Thursday, November 22, 2007

Israel And Sesame Street: Suffering From The Same Problem?

Baruch Who? emailed me a copy of a New York Times article about the initial dark disturbing days of Sesame Street:
According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, “Sesame Street: Old School” is adults-only: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Say what? At a recent all-ages home screening, a hush fell over the room. “What did they do to us?” asked one Gen-X mother of two, finally. The show rolled, and the sweet trauma came flooding back. What they did to us was hard-core. Man, was that scene rough. The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.
Apparently the Sesame Street of 1969 is not suitable for the children of 2007. The characters are wrong. They are not the right sort of role models that our children need. You might have thought--based on today's TV, videos, and Internet--that today's children are tougher, more exposed to the real world.

Alas, you would be sadly mistaken.
The old “Sesame Street” is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for softies born since 1998, when the chipper “Elmo’s World” started. Anyone who considers bull markets normal, extracurricular activities sacrosanct and New York a tidy, governable place — well, the original “Sesame Street” might hurt your feelings.

I asked Carol-Lynn Parente, the executive producer of “Sesame Street,” how exactly the first episodes were unsuitable for toddlers in 2007. She told me about Alistair Cookie and the parody “Monsterpiece Theater.” Alistair Cookie, played by Cookie Monster, used to appear with a pipe, which he later gobbled. According to Parente, “That modeled the wrong behavior” — smoking, eating pipes — “so we reshot those scenes without the pipe, and then we dropped the parody altogether.”

Which brought Parente to a feature of “Sesame Street” that had not been reconstructed: the chronically mood-disordered Oscar the Grouch. On the first episode, Oscar seems irredeemably miserable — hypersensitive, sarcastic, misanthropic. (Bert, too, is described as grouchy; none of the characters, in fact, is especially sunshiney except maybe Ernie, who also seems slow.) “We might not be able to create a character like Oscar now,” she said.

So--today's media to the contrary--we live in something of a sugar-coated world, one where we still need to protect and nurture our children from the hard realities of life.

Which I suppose is exactly the problem. We protect our children, never mind ourselves, from the hard and necessary realities of life. We and our children may cheerfully watch the most explicit and gory movies for entertainment--but that is over the top and is not real.

Psychologists warn us that the violence in the media desensitizes us to it.
Maybe so.

Maybe it also puts all violence into one category, into one neat package, and convinces us that the only place for violence is on TV.

Which brings me to the topic of Israel.

Israel is a country that suffers real violence on a regular daily basis--and has to respond to it regularly as well. It is that latter part that gets people upset. Israel is in a position where in order to deal with terrorists who fire rockets arbitrarily at their citizens or blow themselves up in public places--has had to build barriers, assassinate terrorists, and take military action.

In other words, in dealing with the realities of life that the world has been painfully made aware of, Israel is 'modeling the wrong behavior.' Like the Sesame Street of old, Israel 'hurts people's feelings." Instead, diplomacy, negotiation, and--of course--painful concessions are called for, are always called for.

This message has been, after decades of repetition, successfully internalized by the Israeli government--to their detriment. They have learned their lesson well. And why not? After all, Israelis are civilized, cultured, and intelligent. They of all people should 'get' the message--and act on it.

This is unlike the Palestinian Arabs, who are presented as sympathetic oppressed people at the same time that the West condescendingly refuses accept them as capable of being held responsible for any actions--or mistakes--they make.

Israel and Sesame Street, each in their own way, suffer from the inability of people to face real life reality when it is not presented in a simplified way--one that is ostensibly attractive, but lacking any real substance or conviction.

Sesame Street from its inception showed that the inner city was not an evil place:
The concept of the “inner city” — or “slums,” as The Times bluntly put it in its first review of “Sesame Street” — was therefore transformed into a kind of Xanadu on the show: a bright, no-clouds, clear-air place where people bopped around with monsters and didn’t worry too much about money, cleanliness or projecting false cheer.
Israel likewise has shown how a people can survive--and thrive--in adversity. But part of that lesson is that a nation suffering from terrorism can defend itself, can take action and attack back without losing its humanity. War is a necessary evil, but it does not necessarily make those who are forced to engage in it evil.

Israel's critics who denounce her with arbitrary accusations of apartheid--and worse--just don't get it.

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