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Post Cards of Intolerance

A ferocious new wave of Christer-driven censorship — much of it anti-gay — is washing over America, with support from the Bush administration that is sometimes overt, sometimes covert. Equally ominous, however, is that in too many instances, the targets of that censorship are buckling under pressure. Here are two frightening examples:

Just last week, as her first official act, Bush’s new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, an evangelical Christian, launched an attack on the PBS series Postcards From Buster, which stars an 8-year-old cartoon rabbit who travels the country visiting real kids in real-life settings. Spellings blasted “Sugartime,” an episode in which Buster the rabbit visits a Vermont family and their 11-year-old daughter, Emma, to learn about making maple sugar. But Emma has two mommies — Karen Pike and Gillian Pieper, two 40ish women from Hinesburg, Vermont, who were united in a civil union in 2001. And that’s what created trouble.

Although lesbianism and civil unions weren’t even mentioned in the episode — which focused entirely on getting sugar from maple trees — the images of a happy kid being raised by two loving parents who both happened to be women were too much for Secretary Spellings, who denounced the show, saying, “Many parents would not want their children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode.” Spellings thinks the episode “violates” the congressional mandate to PBS to prepare kids for school — even though 8 million to 10 million American kids are raised by same-sex couples, and those kids often are the target of playground hostility and ostracism because of their parents.

So what was PBS’s reaction to Spellings’ censorious rant? PBS president Pat Mitchell, after viewing the episode, had initially approved it as appropriate for airing, especially after the originating PBS station, Boston’s WGBH — which produced it with a grant from the Education Department’s $23 million Ready-To-Learn program, a literacy initiative of first lady Laura Bush — pushed back the airdate from February 2 to March 3 to allow member stations more time to review its content. But after Spellings went ballistic, Mitchell capitulated and canceled the Buster episode — claiming (through a spokesman) that “the debate surrounding this might cause parents to be concerned about PBS as a safe harbor.” Not that there was anything wrong with the episode, mind you — the “debate” about it was enough to kill it. As was the implied threat to PBS’s federal funding from a top Bush administration official.



Another Christer censorship campaign in the last weeks, led by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and the Reverend Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA), has targeted a video of the 1979 hit song “We Are Family” that features 100 children’s cartoon characters like SpongeBob Squarepants, Barney the dinosaur, Big Bird and Clifford the Big Red Dog, as well as cameos by Bill Cosby, Diana Ross and Whoopi Goldberg. The video will be distributed free by FedEx next month to 61,000 schools as part of National We Are Family Day.

SpongeBob and the other cartoon stars have been “co-opted by an innocuous-sounding group to promote acceptance of homosexuality to children,” hollers Focus on the Family. The group in question is the We Are Family Foundation, founded by the song’s co-author Nile Rodgers, who co-produced the cartoon video with Christopher Cerf — a Sesame Street veteran, co-producer of the PBS teaching-literacy-to-kids series Between the Lions, and son of the late Random House publisher and TV personality Bennett Cerf.

There is not a single mention of homosexuality in the cartoon video. What sent the Christers into fits was that the WAF Foundation also promotes a “tolerance pledge,” which says: “To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity, or other characteristics are different from my own.” Inclusion of the words “sexual identity” in that pledge is something the Christers find dangerous — Dobson says they “reveal a clever and very subtle intent . . . to desensitize very young children to homosexual and bisexual behavior.”

Even worse in the eyes of the Christers: For a half-second in the video, the Between the Lions character Click the Mouse is seen at his computer with the We Are Family Foundation logo on the computer’s screen. And the WAF Foundation Web site featured links to guides for teachers on teaching tolerance prepared by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith and Tolerance.org, which include material on how to teach children not to discriminate against gay people and on what homophobia is all about. This, Dobson bellowed, “may put materials in teachers’ hands that could prompt them to teach kids that homosexuality is equivalent to heterosexuality.”

Unfortunately, all the links to the teaching-tolerance guides have been removed by the WAF Foundation from its Web site in the wake of the Christer protests. When I asked Nile Rodgers why, he claimed that they already had in the works a plan to create an “educational” Web site separate from the Foundation’s “corporate” Web site, and had simply taken down the teaching-tolerance links “two days earlier” than expected after initial protests from a Florida radio station and the AFA, in the hope that the protests would “go away.”

In fact, the move backfired — the protests intensified, and Dobson has now accused the WAF Foundation of duplicity in removing the disputed teaching guides. Rodgers asserts the new Web site will be operational in two weeks — but the fact remains that the Christer-protested teaching guides have disappeared from the WAF Foundation Web site. Not just the material about teaching tolerance of gays is gone, but so are the guides teaching about discrimination on the basis of race and other innate characteristics — a remarkable example of throwing multiple babies out with the bathwater. (Rodgers is African-American.)

When I asked Harvard’s Arthur Lipkin — a teaching-tolerance expert whose latest book is Beyond Diversity Day: A Q&A on Gay and Lesbian Issues in Schools — what he thought of all this, he replied: “It’s like Pat Mitchell’s cave-in on the Postcards From Buster episode. When PBS and the WAF Foundation engage in this sort of self-censorship, it sets a very poor example for teachers, who get little encouragement to teach tolerance in schools — they’ll say, if even these so-called good liberals won’t stand up, why should I risk getting in trouble or losing my job by teaching tolerance of gay people?”

These twin episodes of self-censorship are only the tip of the iceberg — but they remind us that, as Yeats once said, we truly are living in a time in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”


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