Pay for Big Bird or Risk Genocide? NYT’s Kristof Tries Bizarre Promotion of PBS, NEA, and NEH

March 31st, 2017 10:01 PM

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Thursday made a plea, as passionate as it was ignorantly soft-headed, for the continued funding by taxpayers of arts and humanities, because Trump: “President Trump vs. Big Bird.”

Never mind Big Bird has gone to a private cable channel, HBO. Or that conservatives object less to children’s television as the incessant liberal moralizing, on the taxpayer dime, of PBS omnipresent figures like Bill Moyers and Ken Burns, who treat the public airwaves like their own political playpen.

Kristof never disclosed something that he could have: his own relationship with PBS. He has two documentary series that promoted his books with wife Sheryl WuDunn: A Path Appears (2015) and Half the Sky (2012). Instead, it's all Big Bird:

So what if President Trump wants to deport Big Bird?

We’re struggling with terrorism, refugees, addiction, and grizzlies besieging schools. Isn’t it snobbish to fuss over Trump’s plans to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

Let me argue the reverse: Perhaps Trump’s election is actually a reminder that we need the humanities more than ever to counter nationalism and demagoguery.

After doing his best to downgrade the cost (“The per-capita cost for Americans is roughly the cost of a postage stamp”), Kristof does the liberal pivot to argue that that “postage stamp” price is nonetheless the one thing separating us from slavery and genocide, while getting a dig in at Trump:

Yet the humanities are far more powerful than most people believe. The world has been transformed over the last 250 years by what might be called a revolution of empathy driven by the humanities. Previously, almost everyone (except Quakers) accepted slavery and even genocide. Thomas Jefferson justified the “extermination” of Native Americans; whippings continued in American prisons in the 20th century; and at least 15,000 people turned up to watch the last public hanging in the United States, in 1936.


The humanities have even reshaped our diet. In 1971, a few philosophy students, including an Australian named Peter Singer, gathered on a street in Oxford, England, to protest the sale of eggs from hens raised in small cages. This was an unknown issue back then, and passers-by smiled at the students’ idealism but told them they’d never change the food industry.

Given that Singer also advocates infanticide, perhaps there are limits to the humanizing aspects of taxpayer-funded humanities.

Big Bird made another appearance, as a universally beloved, or at least recognized, icon of publicly financed television, although Sesame Street now airs on the definitely for-profit HBO (Sesame Street reruns don’t run on PBS until nine months later).

In short, the humanities encourage us to reflect on what is important, to set priorities. For example, do we get more value as taxpayers from Big Bird and art or music programs, or from the roughly $30 million Trump’s trips to his Mar-a-Lago golf resort will cost us when he’s tallied nine visits in office (he’s already more than halfway there)? That’s also more than the cost of salaries and expenses to run the National Endowment for the Humanities, not including the grants it hands out.

Kristof either isn’t aware of Big Bird’s migration to HBO or is being cagey:

Then there’s our favorite bird. The Onion humor website reported: “Gaunt, Hollow-Eyed Big Bird Enters Sixth Day Of Hunger Strike Against Proposed Trump Budget.” In fact, Big Bird will survive, but some local public television stations will close without federal support -- meaning that children in some parts of the country may not be able to see “Sesame Street” on their local channel.

Kristof really goes off the rails near the end. Without a federal stipend from the CPB, how would anyone every stand up for their beliefs ever again?

Look, I know it sounds elitist to hail the humanities. But I’ve seen people die for ideas. At Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, I watched protesters sacrifice their lives for democracy. In Congo, I saw a tiny Polish nun stand up to a warlord because of her faith and values.

Kristof concluded: “...on balance, the arts humanize us and promote empathy. We need that now more than ever.”