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 expression—denouncing 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 angels—a 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 Kmart."
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 discount store.
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.