Tonight the executive board of the trustees of the City University of New York will reportedly meet and reverse a decision to table and potentially deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate from John Jay College.
The trustees last week voted to postpone a decision on granting a degree to Mr. Kushner, at the urging of one member, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, based on distortions of Kushner’s positions on Israel and on the forced removal of Palestinians during the country’s founding.
The board’s action last week is coldly reminiscent of the worst of McCarthyism, a period that the master playwright touched on with his treatment of Roy Cohn in his gigantic “Angels in America.”
During the 1950s witch-hunts, too many were silent in the face of the fear-mongering of Sen. McCarthy and his accomplice Mr. Cohn. Last week members of the CUNY board were silent in the face of the attack on Mr. Kushner.
Speaking of the silence, Kushner said in a letter to the CUNY board, “Far more dismaying than Mr. Wiesenfeld’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. Wiesenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees?”
As is well known, silence in the face of evil is tantamount to complicity with it. And indeed a larger evil is at work here: while Kusher’s support of Palestinian rights sparked this latest outrage, a larger issue burns slowly below it: a growing effort to reassert the politics of fear and intolerance and with it freedom of thought and expression both within and without the academy.
In this regard many have commented that Kushner’s statements are not the point. They are correct.
With the Republican victory last November, today’s thought police seem to have gotten a second wind.
In January G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, under direct pressure from House Republicans, took down a video exhibition entitled “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died of AIDS.
In March, after distinguished University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon published an op ed in the New York Times taking issue with Gov. Scott Walker and other state Republicans for their attacks on unions, Wisconsin Republicans demanded that the university turn over all email from him containing words such as “Walker,” Republican,” and “rally.”
More recently two labor studies professors in Missouri, Judy Ancel and Don Giljum, were victims of a video scam by right-winger Andrew Breitbart who doctored film and posted online to make it appear as if they were inciting students to violence.
While unrelated, each case has prompted broad public protests after officials initially cowered and caved in to right-wing pressure.
In the case of the CUNY board and Mr. Kushner the response has been swift, sharp and widespread, prompting an apparent about-face.
Tony Kushner has demanded an apology. He should get it. As important is meeting each and every attack on democracy and decency head on. Only a public response involving tens of millions can set back the forces of intolerance, as history has shown time and again.