23 January 2012

Tony Kushner on Citizenship and Partisanship

The playwright Tony Kushner received the Nation Institute's $100,000 Puffin Prize for "Creative Citizenship" last month. His acceptance speech appears in the current Nation, and you can see and hear him deliver it at the Nation website. After an opening act of standup whimsy, the author of Angels in America and Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln movie gets to the meat of his subject.

The whole point of citizenship, that second vocation incumbent upon all of us, upon all people fortunate enough to be enfranchised, or semi-, demi- or quasi-enfranchised, upon all of us who are fortunate enough to live our lives in a still-functioning, if extremely imperfectly functioning, democracy, in which the notion of citizen, the word “citizen,” still has meaning, power and value—the whole point of citizenship is that one admits to a personal stake, and to the potential derivation of benefit, in giving to and sacrificing for the community. One recognizes one’s self in the community, one identifies an important part of the self, a part that deserves tending and nurturing and attention, even therapeutic attention, as much as does the selfish self, which of course receives infinite attention, tending, caring, nurturance. When we step into our citizen selves, we step into that part of our lives, our souls, that exists only in relationship to others. As a citizen, one occupies that part of one’s life, soul, self that is at least as communal, collective, social and contractual as it is monadic, individual, replete.
Citizenship, in other words, is not simply a duty, though of course it is that, nor is it merely a privilege, though it’s that too. It’s a blessing, by which I guess I mean that there is beauty, grace, magic, charisma, charm in citizenship; it’s a gift handed down to us from generations of forebears who thought and fought and struggled and died to create this thing we inherit and advance, this recent, numinous evolutionary phase of humanity.

As Kushner went on, it became more apparent that he was more interested in indicting a certain intellectual selfishness he perceived among progressives than in denouncing the material selfishness that he probably took for granted among Republicans and conservatives. He equates citizenship with artistry, predictably enough, noting that "your fantasies of writing the perfect play, the play that's gonna be better than Hamlet, fall to choices, compromises, fall to action taken, to the admission of limitations, of possibility, of scarcity and community." Creating art for public consumption or scrutiny "is a step out of one's immaculate solitude, one's solitary purity, toward the fertile, febrile dishevelment of community, of democracy." Having embraced this process as a writer, Kushner as a citizen regrets "being disdainful of compromise, disdainful of impurity, disdainful of strategy; luxuriating in a fantasy politics that's an expression of purity, of self, of my own pure self; failing to recognize the egoism in disdain; being impatient rather than patient; plumping my critic-self with comfortable kvetching rather than tempering my political soul with discipline;...living not with hope but with fantasies bred out of revolutionary romance."

The contrasting of "hope," the Obama keyword, with "fantasies bred out of revolutionary romance," determined the direction of the remaining speech. Leaving out the grandiloquence, it may be summed up as "quit your whining and support the Democratic party." That's barely a paraphrase; here are Kushner's actual words:

All of which is to say—and this is what my whole speech was going to be about, but instead maybe I’ll write an essay and submit it to The Nation: In the upcoming election, we must must must hang on to the Senate, we must must must recapture the House, we must must must must must must must re-elect Barack Obama President of the United States of the Reality-Based Community! And a goddamned great president—yes, I said it, I said it out loud!—a great president he is!
(A great president, by the way, is not the same as a great progressive. A great president is a plausible progressive who achieves significant and useful and recognizably progressive things, which is very, very hard to do in a democracy, and which President Obama has inarguably done. We can argue about that later.)
Someone recently said to me—in fact a number of people have told me or have written this—that Barack Obama cares only about getting re-elected. I think that’s transparent nonsense, but even if it’s true, ... Does anything matter more to you than re-electing Barack Obama? Whatever that thing is, if it’s a worthy thing, if you really and truly care about it, you’ll make sure that Barack Obama gets re-elected.

I've left out his riff on the great auk; you can thank me later.  Predictable enough, as I said, and it's Kushner's prerogative to make the case. But let's remember that Kushner, like any good adherent of Bipolarchy, is asking people to settle instead of demanding the best, though for a largely-unspoken reason. That reason, of course, is the mortal menace of the Republican and Tea parties. People are free to argue for voting from fear, or to assert that reactionary voting -- as a vote for the Democrats almost always is -- is necessary for the public good. But when Kushner does it after those clever comments about the unselfishness of compromise, I can't help but realize that he doesn't really mean what he'd just said. After all, for him, however successful he feels Obama has been, the real reason to vote for him instead of demanding something better is that there can be no compromise with Republicanism or conservatism or whatever else he fears. My point isn't that there should be no limit to compromise, but to point out that Kushner has chosen his limit, whether he admits it or not. Is there egoism in the choice? A fantasy, perhaps? He might concede both charges while insisting on the principled nature of his stand. If so, then let him concede that principle co-exists with ego among those who insist that the Democratic party is not good enough and that no fear of another party justifies always having to settle. Or would that be too much of a compromise?

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