WE TOLD YOU SO, PART I
In our September-October 1996 issue, Jennifer Bradley profiled the Rutherford
Institute, a Christian legal organization founded by John Whitehead to defend
clients who allege religious discrimination in the workplace or at school.
Although the institute portrayed itself as purely a civil liberties
organization, Bradley showed that it "uses the tools and words of
liberalism to advance a pinched, illiberal worldview."
If her characterization was just informed opinion then, it's national news
now. The Rutherford Institute's latest client is . . . Paula Jones?
Stepping decidedly outside of its realm of expertise, the institute
introduced Jones to her new lawyer Donovan Campbell and offered to help fund her
case. In its own words, the institute declares its dedication to providing legal
assistance in the following areas: "1. Defending the sanctity of human
life; 2. Preserving religious expression in the public schools; 3. Upholding
religious freedom in the workplace; 4. Securing parental rights to direct the
upbringing and education of their children; and 5. Protecting churches and other
religious institutions from undue government intrusion." Into which of
these categories should we file the Paula Jones suit?
WE TOLD YOU SO, PART II
If the Rutherford Institute is the "civil liberties organization"
that it claims to be, it is a peculiar one indeed. Its libertarian-titled
national radio spot "Freedom Under Fire," featured on more than 1,000
stations in the United States and ranked number one by the National Religious
Broadcasters, issues proclamations against social permissiveness that sound a
lot more like Focus on the Family than the ACLU.
Several of the institute's radio spots object to other people's free
expressiondenouncing everything from drug legalization efforts to adult-oriented
television programs, from 1960s-style communes to "politically
correct" people who disapprove of spanking children. Rutherford is, of
course, entitled to its views. A champion of free expression it is not.
Perhaps due to the current political lull, a measure of real political power
in this country has shifted from the ballot box to the box office, sometimes
with surprisingly progressive results. Case in point: In a three-page review of
the low-budget movie phenomenon of the year, The Full Monty, Daniel
Wattenberg treated the readers of the conservative Weekly Standard in
December to a dose of genuine liberal concern.
Despite calling the film "leftish and luddite," he concluded that
"The Full Monty is a timely reminder of how tough economic change is
on those caught unprepared. Before trying for fast track [trade authority]
again, it wouldn't hurt the cause if free traders adjusted their rhetoric to
accommodate some benevolent acknowledgment of those caught flat-footed by
economic change." Not just flat-footed, but bare-bottomed. The movie was
actually about unemployed steelworkers in England who put together a
Chippendale-like revue to pay the bills.
But if that's what it takes to get conservatives like Wattenberg to speak out
against fast-track trade authority, then perhaps the way to get a progressive
agenda through the Republican Congress is via the big screen. To wit: better
regulation of the cruise-line industry (Titanic); restoring Aid to
Families with Dependent Children (Great Expectations); more popular
support for government and civil service agencies (The Postman); and more
money for disaster relief (Gilligan's Island: The Movie).
Bad things only happen to people who deserve them. This appears to be the
doctrine of some prominent social conservatives. In championing personal
responsibility as a panacea for social problems ranging from teenage pregnancy
to drug use to violent crime, they walk a fine line between encouraging upright
behavior and blaming the unfortunate for their own bad luck.
In an article published in the Orange County Register and the
Washington Times on the Paris car crash that killed Princess Diana and
two others, Larry P. Arnn of the conservative Claremont Institute declared:
"If Charles and Diana had been doing [their marital] duty together, as they
swore before God, the world, and each other to do, they would both be alive. . .
. If there is no scandal, then the scandalmongers have little to do."
The death of three people, in other words, was the logical consequence of a
divorce. Are we supposed to believe that the media hound only those who don't
live up to his standards of family values? Arnn makes the paparazzi into
avenging angelsa kind of public conscience, only pestering those famous faces
who stray from the righteous path. Remind us: What were the sins of Bobbi and
Kenny McCaughey and their seven new children?
It seems like just another Kmart commercial. Penny Marshall, Rosie O'Donnell,
and the Muppets cavort with a troupe of appealing children to promote a new line
of Sesame Street clothing. At the end, Penny and Rosie peek out from a
life-size logo and we hear, "This is brought to you by the letter K-for
As commercials go, it's charming. No sex. No violence. Big Bird, Elmo, and
the gang sing a bouncy Sesame Street-type ditty about getting dressed. So
what's the problem? Actually this 30-second spot raises some thorny issues: the
blurring distinction between public and commercial television, between profit
and nonprofit corporations, as well as between education and sales. But most
serious is this:
Each day, as they have for more than 25 years, preschool viewers learn that
Sesame Street, produced for PBS by the Children's Television Workshop, is
brought to them by a varying selection of numbers and letters. This closing riff
was once pure delight, a clever reminder of subjects covered in the show, and an
equally clever parody of commercial television. But if the sales pitch is
successful, young viewers will no longer free-associate the eleventh letter of
the alphabet with words like kitten, kayak, kite, and kindergarten. Whenever the
letter K sponsors Sesame Street, the primary association will be with
Kmart. For millions of children the alphabet will consist of 25 letters and 1
At first glance, the corruption of one small letter may seem trivial. There
are still 25 letters bringing us Sesame Street untainted. But this
seemingly innocuous ad is one more slide down a very slippery slope toward the
commercialization of everything from public television programs to the subjects
they teach. Those of us who care about children should be fighting as hard as we
can to reverse the erosion of public money for public programming.
Otherwise we'll lose the rest of the alphabet.
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