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 Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all.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 Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all.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.
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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.

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