When (if) future historians look back to early 21st-century America, they should examine two cultural controversies of May 2011 for a quick read on Establishment sensibilities. One involves the bestowal, revocation and re-bestowal of an honorary degree on playwright Tony Kushner by CUNY, and one involves the invitation to Common, a rapper, to perform at a White House poetry reading.
Both controversies set the boundaries of Establishment-acceptable thought – the span of “settled” debate, and the “correct” set of elite opinions – and maybe, just maybe reveal one tiny chink.
In the Kushner case, the controversy centered on the objections of CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld to bestowing an honorary degree on Kushner due to the playwright’s very public, very vocal opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian Authority (PA). For about five minutes, Wiesenfeld actually persuaded fellow board members to withdraw the Kushner honor (Kushner’s 16th honorary degree). But soon after, Wiesenfeld, a son of Holocaust survivors, found himself pilloried in the media, called on to resign from the CUNY board, all for having argued the Establishment-incorrect case – a case, remember, that was then put to two board votes (the second to get the “correct” outcome). With everything “set right,” why the vengeful rage at Wiesenfeld?
In rejecting Kushner for honors, Wiesenfeld was rejecting the left’s increasingly accepted case for moral equivalence between Israel and the PA for honors as well. Had Wiesenfeld prevailed, CUNY itself would have symbolically rejected this same moral equivalence from mainstream, taxpayer-supported academia. By 2011, future historians will note, the left had long made way for Palestinian Arabs to suicide-bomb their way into that mainstream, and no blunt-speaking trustee was going to force their cause to the margins again if they could help it. And, future historians will also note, they could help it. Against an initially effective blast from the pro-Israel past, the academic Establishment held. Radical Chic ruled. And not only did it hold and rule, it also committed assault and battery against its lone critic. That’ll show ’em. No armor-chinks here.
The controversy over the White House invitation to rapper Common to perform at an event organized by Michelle Obama was a little different. Opposition was diffuse from the start, derided more than hammered for being both uncool and unschooled as all-knowing critics asserted Commons was “mild” next to other foul-mouthed rappers. Why, he was a pitchman for Lincoln Navigator, Gap and PETA! This was supposed to be a veritable Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But such a seal means nothing when the “mild” rapper’s oeuvre includes a shameful paean to real-life cop-killer Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur (slain rapper Tupac Shakur’s aunt, by the way). After the New Jersey state police came out against Common’s White House performance, the opposition took on a gravity I don’t think will disappear any time soon.
Dave Jones, a 33-year veteran and president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, laid out some atrocious facts about Chesimard, Common’s muse, to ABC’s Jake Tapper. In 1973, Chesimard, glorified in “A Song for Assata” by Common, “executed Trooper Werner Foerster with his own gun after he was already shot and didn’t represent a threat to anyone,” Jones said. “And after she shot him she kicked him in the head to the point that hours later after she was picked up his brain was still part of the remnants on her shoe.”
Note to GOP presidential candidates: This is a Big Deal. Even after the White House spoke to Jones about Chesimard/Assata’s murder of the 34-year-old state trooper and father of three on the New Jersey Turnpike 38 years ago, the invitation held, and without apology. “The president does not support and opposes the kinds of lyrics that have been written about, as he has in the past,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, trying, lamely, to have it both ways. “In regard to the concerns by some law enforcement, this president’s record of support for law enforcement is extremely strong. …”
Not if he invites someone who glorifies a cop-killer into the White House. I don’t think we, the people, like this kind of ugliness, and particularly not in the White House. Dictatorial academia may be able to silence its dissenters, but the political Establishment still has to answer to us, eventually. Assuming we care and don’t forget.