Agitprop in America

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, May 12, 2011

The tempest has subsided, and the playwright Tony Kushner will receive his honorary doctorate from the City University of New York after all. After a single trustee convinced the majority of his fellow board members to deny the award on the basis of Kushner's viciously negative pronouncements about Israel, the weight of almost the entire New York cultural apparatus was brought to bear, and in short order the board's chairman called, successfully, for the decision to be overruled. The whole uproar, brief but ferocious, was an object lesson in the present state of cultural and intellectual politics in America.

Kushner is best known for his epic morality play, Angels in America. In that sprawling seven-hour extravaganza, a gay New York Jew learns that his lover has AIDS; a closeted Republican Mormon realizes he is gay; and Roy Cohn, a prosecutor in the Rosenberg espionage trial and later chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, lies dying of AIDS and is comforted by the ghost of his nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg. From this overwrought piece of anti-American agitprop, Kushner went on to write the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film Munich, in which Israeli assassins track down the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, then redeem their (yes, their) inhuman actions by suffering breakdowns, alienation from Israel, and crushing guilt.

These pretentious, cliché-ridden, and wildly overrated successes aside, the remainder of Kushner's oeuvre consists of dramas and essays largely unproduced and unread. Declining to award him an honorary degree on these grounds alone would have been amply justified. As it happens, though, the explosion was caused by the audacity of the lone trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, whose crime lay in daring to point to Kushner's actual words about Israel.

By now those words have been widely quoted, and documenting the playwright's deep-seated animus against the Jewish state is an easy and straightforward task. More important is that Wiesenfeld was entirely within his rights to object to awarding the degree, and the board entirely within theirs to vote to withhold it.

None of this, however, figured in the reaction to the decision by the New York academic and cultural elite, captured in a thundering New York Times editorial charging that the CUNY trustees had "supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America's most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member." Even if Kushner "were a lesser artist," the Times added, "it still would have been outrageous for CUNY to deny his honorary degree for political reasons."  Bad art, in other words, is still art, and bad political art is sacrosanct—at least, as long as the politics are shared by the editors of the New York Times.   

The board's chairman, Benno Schmidt, added a Pavlovian stinker to the mix by reaching for today's all-purpose academic excuse: "Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name." Passed over by this former law professor and First Amendment scholar was the incontrovertible fact that Kushner's freedom of thought and expression was nowhere at issue and remained wholly intact, while the freedom of a dissenting trustee, and of those who had the inexcusable effrontery to agree with him, was being impugned from all sides.

Individual responses were equally knee-jerk. The historian Ellen Schrecker announced she was returning her own honorary CUNY degree, implying that the trustees had been guilty of, no less, McCarthyism. (Schrecker's worldview and entire academic career have been based on repetitious treatments of the McCarthy era and accusations that another such era is imminently upon us.) One faculty member was darkly threatening; "This is a faculty whose intelligence you should not insult." Karen Kaplowitz, the head of the faculty committee that nominated Kushner, scolded, "This is not how the academy works, and it should not be how the trustees of a great university operate." Evidently so. In the end, not only did the trustees shut up, wag their tails, and approve the degree, but moves are afoot to disbar the heretic Wiesenfeld from the CUNY board.

It was left to Stanley Fish, writing in a New York Times blog—not the actual newspaper—to eviscerate the hysteria of Schrecker et al. Pointing out the obvious, Fish noted that Kushner was not an academic and hence had no "academic freedom" to be trampled, that there was no "censorship" involved, that honorary degrees are always political in one sense or another, and that no one is automatically entitled to one.

At least three lessons may be learned from this affair. The first is that for the New York cultural elite, which may be caricatured in this case as an interlocking directorate of playwright, pundits, and professors, the presumption of impunity is absolute. Academia, in particular, has a "sacred mission," to be defined solely by the faculty and under no circumstances to be questioned. That the faculties themselves tend to be monolithic in their political and ideological orientation may help to explain their wild overreaction in the present instance and others like it. Delusions of infallibility combined with well-deserved insecurity and profound authoritarianism make for a potent brew.

Then there is the key role played by the media, and preeminently by the Times, which no longer bothers to make even a pretense of dividing news from opinion, or opinion from insult, misrepresentation, and naked advocacy. On certain subjects, anyone getting the "news" from such a source might as well be reading leaflets handed out by the crank on the street corner. Only through a constant process of reading and tacking among multiple sources can one establish even the basic facts of who said what to whom.

But by far the most important lesson is the degree to which the state of Israel has indeed become the third rail of American cultural and intellectual politics. An individual wishing to be considered respectable by the interlocking directorate and its ancillary institutions and adjuncts is permitted only an extremely narrow slice of views on the Jewish state: the spectrum ranges from, roughly, seeing the country as basically legitimate but uniquely flawed to seeing it as wholly illegitimate and irretrievable. To wander from these parameters is to court the dreaded epithet of "right-wing," and to question the playwrights and professors who hold such views, or even to decline to honor them, puts one decisively beyond the pale.

In the end, the Kushner brouhaha also shows exactly who is responsible for placing the Israel "question" at the forefront of the American agenda. The answer is not evangelical Christians, or AIPAC, or "neoconservatives." It is the academic and cultural Left, along with its bedfellows on the isolationist Right, for whom the demonization of Israel is the cause of the day. There is cause for gratitude that, outside those precincts, the Kushner affair seems to have had no resonance whatsoever. There is cause for profound anxiety that the demonization has proceeded so far and infected so many in positions of power and influence. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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