The Global Politics of Sesame Street

Mitt Romney's 'Big Bird' moment was the biggest punchline from the first Presidential debate, but it underestimates how important to U.S. policy the muppet really is.

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Last week’s inaugural presidential debate left several questions in viewers’ minds: What happened to President Obama’s public speaking skills? Why couldn’t debate moderator Jim Lehrer get either candidate to listen to him? And would Mitt Romney really fire Big Bird?

“I love Big Bird,” Romney told Lehrer, saying he’d cut funding to public broadcasting to tackle the growing deficit. “But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things [we’d have to] borrow money from China to pay for.”

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Of all the news that came out of the debate, it was the Big Bird comment that’s had the most legs. On Thursday, Obama joked that he was happy someone was “finally getting tough on Big Bird.” Public broadcasting personalities spoke up to criticize Romney’s statement, including astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and former Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton. Rick Santorum, among other conservatives, rallied to Romney’s defense.  “I’ve voted to kill Big Bird in the past,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan.  “That doesn’t mean I don’t like Big Bird. I mean, you can kill things and still like them, maybe to eat them, I don’t know.” By the weekend the Big Bird moment had been immortalized in a Saturday Night Live skit; by Tuesday, it was an Obama attack ad.

But the issue is actually a lot more politically complicated than Romney’s statement or those of his critics would indicate. Romney’s Big Bird policy not only raises issues about federal funding for public broadcasting and early child education but also America’s position in the world. It’s possible that Romney may even want to consider a strategic partnership with the feathered muppet.

Sesame Street is a great example of American soft power,” says Joseph Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  “It attracts others to us, and costs very little. It is interesting that Romney singled out that program for cutting, since his book has a page or two on the importance of American soft power. Maybe he forgot?”

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In fact, in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney devotes several pages to the topic, admitting that soft power is “real power” and that it “can and does affect world events.” Soft power is relatively inexpensive, he notes elsewhere, can help “promote freedom” and “may spare us from the tragedy and cost of armed conflict.” According to No Apology, the U.S. is currently failing to live up to its “soft power potential.”

And soft power doesn’t get any softer and cuddlier than Big Bird and his fellow Sesame Street residents. According to the Kathleen McCartney, dean at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, Big Bird policy abroad has a massive impact: the show is seen in some 150 countries. McCartney called Big Bird and his friends the “informal educator of the world.”

“As a citizen and developmental psychologist I believe we should invest in Sesame Street because it is cost effective,” McCartney said. “It’s about preventing educational failure.”

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While public broadcasting is a common target of political mud-slinging during campaigns —  conservatives have long attacked PBS for its perceived liberal bias, and presidents dating back to Richard Nixon have attempted to slash or cut its funding entirely — Big Bird himself usually isn’t. The 8’ 2″ muppet has never registered with any party and tries to work with both Democrats and Republicans, according to Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of Sesame Workshop.

“Sesame Workshop has worked with USAID in areas all around the world in every administration,” Westin said. “Regardless of who is in the administration, we hope the merits and impacts of the work we’ve done would allow us to continue.”

Some of those initiatives include 30 unique, localized versions of the beloved children’s program, which often include indigenous versions of muppets.  South Africa’s Takalani Sesame reaches over two million young children throughout the country and includes Kami, a “fun-loving” muppet “who happens to be HIV-positive.”

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In 2011, the State Department announced a partnership with Sesame Workshop to produce programming in Afghanistan in both the Dari and Pashto languages. Baghch-e-Simsim was created in partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and is aimed at teaching “literacy, math, school readiness, and life skills with a special emphasis on girl’s education, diversity, and cultural awareness.” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker attended the premiere and praised the program for helping to show “children the world around them.”

Occasionally, Big Bird policy has even taken a more political turn.  After Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations General Assembly in 2011, congress withheld over $190 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. This figure included funding for the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, known as Shara’a Simsim.

In June, Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street met a similar demise.  The USAID cut all funding after allegations of fraud against the Pakistani producers.  Faizaan Peerzada, chief executive of the production company that ran Sim Sim Hamara, told TIME in June that the allegations of fraud were false and that he thought the show’s shutdown was in response to deteriorating U.S.-Pakistani ties. U.S. Government officials have denied this.

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But overall, Sesame Street‘s diplomatic balance sheet shows more hits than misses. In 2002, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stopped by the show to resolve a heated dispute over whether Grover or Elmo would be the one to sing the alphabet song. (Annan’s solution: “sing it together.”)  Former President Bill Clinton met with HIV-positive muppet Kami in 2006 to encourage parents to talk to their children about AIDS, while telling everyone that it’s okay to hug someone who is HIV positive.  President Obama helped the Workshop celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2009. Even Nixon was, in his own way, pro-Big Bird: In 1970 the then-President praised the program for “opening up opportunities for every youngster, particularly during his first five years of life.”

Indeed, Romney may have gone further out on a limb by calling out Big Bird than even he had realized. When the former Massachusetts governor goes head-to-head with President Obama in a foreign policy debate on Oct. 22 — a topic many say is not his strongest suit, despite a fairly well received foreign policy speech on Monday — he may wish he’d taken a more nuanced view on Sesame Street’s soft power. Indeed, he might want to open his remarks with the letter “S” — for “Sorry, Big Bird.”

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