Saturday, January 22, 2005

The meaning of SpongeBob

Sometimes the religious right caricatures itself in a way that you can't help but laugh a little. Like the earlier claim by Jerry Falwell that Tinky Winky was a Trojan horse, so to speak, for homosexual behavior, the recent brouhaha over SpongeBob Squarepants raised by James Dobson of Focus on the Family seems pretty laughable on its face.

Unfortunately, there's a deadly serious undercurrent to it that no one seems to be noticing.

Maybe that's because Dobson's remarks are being largely played as similar to Falwell's -- an attack on SpongeBob for allegedly engaging in gay behaviors. (Well, there is that hand-holding thing with Patrick, after all.)

But that's not what Dobson said, or continues to say. What he's saying is actually a real cause for concern.

Check out the original remarks:
Addressing members of Congress at the "Values Victory Dinner" in Washington, D.C., Tuesday night, Dobson asked the power brokers, "Does anybody here know SpongeBob?"

Dobson went onto decry a toon-town remake of the 1979 Sister Sledge disco hit, "We Are Family," in which the frolicsome Bikini Bottom dweller appears alongside Barney, Big Bird, Clifford and other fictional stars of children's TV.

The music video, produced by the non-profit We Are Family Foundation, is to be distributed on DVD to 61,000 public and private elementary schools on March 11. Its stated aim is to promote diversity; its stated agenda is to have future March 11s declared National We Are Family Day.

But according to the New York Times' accounting of Dobson's remarks, what's unsaid is that the "We Are Family" project is a "pro-homosexual video."

Dobson based his charge on a "tolerance pledge" found on the We Are Family Foundation Website. The two-paragraph statement seeks "respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own."

"...Their inclusion of the reference to 'sexual identity' within their 'tolerance pledge' is not only unnecessary, but it crosses a moral line," a statement from Focus on the Family says.

Over at Focus on the Family's Website, this argument is made clearer:
Dr. Dobson is concerned that these popular animated personalities are being exploited by an organization that's determined to promote the acceptance of homosexuality among our nation's youth.

It's hard to say exactly which organization he's talking about. If you go over to the We Are Family Foundation -- the immediate object of Dobson's wrath -- it's pretty hard to find anything that even remotely mentions homosexuality. Moreover, if you click on the link to the "Tolerance Pledge" that Dobson says is the source of his allegation, you'll see that the pledge is actually the product of, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In other words, Dobson appears to be attacking the SPLC by proxy. That should give people a little clearer picture of what we're really talking about here. Dobson isn't just condemning cartoon characters, he's attacking the basic concept of secular tolerance as a democratic cornerstone. That is, he's actively promoting the tolerance of intolerance. There's a simpler word for that: hate.

The form of the argument Dobson and his cohort are making is made clearer in an excellent piece by Bill Berkowitz in Working for Change examining the "SpongeBob controversy":
Lurking beneath an attempt to celebrate diversity amongst young children, Vitagliano has spotted something nefarious: "A short step beneath the surface reveals that one of the differences being celebrated is homosexuality," he writes.

"The [WAFF] website is filled with pro-homosexual materials," Vitagliano charges. "A 'Tolerance Pledge,' for example, created by, part of the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center, encourages signees to pledge respect for homosexuals and work against 'ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry.'"

Perhaps we should take a step back here. Anyone familiar with the SPLC's work is aware that it is not a specifically "leftist" organization. Its allies, as well as the people who depend upon its work, include not just civil-rights and minority organizations but business and law-enforcement groups, as well as a broad swath of religious interests. Clearly, it is opposed primarily to right-wing extremism; but it counts among its friends and supporters many genuine conservatives.

Moreover, what it combats is hate, in a very specific sense: that is, the violence and fear inflicted upon people who, for whatever reason, are victimized simply for who they are, as an act of terrorism intended to "send a message" of intimidation to all people like them.

We all know about the kinds of people the SPLC works against, because we've all known them since we were little kids ourselves: Bullies. And when they grow up, they become haters.

It's worth remembering that the work of the SPLC's is aimed primarily at having an effect on people when they are young, before the attitudes that form the basis of so many hate crimes and acts of intolerance become embedded. Nearly the entirety of its work involves providing materials for enhancing curricula and school environments to produce people who are more inclined to tolerate (and indeed celebrate) differences. In many regards, this work is closely associated with the work to prevent school bullying, which should not be a controversial effort.

Indeed, most of its mission should be not only acceptable but embraced by any conservative concerned about the demise of traditional values in our schools, because it actively promotes some of the oldest of these: respect, fair play, fundamental human decency. It focuses on helping educators and communities foster these values among young people.

Fairly typical in this regard is the "Respect Policy" formulated by officials at Mariner High School up the road in Everett, cited by as a model of its efforts:
"Respect is the cornerstone of all our interactions and behaviors," it begins. "We acknowledge the dignity and worth of one another, and strive never to diminish another by our conduct or our attitudes."

What is happening here, though, is that for some people, "traditional values" are only about respect, fair play, and fundamental human decency for people who are just like themselves. To be fair, this is a "traditional value" of sorts as well, but over our nation's history, it has been responsible for many of our worst atrocities, from slavery to the genocide of Indians to the internment of Japanese Americans.

In this case, religious proscription of homosexuality (scriptural evidence for which is not, incidentally, nearly as abundant as those prohibitions regarding divorce) are being touted as the source of the "traditional values" under attack from the forces of tolerance. This is not terribly surprising. After all, the Scripture has in the past been cited as the source of such "traditional values" as slavery, lynching, and segregation, as well as laws against miscegenation.

In other words, the efforts of secular democratic society to promote its own best interests -- particularly equality of opportunity and participation, enabled by embracing diversity -- have run headlong into an age-old enemy: bigotry wearing the guise of religious belief and claiming the mantle of traditional values.

Of course, if there's anything a bigot hates, it's being identified as a bigot. (That's why the Scripture ruse is so popular.) Thus Donald Wildmon complains (in the Berkowitz piece):
"Most Christians are now aware of what those code words mean," said AFA's chairman Don Wildmon. "If you are a person who accepts the homosexual lifestyle, then you are tolerant," he said. "If you don't, then you are a bigot who is motivated by ignorance and hate."

This is a revealing formulation of the argument, because it is identical in form to the complaints of others who use religious arguments to justify their desire to discriminate freely against members of a minority group. Wildmon's contention is not significantly different than that used by anti-Semites who use Scripture to explain why they hate Jews, or of Christian Identity believers who do likewise to rationalize their bigotry against blacks and other "mud people."

In essence, that argument comes down to the charge that the forces of tolerance are themselves being intolerant of people's legitimate religious beliefs. It is an old argument, made by the likes of Robert Miles and David Duke over the years. The question becomes: Should we tolerate intolerance?

Still, it deserves a fair answer, and there is a simple one: Tolerance and intolerance -- whatever its rationale -- are mutually incompatible. There is no reason why a society that embraces tolerance as an essential value would simultaneously embrace intolerance. Embracing one, by its nature, means rejecting the other.

Now, it's important to understand that tolerance, unlike James Dobson's misapprehension, does not connote promotion. That is, promoting a tolerance of gay and lesbian people no more promotes homosexuality than urging tolerance of blackness or Jews promotes blackness or Judaism. It merely creates the space where they are allowed to participate as full members of society.

That includes, of course, people whose religious beliefs oppose homosexuality, or Judaism, or for that matter nonwhiteness. They're permitted to believe as they see fit. No one is demanding that people's children make friends with gays, if that runs counter to their belief system. What advocates of tolerance insist upon is that their children not beat up on gays and their children, verbally or otherwise, nor actively discriminate against them, just as we insist on the same treatment for Jewish and black children. This shouldn't be too much to ask.

Of course, it's important to recognize and respect people's private religious beliefs. But when those beliefs run counter to the basic mutual respect that makes a democratic society function, then it's incumbent on that society to stand firm. There's no more reason for educators in our schools to "compromise" on tolerance for gays because of individual religious beliefs than for them to do so regarding tolerance for other minorities.

Otherwise, making an exception for one kind of intolerance -- to condone it, for example, in our schools -- simply opens the floodgates for all the other kinds of hatred that are out there making the same kinds of rationalizations. There is, after all, only the thinnest of veneers between one kind of hatred and another. If we go down that road, we begin heading for the morass.

This was driven home the other day on Michael Medved's afternoon talk show on our local right-wing talk shop, KTTH-AM. Medved was discussing the SpongeBob controversy, and defending Dobson (correctly) because much of the ensuing discussion micharacterized what Dobson actually said. However, it didn't seem to occur to Medved that what Dobson actually said was in truth far more troubling than the caricature of it -- that it was an attack not on SpongeBob but on the principles of tolerance and fair play.

That point was made, in a unintentional way, by one of his callers (from, evidently, the Seattle area). The caller accused Medved of not wanting to be upfront about what was really at work in the SpongeBob video -- namely, the secret conspiracy of Talmudic Judaism to destroy Christian America. The caller went on to cite a Portland anti-Semitic preacher named Rev. Ted Pike, whose work has earned plaudits from many other quarters of the white-supremacist universe. Pike's antipathy to hate-crime laws is noteworthy too, since it rests on arguments similar to those raised by Dobson in this case.

Medved dismissed the caller as a conspiracy theorist and moved on. Unfortunately but perhaps predictably, he did not pause to reflect on the similarity of the views of his caller -- whose beef was with Medved, who is Jewish (and thus part of the cover-up, you see), not Dobson -- and those of the people who are attacking Because those attacks are not solely against tolerance of gay people but tolerance as a principle.

When you justify one kind of intolerance on religious grounds, you open the field for a regular freak show of haters waiting in line to make the same claims. Medved's caller illustrated this reality rather neatly.

SpongeBob is just a caricature. For Dobson and Co., he's a handy symbol -- not of gays, but the mere concept of tolerating them. And when we no longer have to tolerate gays and lesbians on the basis of religious beliefs, it will only be another half-step before we no longer have to tolerate non-Christians on the basis of religious beliefs. Muslims or Jews: take your pick as to who will be first in line. I'd guess Muslims.

After that, well, there's a long list of People Who Are Not Just Like Us. And an even longer line of haters eager to cross them off.

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