Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rumble on Sesame Street

It was ugly. And it all started with Big Bird. As everybody knows by now, in the first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Romney declared that, if elected, he was going to stop the federal subsidy to PBS...even though he loves Big Bird. This was a tiny part of a long debate, but it got folks pretty heated up. A lot of people love PBS, and apparently a lot of people really hate it, or at least hate the fact that any of their taxes help support it. As I write, this debate is causing big arguments and bulging blood vessels. If you happen to read this years from now, that may seem strange, but it's true. I know, because Big Bird got me into the biggest, nastiest online fight I've ever been in. I don't mean a heated debate. I'm talking about a scathing, name-calling rumble. If it had happened face to face, I think punches might have been thrown.

This bothered me, because I don't normally get into arguments that nasty. Before it was all over, I had been called unpatriotic, a weakling, and a budding Nazi. But it what really got my dander up was being called irrational. I may not always be rational, but I try hard to be, and spend a downright unhealthy amount of time thinking about what rationality is...and what it isn't. That's what the argument made me think about, and what I want to think about in my next few posts. But first, a little more about the Rumble on Sesame Street. I won't get too detailed, because there's nothing more boring than hearing someone tell you, “So then I just said to him, I said....blah, blah, blah...” But I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about civility and rationality, and this argument was a spectacular breakdown of both, so it's worth looking at what went wrong. (Just to be clear, I'm not saying everyone who doesn't support government subsidies for PBS is like the guy I'm describing here.  Some of them are very smart and nice, and I can disagree with them without getting into a fight). 

Here's how it started. I'm one of the PBS lovers, so as soon as the debate was over, I started thinking up ways to show people that federal spending on PBS is actually quite minuscule compared to the entire federal budget. I had soon worked out that if you imagined federal spending this year in terms of height—the height of the Empire State Building, which is 1445 feet tall—then federal spending on PBS would amount to a little more than a tenth of an inch. I was rather proud of this image, so, when I saw a comment thread about PBS, I threw it in there.