When the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York voted not to give an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner, they violated the prime directive of Gotham’s cultural elites: Thou shalt not hold any liberal icon accountable for anything they do. The penalty for violating this unwritten but clearly inviolable rule is the ultimate disgrace: multiple articles in the New York Times on the same day, denouncing your decision.
On page A23 of the today’s Times, there’s a 1,000-word article headlined “Outrage on CUNY Vote to Shelve Playwright’s Award.” Various and sundry New York figures are allowed to vent their anger at the “disrespect” shown to Kushner. Among them were members of the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Law (the CUNY affiliate that was to honor Kushner), a former honoree who teaches at Yeshiva University, and former mayor Ed Koch, who is also to get an honorary degree from CUNY this year. The only person quoted who agreed with Kushner’s critic on the CUNY board was the man himself: financier Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld.
Koch’s point of view is interesting because he is a stalwart friend of Israel. But the former mayor, who seems to spend most of his time being honored around town (he had the chutzpah to think there was nothing inappropriate about changing the name of the venerable Queensboro Bridge to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge), thinks Wiesenfeld abused his power and should resign from the CUNY board. But why exactly is a trustee speaking up against honoring a man who is a foe of Israel an abuse of power? As Wiesenfeld admitted in the article, he didn’t think other board members would listen. That they did so testifies to Wiesenfeld’s passion, the strength of his arguments, and the justice of his case.
A veteran of both politics and the New York culture wars, Koch knows that treating a liberal cultural icon as anything but an object of veneration is against the rules, especially if it might endanger his own chances of accumulating more honors. “What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel?” Koch asked the Times. “What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state?”
Well, the answer Mr. Mayor is that: (a) Support for the existence of the only Jewish state in the world, which also happens to be the Middle East’s only genuine democracy, is not the moral equivalent of opposing it. And (b) given the leftist domination of academia, there is little doubt that being a supporter of Israel is a handicap not only in gaining meaningless trinkets like honorary degrees but in the ability of pro-Israel faculty to gain tenure. Indeed, there is hardly a Middle East Studies program in the country that is not dominated by Israel-haters. That is a genuine outrage, and the willingness of the CUNY board to refuse to honor someone who sympathizes with the Israel-haters is a step (albeit a tiny one) toward correcting this imbalance.
Besides, there is no constitutional right to an honorary degree. The fact that the CUNY board doesn’t much like Tony Kushner is more than ample reason to reject him—just as any governing board of any university may choose not to honor anyone.
But the one-sided piece on A23 was just part of the Times’s assault on Wiesenfeld. Two pages earlier—on A21—is a column by Jim Dwyer centered on an interview with the CUNY trustee. Dwyer treats Wiesenfeld’s views as incomprehensible, but to his credit, Wiesenfeld himself clearly declined to accept the intended premise of Dwyer’s piece. Rather than meekly accept the idea that, as Dwyer put it, he had done “damage” by a one-sided presentation at the board meeting, Wiesenfeld said Dwyer didn’t know what he was talking about. Since talking back to the Times is no more allowed than dissing Kushner, however, 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.
When Wiesenfeld attempted to explain to Dwyer that there is no moral equivalence between Israel and those who wish to destroy it, he was portrayed as saying that Palestinians weren’t human—obviously was not what he was saying. When Wiesenfeld recalled his unsuccessful effort to prevent a similar honor from being given to former Irish President and United Nations apparatchik Mary Robinson, who has a long history of opposition to Israel and playing ball with those who promote anti-Semitism, Dwyer selectively quoted Robinson to make it appear as if she was a friend of Israel, which she is not.
After that, Dwyer attempted to corner Wiesenfeld by citing the fact that at one point in the 1990s, when he worked for former New York governor George Pataki, he had been falsely accused of involvement in a scheme to sell paroles. Didn’t Wiesenfeld think this was what he was doing to Kushner, Dwyer asked? Wiesenfeld rightly dismissed this comparison as absurd. Wiesenfeld was innocent of the crime of which he was accused. Despite the fact that he has many fans who are angry about the criticisms of his published record, Kushner has a paper trail a mile long detailing his hostility to Israel.
The tributes to Kushner did not end there. His “long awaited” new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, was adoringly reviewed in today’s Times on the front page of the Arts section. Apparently about the coming together of the family of an aging socialist, the new play isn’t relevant to the CUNY controversy, but drama critic Ben Brantley still felt compelled to weigh in on Kushner’s Jewish identity and “empathy” in a separate tribute published this morning on the Times website. Its conceit is that Kushner, whose relentless left-wing politics dominates much of his work, is a “morally righteous” writer who, in his dramatic writing, is nonetheless scrupulously fair to all points of view—a supposed contrast to the unfair and unrighteous Wiesenfeld.
A New York arts world that considers a hard-core leftist theatrical polemicist like Tony Kushner to be “compassionate” and fair-minded must find it hard to accept the fact that there are people in the world who deem his anti-Zionism so hard to stomach they refuse to remain silent when asked to honor him. The belief that Kushner is a “writer of rare intellectual scope” with an “extraordinary, active empathy that pervades every one of his plays” is clearly the dominant viewpoint among the city’s chattering classes, and it is hardly surprising that dissenters like Wiesenfeld will be treated harshly as a consequence. The drumbeat of incitement against Wiesenfeld, in which Kushner is falsely portrayed as a victim, will accelerate in the days to come. By the time this nonsense is played out, Kushner may be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize.
That is the way the cultural elites play hardball. Wiesenfeld must understand that he will not be forgiven for his act of lese majeste against a leading cultural liberal. But in standing up against a man whose opposition to Israel has always brought him honor rather than the shame it deserved, Wiesenfeld has restored a little bit of balance to New York’s cockeyed world of high culture.