Totems in America

Peter Wood

Tony Kushner’s play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is currently in performance at New York’s Public Theater. Kushner is an acclaimed playwright, best known for Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. Along the way he has received, according to The New York Times, 15 honorary degrees.  

The total would have been 16 except that early last week, the trustees of City University of New York failed to summon the requisite number of votes to approve a proposal from John Jay College to award Kushner another honorary degree. The board acted after one trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, spoke at the meeting for four minutes against the motion. Wiesenfeld’s opposition was not based on objections to Kushner’s plays. He was, rather, concerned about Kushner’s record as a harsh critic of the state of Israel. Kushner has written, for example, 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.” Kushner has accused Israel of “a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.”

The immediate aftermath of the CUNY board’s decision included three articles in The New York Times, an account in The Jewish Week, an essay by KC Johnson on Minding the Campus, and an effort led by the CUNY Faculty Senate to force “immediate dismissal or resignation” of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. The board is meeting again on Monday, May 9, to reconsider its decision on awarding Kushner an honorary degree.

What should we make of all this? Kushner’s views on Israel were well-known and highly controversial before Mr. Wiesenfeld’s short speech drawing attention to them. When the faculty of John Jay College recommended Kushner for an honorary degree, they did so presumably in full knowledge of his record, including an episode in 2006 when pro-Israel groups unsuccessfully tried to persuade Brandeis University not to award him an honorary degree.

Kushner’s views on Israel, far from being a strike against him in garnering honorary degrees, appear to have worked mostly as a condiment. Honoring him at commencement is a kind of PC trifecta: a prominent gay playwright; a writer who embodies a general disdain for traditional American values; and someone who reviles Israel—or who at least appears to, since Kushner now says he is “proudly identified as a Jew” and maintains “a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel.”

Kushner has responded to the CUNY board decision with indignation that borders closely on delight. According to the Times, he demanded an apology from the board “for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated so shabbily.” He also told the Times that he has received an outpouring of support that is “completely overwhelming.”

It is not clear to me that a university board’s decision not to award someone an honorary degree meets the definition of shabby treatment. Honorary degrees are just that: honorary. No one earns such a degree or receives it by right. The decision to award them is clearly at the discretion of boards of trustees. What has astonished the campus left in this case is that a member of a board of trustees actually took it upon himself to engage in some of that “critical thinking” that American higher education promotes as the great goal of colleges and universities. The critical thought that Mr. Wiesenfeld injected into the discussion is that maybe it is not such a good idea for CUNY to rubberstamp a proposal that embodies the increasingly fashionable academic bias against Israel.

Maybe that is a debatable point. Maybe CUNY should be engaged in further buffing the resume of someone who is an outspoken critic of Israel. Nothing that Mr. Wiesenfeld did or said last week impeded such a debate. What he did say, however, persuaded the trustees by a vote of 11 to 1 to table the proposed degree. That sounds to me like “fairness and decency” in action. The board remains free to revisit its decision; Mr. Kushner’s reputation and career were not harmed, and the CUNY board experienced a welcome demonstration of a trustee who took his position seriously.

I do see thuggishness in this train of events: not against Kushner, but against his critic. A campaign is underway to smear Mr. Wiesenfeld and force him from office, perhaps by the intervention of the mayor of New York City or the governor of New York State. TheNew York Times weighed in with its own article quoting Wiesenfeld rejecting a reporter’s question on the grounds that it set up a “moral equivalence” between Palestinians and Israelis. The Times quotes Wiesenfeld as saying, “People who worship death for their children are not human.”  The Times of course never quite manages to quote even more provocative statements by Mr. Kushner.

We are faced here with a profusion of double standards. These days, honorary degrees are unfortunately mainly exercises in appealing to the vanity of celebrities. Denying one to a celebrity who already has more than a dozen may wound his vanity—but it is surely just a scratch, no matter how much Mr. Kushner wails.  On the other hand, colleges and universities award honorary degrees when they are not just looking for crowd-pleasers, to people whose lives and actions are exemplary and who warrant emulation.  In that sense, boards of trustees would do well to follow Mr. Wiesenfeld’s lead. They should be asking more questions about the people routinely sent up for their approval.  They would find that Mr. Kushner is far from the only one picked more as a totem of political correctness than for his actual accomplishments.

This article originally appeared on May 9, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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