On Puffins and Presidents
I wish I was a better citizen. I wish I took better care of this blessing, this gift, this manifestation of my unseverable connection to the human community and to life itself. I wish that every day. I know that I haven’t been an especially good citizen, because if I had the world would not be the cacophonically shrieking miasma of misery and wickedness and ecocide and greed grown so monstrous that even greedy monsters must be ashamed of it, of how transparently, pornographically their bloat is asphyxiating, crowding out and crushing the human in them. If I’d been a good citizen, a creative citizen, I wouldn’t have spent my adulthood in exile from agency, from political effectivity; if I’d been the sort of citizen I’ve daily wished I was, I would be looking back, at 55, on three and a half decades of progress, on building from the accomplishments that preceded my birth—toward economic and social justice, toward an end to poverty and gross social and economic inequality, toward education and cultural vitality and pluralism and multiculturalism, toward internationalism, rather than the holocaustal global transmogrification that’s been the history of the world in the time during which I can reasonably accept a share of the blame.
Here’s what I blame myself for: being comfortable with powerlessness. 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; expecting others to solve problems that I have done nothing to solve; living not with hope but with fantasies bred out of revolutionary romance.
What better use of a happy, celebratory occasion like this than to stare down deep into the abyss of one’s failures? What better purpose for any gathering of progressive people than collectively to flagellate ourselves for the ways we’ve failed to shoulder our historical burdens and let posterity down? Or, if your tastes don’t enthusiastically incline toward the masochistic, what better way to while away an evening than to spin coherent, plausible, deliciously scary grand narratives recounting how it’s all gone so terribly, terribly wrong?
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Don’t worry, don’t panic, I won’t spin any narratives tonight—we’d be here all night. I’ll save them for my next play. Which I hope you’ll all come to see.
But before then—I haven’t started writing it yet, I’m working on a movie at the moment, and even before you get to see my movie, which is about Abraham Lincoln—we’ll have an election.
I hope, long before the election, we progressive, creative citizens take stock of ourselves and begin to create something, a movement, from which progress might be legitimately anticipated, without which, let’s face it, the still-functioning but seriously imperiled democracy of which we are full or partially enfranchised citizens is doomed. I think this is the moment. Since I’m a playwright, let me offer playwriting as an analogy. Real creation doesn’t begin when you write the first line of a play, hard as it is to get that down on paper. Everything remains possible after you’ve written the first line, so although it’s terrifying to write the first line, you haven’t committed to writing something actual, irrevocable and specific until you write the second line, and the third. Until, with the addition of every line after the first one, 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 of community. For every step taken after a promising beginning is a step out of one’s immaculate solitude, one’s solitary purity, toward the fertile, febrile dishevelment of community, of democracy.
In 2008 we commenced, under perfectly hideous circumstances, the writing of a new and critical act in the drama of American and world history; we reclaimed the most plausible, practical instruments of agency, of power, available to us. Which is not to say that government, in this instance the federal government, isn’t implausible and impractical and unwieldy-unto-madness as a means of effecting change. But after many a costly slip in recent decades, we decided, almost all of us decided, that we had to reclaim government in the name of progress. And we did.
And then, or so it seems to me, we commenced a retreat from the possibility, the discomfort and the danger of power, back into despair, disdain, distrust, impatience—those habits of being that decades of powerlessness have cultivated in us. It seems to me we are in the process of failing, as citizens, to commit to creation, to build on what we’ve made—in other words, we progressives are failing to commit to progress. We’re failing to find the faith that citizenship—which like all contractual relationships, turns ultimately for its surety to intangibles, to ineffables—is predicated upon. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the better part of five years trying to make up a plausible version of Abraham Lincoln, that utterly implausible man. Maybe because of the time I’ve spent with his words and his life and the inexplicable fact of his existence, I’ve come to consider what Walt Whitman said may have been Lincoln’s greatest virtue, his “longwaitingness,” as a cardinal principle of democratic progress. Maybe because of Lincoln, I’ve come to believe that an unexamined, reflexive excess of even righteous impatience is an unaffordable means of keeping oneself warm in the chilly climate of democratic politics. Maybe it’s Lincoln’s fault that I’ve come to believe that electoral politics, and all that goes with it, is the last, best hope we have.
(Here I interrupted my prepared speech and risked spontaneity in response to seeing Jesse Jackson seated at a nearby table. His campaign for president in 1984 had been mentioned by the evening’s host, Melissa Harris-Perry, and I took the chance to thank Reverend Jackson for his speech at the Democratic convention that year. I’ve often quoted him admonishing those on the left who were considering not voting: “Don’t you walk away from that vote! People died for the right to vote!”)
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, then that’s something else that puffins, me and everyone who doesn’t want to find him- or herself keeping the great auk company in the Great Beyond have in common with Barack Obama. 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.
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Time to conclude, but before I do I must return briefly to the question of the money. I imagine one reason you people were lovely and generous enough to deem me worthy of this award is because of what happened last spring when CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice offered me an honorary doctorate and then… well, I promised not spin any narratives, suffice it to say that it all worked out OK. [The board had originally voted to table Kushner’s nomination after member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld attacked his politics on Israel, misrepresenting Kushner’s views. After wide public protest, the board’s executive committee voted to grant him the award.] So, for the sake of my soul and my psyche and in the name of creative citizenship, I’m going to donate this mortifying, beautiful money to establish an endowed scholarship at John Jay. I was dazzled by the students I met at the John Jay commencement last June; they’re as impressive and promising and brave and inspiring and awe-inspiring as the CUNY board of trustees isn’t. At John Jay I’ve met students and faculty committed to thinking about law and order in larger contexts, to understanding law as it relates to community and to social and economic justice; they’re committed to building, to creating, to citizenship, to progress, to justice.
I’ll let you know the specifics of the scholarship as they’re resolved. If Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Benno Schmidt or any of the other CUNY trustees care to contribute some of their disposable income to the endowment, we’ll work together, shoulder to shoulder, to name the scholarship after some delightful bird.
I thank The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation for letting me know what it feels like to give away $100,000. It feels nice! So thank you for this delicious, nutritious, undeserved but very gratefully received and accepted honor. I’ll strive to be worthy. I’ll fail, but hopefully not too badly, and I promise to strive.