31 January 2005

Bob Smietana, giving Dobson the benefit of the doubt, finds a moral in L’Affaire SpongeBob.

Al Gore was at it again.

He�d already claimed to have invented the Internet, and to have been the inspiration for the novel Love Story. Now, while speaking at to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 30, 1999, he told another whopper.

He had discovered the toxic waste dump at Love Canal, New York.

“I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tennessee…I was the one that started it all,” The Washington Post reported him as saying.

It was another case of Gore�s “Pinocchio problem,” as George Stephanopoulos put it, rearing its ugly head. Other pundits piled on and soon the narrative line was clear. As Robert Parry pointed out in the April 2000 Washington Monthly, Gore was labeled “as a willful liar who may even live in a world of his own delusions.”

There was just one little problem: he didn�t say “I was the one who started it all.” A group of New Hampshire high school students looked at the tape of Gore�s speech and realized he said, “That was the one that started it all.”

“I” versus “that.” One word wrong. A world of difference. Gore was talking to the students about the difference that one person could make. A Tennessee student had written him a letter about the Love Canal, which prompted his involvement on in Congressional hearings on Love Canal and other toxic waste sites.

Erin Mullaney, then a high school junior, told The Boston Globe that Gore�s message “got lost” in the story. “The whole point was power to the people — you live in a democracy,” she told the Globe. “The media made democracy into a one-man deal.”

Parry argued in an essay called “He�s No Pinocchio” that the Love Story, and “I invented the Internet” lines were also misquotes — and that once they were in the media food chain were impossible to stop. The misquotes became reality, turning “a well-qualified public official and a decent family man into a national laughingstock.”

The narrative line, that “Al Gore was a big fat liar,” mattered more than the facts. Al Gore was a big fat liar, not matter what those kids in New Hampshire said.

Gore�s troubles came to mind this week with the James Dobson versus SpongeBob affair. Except that there are two storylines here.

The first is “here go those crazy evangelicals again.” I�m a card carrying evangelical myself, and even I thought this one was true.

According to this storyline, �wacky evangelicals� are �sponging, witch-hunting clowns� who believe that Tinky Winky, Buster Baxter and the lesbians, and now SpongeBob are all apparently part of homosexual conspiracy to undermine “the family.”

Or, as Michael Ventre put it, evangelicals are CRACKPOTS –“creepy, rigid, arrogant, cruel, know-it-all, pompous, obnoxious and treacherous” people who believe “the moral foundation of our nation�s schoolchildren is in grave peril” because SpongeBob and his friend Patrick hold hands while they watch “The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.”

The second storyline is this: The liberal elite — which in this case means the media, school administrators, and “homosexual advocates” — are part of conspiracy against conservative Christian values. When they say “tolerance” what they mean is “homosexuality is perfectly normal.” And they are determined to subvert the minds of young Americans.

In his January 2005 newsletter, Dobson outlined this version of the story. “At its heart, the issue before us is the ‘sexual re-orientation’ and brainwashing of children by homosexual advocacy groups. It is going on in many schools today, both public and private. Make absolutely sure your child is not being targeted for this purpose.”

Dr. Bill Maier, vice president of Focus on the Family, wrote in an editorial that the SpongeBob controversary was part of conspiracy by “Big Media.”

“America�s parents don�t want SpongeBob, Barney and Elmo co-opted in an effort to persuade their kids that homosexuality is ‘normal and natural,'” he wrote. “Dobson sounded the alarm and now the liberal press is taking him to task. By distorting the facts they are attempting to marginalize him and undermine his influence. Clear-thinking Americans won�t buy it — they�ve trusted Dobson�s advice for 27 years and will see through the media�s SpongeBob charade.”

Most of the coverage of SpongeBob-gate has been, to use a biblical metaphor, examples of “eye for an eye” journalism. That is, take complicated concepts — like tolerance and diversity — and watch people on two opposing sides of the issue poke each other in the eye for a while, add a few pundits doing the same, and send it to the printers.

Too much journalism, like too much of American public discourse, seems to have adopted this eye-for-an-eye model of debate. It�s a model that values shouting and one-liners over dialogue and that most often assumes the worst about the other side. The stories created by this model are driven by stereotypes and snark but don�t inform, enlighten, stimulate discussion, or leave a reader with a better understanding of those “whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”

And that is supposed to be the point of the “We are Family” tolerance video at the heart of the controversy. Tolerance for others.

The We are Family Foundation website includes this tolerance pledge (taken from theSouthern Poverty Law Center�s National Campaign for Tolerance).

“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.”

There�s just one problem — there�s no consensus on what tolerance means.

The bigger story here is the meaning of tolerance. Is it acceptance and approval, or simply respecting differences? And how do the logistics of tolerance get worked out in the public sphere? That�s a major theme at college campuses these days, as universities and Christian student groups argue over whether those groups can restrict gay students and nonbelievers and still receive student activity fees. As The Chronicle of Higher Education points out, what�s at stake there is whether the First Amendment�s free-speech guarantee trumps the 14th Amendment’s promise of protection from bias.

Something similar is at stake in other public forums, especially public schools.

What does it mean to have “respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own?” That�s a question that deserves serious attention; more serious than “SpongeBob is Gay” headlines.

Perhaps we need a little more “turn the other cheek” journalism. Where journalists eschew the one-liners and dig below the surface to find the underlying values at stake in controversial stories.

It�s easy to dismiss James Dobson as a crackpot. It�s a little harder, as Barbara McGraw, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California told Eric Deggans of The St. Petersburg Times, to dismiss all of his listeners in the same way. “You�re not going to have millions of people following something that is completely stupid,” she said.

Barbara McGraw hit the nail on the head. Millions of people believe James Dobson is right. And millions of people believe he�s wrong. Exploring why they think this way and explaining that in clear and compelling ways may help people on both sides understand each other a little more. Leading to a little more tolerance, and less name calling, something I think, that they — and SpongeBob — would appreciate.

We could do worse than emulate Elaine McArdle, who went south for The Boston Globe Magazine and discovered that Red Staters and Blue Staters might just have a few things in common.

On her way home, she reflected back on a conversation she had with Michael Johnson, 32, “a lawyer for the Shreveport office of the Alliance Defense Fund, a national conservative legal group.”

Johnson told McArdle that the two of them “should arrange field trips” to promote mutual understanding.

“If some of our good neighbors in Massachusetts just came down here and spent some time here,” he told her, “they’d realize there are many, many intelligent, articulate, educated people who just happen to believe differently than they do.”

Here�s McArdle�s final thoughts: “I think about Johnson’s words as I fly back to Boston, out of the 60-degree December days and into a city covered in snow. I reflect on this irony: that I love Boston because it is so open-minded and tolerant, and yet it shows little interest in trying to understand the South, a beautiful part of our country, where, as you walk down a sidewalk, a stranger will smile and say, ‘Hey, how you doin’ today?’ I think of how these cultural differences have enormous political implications. We ignore them at our peril.”


Bob Smietana, voice of God-of-Small-Things, is a features editor of The Covenant Companion, the monthly magazine of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a contributing writer to Christianity TodayHe lives outside Chicago.