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.
The New York Times Piles on Kushner’s Critic
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Hair immolation isn't a strategy.
The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.
Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.
The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.
Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”
Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?
Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.
Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.
Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.
A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.
Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.
As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.
On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.
“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.
By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.
The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.
Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.
The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.
Old obsessions die hard.
On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”
Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.
Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.
Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.
Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.