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A cartoon controversy

THE CULTURE wars are spilling into cartoon land. Earlier this month, James Dobson, head of the conservative group Focus on the Family, complained that SpongeBob SquarePants and other characters from children's television were being featured in a video on tolerance. Dobson's concern: the video is being given to schools where it could ''teach kids that homosexuality is equivalent to heterosexuality," according to the group's website.

This week controversy hangs over the PBS show ''Postcards from Buster," produced locally by WGBH. Buster is an animated character whose visits to children around the country are shown in live-action segments. The children are the focus. But in an upcoming episode called ''Sugartime!" Buster visits a girl who lives on a farm in Vermont. Her parents happen to be lesbians; the show explains how maple syrup is made.

PBS President Pat Mitchell initially approved the episode, but eventually PBS officials decided not to distribute the program to its stations, to protect it from the brewing controversy. WGBH plans to air the episode and will give it to other stations that want it. After PBS had already decided not to distribute the episode, a sharp slap came from Margaret Spellings, the new federal secretary of education, who sent a letter objecting to the episode. The show gets some of its funding from the education department.

Can't a cartoon character get a break? Travel around the country, as Buster does, and you run into children from all kinds of families. If there is a subtle message, it's aimed at children and it's meant to show them how broad the word ''family" has become, including parents from different cultures, grandparents, divorce, step-parents, and even gay parents. The focus of the show isn't on parents' lives or choices; it's on the kids' lives. Even Buster's parents are divorced. Intentionally or not, the program shows that Buster doesn't exclude or ignore kids based on who their parents are. It's an educational television lesson that's worthy of both public dollars and national acceptance.

Another lesson: It's a mistake to let cartoon characters do the heavy lifting. PBS should have had the strength to distribute the episode and let stations decide whether to air it. People who support the episode and public television should be talking back to Spellings and making the case to Congress. The good old days of 1950s television weren't that good: it was entertainment with blinders. No one was gay. Divorce was scarce. Few people were black, Asian, Hispanic, or even poor.

To be great, the country must honestly accept its complex diversity and realize that there is nothing wrong with teaching children that human worth and human equality should not come with a list of exceptions. 

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