Monday, February 07, 2005

Working Towards the Fuehrer

The indispensible Frank Rich points out that the Bushies hardly have to dictate; the media just cave in. It's familiar if you've studied Nazi Germany. Historians call it "working towards the Fuehrer."

The second Bush term began with the installation of a powerful new government censor in another big job, Secretary of Education. Margaret Spellings hadn't even been officially sworn into the cabinet when she took on "Postcards From Buster," threatening PBS with decreased financing because one episode had the show's eponymous animated rabbit hobnobbing with actual lesbian moms while visiting Vermont to learn how maple syrup is made. Though Buster had in previous installments visited Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and Pentecostal Christians, gay couples (even when not identified as such on camera) are verboten to our new Secretary of Education. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode," Ms. Spellings wrote in her threatening letter to Pat Mitchell, the C.E.O. of PBS.

The letter, as it happened, was unnecessary: Public broadcasting says that it had decreed on its own only a few hours earlier that it would not distribute the offending show - the most alarming example yet of just how cowardly it has become and how chilling the Janet Jackson effect has been. (Since then, some two dozen member stations out of a total of 349 have rebeled and decided to broadcast the episode anyway.) But the story won't end with this one incident. Ms. Spellings' threats against PBS are only the latest chapter in a continuing saga at an education department that increasingly resembles an authoritarian government's ministry of information.

A month before the election, The Los Angeles Times reported on its front page that the department had quietly destroyed more than 300,000 copies of "a booklet designed for parents to help their children learn history" after Lynne Cheney, who has no official government role, complained about its contents. The booklet burning occurred under the watch of Rod Paige, the education secretary who, we would later learn, was simultaneously complicit in another sub rosa exercise in heavy-handed government information management: the payment of $240,000 in taxpayers' funds to Armstrong Williams, a talking head and columnist, to plug Bush administration policies on radio and TV.

Mr. Paige fled his post last month without adequately explaining what he knew about these scandals. Enter Ms. Spellings, previously a White House aide who by some accounts had been a shadow administrator of the education department during Mr. Paige's out-to-lunch tenure. With all the other troubles in public education, why would she focus on a single episode of a single children's program on her second day in the job? We don't yet know. But her act was nothing if not ideologically synergistic with still another freshly uncovered Bush propaganda effort. Just as Ms. Spellings busted Buster, two more syndicated columnists copped to receiving taxpayers' dollars, this time siphoned through the Department of Health and Human Services, to help craft propaganda for a Bush "healthy marriage initiative" that disdains same-sex couples as fervently as Ms. Spellings did in her letter to PBS.

What makes this story more insidious still is the glaring reality that the most prominent Republican lesbians in America are Mary Cheney, a former gay and lesbian marketing liaison for Coors beer, and her partner, Heather Poe, who appeared as a couple in public and on TV during the presidential campaign. That Ms. Spellings would gratuitously go after this specific "lifestyle" right after taking office is so provocative it smells like payback specifically pitched at those "pro-family" watchdogs who snarled at the mention of Ms. Cheney's sexual orientation during the campaign whether it was by John Kerry or anyone else. Surely Ms. Spellings doesn't believe in discrimination against nontraditional families: by her own account, she was a single mother who had to park her 13-year-old and 8-year-old children in Austin when she first went to work at the White House. Then again, President Bush went on record last month as saying that "studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is being raised by a man and a woman" (even though, as The New York Times reported, "there is no scientific evidence that children raised by gay couples do any worse").

That our government is now both intimidating PBS and awarding public money to pundits to enforce "moral values" agendas demonizing certain families is the ugliest fallout of the campaign against indecency.

Maybe not the ugliest. I would submit that the self-censorship of Saving Private Ryan by ABC stations was, if anything, even uglier, as cowed people continue working towards the Fuehrer.


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