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Mr. Newt's Neighborhood

Bill Cope's first BW column, printed January 19, 1995


Newt wants to cut federal funding to the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, so before we fly off the handle, let's hear him out and think about it. Because if America's liberals stop thinking about things, that giant sucking sound you hear will be our nation's unemployed neural synapses rushing south of the border in search of work. (Good neural synapses are way too proud to work for conservatives. Can you imagine what a highly-trained neural synapse would do inside of Jesse Helms' skull? "Thank you for calling Jesse's brain. Our regular working hours are once in a blue moon and when Hell freezes over. Please call back.")

You and I know that if it's on television and it's good, the odds are overwhelming that it's on PBS. But does America need good stuff anymore? Better question still: Does America deserve good stuff anymore?

When just 37 percent of those who can vote do vote, are we behaving like a country worthy of special treats like The Civil War and Sesame Street?

What have we done with all that in-depth news analysis that MacNeil and Lehrer and Cokie Roberts have offered us?

When Jesse Norman sings, Wynton Marsalis plays, Terry Gross interviews or Carmen Sandiego teaches, are they wasting their precious time and talent on us?

And the answers: No! No! No! Nothing! Of course they are!

Pick a town at random. If you belong to one of those uppity, snobby, know-it-all households that has an atlas next to the toilet, let it fall open at random and put your finger down on the page with your eyes closed.

Done? I came up with Chickamaw Beach, Minn. Looks like a little place. Probably no more than 5,000 people in town on the 4th of July to see the fireworks.

Out of those 5,000 people in Chickamaw Beach, how many do you suppose ever listen to the Cleveland Symphony on NPR Sunday mornings, or watch Nova when it features one of those silly shows that explain how Africa and New Jersey were once one big tectonic plate?

With my luck, I may have picked some dippy artist community where all the women wear long skirts and want their children to know something. But assuming that Chickamaw Beach is a normal American community where 37 percent of the registered voters pulled themselves away from Wheel of Fortune long enough to vote last November, there are probably fewer people living there who watch one hour of PBS a week than there are people living there who have an atlas next to the toilet.

Wake up, Mister Well-informed Citizen of the World! Wake up, Mister Liberal Genius who still thinks the truth shall set you free! Wake up, Ms. Renaissance Lady who believes it's the responsibility of every citizen to gain knowledge and grow! This is America and the majority rules. (Well ... since about 52 percent of those 37 percent who voted chose to elect Republican rulers—and since that comes out to about 19.25 percent of eligible Americans—it's not precisely a majority. My suspicion is that more Republicans voted than Democrats because there aren't many Republicans who understand Wheel of Fortune anyway.)

Vintage, classic 70s Cope. - COURTESY REBECA COPE

But nevertheless, Newt's party won and now it's their turn to dictate taste. Newt doesn't like what he's been seeing on PBS. Actually, he hasn't seen anything on PBS since the first year of Sesame Street, and even then, he couldn't escape the feeling that Bert and Ernie knew something that he never could. But let's give him a break. How can you expect a man to turn himself into the speaker of the House, build a small empire of like-minded zealots, abandon his family, sustain and nurture one of the most obnoxious and abrasive personalities since Joe McCarthy and still have time to watch anything on TV except his own proselytizing videos?

Can't be done.

A man and his trombone. - COURTESY REBECA COPE

Besides, an important mover and shaker like Newt has all sorts of toadies to fill him in on what smart people are up to. He may not know quality programming from a monster truck rally on Georgia pay-per-view, but he knows a liberal slant when he sees one. And let's admit it: When it comes to liberal slants, PBS and NPR definitely tilt toward the heartward side.

Don't give me that "truth always seems liberal because liberals, by nature, seek out the truth" argument. Newt said it best: "If I had time to worry about the truth, I'd be a damn liberal, now wouldn't I?"

You're going to whine about those few broad souls living in Chickamaw Creek who hunger for the experience of hearing Pavarotti sing in Carnegie Hall or enjoy learning about the origins of life from David Attenborough. "They pay taxes, too," you say.

"Screw 'em!" Sputters Newt emphatically. "If they like art and knowledge that damn much, let 'em move to New York City like all the rest of their kind. They'll be happier there, and the normal folks of Chickamaw Creek will feel a lot better without those smart people around soliciting donations for goofy stuff like libraries and community orchestras. As far as this good ol' Southern boy is concerned, if those intellectuals would rather see their tax dollars go to buy some foreign crap like Masterpiece Theater when great American actors like Charlton Heston can't get a job in a Pizza Hut commercial—instead of paying for a great American tradition like a 300 percent cost overrun on a military contract—I say screw 'em! Even New York City's too good for that kind of intellectual scum!"

(I've taken the liberty of paraphrasing Gingrich's response a little. In truth, he got that lopsided grin on his face that indicates he believes he's about to say something cute, and then spoke at length upon the subject using a ton of obfuscatory phraseology like "zero out" and "line item revenge," but the message was clear: "Screw 'em!"

I think we can all agree that Bert and Ernie do know something that Newt never can. Advanced concepts like beauty, curiosity, humor, culture and grace are meat and potatoes to progressives, but they remain so alien to the vast majority of Gingrich's gang that it's understandable how they feel the need to demonize those who live by and for higher values. NPR and PBS are just the start. Wait 'til they get hold of the National Endowment For the Arts. If Robert Mapplethorpe weren't already dead, he'd soon be wishing he were.

I suppose we might be thankful this is 20th century America. In the past, Republicans "zeroed out" what they didn't want to hear by using the heretics as space heaters to warm the castle courtyard on chilly nights.

I don't mean to compare the Newt to the Grand Inquisitor (Al D'Amato would be a more apt choice for that Cabinet post), but in his amphibian way, he's shrewd enough to know that too many thoughtful people can undo everything he has lied so hard to achieve. He's certainly not above tossing Isaac Newton's butt into the dungeon, but he knows there is a time and a public-relations gimmick for everything. He knows that God is in the denunciations. He knows that now is the time to ridicule Isaac Newton, ridicule all the thoughtful people, even ridicule the process of thinking itself.

There'll be time to toss Isaac's butt into the dungeon later.

Even if all the liberals and art-lovers and knowledge-seekers and smart people fight like mad cats to keep PBS on the air—and even if they won—it'd never be the same. Newt's gang will control the purse strings for at least two years. Imagine, if you can, all your favorite shows with a conservative slant. Tearing Down This Old House, hosted by Dick Armey. Cal Thomas narrates Nature, explaining why everything the filthy, Godless beasts are doing is a crime against nature.

The Limbaugh/Liddy News Hour?

And with Jesse Helms chairing the Committee on Foreign Relations, how long can it be before even the British are so pissed they refuse to sell us any more Masterpiece Theater episodes?

With Republicans dictating taste, we can bid adieu to quality programming, at least until the day when the 63 percent of registered voters who didn't vote realize Newt's "Contract With America" includes less substance than most bumper stickers ... the day when we've had our fill of self-righteous moralizing from men who have never done a moral thing in their lives ... the day when the rest of the country knows Newt like the ex-Mrs. Gingrich knows Newt.

In the interval, the best we can do is lend our support to Bert and Ernie when Gingrich launches a congressional investigation into what they know. And have faith that the time will come soon when we can present Newt with the celebrity he really needs to worry about.

Big Bird.

Bill Cope lives in Meridian, plays trombone and argues constantly with his friends.