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Archive for Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Can we tolerate tolerance?

February 2, 2005

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— I have to confess that I am nowhere nearly as tolerant as I thought I was. Midway through the episode of "Postcards From Buster" that is at the center of the latest culture skirmish, the animated bunny is handed a plate of Vermont's finest maple syrup on snow. With a pickle on the side.

Pickle? I have watched the making of maple syrup many times. Last year, after my granddaughter had her first taste, she looked at us with a combination of joy and outrage as if to say, "Why did you keep this from me?" But pickles and maple syrup? I don't think so.

Nevertheless, it is not the culinary preferences in this show that freaked out the Department of Education. It's the sexual preferences.

"Postcards" is the PBS kids program produced by Boston's WGBH with a clear mandate to "help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society." Buster flies around the country talking to real kids in real families. They include everything from Muslims to Native Americans, households with one parent or two grandparents. He's been to Salt Lake City to meet a Mormon family of eight and even to Roswell, N.M., homeland of extraterrestrial sightings.

Then he got to Vermont, land of civil unions and maple syrup. In the Green Mountain State, Buster met up with an admittedly proto-diverse family of two mommies, three kids, including one who is biracial, all of whom light candles and say Hebrew prayers on Friday night. (But do not blame them for the pickles!)

The mommies were in the background in the program but they are in the foreground of the controversy. PBS pulled this "postcard" as the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter expressing "strong and very serious concerns" because "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode." At least 24 stations are running it anyway.

So here we are in the Buster brouhaha. Cultural conservatives complain once more about liberal propaganda. Tolerance and diversity are dismissed once again as code.

This time, the government not only disapproves of the "lifestyle" message, but is considering asking PBS to return the money. You will note that the very same Department of Education paid Armstrong Williams to put out its own propaganda. Williams has yet to be asked to pay back the $240,000. But then, one side's propaganda is another side's message.

When it was revealed that the Department of Education had paid Williams, the president said, "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

But the Bush agenda has been standing on more than two feet. We now know that the administration put out phony news spots with phony journalists. We know that the government asked Social Security employees to be flacks for the Bush plan. Propaganda? Last week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro even introduced a Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act to codify regulations against government-funded "self-aggrandizement" or "puffery."

What a pickle we are in, if you will forgive the expression. Conservatives have become the most deft at mainstreaming their message. The estate tax was turned into the death tax. Tax cuts became tax relief. Global warming became climate change. Privatization is a personal investment account.

Meanwhile, in the culture wars, many are trying to redefine tolerance and diversity as a nefarious "agenda." The right didn't protest SpongeBob SquarePant's gay icon status as much as his use in a video distributed to schools along with a tolerance pledge that included homosexuality.

As Tom Minnery of the Focus on the Family says, "What's at stake is the forced normalization of homosexuality in the public schools." One side's normal is the other side's "forced normalization."

I am now in my second generation as a card-carrying member of the counterculture, trying to counter the culture. There is much more than pickles and maple syrup to protest. But Buster?

Here is a small geography lesson for the Department of Education. Vermont with its civil unions is a part of the American landscape. The bunny is animated but the families are not. For the three kids of the two mommies who were the stars of the segment, this is not a lifestyle but a life, not propaganda but reality.

Imagine what exactly the Department of Education has taught these children who were invited as tour guides to their state in maple season. Imagine what it's saying to their neighbors and friends.

Is tolerance part of the gay agenda? I should hope so. But how did acceptance become translated into propaganda? And what on earth happens if tolerance is defined as intolerable?

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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