The Politics of Big Bird

During the first Presidential debate Barak Obama gave Mitt Romney a pass on what has to be one of the most egregiously insipid and outright stupid statements uttered by a White House aspirant. The man who likes to fire people, play loose with the facts, change his philosophy chameleon-like almost on a daily basis has told the American people that, should he be elected President, he would cut funding for PBS, do away with Big Bird, and fire Jim Lehrer.  After his poor showing, Lehrer’s performance could very well be under review.  However, to pluck the feathery and furry tribes off the air by presidential fiat is to unconscionably rob our children of limitless educational opportunities that only Mitt the Grouch could ever so proudly declare.

A few years back I saw a PBS (yes, PBS!!!) nature program on the manner in which certain entomological species use sub species as incubators for their progeny. To propagate, the unusually large female wasp, better known a the Killer Cicada Wasp, hunts for cicadas, a much weaker insect species, lights on its back, injects it with a disabling venom, hauls it to its underground habitat, lays an egg through its dorsal shell, and continues the process until it has accumulated several paralyzed (but not dead) cicadas, each of which is impregnated with an egg.  Fully embedded in the cicadas’ backs and slowly sucking the life (tissue and all) out of the cicadas, within two weeks the wasp’s eggs are ready to go into the world to continue the metamorphic cycle of life, survival,  and death. So perfect is this predator/prey relationship nothing but the cicada’s crusty shell is left to, perhaps, benefit yet another sub specie in the food chain.

Mitt Romney’s flouted business acumen, as per his own rhetoric (and the rhetoric of his supporters), is an attempt to reinvent himself as a compassionate, patriotic, and God-fearing family man. And his supporters have cast and show-cased him as a most successful businessman who should not apologize for his financial success. After all, hasn’t Mitt accomplished the American dream? Just ask his wife; he’s bought her two Cadillacs. And we will never know the extent of his offshore financial holdings because he has defiantly told us that except for releasing one year’s worth of tax returns, we could all take a hike; simply put, we have no right to pry into his private life.

The oft cited but not fully reported predatory take-over of companies, leveraging them, cashing in on them, and dumping them is no different from what the Killer Cicada Wasps do to their prey, a kind of Darwinian world where the hard-working people of this country, that group of shrinking middle class, are bained and discarded as used up exoskeletons.

If PBS were a business, there’s no doubt that it would have been rated as one of the most successful businesses in the US, and its stock would have traded as a hot, buy, and keep investment, an investment whose accrued dividends would have benefitted the common good of not only the 1%, but also the benefit of the other shareholding 99%, including the deadbeat and lazy-bum-whining 47%. I am delighted that PBS is neither a business nor a government agency; greed, censorship, and partisan demagoguery would have reduced its independence and subordinated it to corporate and political manipulation and propaganda. And special interest groups would have found a way to use this medium to propagate their own political, social and religious agendas.

Since its establishment in 1970, The Public Broadcasting system has been “consistently rated as America’s most trusted institution.” Its bottom line is not measured by glossy, misleading and deceptive brochures, advertisements, spread sheets, graphs, dollars, and cents. Through its noble efforts to educate all segments of society, PBS’s success is measured by what it has done to educate and to elevate the level of public and private discourses in addressing concerns that have a bearing on the common good. Yes, there is such a thing as the common good. And it is precisely this common good (this yeast, if you wish) that helps knead, mold, and shape American society in its ongoing leavening process.  Few media outlets have accrued as many honors as PBS. These include the following: 7 Peabody Awards, 3 Imagen Awards, 3Producers’ Guild Awards, several News and Documentary Awards, 9 Webly Awards, 58 Primetime Emmy Awardnominations, a consistent winner of Writers, Photographers, and Filmmaker’s Awards, including the prestigious MacArthurAward, to name but a few.

At the heart of PBS’s philosophy is the notion that its programs are made by a wide range of highly talented and diversely curious citizens whose aim is to inform, challenge, engage, dialogue and partner with equally curious and like-minded viewer-citizens. It is fair to say that for the past 42 years PBS has practiced Socrates’ admonishment that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Not only are PBS’ programs diversely rich, but they also reflect the diversity and richness of the American experience; like a mosaic’s individual tesserae, each program refracts into a rich tapestry that delights and instructs across generational, educational, cultural, intellectual and socio-economic pluralistic diversity whose common thread binds us in a unique celebratory tableau that transcends time and place.

Today’s 40 something generation that grew up in Mr. Rogers’ serene and peaceful neighborhood and whose imaginations were stretched in Big Bird’s make-believe world of harmony have graduated to Masterpiece Theater, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Moliere, Joseph Campbell, and Mark Twain. Perhaps American History and American Presidents, including but not limited to the Colonial and Civil Wars and special profiles featuring Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln, might be of interest to history buffs. And how about documentaries on WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War, including all the challenges of a post-colonial 20th century world, including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Cold War?  And what about culturally rich programs that have taken the viewers into the Amazon, the Andes, Ancient Egypt, the Middle Kingdom, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine cultures? Whether it is the rural or the urban experience, a plethora of across the globe on-site programs have shed light on the things that make us human. Music lovers have been awarded with outstanding performances, many live from Lincoln Center, the Milan Opera House, or the Vienna-based Schonbrunn Palace, to name but only a very few. Among my favorites are the Antiques Road ShowThis Old HouseThe McNeil Lehrer News Hour, the BBC News Hour (where one gets the real fair and balanced news), Nova,Front Line, nature and gardening programs, programs that delve into the intricacies of the human brain, including language acquisition, and therapies for the different brain aphasias caused by genetic dispositions or brain injuries. And how about programs on food production, hunger, the delicate balance between industrial progress and environmental degradation? Energy resources, exploration (space and underwater), medical technologies and health care (to be sure Romney’s favorite repeal item) are regularly featured programs. And I haven’t mentioned the plethora of informative programs on all the world’s faiths, including the holy texts used by each of these faiths.

For the sake of illustrating the tremendous value of all the PBS programs, especially the documentaries, I’d like to refer toThe Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of a fire in Lower Manhattan, PBS produced a documentary film on the horrible tragedy that befell 146 mostly immigrant garment sweat shop factory workers in a ten-story structure. The two owners (like all sweat shop owners) had a habit of locking up their employees in the building. During the late afternoon hours of Saturday, 25 March, 1911, a fire broke out in the building and the owners were nowhere to be found.  Trapped like animals inside the building, 49 women burned to death, 36 died in the elevator shaft, and 58 died attempting to save their lives by jumping to their deaths through the windows.  Most of the deceased were 16-23 years old; the oldest woman was 48 years old, and the youngest, a mere eleven years old. This is a classic case of corporate greed and the exploitation of the weak. The miniscule changes in labor laws were of little consolation to the mostly Italian and Eastern European Jewish victims and their families. Adding insult to injury, in 1913 owner Max Blanck was fined $20, and “the judge apologized for the imposition” Blanck had to endure. And in 1914  Blanck and partner Isaac Harris were acquitted and walked free.  Union busting and skewed court decisions are practiced even to this day.

Mitt Romney and many of his like-minded supporters will not have approved many of the labor laws that were enacted during the first half of the 20th century, and they are hankering for the repeal of many of the laws that have protected the hard working men and women of this country; their ultimate goal is to make sure that the 1% in this sham called the trickle down economy keep on keeping on.

Last week NBC reported that the Federal Government’s funding for PBS totals $450 million dollars per year; it also reported that the Pentagon spends $450 million dollars every six hours. Another graphic I saw pointed out that on average, Americans spend $2 per day, per person, on coffee, whereas Federal funding for Public Radio and Television comes out to $1.35 per person, PER YEAR.

In closing, I’d like to think of PBS as a great cultural investment in the minds and lives of the American people; PBS is a cultural, historical, educational, and historic boutique that has had a most profound impact on the lives of millions of Americans. It is perhaps the best illustration of how tax payer monies benefit millions of citizens of all ages in the best definition of trickle down manner of speaking. And thank goodness for the scores of charitable foundations and individuals who have supported one of America’s finest institutions.

That Romney made his disparaging remarks about the 47% in private says much about his duplicitous values and his philosophy; that he would announce the death knell of PBS and Big Bird in his first debate makes me wonder whether he had a happy childhood, and whether, in addition to stashing away money in foreign accounts, he has the intellectual curiosity that is one of the prerequisites of a leader of the free world. Republican political hack Ed Gillespie told the nation that during last week’s debate “people saw the real Mitt Romney.”  If this is indeed true, we should be very scared.

Governor Romney, should you become President, please keep your hands off our PBS and our children’s Big Bird. We’re not cicadas, you know.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private liberal Arts University in Arkansas. He can be reached at:


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Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.