Saturday, May 7, 2011

Opportunity in the Kushner Controversy: CUNY Should End Honorary Degrees

Currently, there is a controversy concerning City University of New York (CUNY) Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's objections to John Jay College's proposal to grant an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. The Guardian's New York correspondent Paul Harris reports that Kushner, author of Angels in America,  was turned down by CUNY's board of trustees after Wiesenfeld posed objections  because of Kushner's outspoken anti-Israel views.  The Guardian reports that Barbara Ehrenreich has issued a public statement that she is renouncing her 2004 honorary degree. Kushner wrote an open letter to the board, copied below (h/t Sharad Karkhanis).

I do not see the board of trustees' decision to reject or accept Kushner as a freedom of speech issue. First, speech is not free in universities. Conservative scholars have been excluded from academic posts.  Second, Kushner is not an academic, has no relationship to CUNY, and CUNY has no obligation to grant him a degree. Third, neither Kushner nor the faculty committee that proposed Kushner have had their"freedom of thought" impeded, as CUNY's comically far-left union president Barbara Bowen claims. Granting an honorary degree involves an approval process that includes the board of trustees, and the board rejected Kushner. It is not clear, as CUNY Board Chairman Benno Schmidt has argued, that honorary degrees are granted solely because of an author's work. Unlike tenure and promotion criteria, there is no history of AAUP policy statements and standards concerning honorary degrees.  Much as when, in 1977 and 1978, the Jews of Skokie, Illlinois objected to the Nazis' marching in front of their homes, so might some Jews object to Kushner's degree.  One can argue for or against granting such a degree.  In any case, CUNY has hardly been balanced in granting honorary degrees to conservatives; to claim at this late hour that there is an some kind of objective  standard involved is far fetched.

However, on realpolitik grounds, and as a friend, I urge Wiesenfeld to reconsider his stand because the incident has generated negative publicity for CUNY.

On the other hand, there is positive fallout from the incident. I am delighted that Barbara Ehrenreich has returned her honorary degree.  When CUNY granted it to her 2004 I was stunned that CUNY had chosen to honor a low quality ideologue like her.  I thought then that CUNY might reconsider its granting honorary degrees outside the hard sciences and technology.

The quality of American social sciences, arts and letters have sunk to such a degree that honorary degrees will inevitably honor mediocrity, as they do in the case of Tony Kushner. Kushner's Angels in America fails a basic test of literary quality: it is a trite bore.

The truth of the matter is that great writers,  like Dickinson and Blake, are often ignored in their own era. It is pointless to give honorary degrees to writers who have yet to stand the test of time.  In his Groats-worth of Wit, Robert Greene, who represented the literary establishment, attacked Shakespeare early on as a Johannes factotum, a dilettante.

Starting with Socrates,  there is a long tradition of the greatest minds having been rejected by the political establishment, including university administrations. David Hume's application for a chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh was turned down in 1744. Elton Mayo, the founder of the human relations school of management and experimental social psychology, had an uneasy relationship with the faculty at the University of Adelaide, which caused him to move to the United States, where he was unemployed for an extended period.

CUNY's history of granting honorary degrees is one of  ideological skewness toward the left. Its honorary degree program is an affirmative action plan for second tier, left wing ideologues, the 21st century's equivalents of Robert Greene. I doubt that Roger Kimball,  David Horowitz, or Theodore Dalrymple would be considered. Universities are vain to presume that they are capable of awarding honorary degrees fairly. 

Tony Kushner writes:

Tony Kushner
c/o Heat & Light Co., Inc.
119 West 72nd Street #193
New York, NY 10023
The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York
535 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10075

cc: President Jeremy Travis
The faculty and students of John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 Tenth Avenue New York, NY, 10019
May 4, 2011

To Chairperson Benno Schmidt and the Board of Trustees:

At the May 2 public meeting of the CUNY Board of Trustees, which was
broadcast on CUNY television and radio, Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a
grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of
three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention
of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and
the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr.
Weisenfeld strongly disagrees. As far as I’m able to conclude from the podcast of this
meeting, Mr. Weisenfeld spoke for about four minutes, the first half of which was a
devoted to a recounting of the politics of former President of Ireland and UN Human
Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson that was as false as his description of mine.
Ms. Robinson, however, was not on public trial; I was, apparently, and at the
conclusion of Mr. Weisenfeld’s vicious attack on me, eight members voted to approve all
the honorary degree candidates, including me, and four voted to oppose the slate if my
name remained on it. Lacking the requisite nine votes to approve the entire slate, the
Board, in what sounds on the podcast like a scramble to dispense with the whole
business, tabled my nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. Not a
word was spoken in my defense.

I wasn’t told in advance that my willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from
John Jay would require my presence at a meeting to defend myself. As far as I know, no
one who might have spoken on my behalf was notified in advance. I’m not a difficult
person to find, nor am I lacking in articulate colleagues and friends who would have
responded. For all his posturing as a street-tough scrapper for causes he believes in, Mr.
Weisenfeld, like most bullies, prefers an unfair fight.

But far more dismaying than Mr. Weisenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other
eleven board members. Did any of you feel that your responsibilities as trustees of an
august institution of higher learning included even briefly discussing the appropriateness
of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political
opinions of someone with whom he disagrees? Did none of you feel any responsibility
towards me, whose name was before you, and hence available as a target for Mr.
Weisenfeld’s slander, entirely because I’d been nominated for an honor by the faculty
and administration of one of your colleges? I can’t adequately describe my dismay at the
fact that none of you felt stirred enough by ordinary fairness to demand of one of your
members that, if he was going to mount a vicious attack, he ought to adhere to standards
higher than those of internet gossip. Mr. Weisenfeld declared to you that, rather than turn
to “pro-Israel” websites, he’d gleaned his insights into my politics from the website of
Norman Finkelstein. I find it appalling that he failed to consider a third option:
familiarizing himself with any of the work I’ve done, my plays, screenplays, essays and
speeches, for which, I assume, the faculty and administration of John Jay nominated me
for an honor.

It would have taken very little effort to learn that my politics regarding the state of
Israel do not resemble Mr. Weisenfeld’s account. I don’t intend to mount a full defense of
myself or my opinions in this letter, an effort on my part which an honorary degree ought
not to require. But I can’t allow myself to be publicly defamed without responding:

- My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are
connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that
democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation, and that the
solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist
democracy and in legal instruments like the 14th Amendment; these solutions are,
like all solutions, imperfect, but they seem to me more rational, and have had a far
better record of success in terms of minorities being protected from majoritarian
tyranny, than have national or tribal solutions. I am very proud of being Jewish,
and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good
of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is
injurious to the life of the Jewish people. My opinion about the wisdom of the
creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong
statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue
to do so, something Mr. Weisenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.

- I believe 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, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of
Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political
opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Weisenfeld’s than with mine; Mr.
Morris differs from Mr. Weisenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a
scholar’s rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the

- I won’t enter into arguments about Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people
since 1948, about the security fence or the conduct of the IDF, except to say that
my feelings and opinions – my outrage, my grief, my terror, my moments of
despair - regarding the ongoing horror in the middle east, the brunt of which has
been born by the Palestinian people, but which has also cost Israelis dearly and
which endangers their existence, are shared by many Jews, in Israel, in the US
and around the world. My despair is kept in check by my ongoing belief in and
commitment to a negotiated conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

- I have never supported a boycott of the state of Israel. I don’t believe it will
accomplish anything positive in terms of resolving the crisis. I believe that the
call for a boycott is predicated on an equation of this crisis with other situations,
contemporary and historical, that is fundamentally false, the consequence of a
failure of political understanding of a full and compassionate engagement with
Jewish history and Jewish existence.

- I am on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and have remained there
even though I disagree with the organization about a number of issues, including
the boycott. I remain affiliated because the women and men of JVP are
courageous, committed people who work very hard serving the interests of peace
and justice and the Jewish people, and I’m honored by my association with them.
I have a capacity Mr. Weisenfeld lacks, namely the ability to tolerate and even
value disagreement. Furthermore, resigning from the advisory board of JVP, or
any organization, to escape the noisy censure of likes of Mr. Weisenfeld is
repellent to me.

- Mr. Weisenfeld attempts to cast me as a marginal extremist, a familiar tactic on
this particular issue. It’s a matter of public record that this is not the case. I’m coeditor
of a volume of essays on the crisis in the middle east, which includes
among its 58 contributing authors many rabbis, two US Poet Laureates and two
recipients of the Jerusalem Prize. I’ve had a long and happy affiliation with such
organizations as the 92nd Street Y, The Jewish Museum and the Upper West Side
JCC. My work has been recognized by such groups as The National Foundation
for Jewish Culture, The Shofar Center, The Central Synagogue and Brandeis
University (one of fifteen honorary degrees I’ve received). I state this not to
present credentials, but because I refuse to allow Mr. Weisenfeld or any other
self-appointed spokesman/guardian to diminish the depth or meaningfulness of
my connection to the Jewish community.

I accepted the kind offer of a degree from John Jay College not because I need
another award, but because I was impressed with the students and teachers there – as I
have always been impressed with CUNY teachers and students - and I wanted to
participate in celebrating their accomplishment. I did not expect to be publicly defamed
as a result, and I believe I am owed an apology for the careless way in which my name
and reputation were handled at your meeting.

I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write
honestly about what I believe to be true. I am interested in history and politics, and long
ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas
would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It’s been my experience
that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason,
honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than
demagoguery, will carry the day.

Tony Kushner

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, You're a very skilled blogger. I've joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your magnificent post. Also, I've shared your website in my social networks!