Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Buster is Back, Sir

The New York Times is reporting that "Postcards from Buster", a PBS children's show featuring a rabbit from the "Arthur" books by Marc Brown, has been picked up for a second, much curtailed, season. In "Postcards from Buster" we follow Buster Baxter around the globe--well, the western hemisphere part of the globe, anyway--as he travels with his father, who is a private pilot for a musical group calling themselves Los Viajares. I get up rather early each day--usually by 5:45 I'm saying Matins Lauds and Prime--principally so that I can drive my son to school at 7:15. Once I've finished the Office there's usually a little time before we have to leave and he often turns on PBS to watch the show "Arthur", from which the Buster character is borrowed.

I have to confess that I rather love the "Arthur" show, and I've been watching it almost obsessively ever since my children started watching it. Sometimes I watch it without them, I like it so much. I gave my daughter four different boxed sets of three DVDs each for her birthday, and I've seen more of them than she has. But "Postcards from Buster", which follows "Arthur" on our PBS station, is a very different show, and it has come under some rather sharp criticism from certain conservatives, mostly because of a show they did in the first season featuring a family in Vermont with "two moms".
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings attacked the episode in a letter to Pat Mitchell, the former PBS president, dated Jan. 25, 2005. “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode,” she wrote. The same day PBS removed “Sugartime!” from its lineup. In the days that followed, the American Family Association, a major Christian conservative organization, orchestrated a campaign of more than 150,000 e-mail messages and letters to Ms. Spellings supporting her position, said Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the association.
I did not see the episode in question (and believe me I regret it because I love maple sugar more than just about any other confection on the planet--oh, who am I kidding: I definitely love it more than any other foodstuff on the planet), but it's very difficult for me to get worked up about it. For one thing, it's just one episode. For another, the show is otherwise excellent. For yet another, kids don't pay all that much attention to things like that anyway and folks who think that they do are in the grip of a theory.

I remember calling the office of Senator Jesse Helms when I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. At the time his re-election was not assured and, good conservative that I am, I preferred him to his opponent. He had a tendency, however, to use extremely inflammatory language about homosexuals, and I was good friends with several very conservative homosexuals who were put off by his language. The purpose of my call was to inquire into whether the language couldn't be toned down a bit, if only to ensure as many votes for the Senator as possible. This was when I was young and nĂªpios, obviously. I started my conversation with the woman who answered like a true politician, pointing out how much I liked the Senator's voting policies. She was obviously pleased with this, and we chatted amicably for a few minutes. When I got around to my point, however, her tone of voice changed immediately from the warm, friendly, southern drawl, to a cold, businesslike dismissal of my entire point. "The senator stands by his position on homosexuals," she informed me in a blank monotone, and she hurried off the phone, convinced, probably, that I was a not-so-covert member of the Queer Alliance.

Now, I wasn't suggesting that the senator change his position, only that he change the way he talk about his position, that he be more diplomatic. Jesse Helms was never known for his diplomacy, however, and I was too new to the state to be aware of that. But I did learn one thing: when it comes to politics, ideologues take the lesson of Caesar's wife very seriously. It actually doesn't matter so much what you believe in your heart of hearts, what matters is what you are perceived as believing. So in the case of Buster Baxter, a single episode that leaves the wrong impression is sufficient to condemn the whole project in the minds of some, who wish to be perceived as "strong on gay marriage" or something. It's worth it to them to go out on a limb on an issue as banal as this just so that their constituency will see them saying the right sorts of things in the press.

Parents who don't want their children "exposed" to this kind of thing need to think very carefully. It's one thing to want to teach your children about Christian values; it's another thing to teach those values in way that backfires on you. These kinds of families are out there, and they sometimes have children in them. If you give your own kids the impression that it's better not to even think about such things, to ignore the folks like these that you meet in your day-to-day lives, you are far from inculcating Christian charity in your children and well on your way to raising somebody who will stand on the street carrying signs that say "God hates fags".
And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
How can we teach our children to do both--to shun the wrong choices of others while sitting down and eating with them in their own house as a sign of God's loving call to repentance--if we would rather pretend that those of whom we disapprove don't even exist?

5 comments:

Tom said...

Though I've never seen the spin-off show, I always thought Buster was a more interesting character than Arthur, who as Everyanteater can't have much in the way of a distinctive personality.

Still, I think we can distinguish between "pretending that those of whom we disapprove don't exist" and "caring whether our children's television shows teach that grave immorality is a good, right, and natural thing."

But then, I also think we can distinguish between "caring whether our children's television shows teach that grave immorality is a good, right, and natural thing" and "raising somebody who will stand on the street carrying signs that say 'God hates fags,'" so what do I know?

Scott Carson said...

Apparently not much, since you can't even distinguish between an anteater and an aardvark.

Sara said...

Though I'm obviously much more liberal on the whole issue here, I do agree with your main thrust...and to further expound: there are countless shows where kid's parents are divorced. Is that any better? Or is it just more common and thus accepted? I'm sure Christian mothers were appalled when the first cartoon with divorced parents aired, but where have they gone to? If they learned from history at all, they'd realize calling the creators of the cartoon is just delaying the inevitable and keeping an otherwise good sounding program from continuing - because I'll bet in <20 years that type of thing will be as well known to children as adoption or divorce or any other number of not-"normal" family structures.

Also, I wasn't under the impression that children's shows were aimed towards Christians only. I do believe they have channels for those shows, and if parents are so concerned, they can raise their children watching cartoons about building an ark and let alone those kids whose parents appreciate that part of growing up is learning what to expect from the real world (i.e. probably not to 40 day floods but a likely yes to gay people in their lives). And, IF the kid even notices the difference in the house structure of her animated entertainment, THEN it may fuel a nice conversation about the values that Christianity teaches, and how to be tolerant but not accepting and the other who, what, where, when, and why's of the moral guidelines that parents would want to instill in their kid's lives. Maybe less of the why's - especially at that age...

Anyhow, it's better to talk to your kids about this stuff than ignore it or leave it to little cross-carrying cartoon characters to explain. Who wants to get their moral guidance from TV?

Scott Carson said...

Hi Sara

Thanks for your comments. I agree with you.

My daughter has two friends in her kindergarten class, both of whom are in families with "two moms". Even if I kept her from watching Buster, she would still be "exposed" to families like that, and I have no intention of telling her either that such people do not exist or that such people are objectively morally disordered. I will probably explain to her, some day, what my own beliefs are about families, and what the teachings of the Church are, but until then I think it is quite enough for her to play with her friends without getting a lot of stuff from me that she won't be able to understand or make any use of.

I will also be sure to teach her about compassion, charity, and forgiveness, if for some strange reason she doesn't just pick it up from the good Christian folks around her.

Lisa Carson said...

I don't think Scott should have dismissed Tom, whose comments gave me food for thought.

One issue not raised here is that the show is played on taxpayer-funded stations, and this episode is basically taking a position on a current political issue.

More important, I have to disagree with Tom's claim that Arthur doesn't have a distinctive personality! He is distinctive in being riddled with doubts and insecurities (unlike, say, D.W.). I think this makes him an ideal character for children to observe because they will share some of his difficulties.