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Nation Institute

Tony Kushner Makes the News

Posted by Jayati Vora, December 7, 2011 to the Nation Institute Blog

JOHN MUNSON

Neal Rosenstein (left), of the Puffin Foundation, presents the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship to Tony Kushner (right) at The Nation Institute's annual dinner gala, December 5, 2011

It's big news when Tony Kushner wins a large cash award from the Puffin Foundation. It's even bigger when the acclaimed Jewish playwright is embroiled in a scandal, as he was this past May when the CUNY board blocked him from receiving an honorary degree for his allegedly anti-Israel beliefs. And it gets more interesting when Kushner, in his acceptance speech on Monday night, states that he plans to donate the money to a scholarship for the students at the university's John Jay College campus and jokes that he'll name it after the CUNY board member who denounced him. (The scholarship part is real; the naming part undoubtedly not.)

The award, called the Puffin / Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, which is jointly offered by The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, is accompanied by a $100,000 prize. It is given each year at the Institute's dinner gala, which took place this year at the Metropolitan Pavilion on December 5. The event is closed to the press, but Kushner's humorous remarks must have been too good to resist, for quotes leaked out into the New York Observer the following day. The Observer scribe wrote that Kushner said

he felt a little bit guilty since anytime he heard of anyone winning an award, he always felt a twinge of jealousy. Jokingly, Mr. Kushner gave an example of being aggrieved that Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize this year for the discovery of quasicrystals. "I don't even understand what quasicrystals are," Mr. Kushner said. "But I still thought, 'Aww, why didn't I win?'"

The news got picked up in the Guardian (UK), and was reposted on an L Magazine blog.

The announcement last month also made the news. The New York Times' Art Beat blog led the way on November 28, while theater websites such as Theater Mania followed suit. The Jewish Daily Forward ran a round-up post on its Arty Semite blog. The Jewish Journal, in its Hollywood Jew blog, filed a longer piece quoting from their own earlier coverage of the CUNY fracas as well as from the Nation Institute press release, in which Kushner said, in his inimitably humorous way:

To be a good citizen, much less a creative one, is a tall order, and while I hope I can say I've never taken the blessings of citizenship (however abridged these remain, despite recent advances, for the entire LGBT community) for granted, I feel certain that I've achieved at best a rudimentary level of sufficiency regarding the obligations that come with the franchise. I can only add that since this will make me feel terrible every time I fail to be a creative citizen, it'll be a goad to step up my game — since citizenship, like playwriting or the violin, requires practice, practice, practice.  I'm so grateful to The Institute and the Puffin Foundation for their wayward taste and misguided judgment, and I plan to keep blushing for several years to come.

The Journal blog post was also picked up by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz online. The Forward ran a profile of Kushner in their December 6, 2011 issue — written prior to the award ceremony on Monday night — which detailed his upbringing:

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."

Watch this space for the unedited speech that Kushner gave.

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The Huffington Post featured Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's comments from the annual gala dinner, where she "held up the protests over Gov. Scott Walker's anti-collective bargaining law that started in Wisconsin in February, as well as the Occupy protests around the nation, as indicators of the power of progressivism." The post quoted her as saying, "We have learned something important in recent months. Something none of us should ever forget. The truth is, no amount of corporate money or right-wing lies can defeat a progressive movement that is energized and mobilized." If elected to the Wisconsin Senate, Baldwin would be the first openly gay senator in the United States.