I woke up Saturday morning blown away by Charles Blow. His witty defense of PBS in his column is perfect. PBS as the enactment of the ideal of a democratic culture: refined, enlightening, open, inclusive, transforming. Blow presents not only illuminating personal reflections gleaned from the one gaffe of the Presidential debate on Wednesday, the dissing of Big Bird and PBS, as Aron Hsiao’s post yesterday analyzed, Blow also significantly addresses one of the crucial fields of contestation in American history: the perils to and promise of cultural excellence in a democracy. I have been thinking about this issue for much of my career. It was at the center of my book The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life. Blow shows how Big Bird and his Sesame Street friends, along with much else in PBS programing, contribute in a significant way to the health of the republic and its citizens.
Blow celebrates the character of Big Bird as it contributed to his own character. “I’m down with Big Bird.” Being black and poor in rural America, in the absence of good schools, PBS became his top quality primary and secondary schools. His uncle daily cared for him and permitted only one hour of PBS TV each day. (The same regime, I used with my kids. I wonder: how many millions were so raised?)
Blows imagination was sparked. His thirst for knowledge was quenched. He learned about science through nature programs, to his mind his SAT prep. He devoured arts programs, which he believes enabled him, a college English major without formal art training, to work as the design director of The New York Times and the art director of National Geographic magazine.
“I don’t really expect Mitt Romney to understand the value of something like PBS to people, like me, who grew up in poor, rural areas and went to small schools. These are places with no museums or preschools or after-school educational programs. There wasn’t money for travel or to pay tutors.
I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.”
In the debate about what is the impact of democracy on cultural excellence, there are essentially two radically opposing positions, each unsatisfying: the elitist and the populist.
Elitists see a danger. Democracy weakens cultural excellence. If the majority rules in cultural affairs, mediocrity results. Distinguishing the good from the bad, the important from the insignificant and the creative from the formulaic involves hierarchical judgment. Elitists, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, want to preserve excellence in the face of the merely popular. The broad public be damned.
Populists have a problem with this. They rebel against elitism, while they defend the popular. Hierarchical judgment is seen as a defense of privilege. The tastes of the folk and the people are celebrated. The folk music coming out of the popular front in the thirties and forties, of the Weavers and Pete Seeger, express this position. It is also embraced by Seeger’s musicologist father, and the distinguished sociologist of the arts, Howard Becker. In the praise of the popular, concern for and support of “high art” is questioned.
Most of course try to square the circle, including the aforementioned, and try to figure out how the pursuit of cultural excellence and the pursuit of democracy involve a creative tension that supports both democracy and excellence. They further recognize that democracy and cultural excellence are mutually supportive, not only in tension.
Cultural work beyond elites is enriched by the insights and creativity of more diverse perspectives and cultivated capacities. In The Cynical Society I highlight the accomplishments of the American literary renaissance of the mid 19th century, something that Tocqueville did not perceive or anticipate.
On the other hand, the rule of the people cannot be wise unless they are well informed and well educated. Excellence has to reach not only the privileged. Thus, Blow’s demand to not mess with Big Bird.
Romney made a cute comment, highlighting his antipathy towards government, shared with his fellow Republicans, in favor of minimal government. In contrast, in the view of Obama and the Democrats, the government can and should facilitate the development not only of the economy but also the society and American democracy. It is the government of the people, for the people, by the people, Obama emphasizes, not an alien force. It supports public goods, such as Big Bird and his friends. The stakes of the election for Obama are personified by Big Bird.
As I was writing this post, I received Aron Hsiao’s “Romney’s Big Bird Moment” and decided to publish it immediately. He first brought to my attention the importance of the Big Bird gaffe in a response to my earlier post on the debate. I was pleased he expanded his at first tentative speculations into illuminating analysis tied to Chinese – U.S. history and the Republican approach to the political economy.
Big Bird went to China as educator and diplomat, showing an alternative to cold war antagonisms then and thoughtless self-destructive anti-China sentiments now. Hsiao concludes that Romney and the Republicans attempted “to liquidate Big Bird for their own gain—a startling parallel to the Bain Capital narrative that has dogged the campaign now for some time.” Hsiao thinks that “The moment may help to solidify the notion that Romney remains (perhaps intentionally) the quintessential private equity CEO, despite his presidential aspirations—a “one percenter” disdainful of publics. One who knows and exploits the prices of things without having any particular interest in their value.”
As a Democrat and strong Obama supporter, I hope he is right about the potential political impact of the Big Bird gaffe, though I am not sure. As a sociologist, on the other hand, I marvel at the power of democratic culture as revealed in a yellow muppet. As individual citizens such as Charles Blow have greatly benefited from the broad array of programing on PBS, American political culture has been enriched by the creativity that PBS has made possible.