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CUNY: The right to free speech depends on who you speak freely about

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld serves on the Board of Trustees at the City University of New York (CUNY). As a member of that Board, he spoke out against that institution’s plan to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, a playwright whose art and opinion constantly intertwine to deprecate Israel and America. Wiesenfeld’s opinion, that a person of such strong anti-Israel feelings ought not be honored by this publicly- supported university was echoed by his board when they set aside Kushner’s name in approving the list of this year’s honorees.
All academic honorees need not be of the same opinion of those who honor them, but giving out honorary degrees is not an indiscriminate act and when an honoree is chosen many considerations come into play.  In Kushner’s case, it is not a matter of his privately held opinions, for Kushner’s work is his expressed opinion. He is a man whose vitriol towards Israel is very much of a piece with his public persona, and in his daily work he shrinks from no opportunity to offend many in New York and elsewhere who think that the Jewish state has as much right to exist as any other.
But in the cultural confusion of the day, which The New York Times so ably defines and serves, those who actually hold the values and ideals that many New Yorkers share aren’t allowed an opinion. And, in that elitist spirit, which is so much the way of things in academia,  CUNY ‘chairperson,’ Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale,  wouldn’t allow the Board of Trustee’s action to stand and convened his Executive Committee to overturn it.  They did, and New York is the poorer for it.
The cultural elite, led by the Times’ Clyde Haberman amongst others, again asserted their dominance over all things New York by claiming the righteous high ground – no matter that it contravenes this Board of Trustee’s primary role of representing  constituencies who support and finance the academic institution on whose Board they sit: the taxpayers of New York.
No one here is denying Mr. Kushner his right to free speech, but the Times and other guardians of the culture are quick to sacrifice Mr. Wiesenfeld’s rights in the name of their cultural/political values.
As a playwright, Mr. Kushner exercises his right to free speech fully in all of his ‘artistic’ offerings.  Offering him another publicly-sponsored platform from which to broadcast his views is not an obligation of a public university, no matter the degree of agreement he may have with those who teach there. Those who say that political opinions don’t belong on the podium at a commencement and use that thought to support Kushner’s honor forget that  political opinion is what Kushner is all about. It permeates his work. Granting him an honor condones his activism and the causes he supports.

Those who say that political opinions don’t belong on the podium at a commencement and use that thought to support Kushner’s honor forget that  political opinion is what Kushner is all about. It permeates his work. Granting him an honor condones his activism and the causes he supports.
Tony Kushner is not a benign recipient,  but is the characterization of an activist on the issues of the day and is not reticent about expressing those views in everything he does.  That is why this affair is resonating so loudly and why CUNY’s Executive Committee, Benno Schmidt and The New York Times have joined this struggle so aggressively.
When it comes to principle, though, the only actor here who embodied it was the trustee who voiced his opinion and who, without the machinations of media contrivance, actually had his voice heard because it was so out of keeping with the natural order of things in our elite dominated society.  In the words of the New York Sun:
“… it looks as if the only person who has acted on principle in the CUNY affair is Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who first objected to the idea of giving an honorary degree to Mr. Kushner. He came to a meeting, and he stated his objection forthrightly. It had to do with Mr. Kushner’s views in respect of Israel. Mr. Kushner is entitled to his views and Mr. Wiesenfeld is entitled to dissent from a proposal to give him an honorary degree. ”
But in the end  Schmidt and his Executive Committee prevailed and countermanded the Board of Trustee’s action. Kushner is an icon of the Left and allowing any dissent to stand in academia against the majoritarian cultural environment couldn’t be tolerated.  The Wall Street Journal captured the inevitability of this travesty when it said:
“Mr. Wiesenfeld’s ‘mistake’ was not appreciating that hostility to Israel has become such a deeply embedded principle of the modern academy that objecting to it earns you denunciation as a censor and philistine. The only greater uproar might have come if CUNY’s trustees had voted to award and honorary degree to, say, the CIA interrogators of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
Mr. Wiesenfeld deserves our appreciation for so publicly and forthrightly standing up for Israel and for reminding us that academia and the culture, though long ago ceded to an aggressive leftist elite, isn’t owned by that elite. As in many other parts of society today, the American people are struggling with the fact that political manipulation and control doesn’t mean that our basic societal values and principles have changed all that much and in the end will reassert themselves.

–nrg

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