The Playgoer: CUNY Will Reconsider

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Friday, May 06, 2011

CUNY Will Reconsider

From University Board Chairman Benno Schmidt today:

“I believe the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees needs to reconsider the Board’s decision to table the motion to approve the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.  I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken.  But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory.

“Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name.  If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own.  But it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here.  The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater.  Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored.  Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle.  Would we want it thought that we approve of the politics of everyone who receives a CUNY honorary degree?  Certainly I have moved the approval of honorary degrees for persons with whose opinions I differ.

“In addition, I am concerned about the procedural unfairness of our action.  The objection arose at the eleventh hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal.  Accordingly, the Chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation. I will ask the Secretary of the Board to convene an Executive Committee meeting to reconsider this matter.”
All well and good. And proof once again that the only effective response to unfair pressure is...counter-pressure!

But do note that phrase "not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored." So, if Mr Wiesenfeld doesn't like Kushner's screenplay for the film Munich, for example, canceling the award is ok? Dangerous precedent...

(I'll put aside for the moment Schmidt's statement of solidarity with Wiesenfeld's extreme rightist views. Perhaps he's just trying to quell the firestorm on both sides.)

I maintain, though, that the key issue here is not free speech in the abstract (important thought that is) but the utter and deliberate distortion of Kushner's actual views.  Wiesenfeld characterized him in terms usually reserved for Holocaust deniers. So I agree with Kushner that someone owes him a direct apology (or at least retraction) for putting slanderous statements about him in the public record.

Let's save the "Israel-haters have free speech rights, too" for another time--when such a person needs defending. Here Kushner's own respectful record of nuanced dissent from Israeli-Likud military policy is defensible enough for to justify his not being academically blacklisted.


Alisa said...

But the whole point of the "utter and deliberate distortion" of Kushner's views is to put him/his supporters on the defensive and in the posture of saying, "no, no, those aren't really his views," and thus participating in the act of drawing a line at "unacceptable" utterance -- so while the record has to be corrected, it must be done very carefully. It does no good --to Tony or any of us -- to say, for instance, "oh, no, Tony would never support boycott" in such a way as to place debate about boycott beyond the pale of permissible discourse. If we allow the framing question of this debate to be, is Tony Kushner kosher enough, we have already lost. (This is an old ploy. See: NEA4. "No, Holly Hughes didn't really do THAT on stage...") We must reframe the story with a different question: How can one ideologue be allowed to dictate the boundaries of the discourse? (not to mention the question of why university boards of trustees are filled with people who are there only because they are rich.)

Playgoer said...

Points taken, Alisa. Indeed, in denying a charge of extremism one has to be careful not to unwittingly validate the assumption that said statements are extreme or anathema in the first place.

I guess I just can't get around the fact of how willfully Kushner's views were distorted in this case. And I do think the specifics of any censored work of art or artist matters. I just hate it when a work is mischaracterized and then the lie gets reported as the truth. Like: "Corpus Christi is a play about Jesus of Nazareth sodomizing his disciples." No, it isn't. "Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary painting smears shit across the face of a catholic icon." No, it doesn't.

Now I am willing to defend the right of someone to deface a catholic icon or to write a gay-porn version of Passion of the Christ... But I'll wait till that happens.

It's just so corrosive for clueless media and politicians to endlessly debate a work of art that doesn't exist. To return to Corpus Cristi--Bill Donohue called it as bad as if someone produced a play called "Shylock and Sambo." And then everyone debated the right to stage "Shylock and Sambo"--even thought that had NOTHING to do with Corpus Christi.

So what does this have to do with Kushner? Maybe I'm wandering off, ok. But I guess what I'm saying is I'd rather defend Kushner's ACTUAL views in this case since that would win the argument in this case. Most sensible people (even most Jews) would not find his Israel views offensive. I don't think this is the occasion to have the "Boycott" debate because that's a much harder debate to win. A debate worth having, yes, and one we need to fight for having the right to have. But, thankfully, it's not the debate we need in order to win THIS fight.

I know that sounds really "incrementalist" of me and compromising, but I see these individual battles as that crucial now, and we can't afford to lose any of them over fabrications, when we have the facts on our side.

Alisa said...

As I said, the record must be corrected -- no argument there. But one has to be careful how one does it so as not to fall into a trap, which is part of the deliberate strategy of the distortions in the first place. One needs to point out the dishonesty AND assert the principle at one and the same time to avoid helping to reinforce a boundary simply by insisting that Kushner falls inside of it.

samina said...

agreed with alisa