During the presidential debates last night, Mitt Romney said that if elected, he’d take a look at funding and cut areas he sees as unnecessary, including PBS. “I love Big Bird,” the GOP candidate crowed, but his affection for the classic Sesame Street character wouldn’t protect PBS – the station that airs Sesame Street, among other educational programs, from federal funding cuts.
The question of how much funding does PBS get, is difficult to answer, because it varies – some smaller stations with less money from other sources get more funding, while healthier stations with larger access to donations get smaller help from the federal government. While federal funding accounts for about 15% of PBS’s revenue, the reality is that some smaller stations rely on federal funding for almost 50% of their budgets.
But questions of funding aside, there remains an unspoken message behind Romney’s promise: that PBS isn’t important or necessary.
And that’s where I disagree.
PBS helped me learn English. It taught me how to write, to read – it fostered a love of literature, film, ballet, art, cooking, social justice, Chicago, travel in me, that I carry to this day.
When I was a kid I remember watching an old episode of Sesame Street, where a character – Mr. Hooper – dies, and how the adults help Big Bird deal with the loss. Big Bird is the everychild – a perennial 6-year old who is learning constantly about the realities of life – including the ugly ones. It made me understand death just a little bit more.
Also on Sesame Street, I got to see my first pregnant woman. It was also where pregnancy was explained.
On Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I learned about self-confidence and self-respect. I also learned about kindness and love for my fellow man/woman/child…in my sheltered world of Brighton Park, Chicago, we didn’t have the diversity that is so important to foster a kind and compassionate human being – on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I learned about people with disabilities. I learned that people in Russia or just people too – a huge thing, when you think about the Cold War in the mid 1980s, when kids were being taught that the USSR was a hotbed of evil doers.
When I watched Reading Rainbow, I learned about the fun of books – the excitement of going into another world and being lost inside a great story. I also learned that it was cool to read, because a cool guy like LeVar Burton said it was cool…
In my highly segregated Polish/Mexican neighborhood, the Hispanic kids didn’t play with the white kids. On Sesame Street kids of all races played together, along with monsters of all colors and hues. And Kermit, the hapless and melancholy frog that represents the angst and insecurity in all of us sang, “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” and gave voice to the plea of millions of preschoolers who enter a world still marred by racial prejudice.
Growing up, PBS was also my source of social justice and social enlightenment. PBS was the place I first saw positive representations of gays and lesbians – when they weren’t the joke, or the villain, or the pathetic source of sympathy. When I watched the gay newsmagazine show In the Life, I learned all about activism and community.
Because I’m a product of PBS, I am more aware of the impact of the Civil Rights Movement – my initiation to it by watching Eyes on the Prize.
I learned more about the Holocaust from PBS. I learned more about the important struggle for reproductive freedom. I learned about the inequities in education in our country through PBS.
The thing is, PBS is necessary because we won’t get these kinds of programming from network or cable television. This isn’t a slam against network or cable TV – I’m a big fan of them, as well. But PBS has a mission of sharing with its viewers something different from the mainstream. And that’s important – it’s a break from commercial television, often tied with corporate interests. It’s a break from easy-consumable art, and a place where you can find something a bit more challenging. It was PBS that introduced me to ballet and opera. I was exposed to Yoko Ono’s demanding work on PBS. I heard John Cage for the first time on PBS. With an eye on ratings and commercial revenue, artists that aren’t expected to pull in huge ratings won’t be featured on commercial television.
Mitt Romney doesn’t support public funding for PBS because he knows that where it matters to him, PBS will probably be fine. And if not, so what? His kids are grown. He can pledge his love for Big Bird all he wants, but the truth is government support for PBS doesn’t just mean dollars, but it also means legitimacy. As long we claim that we care about the cultural health of this country, as long as we claim that we care about our kids’ education, we should also invest in resources and tools that support the maintenance of our cultural health and well being. We have to take a stand and say, “Yes! We believe that funding for PBS is a part of a large network of ways in which we make our country better.
It’s not enough for a country to have lots of bombs. It’s not even enough for a country to have lots of money. The most important marker of a nation is how we use the resources available. The United States has an embarrassment of riches, when it comes to educational professionals, artists, and innovators. Instead of forcing them to go into the private sector, where they will have to shave and blunt their message to fit a commercial slot that relies on ad revenue, we should be encouraging them to be uncompromising in their message of education, friendship, culture, and intelligence.
I suspect that Romney’s world view doesn’t pass what he sees in front of him. He’s proven to be rather thoughtless when it comes to needs of this country – especially if there isn’t a dollar sign or a tax break attached. Maybe he’s happy that our generation of children growing up might have to watch violent cartoons that are essentially half-hour commercials for toys and fast-food joints. Maybe he’s happy that kids will grow up knowing the music of Britney Spears and Rihanna, but remain ignorant of Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Redman. Maybe he’ll be fine with kids reading The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but not knowing the joys of Shakespeare and Maya Angelou. But I’m not. I’m not fine with that, at all.