am no more represented by Israel than I am by Italy,” a comment whose inclusion on the ZOA’s enumeration of the allegedly outrageous suggests that they believe that American Jews ought inherently to owe allegiance to Israel). [Note: the link on Mr. Finkelstein’s page to the ZOA’s statement no longer works, and it is difficult to determine when he is and is not citing their document directly. It may be that it was Finkelstein, not the ZOA, provided that quotation. But since apparently Mr. Wiesenfeld got his information from Finkelstein’s page rather than from the ZOA, the point becomes moot.]

Other alleged atrocities committed by Mr. Kushner include writing a terrible screenplay to “Munich.” Well, I gotta give them that one; it was an awful film (more attributable to heavy-handed directing Steven Spielberg and a downright awful performance by Eric Bana in the lead than to Kushner, but still…). But, really? Criticizing a movie because some guy from Mossad doesn’t think it’s accurate? Wow.

It is certainly true that the ZOA doesn’t like Mr. Kushner very much: they’re about the only folks out there who don’t think the CUNY trustees made an enormous mistake. ZOA president Morton A. Klein endorsed their action, claiming that the playwright “drips vitriol about [Israel] and its supporters” and sniffing that Israel “is the only country in the Middle East in which he would be free to live openly as a homosexual.” The statement is, in other words, utterly predictable, up to and including a signal that the real problem with Mr. Kushner has more to do with his sexual orientation than with his views on Middle Eastern politics.

Mr. Kushner, in turn, gets more than a little testy, accusing Wiesenfeld of slander, and launching into an extended exegesis of his real political positions, which “do not resemble Mr. Wiesenfeld’s account.” He goes on to articulate what strikes me as a reasonable and nuanced position—the argument of a grown-up, in other words. I don’t agree with everything Mr. Kushner says. And it is conceivable that Wiesenfeld’s characterization of Kushner’s ideology is more accurate than the latter would like to let on… which brings us to the crux of this discussion:


It doesn’t matter. Or, rather, it shouldn’t. Even if Mr. Kushner were as anti-Israel as Mr. Wiesenfeld claims, that’s irrelevant to whether he ought to get an honorary degree or not. A university, especially a public one, ought to be a site for intellectual pluralism, and there is nothing in Kushner’s statements, even when intentionally taken out of context, that moves him into an ideological fringe. It’s OK to disagree about stuff. Really. Moreover, the function of the trustees isn’t to micromanage university affairs, certainly not at a point in time when an honor has to be rescinded rather than simply not awarded. Are we really going to determine who is and who is not to receive honorary degrees based on the political agenda of a single egomaniacal fatcat?

Because it’s Wiesenfeld’s extremism, not Kushner’s, that’s at play here. He has the absolute right, as an individual, to use his wealth and power to support the ZOA, the state of Israel, and whomever else he likes. But as a trustee of a public university, his obligation is to act in the best interests of the school, not to withhold honors from dramatists who aren’t Jewish enough.

I’ve been following the excellent coverage of George Hunka on this story—both his initial piece and his follow-up. He makes the excellent point that:
It is not a case of censorship or suppression…. It is not a litmus test for the correct view of Israeli-Palestinian relations, or the influence of a specifically pro-Israel bent in some New York institutions (though many will think that it is, missing the forest for the trees). Nor is it an attempt to render Kushner, his work and opinions invisible…. It is, however, indicative of the degree to which wealthy individuals placed in positions of power in higher learning are able to direct the course of an educational institution’s internal academic affairs.
Hunka links to articles suggesting that this isn’t the first time Wiesenfeld has insinuated himself into CUNY’s internal affairs. That doesn’t make him unique, of course. This is a problem we will face as long as universities seek trustees (regents, councilors, whatever) whose principal attribute is wealth. (Ever notice how seldom such people actually know anything about education?) Wealth begets arrogance, and arrogance begets stupidity. Not always, of course, perhaps not even usually, but too often.

The reaction to the CUNY trustees’ failure to, well, hold the university in trust has been swift and significant. There’s a Facebook page and a petition site. At least three previous honorary degree recipients, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ellen Schrecker, and Michael Cunningham, have renounced their own awards in the wake of Kushner’s exclusion. Ben Brantley of the New York Times describes the “extraordinary, active empathy that pervades every one of [Kushner’s] plays,” and professes himself “deeply saddened” by the board’s decision. A scathing New York Times editorial by Peter Catapano invokes CUNY’s less than savory historical record with respect to free speech, and calls attention to former New York mayor Ed Koch’s “irate missive”:
I can’t think of a dumber academic action. What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supporter of that nation. What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would make as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree.

Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them. I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.
In other words, the CUNY trustees generated their own personal tempest by being remarkably bone-headed. Every one of them should be embarrassed, even those who voted for Mr. Kushner but, apparently more concerned with getting out of their meeting on time than with fulfilling their obligations, said nothing to counter Mr. Wiesenfeld’s tirade, and didn’t even bother to delay their vote until his allegations could be considered critically. No, 17 out of 17 CUNY trustees should be ashamed. As Stephen M. Walt aptly writes,
in this case the CUNY board blew it big-time, both because Weisenfeld's accusations were off-base but also because they would not have been grounds for denying Kushner an honorary degree even if they had been true. And meekly caving as they did is contrary to the principles of intellectual freedom that universities are supposed to defend. The end result is that this incident will get a lot more attention than awarding the degree would have garnered (Kushner already has several), and the board's shameful lack of vertebrae has been publicly exposed.
Apparently, now, there is some cause to hope the worst of the damage might be mitigated if not averted. The firestorm of criticism this incident has generated has apparently had an effect. The New York Times’s Winnie Hu reports that Benno C. Schmidt Jr., chairman of the CUNY board, is now getting cold feet. Whether he believes his own rhetoric or not (it’s hard to tell with cowards), Schmidt is now talking about “a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy”; he has called a meeting on Monday of the board’s executive committee, which can reconsider board decisions “detrimental to the university.” It is widely assumed that Mr. Kushner will indeed be offered an honorary degree. Mr. Kushner, meanwhile, also seems to be reconsidering his own petulant response (not wanting the honor even if the board changed its mind). One suspects that on June 3, John Jay’s graduation day, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Kushner will be joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.”

So nothing will have changed. Nothing, that is, but adding to growing perception that university boards of trustees are populated largely by intellectually and ethically suspect bullies and cowards. Nothing but inflicting lasting damage on one of the nation’s premiere institutions of higher education. Nothing but engendering further suspicion that American universities are centers of intolerance rather than debate. Nothing but fostering a nagging doubt whether decisions made by the rich and powerful have any grounding whatsoever in evidence or ethics. Alas, I fear that all those nothings add up to a something.


Jack Marshall said...

I somehow missed this story, Rick, and I'm kind of glad I did, if for no other reason than I couldn't have possibly written anything as dead on the money about at as your post. For one thing, you nailed Kushner, a truly pompous self-promoter who has mastered the art of significant/clever speech without actually having anything interesting to say. "Angels" is a grand swing from the heels at a time when epic plays are not even being attempted; he picked the right topic; it was deservedly successful, though a classic it isn't. Still, he's a serious artist with some chops, deserving of an honorary degree from Brandeis or anywhere else. Indeed: what does his opinion of Israel have to do with the price of beans? The man's an artist---most artists' political opinions, if held against them, would result in the end of culture as we know it.

manjushri924 said...

Thanks, Jack.