The recent bizarre political spat concerning Big Bird’s vaccination may provide the preamble to a hundred pointy-headed treatises on what’s wrong with America (and the world). It offers, among other things, the perfect introduction for a pondering of how a public health measure became caught up in the culture wars.
“I got the Covid-19 vaccine today!” the benign feathery Kaiju announced on Twitter. “My wing is feeling a little sore, but it’ll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy.”
Ten minutes ago, before we all lost our bleeding minds, the notion of Sesame Street, a famously civic-minded institution, reassuring kids about a worthwhile medical procedure would have been uncontroversial fluff. In the mad times, nobody much blinked an eye when Ted Cruz, red-meat senator for the great state of Texas, popped up to accuse a national treasure of forwarding "government propaganda". Would it be "government propaganda" if Big Bird recommended wearing your seatbelt or not running with scissors. (I meant the question rhetorically, but, on reflection, there probably is a strain of US libertarian who insists on your right to accidentally gouge out your own eye.)
It’s mad, Ted.
We do not have space to list all the twists and turns in the argument. But an online side-squabble between Cruz and Seth MacFarlane ended with the senator delivering a supposed diving knee drop on the creator of Family Guy. “Liberals are weird. They don’t care about open borders …” his tweet ran. “But criticize Big Bird? And they lose their sh**.”
Almost from its inception in 1969, Sesame Street has been an immovable jewel of US popular culture
Yeah, they do, Senator What-Aboutery. Liberals do lose their ess-aitch-one-tee if you criticise Big Bird. Do you know why? Because Big Bird and Sesame Street represent all that is best about the United States. That country may be addicted to engineering coups in Latin America; it may find it impossible to stop the sale of bazookas in Walmart; it may find it acceptable to serve soft drinks in containers the size of cement mixers; but Sesame Street demonstrates American benevolence at its most rigorous and committed. It is to television as the Marshall Plan was to post-war planning (let us leave the "Cold War by other means" rebuttal aside for another day).
It is not just about the positivity we get from that show. The Sesame Street project, like the Marshall Plan and the space programme, profited from the characteristic American belief that anything can be accomplished if you toil sufficiently hard and you hire enough experts. Uniquely among beloved entertainment institutions, the show resulted from years of research. Working with funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation and – one senses Cruz's innards bubbling – the US federal government, the Children's Television Workshop set out to "master the addictive qualities of television" for the purposes of education. Meeting those requirements while delivering something genuinely entertaining was, in its tidier way, as daunting a challenge as putting a man on the moon or facilitating the reconstruction of Hamburg. Yet they managed it. Almost from its inception in 1969, Sesame Street has been an immovable jewel of US popular culture.
The clatter of media was very much a product of the 1960s readjustments. There were cartoons. There was a faint soap-opera quality to the adult engagements. More important than anything else, there were the Muppet characters. Bert and Ernie seemed modelled on the Odd Couple. Oscar the Grouch lived in a bin like one of the elderly malcontents in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Big Bird – a gigantic canary, according to one source on the production – remained ingenuously trusting over his many decades on the Street. He is still there.
The show could have emerged from nowhere else but the United States
Sesame Street played differently abroad. In the US, it was praised for setting itself in an apparently working-class part of the inner city. In Ireland that environment seemed enormously glamorous. That was where Kojak and Taxi would soon be set. As the show progressed, avatars of American popular culture – Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles – turned up to sing with the Muppets. Making an educational show entertaining was remarkable. Making it cool was little short of a miracle. And it never deviated too far from its core objective. There are few moments on TV so moving as that in which poor Big Bird, clearly coded as a child, is confronted with the finality of Mr Hooper's death. "Big Bird, when people die, they don't come back," Susan explains. "Ever?" he asks. "No, never," she says softly. No platitudes about an afterlife or a resurrection.
The show could have emerged from nowhere else but the United States. We spend enough time being unkind to that country. Every now and then, it is worth celebrating its ambition, its generosity and its capacity for getting stuff done. You know who agrees with me, senator Cruz? The people of your great country. In 2018, Frank Luntz, unavoidable pollster, reported that around two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that Sesame Street "represents the best of America". Which is pretty much what I said at the top.