On Puffins and Presidents
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.
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.
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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.
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