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In Need of a Lifeboat

(Fair warning: The blog post below is not directly related to books or writing.)

The House of Representatives wants to get rid of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and I’m not okay with that. Eliminating the CPB would almost certainly doom quite a few PBS and NPR stations, and it’s hard for me to believe that the politicians who are supporting this effort are doing so for any reason besides an irrational fear of hand-knit cardigans and thoughtful media. I’m politically unaffiliated, but this makes we want to take sides.

I admit, though, it’s not easy for me to think dispassionately about this issue. It cuts too close to home. I didn’t understand until I had a child of my own how formative PBS has been for me. I mean, think about it: these are the folks who helped bring us Sesame Street, Reading RainbowSquare One, and The Electric Company. We don’t have cable TV or an antenna where we live now, but my three year-old loves the “Old School” Sesame Street series on DVD, and we watch clips of the new Sesame Street online. Soon I’ll introduce her to Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely.

My appreciation for public broadcasting only deepened as an adult, through programs such as Nova, the Ken Burns documentaries, American MastersCharlie Rose, and Bill Moyers Journal. I’ll also be forever indebted to the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell special The Power of Myth, which I have seen, read, and listened to on audio cassette at least four times. NPR is now my primary source of news. I consider myself fortunate to live in Oregon, which has in OPB one of the premier public broadcasting organizations in the country. I’m also proud that Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, is helping lead the charge to save the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Waxing nostalgic today about some of my favorite “driveway moments,” I was reminded of a story I heard just a few days ago on NPR’s Morning Edition. It was about the country of Kirbati, which is made up of 33 islands scattered “like strands of yarn…across an area of the Pacific Ocean more than twice the size of Alaska.” The people of Kirbati are highly religious, with 94% of residents self-identifying as Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Mormon. Some scientists expect sea levels to rise three feet by the end of the century. This could doom many of the Kirbatian islands, which have an average elevation of 6.5 feet.

What I found so engrossing about this story – and what hit home, as a Christian – is the conflict many Kirbatians feel between what they see and what they believe. Teburoro Tito, the country’s former president and now a member of parliament, told NPR reporter Brian Reed:  “I’m not easily taken by global scientists prophesizing the future.”

Tito says he believes in the biblical account of Noah’s ark. In that story, after God devastates the world with a flood, he makes a covenant with Noah that he will never send another.

So while Tito does acknowledge that global warming is affecting the planet and that he has noticed some impacts, he says rising sea levels are not as serious a threat as [current president] Tong and others are making them out to be.

“Saying we’re going to be under the water, that I don’t believe,” Tito says. “Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.”

Reed’s story reminded me of a joke I heard on the TV show The West Wing. In an episode entitled “Take This Sabbath Day,” a priest tells President Bartlet:

You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up.

A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, “Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.”

A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.

Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?”

The current president of Kirbati says that some of his countrymen have questioned his faith because he takes global warming seriously.  Meanwhile, he’s laying the groundwork for the day when his country’s people will have to immigrate en masse to Australia.

Now, I guess it’s possible I could have heard this story on Fox News or MSNBC, but I doubt it. For one thing, it’s a story that can’t be adequately told in 90 seconds from a desk in New York City. Great countries need a strong and vigorous media, and driveway moments like the one from Kirbati cost money. If you’re a fan of public broadcasting, as I am, will you take a few minutes to contact your representative and let him or her know?

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