Mitt Romney has never been a champion of the Little Guy—that much we know—but in the first Presidential debate last week the former Massachusetts governor showed his true colors: he declared war on Big Bird.
This may seem like a trivial point, but bear with me.
“Conventional wisdom” is produced almost immediately these days through social media. So if Twitter and Facebook are any indication, it’s pretty clear that President Obama “lost” last Tuesday’s debate. I’ll admit, he did seem flat, distracted, frustrated at times, and unwilling, as ever, to be “aggressive” and go on the “attack” (that most pundits and the majority of Americans don’t get why is a source of never-ending frustration to anyone who understands the history of race and racism in America). Keeping in mind the fact that Obama had everything to lose and Romney had everything to gain in this week’s debate—and putting aside pesky little things like truth, substance and consistency—I do agree that the Governor had a better night than the President. After all, optics are everything in our new political culture.
But before we strap ourselves to the roof of the Romney Express, let’s keep in mind that the former Governor—in one of his pre-packaged “zingers”—also said this: “I’m sorry Jim [Lehrer, the veteran-journalist-turned-useless-debate-moderator], I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS…I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too.” Before the debate was even over, one of my Facebook friends quipped that Jim Lehrer had done more to stop the flow of contributions to PBS than Mitt Romney ever could. Another friend, a Mormon Republican, wrote to assure me that only a small percentage of PBS funding—about 12 percent—comes from the federal government, so I shouldn’t fret too much. Neither of these posts managed to calm the raw anger I felt the minute I heard him throw Big Bird under the bus. A pathetic, predictable moment of pandering to his conservative base, it also tells us everything we need to know about the real Mitt Romney.
Like so many people, Sesame Street defined my childhood. It was the weekly television ritual my Catholic parents used to keep me preoccupied while they attended back-to-back Masses when I was too young to behave in church. Sesame Street also provided me with the best kind of education, as it has countless children across the globe for more than four decades. It’s where I learned how to count, spell, speak Spanish, dream and care about other people (and puppets). Think about it: Sesame Street—in the turbulent and transformative 1970s—was a multicultural, multilingual urban neighborhood where humans and puppets of every background, color, talent and temperament lived in harmony, if not always in total agreement. You had a strong black couple, a Latina teenager, a really nice white guy, puppet roommates who were most likely gay, a small business owner who loved kids, a clumsy pastry chef, a monster with a sweet tooth, a counting vampire, a flying superhero, a green grouch who lived in a trash can and an optimistic yellow bird who had the capacity to imagine as his best friend a lumbering brown beast who didn’t quite see the world as he saw it. Sesame Street was an inclusive and inspiring place, a beloved community—the kind of neighborhood where all of us wanted to live.
Except people like Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney would never live on Sesame Street. It would freak him out—all that remarkable diversity, all that collective creativity, all those good public works being done without someone owning, eliminating, or profiting from it all. Given his ruthless record in both the private and public sectors, it’s no wonder Mitt Romney would cut funding to support a place like this. After all, Big Bird—the big-spirited, big-minded, big-hearted hero—is everything the former Governor is not: kind, generous, imaginative, likeable, truthful, loyal and consistent. And besides, when you’re rich enough to own your own compounds, you don’t need to learn how to be a good neighbor. It’s not a coincidence that there were no people like Mitt Romney living on Sesame Street.
I never appreciated the full power of “Sesame Street”—the threat it posed to small-minded people—until I visited Israel and Palestine for the first time last January. I was there as part of a delegation of intellectuals, activists and cultural workers. One evening, during a home stay near one of the Palestinian refugee camps in the occupied territories, we were watching the news with our host family. A segment came on about the decision of the US Congress to cut funding for “Sesame Street” in Palestine, an attempt to punish Palestinians for appealing to the United Nations for statehood. Our host looked over at the three of us sitting on the couch—an African-American writer and activist, a Korean-American journalist and me—and we all looked at each other in shame. If ever there were a place where Sesame Street could do important cultural work—of helping to promote genuine empathy, understanding and peace among people—it’s Israel and Palestine. And yet, “our” Congress decided to foreclose this opportunity. I’ve never believed that the United States could function as an honest, “objective” broker for peace in the Middle East; this only confirmed that yet again. Given his recklessly hawkish support for Israel—a government that needs no such encouragement these days—Mitt Romney must be pleased that Big Bird and his friends are no longer available to Palestinian children. After all, why provide a model for peace when war is your preferred state of being?
The most remarkable—and telling—thing about Mitt Romney’s debate “zinger” was that in the very same breath, he stated his “love” for Big Bird while also saying he’d eliminate funding to bring the Yellow Fellow into millions of living rooms. (Romney has mastered the art of speaking out of both sides of his mouth.) At another point in the debate, he talked about how much better “the states” were at taking care of “our poor,” a brutally paternalistic claim that has little basis in fact when it comes to his record. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney loved “his” poor about as much as he claims to “love” Big Bird.
I’ve seen this first hand. Since 2001, I’ve helped to direct and teach in the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a college-level course for low-income adults, offered free-of-charge through Dotwell, a renowned, award-winning community health center in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Clemente is a program that offers top-level instruction in the humanities—and six college credits upon completion—to adults who have not yet realized their educational goals. The course provides a bridge to folks who have never gone to college, and a jump-start to those who may have started college but who had to drop out for health, financial or family reasons. The Boston Clemente Course is one of the strongest of its kind in the nation, boasting very high retention, graduation and college placement rates year after year. More than 200 students have graduated from the program in the last decade, and many of them have gone on to pursue and complete college degrees.
And yet, as governor, Mitt Romney eliminated the line item we worked very hard to secure in the state education budget to help fund the Clemente Course. This was part of his larger war on so-called “welfare programs,” designed to shore up his credibility as a “severe conservative” as he was gearing up to run for President. The problem is that the Clemente Course is not a “welfare program” for those who are “dependent” or “entitled” (the grotesque and inaccurate way we tend to talk about all programs designed to help poor people). On the contrary, the Clemente Course is a highly effective adult education program that helps to open up opportunities for higher education and a better life to people living at or below the poverty line. It is a model of excellence and determination, not entitlement and dependency.
But Mitt Romney wouldn’t know that. Despite letters and calls, pleas and protests not to eliminate our funding, he never took the time to respond to any of us in any way. He simply didn’t care—about our program, our lives, our aspirations, or our achievements. He just wanted to be President; that’s all he’s ever wanted, and as we have seen time and again, he’ll do or say just about anything to reach this goal. Now, I realize it’s hard to know what Mitt Romney actually believes—generally or on any given day—but this much is certain: he sees government programs, and those they serve, as illegitimate. I’ve witnessed this first hand in Dorchester, and we’ve all seen the video. What’s more, his full-throated support for the so-called “Ryan budget,” a Republican blueprint for government cruelty under the guise of “austerity,” only confirms that a Romney Presidency will be similarly devoted to depriving the most vulnerable among us the support systems they need to survive during tough times, and the opportunities they need to thrive moving forward.
The problem here, of course, is that Mitt Romney doesn’t actually know any poor or working class people. I’d be willing to bet—though not ten thousand dollars—that he doesn’t know many middle class people, either. To these points, I’d honestly like to know how on earth he can have a “plan” for getting poor and working class people into the middle class if he doesn’t know anything about what it means to be poor, work multiple jobs, or struggle to make ends meet? The only thing Mitt Romney knows how to do is create wealth—for himself, and for the rest of the 1 percent. If Mitt Romney actually knew some poor folks, he would know that they are some of the most hard working, family loving, civic minded, generous people you’ll ever meet. He would also understand that what he sees as a government “hand out” is really a leg up for people who want to work for an opportunity for a better life. And who knows? He might even come to realize that he’s the “entitled” one.