Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times on October 5, lamented the lack of a fitting artistic response to 9-11 and asked, “Where’s Larry Kramer when we need him?” Rich’s analogy between the nation’s recent tragedy and the AIDS epidemic and Kramer, its great hero, would at first glance appear to be a good one, and simple enough.
In his groundbreaking play, “The Normal Heart” (1985), Kramer laid blame for AIDS on the ignorance, arrogance, and complacency of active and passive “mass-murderers” and perpetrators of “genocide” including Republicans, Mayor Koch, the gay community, and even the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). In fact, he reserved special places in hell for those of us making half-hearted efforts to help. In Kramer’s legendary hyperbole, GMHC was “worse than Auschwitz.”
It’s tempting to blame the current world situation on a comparable black-and-white conspiracy of villains––the current Republican administration of arrogant, profligate plunderers; their partners in crime, the fascist leader of Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots, militants, fanatics, and land gonifs; and a Dickensianly stupid, vicious, and materialistic American people.
Kramer and a generation of activists proved hugely salutary not only for the care and treatment of AIDS, but for overall trends in health care and medical research, in America and globally. The influence of a Kramer could elucidate the new geopolitical threat facing the world—and maybe help prevent World War III. If Kramer were to answer Rich’s call, what might we expect?
Kramer’s vision on AIDS was that we in the gay community needed to clean up our own act before we could expect our fellow citizens to tidy theirs, especially regarding what we might expect from them on civil liberties, respect, and a place at the table. If we were going to get real help with AIDS, we were going to have to fight for it.
With most artists and intellectuals seeing an imperialist Israel in a joined-at-the-hip partnership with an imperialist America, we might expect that house cleaning to begin with Jews. Perhaps a satire a la Kramer’s “Faggots,” entitled “Kikes.” Kramer did it with gay people. Others, like Dick Gregory, have done it with blacks. His long-awaited novel “The American People,” if still conceptualized as it was by Kramer more than a decade ago, could take on Jews along with everybody else, including Native Americans and American Muslims.
But even that could be too little, too late. I find it increasingly troubling that Kramer—together with the vast majority of Jewish intellectuals and artists—has been so silent to date on the once again raging issue of global anti-Semitism. Kramer’s work has treated anti-Semitism as a problem of history. There isn’t a single word of acknowledgment anywhere in all his writings that anti-Semitism is an ongoing, recurrent problem.
With regard to contemporary anti-Semitism, vis a vis Israel, the War on Terror, Jihad, garden variety cemetery desecrations, or synagogue, school, and library bombings that occur continuously, Larry Kramer––and for that matter Tony Kushner and Susan Sontag as well––has been consistently silent. Kramer’s avoidance of the issue in a recent New Yorker profile IS just the latest example, which brings to mind the iconic ACT UP motto: silence = death.
When I confronted Larry in e-mail exchanges shared with gay playwrights Kushner and William M. Hoffman about his not seizing the opportunity afforded by The New Yorker to say something about the worst explosions of anti-Semitic violence since World War II, Kramer responded, “I am not particularly interested in Israel. I am not particularly interested in Zionism. And if you don’t like it, you can go choke on it.”
Are Kramer, Kushner, and Sontag, like my own sister and the majority of Jews not clearly condemning anti-Semitic terrorist atrocities, complicit in the mass murders of Jews taking place in Israel? Isn’t that exactly what Kramer concluded about gays and others who were silent and seemingly indifferent to AIDS? That we were all mass murderers and committing genocide?
The problem has never been that artists and writers and leftists don’t have the right to be critical, even extremely critical of the Republicans, of Israel, of Jews. It’s their failure to be commensurately critical of the mass murders of Jews and other acts of extreme anti-Semitic violence happening every day. There is no form of internalized prejudice against a minority as impressive, as vital, as resilient, as diabolical, as that of anti-Semitism, which Hoffman feels is more aptly described as “Jew hatred.”
When Kramer published “Faggots” in 1978, he faced harsh criticism for his failure to be more supportive of and involved in the gay activist movement by then already well underway, to which the novel was a response. Where was Larry Kramer when we needed him? That was the consistent criticism.
Eventually, he turned all that around by confronting the very community that had been haranguing him for so long by accusing them––us––of being silent, of being mass murderers, of committing genocide, with regard to the new AIDS crisis. Hopefully, we’ll all still be here for “The American People.” But will it be that great work of art that put us all in our place, set us all straight, and save the world?
It is precisely because of my belief in what Kramer, who continues to inspire me more than most other writers and thinkers and critics combined, stands for—telling one’s truth no matter what––that I felt I had to write this to tell my truth. Certainly, it’s what he would do if he were me, even though upon seeing a truncated version of this essay sent as a letter to the editor to The Times (unpublished), he e-mailed me that I should go fuck myself and that we were no longer friends.
What I fear most is that the solution afforded the current crisis of anti-Semitism by a new Larry Kramer is going to be the old one of caricaturing the current crop of Republican villains and American ethnocentricities, without looking more squarely at the macro-realities of world terrorism, and the malignant prejudices and aggression that are fueling them. Nor am I holding my breath waiting for a call to the kind of political activism Kramer issued on AIDS, which Rodger McFarlane has written was so critical to the “monumental social change” that resulted from the epidemic.
So, in response to Frank Rich––yes, let’s get a new Larry Kramer to cut through a lot of the bullshit and deal with the current world crisis. Hopefully, however, the new Larry Kramer won’t be the current one who––beyond the superficial level of Jewish extroversion and social satire, in the style of Woody Allen––is still essentially in the closet and therefore silent about malignant Jew hatred as one of the main causes of that crisis.
Not long ago Woody Allen went to France to accept an award for outstanding filmmaking. When there, he defended France against accusations of anti-Semitism. After all, look how well they treated Stepin Fetchit––right Woody? Would Woody Allen visit Israel? Would Kramer? In a manner uncomfortably close to that of the “Mayor” in “The Normal Heart” and “Just Say No,” whose closeted homosexuality keeps him from rallying to his community’s cause at its greatest moment of crisis, Kramer keeps his distance from anything that would involve too overt an identification with Jews or their plight.
In “Reports from the Holocaust,” chronicling his life as an AIDS activist, Kramer expressed admiration for the Irgun, an organization of early Zionist militants instrumental in creating modern Israel. Today, he is not the target of the most militant terrorists who practice extreme anti-Semitic hatred and violence, but who are quite often vigorously supported, and thereby perpetuated, by the artists and intellectuals and socialists––many of them people of wealth and privilege––who have become Kramer’s primary extended family.
The irony is that Israel and its Jews are so desperate for any kind of legitimacy and support that they would probably give Kramer some kind of award for outstanding Jewish achievement were he to visit, the way they did Sontag some years back. After much hesitation, Sontag went to Jerusalem, even though she took the occasion, as Phyllis Chesler notes in her book, “The New Anti-Semitism,” to criticize Israel but not the terrorist bombers.
Imagine… Larry Kramer visiting Jerusalem. It would be the happy ending to a satire of the American people by–-who else?––Larry Kramer.
Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the author of a memoir, “Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America,” and the editor of “We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer.”