Admittedly, it’s fun to have Katherine Kersten back in the Strib again. No one tries harder to be the voice of common sense and reason, and no one comes up short of the mark more often. For readers, this vast gap between goal and execution provides a great deal of entertainment, and for that we can all be thankful.
Last Sunday, I had the disconcerting pleasure of being quoted (albeit indirectly) in Kersten’s column a whopping three times. If you think reading Katherine Kersten is hilarious to begin with, take it from me that she’s several magnitudes funnier when she’s quoting you out of context to support her bizarre viewpoint, or when you know more than she does about whatever happens to be bunching her undies on any given day.
Kersten’s target last weekend was playwright Tony Kushner and the legions of Twin Cities politicians, businesspeople, and educators (people who, in Kersten’s view “should know better”) whose lack of sound judgment led them to welcome Kushner to town in support of the Guthrie’s recently concluded “Kushner Celebration.” Folks around here were in a “communal swoon” over Kushner, she claims, “in full groupie mode, hopeful that a bit of cultural stardust might waft their way.”
Kersten wasn’t fooled by this cultural “snake-oil salesman,” of course. She makes it perfectly clear that throughout the Twin Cities’ disgusting display of civility and tolerance for Kushner she never set foot in the Guthrie. Thus was she able to avoid compromising her moral integrity, prevent the inevitable sullying of her Christian soul, and keep her moral compass pointed due Reagan.
Kersten’s primary beef with Kushner is that he has written some nasty things (“hate speech,” she calls it) about the Pope, the Catholic church, and the church’s insistence that homosexual love is a sin against God. For this, she labels Kushner “one of the nation’s foremost peddlers of [anti-Catholic] vitriol,” and chastises Twin Citians for celebrating him rather than doing the sensible thing and “running him out of town.”
Sanctimony and condescension are the colors Kersten likes to paint with most, and she applies them with ultra-broad brushes that she constructs herself, in her own imagination. The piece on Sunday begins with the disarming sentence: “If there’s anything we Minnesotans don’t like, it’s bigotry.” That “we” is classic Kersten, because it assumes an identification with the reader that doesn’t necessarily exist, and lets the reader know that she is speaking on their behalf—a truly laughable assumption if there ever was one.
It takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to appreciate the pulsing contradictions in Kersten’s prose. In this case, for instance, she means “we” both literally and ironically. She is one of “us,” but she isn’t, because she’s smarter and not as easily deceived as the bovine “bigwigs” who were “giddy with excitement” over the prospect of seeing Kushner’s new play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Equally disingenuous is her assertion that “we” don’t like people who engage in bigotry, followed by—and here is where the Strib really gets its entertainment value out of Kersten—a dead-on imitation of a bigot, or at the very least someone who is greatly offended by a homosexual socialist playwright who makes a lot of money.
But that’s just the first few paragraphs; Kersten doesn’t really hit her stride until she says, “Bigotry and incivility are Kushner’s stock in trade. Take his anti-Catholic rants in The Nation magazine”—in which, she explains, Kushner called Pope John Paul II a “homicidal liar” who “endorses murder” because the Pope did not “sufficiently deplore the beating death of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.” What she conveniently leaves out is that the Nation article to which she is referring, “Matthew’s Passion,” was written in 1998, and in that piece Kushner himself explains that his use of the term “homicidal liar” is intentionally hyperbolic and uncivil, because, in Kushner’s view, a Pope who calls for “civil discourse” but insists on beginning that discourse with the assumption that homosexual love is a sin, is inherently uncivil—as well as hypocritical and dangerous. “A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse,” Kushner wrote in 1998, “and would say that I ought not call the Pope a homicidal liar . . . But I worry a lot less about the death of civil discourse than I worry about being killed if, visiting the wrong town with my boyfriend, we forget ourselves so much as to betray, at the wrong moment, in front of the wrong people, that we love one another.”
The difference between Tony Kushner and the Pope, however, is that Tony Kushner is a playwright and public intellectual whose job it is to beg the hard questions, expose the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, write interesting and sometimes provocative plays, and comment on various aspects of the culture that command his attention. The Pope, on the other hand, is someone who purports to be Christ’s representative on Earth, who supposedly has a special relationship with God that no one else has, whose moral and spiritual judgment are said to be infallible, who professes to know the capital “T” Truth about God’s plan on Earth—and whose dictates on various matters of morality, including the unholiness of homosexual love—millions of people in this world take absolutely literally. This is not a level field for any kind of discourse, and part of Kushner’s complaint about the Pope—and the Catholic church in general—is that it doesn’t use the power it has to prevent millions of well-meaning, Bible-toting literalists from hating homosexuals.
In paraphrasing Kushner, Kersten stripped away all the essay’s nuance and logic, leaving nothing but the raw viscera of Kushner’s anger—and she did this because her objective was to portray Kushner as an unreasonable, hysterical bigot. And to prove that it is he, Kushner, who is the true hater, not her, she serves up a Kerstenian coup de grace by cooing, “Even Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay writer, condemned Kushner’s diatribe as hateful.” There you have it: If a gay person agrees with her, then it must be true!
Now, to be fair, it’s not hard to find examples of Tony Kushner waxing apoplectic over Ronald Reagan, Republicanism, or organized religion; he’s practically built a career on it. But all of this is really beside the point, because the Guthrie was not celebrating Kushner’s essays in The Nation, it was celebrating his work as a playwright and an artist. Cherry-picking volatile comments from a lifetime of public pontificating only serves one purpose—to prove what an upstanding, moral creature Katherine Kersten is, and what a degenerate, unhinged reprobate Tony Kushner is.
It gets better, though. Her next salvo is: “Kushner is given to similar rants against anyone who has the temerity to view the world differently than he does. For example, his play ‘Bright Room Called Day’ [sic] ‘sparked controversy for drawing rather blunt parallels between Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan,” as Mpls./St.Paul magazine [that’s me] so delicately put it.”
Here, Kersten makes the common critical mistake of failing to distinguish between Kushner’s work as an essayist and his work as an artist, conflating to the two to make it seem as if all Tony Kushner does is rant at people who disagree with him. It’s true that Kushner doesn’t have much love for Ronald Reagan, but as anyone who has seen “Angels in America” can tell you, Kushner’s portrayal of Joe Pitt, Roy Cohn’s conflicted Mormon law clerk, is extraordinarily tender and thoughtful—and that’s part of why it’s regarded as a great play, not simply a didactic indictment of Republicanism in America. As for “A Bright Room Called Day,” yes, it caused Reagan-lovers to harrumph and cry foul, but it also made a lot of people uncomfortable for having the temerity to suggest—and the clarity of mind to articulate—that there might more of a connection between Republicanism and totalitarianism than most people suppose. Kersten, a conservative idealogue, would of course instinctively recoil at such a suggestion—which is precisely what she did, because she certainly didn’t bother to see the play.
Kersten continues: “Had Kushner smeared a Muslim imam as a ‘homicidal liar,’ or compared Al Gore to Hitler, his writing career would likely be over.” Here, Kersten is engaging in a bit of careless speculation, not to mention some wishful thinking—but her basic argument is that liberal heroes like Kushner are held to a different rhetorical standard than conservative gatekeepers of reason like her, and it’s not fair. Thus maligned, she can’t help wagging her finger at anyone who was dim-witted enough to be charmed by this hate-spewing poofter from New York. “But here in the Twin Cities,” she continues, “fans clamored for him like seventh-grade girls catching their first glimpse of the Beatles in 1964.”
Ouch. Could she be more belittling or condescending? Well, yes—but again, that’s part of the fun of reading Katherine Kersten. No sooner does she denounce Kushner for engaging in some ill-considered hyperbole than she launches into some ridiculous hyperbole of her own. She’s trying to be sarcastic, of course, but she has to reach back for a 45-year-old cultural reference to do it—and that’s just sad. But funny too, in the way tragedy and comedy can sometimes be. She tries the same thing a few paragraphs later in comparing the behavior of corporate “poobahs” and arts patrons here to “Leonard Bernstein-style Manhattan sophisticates’ 1960 infatuation with the Black Panthers,” as portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” In equating Tony Kushner with the Black Panthers, of course, Kersten comes very close to outdoing herself. The woman is definitely on a roll.
But that’s not even the best part. Because her perch on the moral high ground prevented her from stooping so low as to actually see any of Kushner’s plays at the Guthrie, particularly the one with the inherently repugnant name, she scoured the local blogosphere to search out the most damning quotes about the play she could find—i.e., the ones that would best support her preconceived notions about Tony Kushner’s work and everything it represents. (Note: you might want to grab a Kleenex here, because what I’m about to tell you is so over the top that it’s going to bring you to tears, whether you choose to laugh or cry about it.)
Now, keep in mind, Kersten didn’t actually see “The Intelligent Homosexual,” but that little detail didn’t prevent her from informing her readers, with all the authority a regular columnist in the Strib can summon (which isn’t much, I’ll grant you), that the play is “distinguished by a Kushner hallmark—crudity.” And how does she know this? Because David DeYoung, writing on the website “HowWasTheShow.com” said so.
Or did he?
According to Kersten, the play’s “flavor” was captured by DeYoung this way: “ ‘The expletive-filled mouths of most of the characters may shock some theatergoers,’ advised the Web site. ‘Much of the humor [comes] from shock value’—as when characters theorize about lesbians’ use of penis-substitutes during pregnancy.”
Swearing?! Shocking humor?! Talk of dildos?!! That’s all Kersten needs to hear in order to send her moral compass spinning, and it’s all the evidence she needs to dismiss the play out of hand. You would never guess from Kersten’s characterization that in every other respect DeYoung’s review was glowingly, almost ecstatically positive: “I am eager to see if the level of other people’s excitement about this provocative new work is on par with my own,” DeYoung wrote. “Surely I wasn’t the only theatergoer with teary eyes . . .”
When people complain that Kersten isn’t really a journalist—that she’s just a reactionary conservative mouthpiece who doesn’t do any real reporting, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. The only other review she quoted was Quinton Skinner’s in Variety , which, she said, “ventured the heretical observation: ‘Performed by lesser talents, [the play] would likely be an unbearable mess.” Such criticism was a “surprise,” she said, “given the fawning reception its creator received”—as if the Twin Cities’ collective adulation for Kushner should have clouded everyone’s judgment, but didn’t, a direct refutation of her entire argument that she breezes past as if it were road kill on the highway of her elevated consciousness. If she stopped to consider facts that might contradict her, it would slow her down, of course—and she’s in too much of a hurry to take another shot at anyone stupid enough to climb on the Guthrie bandwagon for this cultural boondoggle. She concludes:
“For our movers and shakers, it’s Kushner who is deliciously transgressive. And the fact that Mpls./St.Paul magazine [me again] has called him ‘one of the most unrepentant socialists in the country’ just adds to his attractions. True, a few might dismiss Kushner as a snake-oil salesman who—despite his socialist credo—is laughing all the way to the bank. But these Philistines are sure to be overlooked when the invitation lists for next season’s best Kenwood parties are drawn up.”
In Kersten’s lexicon, of course, “socialist” is just a euphemism for “evil,” and anyone who makes money while quoting Marx is clearly a hypocrite. People who talk and think like that don’t deserve to make money, she seems to be saying, and anyone who helps Kushner (by buying a ticket) has been duped by his clever little scam. That last line about the Philistines is a bit of a puzzler, but what I think she’s trying to say is that there might be one or two other people in the Twin Cities who are as wise to the whole Kushner Festival ruse as she is (Michele Bachmann, for one), but that her bold stand for decency and decorum in the arts will brand her as a Philistine—as someone who “doesn’t get it”—and that this is why she will not be invited to any parties next year.
There’s a whiff of disdain in that last paragraph that speaks to something deeper than a mere aversion to intelligent homosexuals who disparage the Pope and his-holy-saintedness Ronald Reagan, and who get paid for spreading crudity and socialism throughout the land, thereby undermining the Capitalist Republic of America. Clearly, Katherine Kersten wants to be invited to those Kenwood parties.
In order for this to happen, she doesn’t need to “get it” necessarily—she just needs to learn that in polite society, especially in Minnesota, it’s not nice to form an opinion of someone based on complete hearsay, and when you don’t know what you’re talking about, at least have the good sense to keep your opinion to yourself. In such situations, it’s best to follow the advice of the wisest Republican of them all, Abe Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”