The Elites Handle the Kushner Controversy

The controversy over Tony Kushner’s honorary degree is yet another reminder of how far from mainstream America our cultural elites are.  Support for Israel is extraordinarily high across the country (The American people sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians by 63 percent to 17 percent, according to Gallup) but that is not the case on our campuses, among the arts community or in the heavily PC mainstream media. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, thinks Kushner’s anti-Israel views “appear to have worked mostly as a condiment” in attracting honorary degrees:

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.”
A single negative remark about Muslims, perhaps one uttered long ago, would likely eliminate anyone’s chances of getting an honorary degree from most colleges. But Kushner’s incendiary rhetoric about Israel is a non-factor that brings only yawns.
Stanley Fish makes the point that nothing much is at stake here. Despite all the declaiming about freedom of speech and dangerous McCarthyism, this is just an arbitrary honor by the criminal justice division (John Jay College) of The City University of New York. And as Fish says, in trustee discussions of honorary degrees, it is perfectly normal to consider political opinions of the potential honoree (“I remember political and ideological objections to some candidates, and in such cases the wisdom of consensus was invoked and contested candidacies were put to one side, perhaps to be revisited in another year.”) The trustees followed all the proper procedures. They just came to a conclusion that elite opinion didn’t like, so they had to be reversed. 
Unfortunately, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the anti-Kushner trustee, has not been very articulate, but what seemed to disturb him most was a college honor for an anti-Israel celebrity at a time when anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) opinion seems to be rising on campuses around the country.
Maybe having a big mouth and some brutal opinions should not be enough to deny Kushner the award, but our elites were almost silent about the quotes cited in the flap–not even a few “Yes, buts”–as in, “yes, some of his opinions are crude and rank, but he can write,” for instance. Almost no one was ready to dissociate himself from the Kushner opinions, or even to discuss them.
The mainstream media apparently thought their primary task was to gang-tackle Wiesenfeld. The “About New York” column in the Times called him a “fixer” and strongly hinted that he had made money selling paroles. It’s hard to recall the Times working another interviewee over that way.  Wiesenfeld’s verbal stumbles were carefully detailed, including the insult to Palestinians, “People who worship death for their children are not human” (this drew the obvious “gotcha” comment from a New York Times reporter: “Did he mean the Palestinians aren’t human?”)  But the more startling Kushner insults were only hazily referred to. (Here are a few of the best: Israel is engaged in “a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.” /”The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community and Israel itself has got this disgraceful record…Israel is a creation of the U.S., bought and paid for.”/And after the Matthew  Shepard murder: “Trent Lott endorses murder, of course, his party endorses murder, his party endorses discrimination against homosexuals and in doing so, it endorses the ritual slaughter of homosexuals.”)
Wiesenfeld apparently imagined that Kushner would distance himself from a few inflammatory opinions so the award could be approved. But he read the man incorrectly. Kushner seems proud of those opinions and the elites, officially very concerned about “hate speech,” don’t mind them at all.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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