Tony Kushner: Hollywood and Socialism

Can a socialist choose Hillary Clinton over
Bernie Sanders, find out today on The Laura Flanders Show when I talk with playwright
and screenwriter Tony Kushner. And later in the show, I visit with an art gallery by,
with, and for Roma people in Hungary. It embraces hip hop and bell hooks. All that and a few
words from me on moving forwards not backwards in Europe. Welcome to our program. Our next guest has been awarded the Pulitzer
Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, two Academy Award nominations, and President
Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 2013. This fall he was entered
into the National Theater Hall of Fame – and no wonder; among his plays are Angels In America:
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Caroline or Change and The Intelligent Homosexual’s
Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He’s written films among
them, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Munich. He has also written or edited several books,
including Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli
Conflict, co-edited with Alisa Solomon. Tony, welcome to the program. Thanks, it’s so nice to be here. Let me ask you about Angels in America – I
went back and saw it, not so long ago in Hungary — I’ll tell you more about that later but
it caused me to go back to the text and read it again, and I was reminded about how incredibly
current its relevance is, written in 1992. It speaks to a sense of change that people
are feeling differently today, I think, and yet it’s still as poignant as it ever was,
I’m talking about that sense that a lot of people have today that the world is broken,
states are broken, ideologies are broken – there’s chaos everywhere. In 1992, it’s almost as
if you were suggesting this was going to be a great opportunity for creative new life
and theory creation. How are you feeling about it now? When I listen to the play now – we just did
a revival of it in New York – well, “just”, it was in 2010, it was five years ago! It
seems like yesterday. When I hear the play done now, it feels optimistic to an extent
and the parts of it that seem most immediately relevant are some of the darker things, some
of the stuff in the play about climate catastrophe is very relevant now. When I first wrote the
play, I thought “this is a little sketchy, am I really right about any of this, are we
going to just discover that this was all nonsense?” That was in the late 80s, early 90s and now
of course, there’s no question whatsoever that we’re in horrible, horrible — I mean
trouble unlike any the human race or the planet has ever faced. And that feels very current
and very grim, but I still feel optimistic. I think that there are many terrible things.
It’s hard work. We’re in one of those periods where reading the newspaper any given day
is very very hard work. Because there’s so much to despair about and so much that’s frightening.
But I think we’re in a period of a great sort of grappling with questions of definition,
and I prefer the moments of real struggle with it. As I think, for instance, in this
country and all over the world are doing now, grappling with questions of national identity,
and political identity, sexual identity, and gender identity and so on. These times are
always fraught with great pain and great striving and great suffering simultaneously. But I’d
rather be in the middle of one of those times of tumult than in a time of complacency. Because
complacency only means that oppression is working and that people are being silenced
through tremendous violence and being kept invisible. At a time like this, where there’s
been a certain amount of decentering, it’s scary but it is a moment when I think we can
feel and see change getting better. But I guess that’s kind of the question. Do
we end up with tribalism or solidarity? You’ve always been a believer in solidarity, to be
fair. Yeah, and I think that there’s great evidence
in many quarters of the effectiveness of communities of oppressed people making common cause — Alright so give me an example, cheer me up. Well I think that for instance the recent
successes of the LGBTQIA movement in terms of civil law, in terms of same sex marriage,
I think there was a great coming together of a great number of communities including
sexual majoritarian communities to effect a transformation through the machinery of
the electoral government and I think that it’s been a significant and really enormously
powerful and profound change. But you were one of the people who in the
90s, I remember your amazing essay for The Nation magazine, “Socialism of the Skin”,
calling for beyond assimilation, for real liberation. You got married, a few years ago,
I don’t hold that against you. What happened to this broader vision of real radicalism? Well I think we’re seeing it happening. I
think that the aims — I think that there’s no discounting, and I don’t think that I did
in the essay that I wrote in the early 90s. I mean, Angels in America ends with Prior
Walter saying we’ll be citizens and again, franchisement in the democratic society, and
this is a functioning democratic society for all of its flaws is an immensely important
thing. I believe in electoral politics. I would prefer to see change come about peacefully
than through violence and bloodshed. But I think that as soon as — I mean the right
is right about only one thing which is that none of the agendas that they’re always warning
themselves about – the Gay Agenda – is limited to just a small “Can we please get married?”
“Can we please adopt children?” That’s not small but that’s the beginning of something,
not the end of something. That any successful movement for civil rights and franchisement
then opens the door to a questioning of assumptions that it simply wasn’t possible to question
before so we see people now — the trans movement, the gender questioning, new infinitely more
subtle and complicated dialogue going on now about race, about ethnicity, internationalism,
and – although I think we’re lagging behind in this department – economics, I think that
there a lot of questions that are now being asked that will push us more and more to an
economically, as well as socially just world. I sound very Mary Sunshine right now. Talk about sunshine – I’m reminded that you
and I both were both on that February 15, 2003 march to stop the war in Iraq. A decade,
well a decade and a half ago we spectacularly failed to stop the war. A lot of expectations,
hopes perhaps were dashed but relationships were built. Where do you come down on how
change happens? That march – I’ve never spoken to a crowd
that size. Enormous. The largest globally coordinated
march at that time, ever. Yes I think it was at that point the largest
in history, and it was a terrifyingly cold day, and so the passion of those million plus
people who turned out on the East River, in a desperate last-minute move to say “we mustn’t
go ahead and invade Iraq, we mustn’t start bombing in Baghdad.” I mean it was enormously
moving and the next day, W. make his infamous remark where they asked him what do you think
and he said they’re like a focus group for television. And I thought, well actually that’s
the only true thing I’ve ever heard that creep say, because — and it was a big changing
point for me — I felt like well yes, we’ve actually surrendered control of the machinery
of power to such an enormous degree that all we can do is make our preference for not attacking,
not destabilizing the region known. Beyond that there was no one really to listen to
us. There were senators who voted against the war, but most senators, including some
very good people, including the person who I hope will be the next President of the United
States, voted for the war. Because we had given up too much in terms of political power.
And that was a huge turning point for me. I began to really ask questions that I’m still
grappling with about dreams of revolution and what the dream of revolution has done
to the progressive community and whether or not change is more likely to be anticipated
from movements that lie outside of the political or if in mainstream politics revolutionary
change can come about. And I really believe that it can, and I think
that getting control of the machinery of power of this country is a matter of absolutely
planetary life and death at this point. Alright so I’m assuming you’re not suddenly
becoming a Republican, it sounds like you’re voting for Hillary Clinton — No I’m talking about getting control away
from them — yeah I am. As opposed to Bernie Sanders. But isn’t Bernie
Sanders the self-described socialist and aren’t you, haven’t you described yourself as a socialist?
What has Hillary done to win you over? Sort of what she said in the first debate,
that she’s a progressive person that gets things done. I mean, I admire Bernie Sanders
very very much. I’ve never called myself a Democratic Socialist just because it’s a very
specific political movement that I don’t necessarily want to align myself with but I believe – I
call myself a socialist because I believe that there is such a category as economic
justice. I don’t think that justice is purely a matter of equality before the law. I think
that the way that the financial sector, that the economy part of a political economy operates
has everything to do with whether or not there will actually be justice in the world. And
I believe that money is not morally neutral. I think it’s a human system of meaning and
it can be manipulated for good or for evil and we have abandoned far too much of the
control over it to people whose main intention is evil to the extent that it is absolutely,
unquestionably, perversely self serving for a very very very tiny group of people who
then convince everybody else that it’s in their interests to enrich this tiny group
of people, and I so that’s your view on socialism but how does
Hillary Clinton get to be your candidate? Yeah, because I think that — and working
on the Lincoln screenplay changed me enormously in this regard — I believe that in an electoral
democracy compromise is necessary, and I believe in an electoral democracy like our, where
there are two political parties — well at this point it’s almost difficult to say that
because there’s one political party and then there’s this incoherent, shrieking, chaotic
nightmare that the Reagan counterrevolution has spawned on the other side and it’s really
bad news for American democracy that the two party system is gone now and what you have
is a party that still has apparently as it’s front runner Presidential candidate, a man
like Donald Trump. Yeah. Who is insane. And I think that that’s a very
bad state of affairs but I do believe that some of the most enduring transformations
of human society that I’ve seen in my lifetime and that I’m aware of as a student of history,
have come about through electoral politics. But that was one of the criticisms of Lincoln
was that it — it did a brilliant portrayal of how those compromises got made and a study
of legislation I know of no better on film How compromises got made and also how the
compromises lead to a very significant Huge step forward Well the 13th amendment. “We’re stepped out upon the world stage now.
With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment.
Now, now, now.” But there had been a huge movement — there
were movements in the background Fredrick Douglass – is there a movie that tells that
story? Well you know, my assignment was to write
a movie, the first studio film about Abraham Lincoln in 72 years, the federal government
at the time was definitely a white, male government entirely. And I didn’t want to falsify history.
Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest human beings that ever lived, and made a tremendous
difference in the world. And I wasn’t making a claim, Spielberg wasn’t making a claim about
which one was a great person, Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass. We were making a claim
that Abraham Lincoln was a great person. Are you a fan of Black Lives Matter? Sure, I mean, absolutely. Fan is an odd word,
but I think you know, as I said earlier, I think that we’re in a period now of a new
kind of discussion about race in this country. I don’t believe that one can say that there
has been no progress. I think that there’s been immense progress. I think that it’s palpable.
It’s concrete. But racism is an enormously pernicious and powerful force and it operates
in ugly, grotesque, obvious ways, garoush ways and it also operates in subtler ways
and through subtler systems. And I think that we’re seeing, in BlackLivesMatter, in the
fights that are being held on college campuses now a real discussion that wasn’t possible
before about how to begin to envision a society that really responds with sensitivity to subjective
experiences that are wildly various and different from one another and again that struggle is
going to be – it’s a groping and we’re always a little blind when we start trying to make
something new, but it seems to me that something new is taking place. Two last things, I just can’t let you go without
talking a little bit about what’s going on in Israel/Palestine. You’re a big critic of
Israel but you still call yourself a Zionist, I’m curious No, I don’t. You don’t anymore? I’ve never. Oh, ok, my mistake. I’m not an anti-Zionist, I’m a diasporan Jew,
I’m a citizen of the United States, I’m not a citizen of Israel. I absolutely — Are you a supporter of the BDS movement? No, I’m not. I like a lot of the people involved
in the BDS movement, in this country especially. In Europe it has some strange affiliations.
I don’t think that Israel is South Africa, I don’t think that the model that brought
about the end of apartheid in South Africa can be applied to Israel, and I think that
a boycott of Israel is not going to to lead to anything other than a more unreachable
and hardened country, more completely in the grips of its political right. I believe that
any approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict – you have to approach it with a full awareness
of Jewish history and the way in which the founding of the state of Israel is a direct
consequence of a long and terribly difficult struggle against oppression. And to assign
Israel the role of some sort of colonial power dominating the region is to profoundly misunderstand
from at least the Jewish point of view. I mean I’ll — It certainly underestimates the evil of the
British empire if you ask me. Yes, exactly, it’s like we weren’t — the
British mandate, you can say anything you want about it but Set things up this way. But you know, that’s not in any way to exculpate
the really horrendous treatment of the Palestinian people by Israel. But it matters enormously
to me that it seems to me that the occupation and the violation of human rights and kill
ratios of 1300 to 1 is a violation of Jewish ethical teaching. I have issues with any state
calling itself a Jewish state or a Christian state no matter what the history and I don’t
know how Israel will ultimately resolve that. I believe in the two state solution, I call
myself a Diasporan Jew. I have friends who are Zionists, I have friends who are anti-Zionists
and friends who don’t have an opinion at all. Keep on wrestling. Thank you. Tony, great
to be here thanks for coming in, honestly. You can find out more about Tony Kushner’s
work, at our website. You can hear more interviews like that on
our audio podcast, available at Last year I had the chance to travel to Hungary,
courtesy of the Independent Theater Critic’s Association and their colleagues. There, I
visited Gallery 8, it’s the first Roma art gallery in Hungary. And I spoke with the cofounder
and one of the artists. Here’s some of that conversation. I am Timea Junghaus and I am a Roma woman.
I am also an art historian. I was born here in Budapest in the Eighth district which is
the district which has the largest Roma population. The Eighth district has its own identity.
It is the district where most of the Roma people live, where 90% of the students at
schools are actually Roma children. The majority of Roma in Hungary are living
in very difficult financial circumstances. Here in the city there are also well to do
Roma families, those who are living in historical musicians’ families and have a very strong
family history of being an artist or an intellectual. Gallery 8 is a Roma contemporary art space.
It started in 2013, February, after the Eighth District municipality and basically Budapest
closed down all the cultural places and spaces available for self-representation of the Roma
people. We put a lot of energy into demonstrating the government’s decisions, and also trying
to save the existing places. Collections, initiatives. But in 2013, our team decided
that it is time that we do not oppose the government’s actions anymore. It is time taht
we do not put our ideas into the future, that we start performing them in the here and now. This is Tibor Balogh a contemporary artist.
He grew up in a state orphanage. Tibor was the first – he graduated in 2005, and at the
moment he knows about 5 artists who are studying or who have graduated from the fine arts academy. It’s extremely important to show different
images of Roma, those who are educated, those who can provide a role model for the future
generations, artists – which is a very untraditional role in the Roma community – so being present
in the Roma community in these different roles and providing this image also for the majority
of society is really unusual and perhaps sends a completely different message than what we
have communicated before. African American analogies are extremely important
inspirations for the Roma intellectual movement. And I think what we have to say is even the
most difficult circumstances, we need to build on our culture. Because basically in the Roma
context, culture is the only area where we can talk about the Roma not as a problem.
As our friend De Bois has referred to it, not as a problem but as Roma and Roma culture
as an asset. And we also gain a lot of inspiration from African American feminist theorists and
this gallery is actually the proof that opposition is not enough, not even in the Roma context.
As bell hooks, African American theorist said, opposition is not enough, in the vacant moment
after one has resisted there is the need to make ourselves anew. So this is the space,
Gallery 8, that we make ourselves anew. Half way through Tony Kushner’s play, Angels
in America, two old Bolsheviks consider the prospect of the future in a scene set in the
Kremlin on the verge of the end of the Soviet Union in 1985. “The great question before us is: are we doomed?”
says one. “Will the past release us…? “ Thirty years later, as Europeans reel from
financial shock, austerity, and the biggest inward migration surge in memory, it’s a
question that’s still without an answer. What is clear is that the authoritarianism
of the past has yet to release its grip. In 2015 right wing nationalist parties won
elections across the continent – from Austria to Poland, Sweden, Turkey and Denmark. Leading the way of course was Hungary, where
strong man Viktor Orban has been in office as prime minister since 2010. Orban has a
massive majority, just short of two thirds. His only real competition comes from the neo
fascist Jobbik movement. To keep ahead of that, he’s used his power to write a new
constitution, pack the courts, purge the arts and reign terror on the very poor and anyone
he considers an outsider: before the war refugees, it was Jews, gypsies and LGBT people. Forward or back? The last time I saw Angels
In America was in Budapest in 2013. There, that Kremlin scene, played out in what felt
like a very contemporary context. Playing Prior Walter, Kushner’s outspoken, cross
dressing, openly gay lead, was Robert Alfoldi, an outspoken, gay, cosmopolitan Jew who’d
just been ousted from his job as director of Hungary’s National Theater to be replaced
by an Orban appointee who had sworn to return the theater to its Hungarian roots and make
the National a “sacred space.” Cut to the end of the play. “The world only
spins forward,” said Alfoldi as Walter speaking unmistakably for all outsiders. “We will
be citizens. The time has come”. For every night of the run, the normally reserved
Hungarian audience, rose clapping in unison, to give the play, Alfoldi, and the future
a rousing ovation. It’s a long piece, which ends with the words
“The Great Work Begins.” Kushner’s right. The great work of forward
over backward isn’t easy. Nor is it over, yet. To tell me what you think, write to [email protected]
And thanks. What would our world look like today if our
media showed us as much collaboration as they do competition? What if we got to meet people
making change, right here, right now, in all sorts of ways we’re usually told are impossible?
Subscribe today to The Laura Flanders show for in-depth interviews with forward thinking
people – smarts, not soundbites, every week, right here. Subscribe and thanks.

  1. I voted this down not because of Laura Flanders, but because of the empty rhetoric coming from Kushner. I haven't rolled my eyes so often in a while.

  2. I'm looking forward to hearing from the Hillary apologists when she starts waging war on Black and brown bodies around the world. She's a hawk and her support of war for western imperialism and corporate profits won't be more palatable because she's a woman.

  3. Barf — Laura should be saying "a so-called socialist."
    Yes people may be feeling different — but this corporate shill is still ready for …more of the same.

  4. I live in Hungary and Laura is SO right about the situation here! It is genuinely scary, but this is what can easierly happen when a country is allowed to become economically ruined like Hungary is. There is so little hope here!

  5. So disappointed in Tony Kushner's interview, I thought he'd more articulate. Is he stuck in the 1990's? His spin on things sounded like one long, confused rationalization, desperately seeking optimism to reassure himself. Supporting Hillary is equivalent to approving the status quo, but undoubtedly his status quo is very comfortable. His comment that "This is a functioning Democratic society" blew my mind – what planet is he living on?

    Piece on Hungary sad and inspiring. Love to the artists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *