February 4, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Busted Bunny Sends Sad Postcard of American Intolerance

On Monday, Andy asked for an op-ed. This is what he ended up with on Tuesday morning:

By Larry Yudelson

It turns out certain segments of America are sick and tired of tolerance and diversity. Don't believe me? Then talk to the rabbit. Buster Baxter, to be precise -- an animated bunny who parlayed his friendship with Arthur the Aardvark into a children's show of his own, "Postcards for Buster," another seemingly innocuous show wedged between Sesame Street and Arthur on public television.

Innocuous, that is, until the Bush Administration cottoned on to him last month.

Now, Buster Baxter is so busted. It seems he has more tolerance for diversity than does Uncle Sam.

You see, Buster visited maple farmers in Vermont, part of an ongoing journey across America designed in part "to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society." In Vermont, as elsewhere, the focus of his show was on the child he stayed with, in this case the real, human, 11-year-old Emma Pike who, in an episode entitled "Sugartime!" taught Buster about maple syrup and dairy farming.

Emma knows a lot about farming. She also has two mommies.

So, in her first day as the new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings decided the most burning issue on the American educational agenda was Buster Baxter's travel itinerary. She lashed out at PBS, suggested that the network refund the Department of Education grant which helps pay for Buster's show, writing to PBS that "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode."

Diversity, it seems, goes only so far. While intolerance isn't exactly fashionable, anti-tolerance is becoming as hip as multiculturalism once was. When was the last time you heard a cabinet official declare that some 11-year-olds live outside the boundaries of American diversity and tolerance?

Spellings is not even the highest profile official taking part in this new era of anti-tolerance. That honor goes to President George W. Bush, who in response to questions about the Buster fracas offered patently false "statistics" to support his view of the threat posed by gay parents.

The Buster brouhaha cuts particularly close to home for me. In an earlier episode, Buster had paid a visit to New York City, and visited a boy named Ari, who wears a kippah, tzitzis, and attends the Ramaz day school.

I remembered being 11 years old, the only kid on my block who went to a Jewish school or who wore a kippah away from synagogue.

It would have felt great to have seen another kid like me on television, even if he did consort with an animated bunny.

I'm sure that's how a lot of Buster's young viewers felt when they saw children just like them: The Mormon kids, the five siblings who share a bedroom in a trailer, the children of Laotian refugees. All real kids, from (so far) 24 different states. You can meet a lot of different people in America, particularly if your father's a pilot and you have your own camera crew.

At PBS, the limits of diversity are no longer subject only to the imaginations of writers and producers, and the pluralism represented by real-life, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.

The limits of diversity are now being drawn by the Secretary of Education.

Is Spellings correct when she says that "many parents" would object to the show? And, having stated that by law such programs must pay attention to "research-based educational objectives," does she have any research to back up her contention?

And what does the research say about us Jews and our place on PBS? Does she know with certainty that there are not many parents who would object to their children being exposed to Orthodox Judaism?

The nature and timing of Spellings attack on Buster Baxter - or, to be accurate, on Emma Pike and her family - bespeaks a deliberate desire by the administration to jump on the anti-tolerance campaign for political purposes. (At press time, the Department of Education had not yet replied to my email asking how Spellings learned of the episode in question.)

Spellings' remarks came one week after Focus on the Family leader James Dobson attacked SpongeBob SquarePants and other cartoon characters for taking part in a campaign that promoted tolerance of people of different races, religions, national origins, and sexual identities.

And it came the same day leaders of the Evangelical Christian movement told The New York Times they would not support President Bush's Social Security privatization efforts unless the president came forward on issues they saw as important.

For the president, hurting the feelings of an 11-year-old girl is a small price for whatever it is he has in mind for Social Security.

So let's enjoy the reruns of Buster's visit to Ari while we can. Because Ari's - and our - place on public television and the American scene is no longer a pluralistic given.

No, our new Secretary of Education has made herself clear: Tolerance extends only as far as she deems fit, only as far as what - in her own, unscientific, politically calibrated estimation -- "many parents" dictate.

It's not what I was taught America was about, but I guess things have changed.

Just ask Buster Baxter. He'll tell you that, personally, he finds diversity and tolerance swell. It's what he loves about traveling America.

But he'll also add a warning: Throughout history, intolerance and scapegoating have combined to build a winning platform for aspiring politicians. It's a platform that our new Secretary of Education chose to ascend her first day in office.


Larry Yudelson lives in Teaneck, where his children would rather watch Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers fight bad guys than learn about dairy farming. TrackBack

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