Tony Kushner's Tumult and Triumph

CUNY Honor, $100,000 Prize and Working With Spielberg, Highlights of a Busy Year

Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.
jonathan kesselman
Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.

By Dan Friedman

Published December 05, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Kushner’s grandfather was a glazier who was locked out for attempting to organize, which meant that his mother grew up in “terrible poverty in the Bronx” and Kushner himself grew up with an understanding of how labor, society and the production of goods and wealth should relate. Over the past two decades, though, he notes ruefully, those assumptions have been dismantled as the conversation about the right to organized labor has disappeared and the “right to work” state has become the unquestioned norm. “It seems there’s no such thing,” he remarked, “as the category of economic justice.”

When I asked him whether the allusion to socialism in the play’s title is intended to bring Marxism back into the national discussion, he engaged with gusto:

“I’m not a Marxist. I don’t know what Marxism is. You always have to be very specific, are you talking about Gramsci, Luxemburg, Lenin? Are you talking about Stalin? They’re not all the same thing. And I feel that recent attempts to suggest that they are absolutely identical and that Marxism is just Stalinism in embryo is nonsense. There’s nothing of Stalin in Gramsci and indeed not a great deal of it in Lenin.”

From Kushner’s point of view, we have overlooked the money, repetition and vast energies spent in constructing a social discourse that helps plutocrats be callous about the suffering of their fellow creatures and “even more disturbingly, makes the people who suffer the most indifferent to their own suffering.”

There is much to concern him, the erosion of the tenets of the social contract is going hand in hand with capitalist commodity fetishism, where goods simply appear and human labor is just a financial cost of business. Wiesenfeld’s actions at CUNY are symptomatic of how financial power has given board members across a spectrum of organizations a sense of entitlement to make “disgusting” attempts to “use money as a means of leveraging power over a nonprofit institution.” And these are endangering the breadth of free speech that has been a hallmark of American and Jewish tradition. Especially given the nonconfrontational tendencies of less vociferous board members, this can cast a chill over the activities of important arts and culture programs.

Furthermore, from his vantage point, it seems as if Israel’s support in America has been built over the past decade or so by Benjamin Netanyahu and others around a coalition that includes “anti-Semites… who believe that Jews killed Christ and that the Jews are a damned people.” No matter how “jolly they are,” the idea that these “theocrat fundamentalists of the religious right… are great friends of Israel is to me repellent in the extreme.”

Still, he remains upbeat. Not least of all because he sees President Obama taking a leaf from Lincoln’s playbook — and not simply in a superficial, rhetorical way. Lincoln, Kushner claims after five years of near immersive research, was, “a genius on the level of Shakespeare and Mozart, producing things — in Lincoln’s case both governance and prose — that are miraculous in their beauty.”

Lincoln was faced with a massive and essentially unavoidable disaster and yet refused to “betray the precepts of secular democracy.” And the same goes for Obama. “I see him making that effort,” Kushner said. “Given what we just survived, I don’t see why he doesn’t get credit.”

After nearly six years spent “in the company of one of the greatest human beings that has ever lived,” he sees “the presidency through the lens of Lincoln.” Far less critical of Obama than his “nearest and dearest,” Kushner thinks Obama is “remarkable, an astonishing figure.” Next year promises to be the acid test for both Kushner’s cinematic and Obama’s presidential Lincolns.

Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.