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On Puffins and Presidents | The Nation

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On Puffins and Presidents

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On December 5 at its gala dinner, The Nation Institute awarded playwright and screenwriter (and
Nation editorial board member) Tony Kushner its annual $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship “for a lifetime of artistic work giving voice to the marginalized, and his outspoken criticism of social injustice.” What follows is Kushner’s acceptance speech.

I was very much hoping that the Puffin Prize would be accompanied by a puffin of some sort. Not a live, caged puffin—that would entail responsibilities, bird dander and guilt, and I gather that puffins, though silent when flying over water, are champion vocalizers on land, and anyway a caged puffin would send the wrong sort of message. And I wasn’t hoping for a stuffed puffin. God forbid, that would send an even worse message, since puffins are struggling to avoid the fate of their cousins, the great auks. This is something puffins and people have in common, being haunted by the fate of the now-extinct great auk. Skim through any day’s newspaper or pay even slight attention to our roller-coaster climate of recent years, and you’re bound to feel slightly great auk–ish; you’re aware of life on earth tilting in a great auk–ward direction. So I wasn’t hoping for a stuffed puffin—even though it’s fun to say “stuffed puffin.” We’re Americans, not Icelanders who pull puffins right out of the sky with big nets and in whose diet puffin meat figures importantly, who refuse to protect the birds and who eat puffin hearts raw. It’s a big Icelandic delicacy, raw puffin heart, or so I am told, and I wouldn’t put it past them; they are very interesting people.

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Tony Kushner
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I suppose I was hoping for a small painted effigy of a puffin to keep on my desk; they’re very handsome birds, and they have a wonderfully silly name. Since it was announced that I was this year’s recipient of the prize, I’ve noticed how much people enjoy writing and saying “Puffin Prize” and working variations of the theme. I’m currently working on a film, down in Richmond, Virginia, and yesterday, on the set, our cinematographer called out, “Hey, congratulations on the prize! So what have you been puffin’?” It’s a very good idea to name a prize after a bird with a silly name; all prizes should have silly names or something pleasantly ridiculous attached to them, as an antidote to self-seriousness. If you decide to establish another prize, perhaps you’ll consider calling it the Great Auk Award. Who wouldn’t want to win that?

I have always striven to cultivate inside myself a determined, unappeasable resistance to deriving pleasure from receiving honors and winning awards. It’s weird, because I love receiving and winning them, and I secretly hate everyone who wins an award instead of me, even people who win awards for things I’m entirely out of the running for—the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for example. I have it out for Dan Schechtman, the discoverer of quasicrystals and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “Hate” is too strong a word, really, but I am bummed out for a few humiliating microseconds of incomprehensible envy. It’s so nice to win awards, why wouldn’t you want to win one every day? And how nice to win one for chemistry, even if you’re innumerate and haven’t the slightest idea why observations of quasicrystals have produced a fundamental shift in our concepts of atomic structure, or even what’s quasi about them. Perhaps it’s because it’s so nice that I’m so mistrustful of awards; anything this nice must be terrible for you, or so my lived experience to the age of 55 has led me to conclude.

I was as surprised to be named as recipient of an award for creative citizenship as I would have been to be named a Nobel Prize–winning chemist. I know a bit more about citizenship than about quasicrystals, but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever felt I’m a prize-worthy citizen; far from it. That this is not merely an award for citizenship, but for creative citizenship, makes me feel like an ice skater who’s just managed to circumnavigate the rink for one complete revolution without holding on to the railing, breaking an ankle or falling on his ass, learning that he’s made the Olympic team. I really can’t pull off sports analogies convincingly, but you get the point.

That this prize comes with an ego-deflating silly name helps—I’m not a prize-winning creative citizen, I can remind myself, I am a Puffin Prize–winning creative citizen. I as a citizen am henceforth joined to a short, stocky seabird with a fat head, a clown beak and stumpy wings I have to flap frantically to evade hungry Icelanders. That helps deflate me, it helps reduce the degree of painful ego-dystonic discrepancy between what I am as a citizen and what I think an ordinary citizen, much less a creative one, ought to be.

But then there’s the matter of the check. I was really touched when Andy Breslau called me and told me I was the recipient of this award; touched and grateful and of course mortified. But touched and grateful. I love The Nation, The Nation Institute and, as I think I’ve made abundantly, perhaps even excessively, clear, puffins. I also love money—not inordinately, not to the exclusion of all else, not obsessively or inhumanly, but sure, I love having money, who doesn’t love it?—and Andy explained to me that along with this extraordinary honor there would be a check for a lot of money to love.

* * *

I am very grateful, really, for the honor, and I accept it, with many reservations about my suitability, because as I said I love getting awards; but I have some issues about the money. Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s wonderful that the prize comes with a check. I think it’s absolutely great, in honoring creative citizenship, to provide financial support to those worthy of the honor and in need of such support, as most activists and prize-worthy creative citizens probably are—we love money in the sense that we can’t live without it, and it’s fantastic when anyone in the progressive community acknowledges the need for cash to make progress possible, the need for activists and organizers and people for whom political work is a vocation to have salaries, retirement accounts, health insurance, if they’re to do the work that gives the rest of us some reason to not feel foolish when we feel hope.

Issue No. 1: The money is so much that I worry it’ll negate the ego-deflationary effect of the aforementioned eponymous bird. A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of creative citizenship, and I’m a playwright, for pity’s sake. I write plays, and sometimes movies, whaddaya want from me, how could you do this to me, a hundred thousand dollars for creative citizenship, are you trying to make me feel sick with guilt every time I spend a day making up people and giving them made-up names and made-up jobs and then setting them at one another’s made-up throats, do you want to give me writer’s block, are you hinting at something, like maybe I should be doing more, doing better, being a better person? I will gain weight, I will become insomniac, I will become paranoid, I will have to spend every nickel of this check on therapy sessions just to handle having cashed it. So, you know, thanks a lot.

Issue No. 2: I don’t feel I can promise to spend this money in any way that will make it more possible for me to be a creative citizen. I will most likely leave tonight to continue in my life the same as before, making a living as a playwright, which is what I am—not an activist, not an organizer, not a political philosopher or analyst—and for that work, to which I can give full credit for pretty much any creative citizenship I can claim, I am already remunerated.

That work will go on after tonight as it has gone on before. If what I’ve done has contributed in some way to the general good—and I feel my future ability to write anything of value somehow depends on really believing in and clinging to that “if”—if my writing has been of use to the good guys and an irritant to the bad guys, then I’m already so overtopped with good fortune I really don’t need any more. My successes and failures as a citizen, creative or otherwise, will go on being generated by the same dialectical torment as before, I can hope with more citizen-successes than in the past and with fewer citizen-failures, but whatever happens, I can’t see how it’ll be because of your breathtakingly generous gift, and I don’t feel that I should profit from any successes I have as a citizen. 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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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