Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Reading

Forty Years of Sesame Street:

IT is almost too perfect that the first African-American president of the United States was elected in time for the 40th anniversary of “Sesame Street.” The world is finally beginning to look the way that the PBS show always made it out to be.

So it is to the credit of this daunting cultural landmark — a program that has taught generations of children to count, countless parents how to teach and is seen in 125 countries around the world — that Tuesday’s anniversary is not a frenzy of preening self-celebration. Episode No. 4187 is as child-centric and respectful of routine as any other.

The special guest — the first lady, Michelle Obama — doesn’t make her appearance alongside Big Bird until midway into a show crammed with the usual preschool didactics. The letter of the day comes first — H, as in help and hug and healthy.

The only real difference is that on this day, viewers have to count to 40.

The pedagogy hasn’t changed, but the look and tone of “Sesame Street” has evolved. Forty years on, this is your mother’s “Sesame Street,” only better dressed and gentrified: Sesame Street by way of Park Slope. The opening is no longer a realistic rendition of an urban skyline but an animated, candy-colored chalk drawing of a preschool Arcadia, with flowers and butterflies and stars. The famous set, brownstones and garbage bins, has lost the messy graffiti and gritty smudges of city life over the years. Now there are green spaces, tofu and yoga.

It’s still a messianic show, but the mission has shifted to the more immediate concerns of pediatricians and progressive parents, especially when it comes to childhood obesity. “Sesame Street” takes the Muppets, rhymes and visual verve that were developed to instill tolerance, racial pride and equality, to preach exercise and healthy eating.

Put it this way, Mrs. Obama’s message on the anniversary episode isn’t an exhortation to future soldiers, scientists and presidents to be all that they can be, but to tiny consumers to eat the freshest food they can find. “Veggies taste so good when they come fresh from the garden, don’t they?” Mrs. Obama tells a rainbow coalition of children gathered around a soil tray, an echo of her White House kitchen garden. “If you eat all these healthy foods, you are going to grow up to be big and strong,” Mrs. Obama says, flexing her fists. “Just like me.”

That foodie focus is a reflection of the times and current fads, but also of a tension in the mandate of “Sesame Street,” as it straddles the two imperatives of being a public service in the broadest sense of the word — serving the underserved — while also competing with all the other shows and satisfying the public television donor base.

Continued below the fold.

Fading Photographs — Twenty years after the Wall came down, it’s hard for some people to remember that it was ever there.

BERLIN — “The Quiz of the Germans,” a lighthearted entry amid a crush of serious examinations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, pitted three West German celebrities seated behind the sloping hood of an old Volkswagen Beetle against counterparts from the East perched above the front of a clunky Trabant.

On a television stage emblazoned with an oversize map of unified Germany, the questions about the divided old days were as symmetrical as the antique cars. The topics — nude beachgoers in the East and sex education in the West, vacation destinations or the funny dialects on either side — struck a note of shared Germanness that endured even at the peak of the cold war.

The anniversary on Monday has prompted a powerful national conversation, not just about a moment two decades ago, but about Germany today. It is more united and less turbulent than many here or abroad expected and, given its 20th century history, than many thought it deserved to be. Especially among the young, there is the sense that the aspiration to transcend Germany’s dark history and simply become normal may finally be within reach.

The latest round of news media accounts on the tumultuous final hours of the wall have emphasized not some sense of historical inevitability driven by economics and geopolitics, but rather the capricious human side of the event. That is reflected in last week’s cover story in the magazine Der Spiegel, which meticulously reconstructed, hour by hour, the events of the day that built up to the wall’s unexpected opening, titled “The Error That Led to Unity.”

Bureaucratic confusion over new travel regulations led crowds of East Berliners to gather at border checkpoints on Nov. 9, 1989, prompting guards to open the gates, bringing a sudden end to the division of the city with a night of spontaneous celebration and reunion.

In recent weeks polls have been released on the differences, and as often as not the similarities, between the former East and the former West in matters of love and real estate, table manners and car ownership. In ways both typically serious and atypically jocular, Germans seem to be groping for an understanding of what happened and what, along the way, they have become.

Beneath the trivial differences lies a country more unified than anyone expected. That is not to say that there are not still some hard feelings, and particularly among those from the East, known officially as the German Democratic Republic. Despite great strides and an estimated $2 trillion in assistance since 1989, many there have not quite caught up to the West materially and saw their everyday way of life disappear along with the wall.

Frank Rich — The lesson of New York’s 23rd District race wasn’t just for the far-right Republicans.

The reason why the Democratic victory in New York’s 23rd is a mixed blessing is simple: it increases the odds that the Republicans will not do Democrats the great favor of committing suicide between now and the next Election Day.

This race was a damaging setback for the hard right. Hoffman had the energetic support of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox as well as big bucks from their political auxiliaries. Furthermore, Hoffman was running not only in a district that Rove himself described as “very Republican” but one that fits the demographics of the incredibly shrinking G.O.P. The 23rd is far whiter than America as a whole — 93 percent versus 74 — with tiny sprinklings of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It has few immigrants. It’s rural. Its income and education levels are below the norm. Only if the district were situated in Dixie — or Utah — could it be a more perfect fit for the narrow American demographic where the McCain-Palin ticket had its sole romps last year.

If the tea party right can’t win there, imagine how it might fare in the nation where most Americans live. Some G.O.P. leaders have started to notice. Mitt Romney didn’t endorse Hoffman despite right-wing badgering to do so. On Wednesday, Michael Steele dismissed the right’s mantra that somehow Hoffman’s loss could be called a victory and instead talked up the newly elected Republican governors who won by appealing to independents and moderates. Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are plenty conservative, but both had rejected Palin’s offers to campaign for them. They also avoided the tea party zanies, the fear-mongering National Organization for Marriage and the anti-abortion-rights zealots Hoffman embraced. They positioned themselves as respectful Obama critics, not haters likening him to Hitler.

In the aftermath of this clear-cut demonstration of how Republicans can win, the revolutionaries are still pledging to purge the party’s moderates by rallying behind more Hoffmans in G.O.P. primaries from Florida to California. And they may get some scalps. But Tuesday’s loss revealed that they’re better at luring freak-show gawkers into Fox’s tent than voters into the G.O.P.’s. As if to prove the point, protesters hoisted a sign likening health care reform to Dachau at the raucous tea party rally convened by Michele Bachmann on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Should the G.O.P. avoid self-destruction by containing this fringe, then the president and his party will have to confront their real problem: their identification with the titans who greased the skids for the economic meltdown from which Wall Street has recovered and the country has not. If there’s one general lesson to be gleaned from Christie’s victory over Jon Corzine in New Jersey, it’s surely that in today’s zeitgeist it’s less of a stigma to be fat than a former Goldman Sachs fat cat, even in a blue state.

Doonesbury — Social media madness.