Why Politics and Purity Don’t Mix

An interview with playwright and radical gadfly Tony Kushner

Forget throwing paint at Starbucks. If you want to be a real revolutionary, try (gasp!) attending a political meeting. That’s just one bit of controversial advice Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner doles out in this passionate interview from Heeb magazine. How do we survive the 21st century? According to Kushner — who believes we are living in “absolutely the worst, most dangerous moment the human race has ever faced” — the answer lies not in Ralph Nader or in the Green Party (or in the type of protest he describes as “performance art”), but in that most venerable — and to some, stale — of all institutions: the Democratic Party. — The Editors

Tony Kushner hustles into his office clasping a cell phone in his left hand and shuffling a manuscript in his right. The nylon backpack hanging from one shoulder bears a pin reading “Preemptive War IS Terrorism.” He’s talking on his phone with author Grace Paley, discussing her contribution to an anthology about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he’s editing. “I think it’s magnificent. I wouldn’t change a thing,” he gushes, mouthing sorry to his assistant and just one more minute to the writer and photographer who have been awaiting his arrival. “Except there’s this part where you say, ‘And the American Jewish community says it’s okay.’ But it’s not simply that we’re saying the Israeli occupation is okay; we’re paying for it! That seems relevant to me. You don’t have to change it if you don’t want to, but it’s something that occurred to me.”

Kushner’s combination of exacting political analysis and broad artistic vision first earned him wide acclaim in 1993 and 1994 with his play Angels in America (Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika). That two-evening epic about AIDS, Reaganism, illness, and betrayal led to a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony awards, a recent HBO adaptation — and a lifetime supply of daunting expectations. Following the success of Angels, Kushner became America’s leading left-wing gay pundit, tapped by Newsweek, The Nation, The New York Times, and The Advocate to hold forth on issues from homophobia to socialism. But his subsequent ventures on the dramatic front were comparatively diminutive: Slavs!, a slender rumination on the failures of Soviet communism, an adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan, and another of the Yiddish theater classic The Dybbuk. Some friends grew concerned that he was using essays and college speaking tours as ways to avoid writing another ambitious play.

Those worries were swept away in December 2001, when Homebody/Kabul, Kushner’s nearly four-hour journey through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, opened at the New York Theater Workshop. Written over a five-year period, Homebody/Kabul had the dubious good fortune of opening scant months after the 9/11 attacks and President Bush’s military campaign against the Taliban. It reestablished Kushner as a playwright of determined political relevance and generous global sympathies. Today, Kushner’s plate is overflowing with projects. In addition to his frequent antiwar stump speeches, he recently staged a musical that is loosely based on his Louisiana childhood (Caroline, or Change), finished co-editing the aforementioned anthology, Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Grove Press, 2003), and is writing a new play about the Bush administration, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Will Be Unhappy.

When I was Googling you in preparation for this interview, I found an article I had written about your visit to Philadelphia in 2001, when we first met.

Oh, I’ve never Googled myself! I’m terrified of finding some right-wing Web site chat room that’s dedicated to masticating me.

That wouldn’t really bother you, would it?

Yeah, I have a terribly thin skin. I’m working on it. I’m really sort of a coward, and the idea that people are coming after me makes me anxious, no matter who they are.

But you’ve written such polarizing things.

Well, you have to do that because that’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t mean it’s not scary that people are going to get mad and come after you. I don’t think I’d really want to be someone who was so self-confident that I didn’t feel on some level that I was assailable. I’ve met people who have a sense of complete invincibility or invulnerability, but that often comes with a high price and a certain loss of perspective.

Which are you more frightened of — criticism from the right, who are opposed to everything you stand for, or criticism from the left, who would accuse you either of not going far enough or of going about things the wrong way?

It really depends. Criticism from the left that’s constructive is useful. . . . But some left criticism comes from a perspective that I call, not politically correct, but politically precious. It becomes kind of an aerobic event — how many mistakes of what kind can you find? — and it tends to deny to literature the sort of heterogeneity of opinion and the contradictions and complexities within literature that make it literature as opposed to a polemic. I’ve always been disturbed, at any left function that I’ve attended, by how much competitiveness and envy are snuck in under the guise of . . .

Revolutionary rigor?

Revolutionary rigor, exactly. I’ve been incredibly moved and changed by the student-led antiglobalization movement, but I’m also extremely concerned because there is a kind of performance art aspect to it. There have always been people for whom the rejection of the state is essentially an opportunity for an expression of personal feelings, but I don’t know what that builds and I don’t know where it goes; if you reject the notion of law and state, I don’t know where you wind up.

What would you recommend that they do instead?

I would recommend that they work for the Democratic Party. That’s the hard thing to say right now. To me, the antithesis of throwing paint at a Starbucks — which is not to say that the Starbucks [stores] don’t deserve to have paint thrown at them, that what these people are pointing out and what they’re accomplishing is not valuable, because it absolutely is — but the fact of the matter is, all of us Americans are caught up in a system of luxury and privilege that’s immensely difficult to move beyond, and little gestures of ridding your own life of impurities and sins may be refreshing on some level or interesting as a way of experimenting with your life, but these little gestures of personal refusal don’t actually alter the structures of power. The question is, if you believe in the absolute moral necessity of resisting something that you see as profoundly evil, and you’re not just playing a game, then what is our best bet for making an alteration?

And what do you think the answer is?

I think it’s realpolitik. The principle of realpolitik is that politics isn’t an expression of your personal purity. Politics is about compromise. People need to understand that politics is very much a matter of the lesser of two evils, or three — however many evils, but you choose the least evil one. Al Gore was a horror and the most untalented politician on the national scene in many a year, but if anybody actually thinks that Al Gore would not be an infinite improvement over what we have now . . .

People say, “Well, Bill Clinton didn’t do this, and Bill Clinton didn’t do that, and the first Bush passed more money for AIDS research than Bill Clinton,” and all this stuff. These are incredibly easy and oversimplified factoids that we use to remind ourselves that political structures are without meaning. It’s a complete rejection of the possibility of working within democratic structures — which still exist, even though they’re in great danger right now — and opting for some refusalism that leads somewhere, but nobody knows where.

This is a time of incredible crisis, and it seems to me we’re not going to get anywhere good for a very long time, but we can try to put the brakes on where we’re going now. I don’t know anyone who has paid any attention to history who doesn’t say this is absolutely the worst, most dangerous moment the human race has ever faced. I don’t think that is an exaggeration at all. I think our chances of surviving the 21st century are extremely slim. And if you believe that, I don’t know why we all sort of giggle about the idea that the Democratic Party matters. Of course that’s what’s going to win the election and take the White House away from George W. Bush. It isn’t going to be the Green Party. It isn’t going to be people with black bandannas over their faces marching down the street next September blowing up Gaps and Starbucks to show George W. Bush whatever we’re trying to show him.

And of course the Democratic Party candidate next fall will be compromised, and of course he’ll make mistakes, and of course there’ll be lots of advice saying “Don’t go too far to the left so you’ll sound bad in the debates.” But if people go out and vote for Ralph Nader again, or don’t vote . . .

The fate of the world is in our hands, and if we fuck it up, it’s our fault.

A lot of people don’t want to hear that.

Nobody on the left that I know has ever been to a Democratic Party meeting — including me. We don’t even know how the party works! But demographically it’s the party of the people of the United States. It’s ethnically diverse, it’s not all rich people, its platform at least is essentially progressive and decent. It’s not anticapitalist, it’s not socialist, but it at least has a sort of Keynesian idea of capitalism that understands the importance of regulation and some sense of equitable taxation, which is the closest we can get right now in real political terms to a redistribution of wealth. And it’s the party that passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Great Society and the New Deal. This is not of interest? I don’t understand that.

I believe in radical democracy. I believe that democracy has much more growing to do and that there may be other ways of having a representative government. But I also believe that there’s immense importance in American political traditions, like a centralized federal government that protects minorities from majoritarian tyranny, that we can’t just sneer at and turn our back on because we read in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that Columbus deliberately gave the Native Americans smallpox. Maybe he did, I don’t know. But that’s really not the point right now. It’s not enough to express your outrage at how badly people behave — you also have to get power, and that’s what started this whole jeremiad.

Do you sometimes have to force yourself to say that action can make a difference?

Of course I do, all the time. It’s really hard to have hope right now. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have it. Although I’m frequently a victim of despair, I never believe that these problems are unsolvable because I do believe that they’re political problems. Way down the road, when we actually get our shit together, we’ll discover which problems weren’t political, which ones actually had to do with some irreducible malevolence in human beings. I think there are some real problems in the ways that human souls are constructed. You can take the psychological view that we’re creations of trauma and we don’t do loss very well and it deforms us, it diminishes us. But when you get to the point that you can really worry about that, you’ve created a society of immense luxury. If we get to the point at which the whole world is in a position to sit around and worry about existential questions and metaphysical and theological questions about the nature of human beings, dayenu! That’ll be great!

In the meantime, we have a lot of political work to do. We have not been told yet that any of the terrible things we do to the planet and to one another are irreversible, and I don’t think that they are. So if people are going to pay me to write or to speak, they should get their money’s worth. Despair is cheap. Anybody can do that on their own. Pick up The New York Times and read it from cover to cover and kill yourself.

Ultimately, where do you draw your hope from?

You don’t look at it as a feeling state; you look at it as an ethical obligation. You look at it as a thing that you generate in yourself by recognizing that despair is a luxury. Not for everyone. Some people are really burdened by life, either because of chemicals in their brains or terrible personal circumstances or social circumstances that make despair inescapable. But most people in this country aren’t. And since most of us aren’t, we have an ethical obligation to look for hope and find it. It isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In fact, if it were easy, it would be less valuable. It’s like the Jewish search for God. One of the Talmudic ideas for why it’s so hard is that you create its value by the difficulty of the search. We all do it. That’s what our struggle is. We wouldn’t get out of bed otherwise.

Excerpted from the irreverent Jewish magazine Heeb (Fall 2003). Subscriptions: $18 (4 issues) from Box 687, New York, NY 10012; www.heebmagazine.com

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