Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The System Works

Now that the CUNY-Tony Kushner flap appears to have wrapped itself up, let's reflect for a moment. Because -- correct me if I'm wrong -- as far as I'm concerned, the system worked.

How can I say that? Isn't the very fact that Kushner was originally rejected for the degree proof of some sort of failing?

Well, yes, obviously. But the whole point of having a system in place regarding academic freedom is to have failsafes and redundancy. A working system of academic freedom is not one in which nobody ever screws up. A working system is when those screw ups are rectified by other actors in the process, protecting the freedom of persons to make statements or hold positions others find distasteful.

So let's go to the timeline here:

1) CUNY faculty votes to award Tony Kushner an honorary degree.

2) A CUNY trustee delivers a speech mischaracterizing Kushner's views on Israel.* This persuades a minority of trustees to vote to block Kushner's award.

3) Everyone flips out. The New York Times, J Street, Ed Koch, Jeffrey Goldberg ... people who like Kushner, and people who find his views on Israel deeply wrong. Everyone.

4) CUNY reverses its decision and decides to grant the honorary degree.

5) Kushner indicates he'll accept the award.

As far as I'm concerned, that transition from #2 to #3? That's kind of what we want to happen, no? I mean, yes, obviously, it'd be better if Jeffrey Wiesenfeld wasn't a dick in the first place. But the next best thing is the part where the entire social community unites across their partisan divides and says "wrong, bucko." And then the board immediately reverses itself. Hurray! The great failures of academic freedom aren't cases like this -- they're the ones where the suppression happens, and the world collectively shrugs.

A culture of open inquiry and academic freedom isn't one where nobody ever tries to stifle opinions they dislike (anymore than it is one in which nobody promotes an idiotic idea). A culture of academic freedom is one in which, when those missteps happen, the broader community acts quickly and decisively in defense of the enterprise. That, by all appearances, is what happened here. And in that, it was a great success.

* Kushner has said that Israel's founding involved ethnic cleansing, and has expressed grave misgivings about Israel's founding in the first place. He has not supported a campaign of boycott against the state. Obviously, I disagree, strongly, with anyone who thinks Israel shouldn't have been founded. The ethnic cleansing claim is a factual question towards which I am unqualified to opine. The historian Kushner relies on, Benny Morris, argues that some cleansing occurs but that it was not official policy -- it was an ad hoc decision by individual commanders on the ground.


Rebecca said...

What do you think about Stanley Fish's assertion that this wasn't a matter of academic freedom? (I'm not saying I agree with Fish - I often find his notion of academic freedom quite limited and bureaucratic).

David Schraub said...

I think a big problem here was that it was the intervention of the Board of Trustees -- who aren't academics (Wiesenfeld has no academic background) interfering with the decision of the CUNY faculty. I tend to think that's usually a recipe for disaster.

But I'll admit -- part of this is that nebulous "what is truly beyond the pale?" line. We've had recently controversies over an honorary degree to Phyllis Schalfly at WashU, and graduation speaking by Rob Portman at Michigan Law. Are they different from Kushner? Why or why not? If CUNY wanted to honor Gilad Atzmon, would I be so sanguine? I think not. The norm should be letting faculties honor who they want to honor, which is why I think Kushner is an easy case, but it's obvious that there could be people so transgressive that it would be a genuine hard case.

In any event, outside a few hyper-extreme cases, ultimately, the rightness or wrongness of these decisions should be litigated at the level of the faculty. If a faculty (or a designated academic officer) is dumb enough to want to honor Phyllis Schlafly, they should be allowed to do so -- but we should take notice of their rather lax standards for whom should be honored.

Anonymous said...

Turning to artistry, do you agree that Angels in America was at best overrated and overwrought, and at worst "pretentious, boring propaganda, and like most propaganda, endless and laden with stereotypes and cartoon figures" (in Sullivan's words)?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how David Swill answer, but I think that Angels in America is inarguably one of the definitive works of twentieth century theater, and (more arguably) as profound an artistic reflection on the spiritual and political affairs of our nation as has been produced - to be read and reread along the works of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Faulkner, and Ellison, the great prophetic voices of American letters.

I also think that anyone who takes their aesthetic cues from a man whose prose is as clumsy and whose ideas are as common as Sullivan's has more or less consigned themselves to dwelling in mediocrity.

Barry Deutsch said...

Check me off as someone who both enjoys Sullivan's blog and thought Angels in America was stunning.

Anonymous said...

I think they're both kinda meh.