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January 20, 2005
The Overkill Of Attacking A Sponge

David Kirkpatrick reports in today's New York Times that conservative activist Dr. James Dobson has attacked a cartoon character for alleged homosexual subtext as well as its alleged involvement in a gay-rights promotional video. It appears that Dr. Dobson has not only overreacted, but has gotten some key facts wrong:

Now, Dr. Dobson said, SpongeBob's creators had enlisted him in a "pro-homosexual video," in which he appeared alongside children's television colleagues like Barney and Jimmy Neutron, among many others. The makers of the video, he said, planned to mail it to thousands of elementary schools to promote a "tolerance pledge" that includes tolerance for differences of "sexual identity."

The video's creator, Nile Rodgers, who wrote the disco hit "We Are Family," said Mr. Dobson's objection stemmed from a misunderstanding. Mr. Rodgers said he founded the We Are Family Foundation after the Sept. 11 attacks to create a music video to teach children about multiculturalism. The video has appeared on television networks, and nothing in it or its accompanying materials refers to sexual identity. The pledge, borrowed from the Southern Poverty Law Center, is not mentioned on the video and is available only on the group's Web site.

Mr. Rodgers suggested that Dr. Dobson and the American Family Association, the conservative Christian group that first sounded the alarm, might have been confused because of an unrelated Web site belonging to another group called "We Are Family," which supports gay youth.

Dr. Dobson refused to back down from his attack, even after getting the above information. His spokesman, Paul Batura, calls the video an "insidious means" to brainwash children and that Focus on the Family would stand by its accusations against Rodgers and SpongeBob.

I'll start with where I agree with FotF. Promoting multiculturalism and taking "tolerance pledges" with cartoons have no place in public schools. The underlying point may be good, but public schools serve the entire public, and I do think that these exercises are a class of brainwashing for political purposes. These programs are far too susceptible for particular ideologies to co-opt them. Besides, we have way too many distractions from real learning in our schools as it is. Why not focus on reading, math, and social studies, which has the benefit of supporting multiculturalism through education instead of through brainwashing?

However, in this instance, Dobson and his group show a little paranoia in their approach to opposing homosexuality. First we had the jeremiad against the Teletubbies (from Jerry Falwell's group), and now it's open season on a cartoon character? How silly do we have to get before it ends? The Times notes that gay men have made SpongeBob a mascot of sorts, but that's hardly the fault of the show's creators. Some gay men do the same thing with Joan Crawford (thanks to Faye Dunaway's campy portrayal in Mommie Dearest) and Marilyn Monroe. Does Dobson propose eliminating them from television as well?

Perhaps Rodgers is lying, and Kirkpatrick is covering for him when he reports that no mention of sexual identity can be found on this video, even though it has aired several times on television anyway. But to me, Rodgers has a pretty reasonable explanation, and Dobson doesn't. However, Dobson is correct about the tolerance pledge at the We Are Family Foundation website, if not the video, and it does mention sexual identity. That hardly qualifies as "promoting" a homosexual lifestyle; I'd say it ranges more towards the "don't pick on gay people" spectrum of tolerance, as you can see:

Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America's diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination.

To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.

Mostly, this kind of obsessive screeching gives the conservative cause a bad name. Hugh Hewitt recently described James Dobson as one of the most influential people in America; I think that's a bit of an overstatement, but Dobson has tremendous reach. With that comes responsibility, and I think Dobson has failed in that responsibility here. When influential culture warriors on the right do that, it reflects poorly on all conservatives. It's precisely this kind of nit-picking that took the intellectual steam out of the Reagan Revolution by discrediting its culture, and that led to the Clinton years.

Dobson does good work in many areas, and my family has supported his organization in the past. However, all Dobson accomplishes by attacking SpongeBob is to make himself look ludicrous. Dobson needs to quit obsessing on cartoon characters and get back to working on real-life issues.

UPDATE: The WAFF site allows users to stream the entire music video to their screens. It's just a music video of Rodgers's song "We Are Family," with a large number of characters from kids shows (animated and live-action) pantomiming the singing, which still comes from the original recording by Sister Sledge. Diana Ross even makes an appearance. Some might find that objectionable, I suppose. However, nothing in the music video makes any reference to homosexuality, and I doubt that kids can even understand the words to the song as it's played. Why anyone chooses to make an issue of this is beyond me.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 20, 2005 5:12 AM

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