Tony Kushner’s latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Guide to the Scriptures opened this month in New York to critical acclaim. But praise for Kushner, whom many consider the greatest living American playwright, was drowned out by outrage at the CUNY Board of Trustees’ decision to deny him an honorary degree from John Jay College. On May 2, the board met to rubberstamp the entire group of notables slated to receive honorary degrees from the various CUNY campuses. Before the vote was taken, trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—no stranger to controversy—voiced his objection to Kushner’s nomination based on what he considered the playwright’s unacceptable political views as regards Israel. The Board of Trustees ultimately removed Kushner’s name from consideration.
In response, thousands of students, faculty, and others from around the country mounted a campaign in Kushner’s defense. The angry chorus of voices demanding that Kushner be restored to the list of honored nominees ultimately forced the CUNY’s hand. Benno Schmidt, the chairman of the board, called an emergency meeting for May 9, where the executive committee of trustees voted unanimously to overturn their previous decision and grant Kushner the award. The GC Advocate spoke with Kushner just hours after the emergency meeting to discuss the momentous reversal, the politics of free thought and expression in higher education, and the playwright’s close connections to the CUNY community.
To begin with, can you give us a sense of your immediate reaction to today’s events? Were you happy with the Board of Trustees’ decision to reverse their earlier vote, and grant you the honorary degree from John Jay?
Yes, absolutely. I am happy they reversed the decision that they made last week. I recognize it was exclusively the result of the enormous protests mounted by the faculty and students of CUNY and of people all over, and I am very, very grateful to everyone who protested. I realize that it has a lot to do with things that are bigger than me. But I think the protests held the board to account, and really made them change their decision and I think that it is appropriate that they did that.
You originally said that you wouldn’t accept the degree even if the board reversed course. Is this still true? And if so, do you plan on speaking at the commencement ceremony?
I‘ve been contacted by several people on the faculty of John Jay, the president of John Jay and Karen Kaplowitz, president of the faculty senate, who have all asked me to accept if I am offered the degree, or I guess I should say accept for the second time, since I had already accepted the first time, and I intend to do that, yes. I am really looking forward to being at the commencement ceremony on June 3, and celebrating everyone who is graduating. My understanding is that we are supposed to deliver a speech at commencement. Certainly Mr. Wiesenfeld was under this impression, and as we know he’s always accurate, so I am assuming that I will.
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made very clear today that he has no intention whatsoever of resigning his seat on the Board of Trustees. What do you think about this? Would you like to see him removed?
My feeling is that his behavior both during that meeting and in the many interviews he has given since represents a misuse of his position as a trustee of the City University of New York. Whether or not a level of misuse that mandates his stepping down or being removed from the board of trustees, the mechanics of removal is not really for me to say. That’s a decision for the CUNY community to make. I don’t believe his behavior is in any way appropriate and actually I think it had very little to do with any legitimate business of CUNY and had only to do with his own personal and political agenda. I don’t think that’s what a trustee should be about. I am eager to see what happens, and I guess now that I am an honorary graduate of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice I am part of that community, and will be able to participate in those discussions.
Stanley Fish argued in the New York Times this week that the politics of honorary degree candidates should be considered by boards of trustees in deciding whether to grant the awards. Do you agree?
That’s a really complicated question. Do I think that any political opinion is acceptable? No. I believe that there is such a thing as hate speech, I believe that there is a kind of articulation of ideas that can lead to appalling crimes. I think that we have to be very careful in parsing that kind of speech because it a very complicated business. In other instances it is sort of clear. I am not an absolutist in this regard. But I believe that in the university, freedom of thought and expression is paramount and that the trustees and the administrations, the faculties, and the students themselves at the different colleges should all be vigorous in preventing any kind of atmosphere that seems to preclude by a threat the expression of the free exchange of ideas.
I didn’t read Mr. Fish’s column. But when someone is smeared the way I was by Mr. Wiesenfeld, I do know that the board has certain responsibilities. My name was in that room entirely because I had been selected as an honorary degree candidate. I know that Fish says it’s the right of the board to consider any person’s politics in voting on honorary degree candidacies. So there is that question. But the second question has to do with that word, “consider.” I would have had a lot less trouble with what happened to me had anyone at the board said, “Wait a minute, did you bring supporting evidence? If you are going to do this, why didn’t you print out a complete interview this guy has given, or an essay that he has written that shows us what a terrible person he is? Why are you coming here with a bunch of scattered quotes.” I think then that it would have been a whole other issue, and it would have reflected a much better light on the board if someone had just said, “I don’t think this is the appropriate way to level an accusation of this kind,” if they had said “Mr. Wiesenfeld, if you’re not coming better prepared, you can’t really be serious.” In fact, I think he wasn’t. If you listen to the podcast of the original meeting, he doesn’t seem to have intended to do anything more than register a complaint.
Your new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures opened in the midst of all this controversy surrounding the trustees’ original decision to deny you an honorary degree. I’m wondering, is it easier in today’s America to be a socialist than it is to be a critic of Israel? If so, why do you think this is?
Well, I would not characterize myself as a critic of Israel. That isn’t my job. I don’t feel like I am any more critical of the state of Israel than I am of many other countries including my own. I think every responsible adult has a responsibility to hold to account their governments to pay attention to what’s going on. I think what’s happened here is an interesting thing. The expectation of Mr. Wiesenfeld is that when he says “This guy is anti-Israel” that the entire world will rear up in horror and run in the other direction. And that didn’t happen this time, because people who really care about Israel, and I include myself in that number, realize it is enormously important now to start to build a policy towards a just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on reality, as to what has actually happened, based on history and not on right-wing fantasy. That’s the hope for that region, and really for the world.
It’s always been tough about this primarily because of the long and horrendous history of oppression and suffering of the Jewish people. As a result, I think we have very good reason to be anxious about public debate about Israel, and yet that anxiety, no matter how understandable or grounded in history as it is, shouldn’t stand in the way of saying out loud the things we believe are true.
Finally, can you talk about your evolving feelings concerning CUNY? Has your view on the university changed through all this?
Well, it’s only gotten better, and it was already incredibly high to begin with, which is why I agreed to accept the degree in the first place. I gave a speech last year at John Jay and I was just dazzled by the students. I’ve talked to students at Queens College, at the Graduate Center, at City College. I have aunts and uncles that went to City College in the 1930s. I have always believed that this is an incredible institution of higher learning and a paradigm for what a public, urban university ought to be. The way the students and faculty responded to this whole thing has been incredibly impressive, incredibly courageous and vigorous, and I think this speaks beautifully of the university. And so, I am really proud of the affiliation.