February 2, 2005
By The Plaid Adder
Editor's note: The Plaid Adder is still on hiatus. This is a special one-off column.
Yesterday I forced myself to read through Dr. Dobson's defense of his attack on SpongeBob Squarepants at a Focus on the Family event. While I found it 100% emetic from beginning to end, I do want to point out that he is absolutely right about one thing. The mainstream media coverage of this story has, as it so often does, oversimplified the story by reporting it as, "Dobson accuses SpongeBob of being gay."
As Dobson quite rightly points out, he never did say that SpongeBob himself was gay. He did something much more sinister and much more dangerous, and I am coming out of retirement to explain exactly what that was and why, as ridiculous as Dobson has made himself and Focus On The Family look, we are making a big mistake if we fail to take what's happening here seriously just because it looks crazy to us.
Dobson's argument throughout, both in his original 'remarks' and in his post-controversy apologia, is that SpongeBob is now "promoting homosexuality." How? By appearing in a video put out by the "We Are Family Foundation," which is intended to, as they put it in their press release, "promote tolerance and diversity to America's children."
Now, to understand why this is terrifying, it is essential to realize that there is actually no mention or representation of homosexuality, or sexuality in any form, in the video itself, which is just a cover of the disco hit "We Are Family" featuring the voices and images of many different characters from popular children's programs. All it does is what the press release says it does: celebrate the idea of a common humanity that unites all of us in one global family, and which the We Are Family Foundation makes bold to say might encourage children to learn and practice such notoriously radical values as "loving thy neighbor."
Is the We Are Family Foundation some kind of gay rights organization in disguise, as Dobson charges? If they are, it's a pretty good disguise. The "About Us" section of WeAreFamilyFoundation.org indicates that the organization was founded in the weeks after September 11, 2001 - when, if you will recall, there was a mini-epidemic of hate crimes against Muslims, Arab-Americans, and people who were mistakenly identified by their hysterical attackers as Muslim and/or Arab-American. The original writers of the disco hit "We Are Family" thought their song might be useful as a way of counteracting this by "promoting our common humanity and the vision of a global family."
So... how do you get a pro-homosexual agenda out of this? Simple. You turn to a different right-wing organization, the Family Research Council, which was good enough to explain the logic to a baffled reporter at the National Business Review:
A "homosexuality detection expert" at the similarly conservative Family Research Council told the NY Times that words like "tolerance" and "diversity" are part of a "coded language that is regularly used by the homosexual community."
In other words, the very concept of tolerance - the idea that we should all try to live together in peace and harmony instead of being constantly at war with each other - is now obnoxious to the religious right. Tolerance is a bad thing. Tolerance, in fact, will make your children gay. And since being gay is absolutely the worst thing in the world that could possibly happen to them, we must all fight tolerance anywhere it lurks - on the beaches, in the hills, in the streets, and of course in big yellow pineapples under the sea. We must never be misled into tolerating tolerance where it encroaches on our families, our schools, or the public airwaves. We must work ceaselessly and with constant vigilance toward that glorious day when we can say, finally, that we have achieved zero tolerance.
This is the point at which, for many mild-mannered moderates, the brain begins to freeze up, and to refuse to process the argument. How can you argue that being tolerant of other people is bad? What's so wrong with not insulting people, or abusing them, or excluding them, or discriminating against them, or trying to teach your children not to do the same? Isn't tolerance what allows a society like ours, with so many different ethnic and religious groups coming out of so many different national or regional traditions, to function smoothly without erupting into violence? Wouldn't creating a nation of intolerant people be, uh, dangerous? So now these people are saying that teaching tolerance is bad and wrong? Sorry. That can't be. I keep trying to understand that, but all I'm getting is an error message.
Indeed, Dobson claims in his post-SpongeBob screed that he has no problem with the concept of tolerance, no doubt because he realizes that that would make him look bad. Unfortunately, the rest of his piece completely undermines that assertion. There's so much to choose from, but here's the money shot, right here:
Every individual is entitled to respect and human dignity, including those with whom we disagree strongly. The problem is not with acceptance or kindness, certainly. But kids should not be taught that homosexuality is just another "lifestyle," or that it is morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Scripture teaches that all overt sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage is sinful and harmful. Children should not be taught otherwise by their teachers, and certainly not if their parents are unaware of the instruction. (Emphasis added)
So, from Dobson's point of view, it's all right to tolerate gay people as long as you make it perfectly clear that we're sinful and harmful and riding the hell-bound express. And the reason it is necessary to impress upon all people, children especially, that we are sinful and harmful and riding the hell-bound express, is that otherwise, you're teaching them something that goes against "Scripture."
How children are supposed to be able to figure out how to accept or be kind to people who are designated by all the adults they ever hear from as sinful, harmful, and hell-bound is a question Dobson doesn't seem to feel a need to address. But the real problem here, stated baldly for all to see, is Dobson's unquestioning assumption that no child should ever be taught something that contradicts what Dobson and his fellow-fundamentalists believe to be the One True Reading of the One True Scripture. Even in a public school classroom, where not all the students are Christians, and not all the Christians are fundamentalist evangelicals, it is not permissible or justifiable to teach anything that contradicts the fundamentalist Christian world view.
In other words, what these people really want is to create a world in which their value system is the only one that is ever made available to children. That's why they're always exposing themselves to ridicule by targeting cartoon characters. True, a grown man looks pretty ridiculous saying the words "SpongeBob Squarepants" at a black-tie dinner; but though that grown man may be a lunatic, he's no fool.
The religious right has correctly determined that television has a tremendous impact on children, and they have also correctly determined that much of the programming currently available for children is being produced by people whose first priority is not to indoctrinate their audience with the principles of one particularly extreme sect of one particular religion. The right has responded by producing their own children's programming, which allows them to use the electronic babysitter to manipulate children just like all the other advertisers do.
But for them, you see, it is not enough that their point of view is represented. It has to be the ONLY point of view available. Because once you give people alternatives, then they have free choice, and then they might choose the wrong thing, and then they would go to Hell, and it's Dobson's job to save us all from that terrible fate.
Now, there are Christians who would argue that free will is what makes humanity unique, and that God wanted us to have it, and that that's why he allowed Eve to eat the apple in the first place instead of striking the tree with lightning as soon as she reached for it. But that doesn't seem to be part of right-wing fundamentalist doctrine. They want a monopoly - on the schools, on the airwaves, in the political arena, and, well, anywhere they can establish it.
Well all right, you say, I get that; but why is 'tolerance' a challenge to their monopoly? Isn't 'tolerance' a kind of a, well, kind of a Christian value? I mean my Sunday school training is spotty, but seems to me I remember hearing things like, uh, "turn the other cheek," "forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven times," "take out the giant beam in your own eye before you go looking for tiny specks in other people's," "love your neighbor as yourself," and wasn't there some story about Jesus stopping a bunch of people from stoning a woman who had committed adultery by reminding them that there were some other sins in the world?
And as long as we're talking about other sins, if Jesus was really as worried about homosexuality as these fundamentalist types seem to think he is, how come he never once mentioned it?*
Well, see, we're really only dealing here with a specific kind of Christian, and this specific kind of Christian takes a very different view of who Jesus was and what he was put on earth for. This specific kind of Christian is also convinced that any attempt to encourage tolerance of - or even to represent - homosexuality is simply a veiled attempt to recruit. Why? Because all of us tend to assume that everyone else, under the skin, is really just like us. Therefore, people who themselves are aggressive, tireless, fanatically driven recruiters - as many evangelical Christians are - assume that everyone else is recruiting too.
Dobson, himself, would never stop at simply encouraging tolerance of fundamentalist Christianity. The whole point of being an evangelical is that your goal is always, and everywhere, to convert as many people as you can reach.
Fundamentalist demoninations have come up with a number of ingenious methods of recruiting new members, often relying on things like the "classic bait and switch" (come for the free food - stay for the Bible study!) that they accuse the We Are Family Foundation of pulling with the video. There are plenty of fundamentalists out there who have no problem with extortion or coercion as a prelude to conversion (one is reminded of the enterprising preacher in Iraq who was offering American soldiers a chance to bathe on the condition that they would let him baptize them). Naturally they assume that everyone else around them is constantly trying to do the same.
The idea that for others it might be enough just to get people to acknowledge their basic human rights simply doesn't compute. If you believe something, how could you NOT devote your life to forcing everyone else to believe it? Isn't that what everyone does?
It isn't, then, that the fundamentalist right-wing rejects tolerance so much as that they simply do not believe it really exists. 'Tolerance,' as they understand the world, can only ever be a mask for evangelical zeal. So anything that promotes 'tolerance' is necessarily promoting recruitment and conversion, and therefore must be stopped.
The course of recent history appears, to them, to provide proof of this assertion because, in fact, as our society has become more tolerant, there appear to be a lot more gay people in it. Actually, it's easy enough to understand why that's happening: as it has become less painful and risky for gay people to acknowledge their sexuality, more of them are coming out. Slamming the door on tolerance will not reduce the number of gay people in this country; but it may well reduce the number of gay people who are willing to identify themselves as such, and increase the number of gay people who deny themselves, their desires, and their chance at happiness by attempting to live as straight people.
And that's exactly what they want. The ultimate goal of things like the anti-SpongeBob crusade and the push for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is to begin the process of forcing gay people back into the closet. That way, their children will never even know that a Plan B exists; and so no matter how miserable Plan A makes them, they will, in theory, stick with it, even if it kills them.
Well, all right, you say, but really. SpongeBob? This Dawson guy is a lunatic. Fundamentalist Christians make up a minority of the American population, overall. What bozo would really allow extremist wing-nuts like him to dictate public policy?
Meet Margaret Spelling, new director of the Education Department. Spelling has told PBS - which produces and airs much of America's children's programming - not to air an episode of Postcards from Buster in which Buster the bunny visits Vermont to learn about how to make maple syrup, and meets a child whose parents are a lesbian couple. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," she said. And furthermore, "Congress's and the department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television."
This is what makes the SpongeBob controversy not funny. It's one thing for a crazy man to make an ass of himself in public by frothing about the subversive dangers of cartoon miscreants. Spelling's missive to PBS proves that under the Bush administration, this minority has accumulated enough political and social clout to dictate to the rest of the country. "Many parents" may object to this episode, but many other parents don't, and still others are deeply offended and bitterly angry about the fact that the head of a government department funded with their tax money has just ordered PBS, on pain of losing federal funding, to pretend that either they don't exist or they exude a radioactive toxicity that will blight and destroy any child exposed to them.
The "many parents" who win are the "many parents" who support Dobson's view of Christianity and of the world. A friend of mine called up her local PBS affiliate to complain about their refusal to air the episode, and was told by a trembling lackey, "We don't want to offend anyone." That doesn't make any sense; they are offending large numbers of people by caving in to Spelling on this issue. What he really meant was, "We don't want to offend anyone powerful." They have their orders: reproduce the world view Bush's backers want, or suffer the consequences of the king's displeasure.
At the same time, we are learning that the Education Department paid pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind, and that Health and Human Services has paid at least two conservative pundits for promoting Bush's "marriage initiatives." These are not isolated and unrelated incidents. SpongeBob, Buster the bunny, and the three payola pundits are all characters in the same story. The Bush administration is using its power to turn a minority religion into the dominant - and, eventually, the only - public viewpoint. They are subsidizing journalists to plant articles that create the impression that there has been a spontaneous 'sea-change' in public opinion about marriage and the family, when in fact the people who appear to be 'reflecting' this change are actually being paid by the government, with our tax dollars, to produce it. They are also using the power of the executive branch to squelch opposing viewpoints.
Right now, they are doing it to us, because they figure they can get away with it. But my straight brethren and sistren, I urge you to pay attention, because we are the canary in the coal mine. The crackdown on tolerance and diversity hits us first, because it is still socially acceptable for people who aren't Trent Lott to demonize us and discriminate against us. But remember, the We Are Family video is not about us.
It's about the acceptance of difference and the recognition of a basic human kinship that transcends ideological, confessional, gender, and national boundaries; and it was produced by an organization dedicated to stopping Americans from turning on their Muslim and Arab-American neighbors in the wake of 9/11. Dobson wants the whole project suppressed - he says - because some of the peripheral materials associated with the video include GBLT people in their anti-discrimination message. But my feeling is that we are simply being used as a means to an end. Through us, he's attacking the basic idea that difference - differences of race, creed, class, and sexual identity, but also differences in world view and opinion - should be valued and respected instead of hated, feared, and fought.
These cartoon characters are serious business. Spelling is right about the "powerful and intimate" nature of television. It's precisely because they recognize its power that the right wants to control what comes out of the box. And for the past 35 years, with Sesame Street leading the way, the dominant ethos in children's educational programming (as distinct from, you know, the crap that corporations produce just to sell toys with) has been that children's TV should teach them to cooperate with, respect, and learn from cultures and people who are different from them. And that has had an enormous impact.
I was born the same year Sesame Street premiered. Sesame Street taught me to read. It also introduced me to a universe very unlike the suburban neighborhood in which I was growing up. It was set in an urban neighborhood tenanted by a multiracial cast in which working-class families were well represented. It introduced me to a whole range of brightly colored creatures who expanded my idea of the boundaries of the possible, and to a zany sense of humor that taught us to expect the unexpected and greet it with shrieks of delight. I was enthralled by it, and the effects were lasting and permanent.
Once, when I couldn't have been more than 7, I visited a friend of my mother's and was flabbergasted when she told me that she thought Sesame Street was "just awful." I asked her why. She said, "It's teaching children Spanish!" I still didn't get it. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with learning Spanish. Weren't we supposed to like learning things? Wasn't that what school was for?
Now, of course, I realize what that woman's problem was. And, in her own way, she was right: Sesame Street didn't make me a Spanish speaker, but it did teach me enough Spanish so that I now recognize a number of words and I could still count to 20 in Spanish if you gave me enough time and a few do-overs. Spanish doesn't now seem to me like a completely foreign language. It's more familiar, and therefore less frightening, and when I hear people speaking Spanish, I don't think of them as aliens from a hostile planet. And the ideological descendants of this woman, 35 years later, want to make damn sure that no PBS program gets a chance to do for gay people what Sesame Street did for African-Americans, Latinos, the disabled, Native Americans, and all the other cultures and identities that were represented on that show.
This battle matters, people. No matter how stupid it looks. This is not just about whether same-sex parents will ever be visible in children's television, or whether gay people will ever be treated right in this country. This is about whether the voters of the next generation will believe that tolerance is a virtue to be encouraged or a vice to be avoided. These people are playing long ball. We have to understand the importance of what they are doing, and dedicate resources to fight it. Otherwise our children - or, well, your children, in Bush's brave new world I am clearly not entitled to have any - will grow up not even knowing what tolerance means.