Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Sesame Street began in the USA in 1969. It was not long before it was introduced to Australia with a great fanfare about its supposed sensational educational virtues. Media and advertising gurus like Phillip Adams weighed in with fulsome praise for the program's alleged success in teaching New York ghetto kids to read. It would be an educational catastrophe, they suggested, if the ABC did not take up this "revolutionary" new program. In truth, they seemed overjoyed at finding a series where the techniques of advertising — a dirty word in anybody's language — were being used to capture the attention of children for the worthy purpose of education. Sesame Street taught reading by teaching letter recognition. Australian teachers were at first dismayed to discover that their more sophisticated approach was suddenly being berated as "old fashioned". In the event, Sesame Street did not revolutionise the teaching of reading in Australia. Nevertheless, the series settled in for an apparently permanent spot in pre-and-after school viewing. I was about 30 when Sesame Street started here, so it is perhaps understandable that I was not entranced by Big Bird. Bert and Ernie were much more fun, as was Kermit in the guise of the reporter for "Sesame Street News", breathlessly covering various spoofs of famous fairy tales. The series was originally made for the most deprived sub-stratum of underprivileged America: the black and Latino ghettos of New York and other large US cities. But the makers of the series never once questioned the legitimacy of a system that made their program necessary. They wracked their brains for ways of using the attitude moulding techniques of capitalist marketing to reach children living in cultural deprivation, without kids' books, safe playing areas or a stable home-life, where rats gnawed at their bedding and the air was nightly rent by the sounds of violence. But they never publicly questioned the American Dream or what Bush today is wont to call "American Values". Instead, they embraced the American Dream, presenting a seriously romanticised view of urban living in the USA. There was no racism on Sesame Street, no sir! Instead there was (and is) tolerance: of people of colour, of people with disabilities, of monsters of every hue. The program's target audience encounters racism every day of their lives. Even little kids can understand and benefit from simple explanations of the nature of racism, who benefits from it, what purpose does it serve. But that would call the capitalist system into question, and that would never do. No, the makers of this much-vaunted series preferred to put the blame for racism on to the very people who were its victims. Ordinary people 's intolerance for anyone a little bit different was at the bottom of it, and all we had to do was be more tolerant and there would be no racism, like on Sesame Street. Have you ever seen the police come cruising down Sesame Street picking on black kids to hassle just because they are black? No, neither have I. Or seen the INS raid a Sesame Street store and rough up the Latino customers for failing to produce naturalisation papers fast enough? No again. But why not? After all, it's everyday reality for the kids the program is trying to reach. But it's not reality that the series is preaching. Sesame Street espouses a small-l liberal view of the USA that says: "America is great. Whatever little things are wrong with it are that way because people don't try hard enough to make it work." This is a middle-class view that was given expression by Michael Douglas in The American President: "America is hard work. You've got to want it bad." (Here, "America" has become both a goal and an ideology all its own.) Sesame Street is a program for poor children that never even acknowledges the existence of poverty, let alone the causes of it. It visits Indian reservations to show Indian kids playing in the dirt or admiring their mother's baskets ("encouraging tolerance"). But it never comments on the fact that they live in squalor under the thumb of the FBI. The children on Sesame Street, unlike its audience, never suffer hunger. Many of the families that watch it cannot afford books. At their inner city schools they share pencils. (Is that why the series spends so much time lauding the virtues of sharing? They are certainly not advocating sharing the wealth!) The relentless but clever pro-establishment line of Sesame Street and its popularity have endeared the program to the US State Department and other US government agencies charged with combating the "anti- Americanism" in the world. Charlotte Beers, Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy ("newspeak" for Minister for Propaganda) waxed ecstatic to a Senate Committee about the Egyptian version of the program: "The children are glued to the set. They are learning English, they are learning about American values." Ms Beers, one need hardly add, is a former advertising executive. The US is strenuously trying to secure bases in Bangladesh, and Sesame Street is part of the effort. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is giving the series' producers US$6.26m to produce a version for viewers in Bangladesh. One unnamed official told Britain's Daily Telegraph that the project is "aiming to promote greater understanding of American morality and culture". Yeah, right. Thanks to a combined marketing, media and diplomatic push, Sesame Street is now aired in no less than 120 countries! That's a lot of "American morality and culture" being aired daily. The BBC reported recently that the Russian version, Ulitsa Sezam, now has a new storyline about a lemonade stall. This has been included to show, that in a nation where many people suspect all businesses of corruption (goodness, why would they think that?), someone "can make a profit and be a nice person". And the BBC also reports that back in the US, "the cute, squeaky-voiced puppet Elmo has just been sponsored by Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch to explain business to American pre-schoolers". Of course.