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Intolerance A Family Value?

Recently, popular radio commentator and founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, James C. Dobson, focused on an unlikely target: the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. At a black tie dinner in which he addressed some members of Congress, Dobson claimed that the animated sponge was actually part of a movement to slyly promote homosexuality to children. Huh? James, it's an animated character, and it's not even a human!

Nonetheless, Dobson is outraged. As proof of his assertion, he pointed out that SpongeBob often holds hands with his friend who is a pink starfish. And the two friends watch an imaginary television show called, "The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy." What more evidence could this guy need?

But there's more. What really has made him mad is that a group called the "We Are Family Foundation" has made a pro-diversity video with SpongeBob and other characters from kids' shows. On the video, characters from "Barney," "The Muppets," "The Book of Pooh," "Clifford the Red Dog," "Lilo and Stitch," "Rugrats," and "Sesame Street," along with the evil SpongeBob, sing the '70's song, "We Are Family."

A spokesman for another conservative group, the Family Research Council, said that their "homosexuality detection expert" is also suspicious of the video.

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I didn't even know there was such a thing as a "homosexuality detection expert." Is that what he puts on his income tax form under "occupation?" What kind of detection equipment does he use? Gay-dar? How do you become an expert in this area? There's probably a debate in their community about it. Some people may believe you just choose to let others convince you to be a homosexual detector, while others may believe you're just born with the skills.

There is no mention of sexual identity on the video. However, included in the teaching materials is a link to a Web site where there is a "tolerance pledge," and that's what offends Dobson and his buddies the most. This statement seeks "respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own." Those words sound very much like the ones I've heard President Bush use and encourage all of us to believe. Does Dobson think that George W. Bush is also a secret agent for the homosexual army?

I guess if you hate something enough, you can convince yourself you see it in all kinds of places. But why stop with SpongeBob? Has Dobson put Bert and Ernie to the test? What were Heckle and Jekyll up to all those years? And surely there are other subversive things that have been sneaked into cartoons. What about the ridiculing of Scrooge McDuck by Donald and the others? Isn't making a rich, miserly duck the butt of jokes just a subtle way of anti-American communists making fun of capitalism?

It would be nice if we could just dismiss Dobson as one man with some weird but harmless ideas. But we can't do that. Dobson's group has a budget of more than $100 million, a magazine empire with millions of subscribers, and thousands of radio stations. When he gives an opinion, politicians listen.

The irony of all this is that if it weren't for adults, kids wouldn't need to be taught tolerance. Young children seem to treat all different kinds of people the same. The brouhaha about these characters singing "We Are Family" makes me think of a song from the musical "South Pacific" that maybe Dobson and, well, all of us should take to heart. The words are,

"You have to be taught
        Before it's too late.
Before you are six or seven or eight
        To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You have to be carefully taught."

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver

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