10/11/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Freeloading Muppets: Mitt Romney, the Conservative Right and Its Foreclosure on Sesame Street

During last week's presidential debate, which was lackluster to say the least, Mitt Romney finally unveiled some specifics as it relates to his economic plan to slash the deficit, taxes, and spending -- the "no reason to hope, the future will be grim" plan. He announced his desire to defund PBS, which according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, accounts for .012 percent of the federal budget. In his words: "I'm sorry Jim [to moderator Jim Lehrer], I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I'm going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don't need." His war on muppets prompted a deluge of social media posts ranging from images of an unemployed Big Bird to an angry Elmo seeking revenge. While reflecting people's anger and anxiety about the nature of the political process, his oft-handed remark is revealing. At one level, it demonstrates the Republican Party's opposition to public support for institutions and organizations that advance a social good. It represents their contempt for the social contract. At another level, it embodies an ideological movement that promotes divestment from public education, health care, and countless other social programs. The recasting of Cookie Monster, Grover, and Snuffy as freeloading welfare recipients constitutes a continuation of the GOP's structural adjustment program that started some thirty years ago. Whether or not Mitt Romney likes Big Bird, or public teachers, firefighters, or health care workers becomes irrelevant.

The gutting of public higher education throughout the nation, the destruction of America's parks and recreation facilities, and now the proposed foreclosure on Sesame Street is part of a larger movement to divest public support for the very institutions utilized by the middle-class, the working-class and America's poor. It is yet another example of the true essence of the GOP -- Aka POP: Privatization Old Party.

While akin to announcing a savings plan to buy a new car solely based around searching for pennies in the couch, the assault on Big Bird, Elmo, and friends is ideologically and politically telling. And it ain't all about the Benjamins. This is about the GOP vision of the poor, communities of color, and the haves and have-nots. It is also nothing new. The GOP's disdain for Sesame Street is longstanding. During the summer of 2011, Ben Shapiro, while making an appearance on Fox News' The Sean Hannity Show, "jokingly" announced his desire to "cap" the characters of Sesame Street. He followed this up with more "serious" criticisms, denouncing America's favorite kid's show because of its "soft bigotry of low expectations," its promotion of "gender neutral language," and its advocacy to "give boys dolls and girls fire trucks." The other members of Hannity's "great all-American" panel similarly spoke about the downgrading of America's moral fabric, seemingly linking the messages of Sesame Street to the cultural wars. The Huffington Post describes his criticism of Sesame Street in the following way:

Chief amongst Shapiro's alleged liberal offenders is Sesame Street, the Jim Henson-created educational show carried on PBS, the public network with few conservative fans or defenders. Citing interviews with one of the show's creators, early episodes of the show featuring hippies and racial reconciliation and, more recently, incidents such as 2009's "Pox News" controversy, Shapiro writes that "Sesame Street tried to tackle divorce, tackled 'peaceful conflict resolution' in the aftermath of 9/11 and had Neil Patrick Harris on the show playing the subtly-named 'fairy shoeperson.'" Patrick Harris, to Shapiro's chagrin, is gay. And, even scarier, Cookie Monster says cookies are only a sometimes food now; the venerable sweets machine has added fruits and vegetables to his diet, indicating a major liberal plot.

On Martin Bashir's show on MSNBC, Shapiro similarly denounced children's television for promoting "a self-esteem ethos, the idea that, to paraphrase Barney 'everyone is special'; an unearned self-esteem." In other words, it is a show for the 47 percent, who, according to Mitt Romney, think of themselves as victims. For Mitt and friends, Sesame Street coddles and placates this segment of society.

Yet, the attacks on Sesame Street (and by extension the liberal media and big government intrusion in family matters) are nothing new. A 1992 column in The Economist similarly denounced Sesame Street as a liberal assault on American values:

The problem comes when the sensible tolerance and respect of "Sesame Street" are mutated into something less appealing. First, it becomes a kind of hypertolerance (which argues, for example, that the canon of black female authors is as rich as that of white male authors); which is merely silly. Second, it becomes an intolerance of those who do not practice this hyper-tolerance (so that anyone who argues that a canon of authors who happen to be white and male is better than the one picked by sex and skin color is a racist sexist); which is pernicious. It is the intolerance that has come to be called "political correctness" -- or PC ("Sesame Street, the acceptable face of political correctness" 1992, A30).

The talk of budget deficits and sensible economic policy is a farse, a rouse given the longstanding effort to divest from public programs, particularly those ideas of justice, equality, and social good. The criticisms that "multiculturalism" or "tolerance" represents a vehicle for the "intolerance" for dominant values (white, Christian, middle-class) that have purportedly been central to America's historic greatness are common to the broader culture. Equally troubling to those critics of Sesame Street is not only taxpayer support for a program that is neither intended for white-middle class audiences (Shapiro notes the history behind Sesame Street), but in their mind devalues whiteness for the sake of multiculturalism agenda.

To understand this criticism and to comprehend the political right's denunciation of Sesame Street mandates an examination of this larger history and the ways in which Sesame Street has built upon the civil rights movements and those concerned with justice, equality and fairness. In 1979, The New York Times identified the primary focus of Sesame Street as the "4-year-old inner-city black youngster." Jennifer Mandel, in "The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street's Answer to America's Inequalities," argues that while the original intended audience for the show was "disadvantaged urban youth" who suffered because of "the limited availability of preschool education" the appeal and impact of the show transcended any particular demographic. Imagining a place of "sweet air" and "sunny days" that "sweep the clouds away," where "friendly neighborhoods" meet and "doors are open wide" Sesame Street is a utopia worthy of any person's imagination. The power of Sesame Street doesn't merely resonate with its history, its identification with King's Beloved Community, its efforts to challenge differential access to educational opportunities or even its emphasis "on the representations of diverse groups" (Kraidy 2002), but through its opposition to the normalization of whiteness; its power rests with its critiques of and counter narratives to the oversaturation of whiteness in America's cultural landscape. It is an antidote to the perpetuation of white privilege, which Jamilah Lemieux brilliantly describes as "a hell of a drug." No wonder Mittens and friends have no love for Sesame Street.

At its core, the criticisms directed at Sesame Street are racially coded and racially reactionary; it is not simply a matter of the unnatural celebration of undesirable and inferior identities and experiences but denying white male Christian identity its rightful place on America's cultural mantle. The argument offered by Willard Romney, Shapiro and others imagines Sesame Street as a white-funded source of propaganda that unnaturally elevates racial (and sexual) Others all while denying the beauty and superiority of whiteness. In their estimation, it is yet another program where he and his friends are paying for something that benefits the 47 percent, and where the greatness of white American manhood is diluted with messages of equality, respect, and tolerance. While often celebrating their idea of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, it is yet another reminder how the GOP has actively opposed policies that would fulfill Dr. King's dream of a Beloved Community. The hypocrisy illustrates the hollowness of this support and the superficiality of the GOP's rhetoric.

Given the history of the show and the efforts to challenge, in message and in its opposition to invisibility, the systemic normalization of particular white identities, it is hard not to see his comments as part of a larger backlash against multiculturalism and any effort that unsettles the hegemony of whiteness. It isn't simply about liberal bias but the perceived threats to whiteness. Should it be surprising that Mitt didn't say he likes Elmo? 'Cause surely Elmo don't love Mitt's vision of America.

This piece was originally published at New Black Man (and also includes materials from a previously published piece at this same blog)