Big Bird and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

According to the Wall Street Journal:

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he wants to reduce the deficit by bringing commercials to PBS. During an appearance in Clinton, Iowa, Romney said “My test is — is a program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” He went on to say “I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”

This is not the most important political or policy debate these days. Yet few issues provide such a stark contrast in the governing vision of the two parties.

Romney’s suggestion provides an obvious dog whistle to cultural conservatives, who seem to harbor an amazing hatred for public broadcasting. They harbor similar hatreds for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and (increasingly) efforts to support science education that touch on icky subjects such as evolution, human sexuality, or climate change.

The irony here is that PBS and the national endowments are profoundly conservative enterprises. I don’t mean that Sesame Street or school educational programs outside Texas specifically promote issue positions favored by Fox News. These efforts conserve and communicate our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage within a broader popular culture that would not otherwise attend to these tasks.

PBS provides a rare safe haven from the crude and cruddy world of commercial television, which is such a destructive force in so many ways in American life. One does not have to go all Tipper Gore to be dismayed at the sight of media conglomerates hawking sugar cereal and burgers to children, and use sex and violence and clunky product placements to sell whatever to everyone else.

There’s also the simple fact that most commercial television is relentlessly and depressingly bad. True, the affluent can get high-quality dramas such as the Wire through the concierge-care option of pay cable. That’s hardly adequate. And is there any free or non-free cable show to match the quality of Frontline, American Experience, POV, or Nova? If so, I haven’t seen it. The public broadcasting option is incredibly important.

Sure, the federal government could save a little money by cutting back on subsidies to Sesame Street. I’m sure that Tony the Tiger, the Little Mermaid, Ronald McDonald, and GI Joe can fill the available space. Boeing can foot the bill for NOVA. Maybe Apple can pay for American Experience. Bud Light can expand its portfolio beyond ultimate fighting to cover Frontline. None of these companies is evil. But we need a place to raise our kids and to spend our own viewing time that doesn’t depend on these commercial pressures.

As a nation, we must also make reasonable investments to provide every citizen access to excellent science, news, and arts programming that the commercial networks will not deliver. I’d rather raise taxes on ourselves or on rich people to pay for it. But if I had to borrow money from China to deliver it, I would do that too.

Decades ago, Daniel Bell recognized a capitalist economy has the potential to destroy itself by undermining the very moral values of discipline, integrity, and excellence that are required for capitalism to thrive. I don’t always agree with Thomas Friedman or David Brooks about politics and social policy. Yet both are onto something in their belief that something is genuinely amiss in our common life. We must resist a commercial culture that bombards us with messages of instant gratification, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and retail therapy as the default solution to many problems.

Know-nothing attacks on PBS provide yet another sad sign of a mediocre time. Bring back the patrician conservatives such as George Will who talked about Statecraft as Soulcraft. Big Bird, we need you to resolve the cultural contradictions of our capitalist society.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.